Backyard show exceeds Barnum & Bailey's dreams


Sometimes I want to rope off the back yard and sell tickets to the carnival that goes on there. It shouldn't be difficult. The events change daily.

Last week, for instance, I arrived home to find the dog perched atop an 8-foot compost heap, rabbits eating the fruit trees and my wife dancing around the lawn, chirping and flapping her arms like a bird.

The county fair can't top this, I thought.

I circled the block twice to make sure I had the right house. Egad, I had.

My arrival had little effect on the strange scene. The dog woofed from her spot on Mulch Mountain. The rabbits went right on devouring the lower leaves of the plum tree. My wife tried to wave, in between takeoff attempts.

She seemed to be trying to fly the coop, as if finally fed up with country life. In truth, she was trying to feed a baby bird that had fallen from its nest. The arm-waving antics were part of her plan, said Meg.

"If I act like its mother, the bird will take the food," she said. She held up a twig on which she had speared a wild raspberry. The bird had already eaten twice, she said.

To Meg, home ownership is more than mowing lawns and growing flowers. It's also caring for the neighborhood wildlife.

Grudgingly, I agree. Baby birds grow up to nip at the tender young shoots of my vegetable garden. But birds also rid the yard of insect pests that foil the best of gardeners. I don't know about you, but I have no desire to sit on a telephone wire for hours with my head cocked to one side, waiting for dinner to crawl out from under a rock.

I began rooting for the baby bird, too. So off I went in search of earthworms . . . forgetting that it hadn't rained for three weeks.

I dug and dug and dug in the garden. Twenty minutes and 10 holes

later, I was still looking for a worm. And I was using a shovel. How do birds survive a drought?

"Where are the worms, Daddy?" asked Beth, our 9-year-old.

Halfway to China, I said. They're waiting for rain.

Beth thought a moment, then ran to get the garden hose. "I'll find them," she said, squirting a hole full of water. Then she quickly dug out the mud and checked for signs of life. There were none.

The search for worms dragged on, and I was getting nervous. What began as a gesture of kindness toward one of God's creatures had become an obsession. To heck with the baby bird; I now believed the fate of the garden depended on my finding that elusive worm.

Finally, deep inside the asparagus patch, it happened. Eureka! I struck worm! Exhausted, I collapsed on the ground, still dressed in my good clothes. The dog bounded off the compost pile, where she had been digging for larger game, to lick my face.

I thought of how this scene would look to someone pulling into the driveway. And I thought: I fit right into the family portrait.

Carefully, I handed the struggling worm to Beth, who presented it to Meg, who draped it over the twig and offered it to the bird.

Gulp. The 30-minute worm disappeared in 2 seconds.

During the next few days, we fed that bird more goodies: a caterpillar, a garden slug and a lot more berries. But I never found another worm.

We flapped our arms and made silly chirpy sounds when the neighbors weren't watching. To shade the bird from the midday sun, we covered it with a piece of Reemay, a white gauzelike fabric designed to protect young plants.

Then, one day, the baby bird disappeared. A yard search proved fruitless. Nary a feather was found.

We never thought to look up.

My wife found him nestled in the pear tree from which he had fallen. How did she know it was the same bird, I asked.

"It's him," she said. Mothers know these things.

The strip of of Reemay floated around the yard until yesterday, when a robin plucked it off the ground for her nest. As the bird hopped off with the Reemay in her beak, a breeze blew the fabric over her head. The bird hung on.

Meg, who was watching, said the robin looked as if she was wearing a bridal veil.

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