MY FATHER was a man's man who enjoyed fishing and hunting with the boys for years. As a young man, plenty of critters fell in his gun sight but, as he aged, he slowly changed. Though he still enjoyed a taut line as a smallmouth bass struggled for freedom, he lost interest in hunting and made limp excuses when asked to join his cronies on outings.
One autumn afternoon, on one of those infrequent trips, I spotted him sitting against the base of an ancient oak, he and his gun in repose -- just watching. I asked, "What's up?" He replied, "Ya know, squirrels are very interesting."
The many years he'd spent in the woods had quietly turned to something more rewarding than returning with a few board-stiff trophies. The animals he had been hunting he now wanted to understand. He was patient and could sit for hours -- motionless, watching, listening. He assimilated his observations and what was learned changed him, making him a gentler, more sensitive man. Our best days together became those spent in an oak forest armed with binoculars instead of shotguns.
This spring, with the advantage of lessons passed on, I had a fascinating six weeks. Unspoiled environs were now Baltimore City, the oak forest became my small, enclosed patio, and I became my father's son as I watched a remarkable small bird turn minimal space into home and nursery.
We have a need to give animals allegorical weight as in Edward Hicks' painting, "The Peaceable Kingdom," or the novel, "The Yearling," in which a fawn teaches Jody rites of passage. A more current pint-size hero freed "Willy." Doubters jeer: romanticized rubbish! After this recent encounter of a bird-kind, I wonder.
The small bird was a song sparrow, a more refined cousin of the English sparrow which has spread so prolifically throughout the Colonies. I first noticed her making exploratory forays into all the small trees in my patio. She was selecting a nest site, searching for the perfect fork and after three days, chose an umbrella pine, then began tedious nest building. For every three twigs she brought, two fell to the ground. To move the process along, I placed bits of twine on the ground where she had been vigorously tugging at last year's dried thyme stalks. The mother lode! She used them all. Perseverance won over inefficiency, the nest was completed and five eggs followed. While she was sitting on them, I still used the patio, moving slowly with no quick motions. I could move very close to her and though wary, she stayed put as her head followed my movements.
Her life went from slothful to frenetic after the eggs hatched. She had one focus -- endlessly bringing food to her five charges which never ceased their peeps for more. All seemed to be on schedule until, one day -- disaster. Temperature in the 90s, I looked out the window and saw some writhing lumps on the patio slate -- the fledglings, still no bigger than bumble bees. Their mother was in the umbrella pine, frantic, fluttering and noisily scolding the fates, helplessly watching her weeks of effort, frying on hot slates.
If this were nature's way, it needed correcting. I gathered four of the chicks while she joined in the rescue, chattering hysterically, following my hands, not more than a foot away. The fifth was a goner. I put the four back in the nest, immediately left the patio and she as quickly returned to the nest, sat on the nestlings (to cool them) and was silent. Tranquillity returned. How they were cast from the nest remains a mystery.
She continued to raise her family and seemed less cautious in my presence than before. She tolerated my company even when returning with food. I pushed my luck and rested my arm on the branch always used when she returned. She alighted not five inches from my hand. The next day, I repeated the exercise, leaving my hand on the branch for many round trips. She became less and less concerned, perching next to it for longer periods.
Dare I take the next step? While sitting an inch from my hand, I slowly extended my finger and twice stroked her breast feathers!
Every cell of her genetic makeup programmed her to avoid what had just been permitted. All life's experiences taught her these large human things were not to be trusted. Yet, something else overtook behavioral choices. Whether it was extra-animal, conditional learning or something less prosaic like bonding or primordial understanding, I can't say. But for some reason, she accepted me as a new enabling force in her environment.
For that, I feel good about my humanness and her birdness. The six weeks she permitted me into her busy bird life, was an experience I would have missed had I not, many years ago, been tutored in an oak forest by an expert.
By the way, the four chicks matured, tested their wings and were gone. I'm told the mother may return next year -- I'll leave the light on.
Kenneth A. Willaman writes from Baltimore.