About midsummer, the gardener should take time to reflect on the beauty and abundance of the fields, both wild and cultivated. As I go about my garden tasks, the natural world around me is going about its own work. Sunrises and sunsets follow each other across the sky like painted ponies in full regalia, the flowers and herbs lift their heads at their appointed times, and the creatures of the field give birth and rear young.
At dawn, does lead spotted fawns to browse in our front yard, baby chicks that arrived in June have grown into plucky pullets, and baby bunnies have opened their eyes and hopped out of their boxes to nibble timothy grass from our hands.
The wild birds have been especially busy this year. This summer I have seen birds arrayed in graphic patterns of yellow, black, brown, rose, and azure.
One morning in early May, from my porch rocking chair, I watched a northern flicker crawl into a burnt stump through a hole and begin to peck industriously. Pretty soon, it had excavated a cavity that made a serviceable nest. After a few days, I realized there were two flickers, one with red patches on its cheeks and head, and the other with a gray head faintly flushed with yellow. All through June and into July, the two took turns keeping watch over the nest. Sometimes they would call into the woods with a shuddering shriek. If approaching the nest to relieve its mate, a flicker would come sailing across the yard and land on the stump’s top. Giving a soft chuck at the entrance of the nest, it would wait until its mate shot out of the nest to go eat, then look around cautiously for predators several times before climbing inside to take its watch. I watched hidden behind the curtains of my windows, or frozen in my rocker.
Last week, one of the flickers skimmed across the yard with its sherbet-red wings outstretched and landed on the stump. It crawled down the side, as usual, but instead of calling to its mate, it made several quick bobbing motions with its beak at the bird in the nest entrance. I then understood that the nestlings had hatched, and that the parents were now feeding their young.
Zooming in with my camera, I discovered that the babies had actually matured to the point where they were taking on the characteristic markings of their species. There was at least one female and one male nestling, and I suspect there could have been multiples of one, the other or both.
One night, while hoeing the peppers, I heard the babies complaining to their mother with juvenile voices, while she replied with harassed chucks. Evidently, they thought she should hurry more with their food.
Over the next few days, the hatchlings went from extreme shyness to boldly hanging out of the nest entrance for hours, even putting their little claws on the edge, and cheeping impatiently, as if they wanted to take off and find food for themselves. They would call to the parents imploringly. From the top of a birch tree, or from the forest, I would hear the approaching parent answer.
When mother or father came to feed them, the babies met the parent at the entrance and opened their mouths. There would be a frenzy of squeaks, as if someone repeatedly squeezed a plastic toy.
When the parent left, the nestlings would lean their heads in the direction in which the parent flew off and call after it. Sometimes two of the chicks struggled over who got to perch in the entrance, each trying to get on top of its sibling and pecking it on the head.
As I write this, the calls and answering calls have ended. All is quiet and the stump is empty. The young flickers fledged today and are now off learning how to survive from their parents.
This baby bird tale went off without a hitch, but this smooth transition into independence doesn’t always happen. Here is an example. One morning I heard a bird making distressed sounds through my kitchen window. The bird was sitting in one of the window boxes planted with flowers. I went closer to my window to inspect. At first the bird looked like a roundish robin, then I realized that the bird lacked adult coloring, and was actually immature. The poor little creature chirped over and over, and then flew off the window box, but, instead of soaring off, it bumped it’s head on the branch of a nearby lilac bush and fell. It landed and rolled under our wheelbarrow.
From under the wheelbarrow, it called out. Spotting me through the window, it flew back up onto the window box, while chirping at me through the glass the whole time, as if it expected me to do something.
I went outside and tried to speak soothingly to the baby bird. Evidently, it lacked the self-confidence to fly. It kept sending out its chirruping pleas for help. I looked around at the adult robins on the lawn. “Isn’t somebody going to do something?” I said aloud. One robin with a fat worm in his mouth blinked, as if he didn’t want to get involved.
I stood there wondering how to help. I didn’t want to touch the young bird, but I felt badly for it. Suddenly, I heard wings beating the air above my head. I looked up and saw an adult robin with something in its mouth dive bombing past me. I looked back toward the young robin, and it had disappeared. It had gone with its parent in a flash. So all was well again.
Some people think that life in the country is boring, and the life of a gardener uneventful. I confess that we lack the dynamic interaction of city life, but, to the alert and observant person, life here is full of unfolding little dramas. One never knows where one will stumble upon an interesting event. This photo shows a spider dining on a dragonfly it caught, not in a web, mind you, but out of mid-air. Certainly less idyllic than the sweet tale of birds, but morbidly fascinating nonetheless.
For me, nature speaks of the power and care of the Lord. When Job complained and questioned God out of desperation in his suffering, as probably every normal human being would, the Lord gently reproved Job for his presumption, and assured Job of his power and care for all living creatures and the earth: Wilt thou hunt the prey for the lion? Or fill the appetites of the young lions?… Who provideth for the raven his food? When his young ones cry unto God…Knowest thou the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth? Or canst thou mark when the hinds do calve? (Job 38:41-39:1)
And though humans are considered to be the Lord’s garden, the earth itself is tended by his provision. As a gardener, I am blessed to behold and reflect upon this care, and to behold his handiwork.
Next time in part 2 of Praise for the Field, I will share the abundant provision I have been blessed with in the garden progress report. Until then, enjoy August’s bounty.