Coming home

     Spring is late this year. To my relief, the first Eastern phoebe finally arrived yesterday morning, the latest arrival I've noted for them on my birthday calendar (see post 2/17/13). However, I've been looking in vain for White-throated sparrows and Fox sparrows.
     I'm very connected to these little guys. Yesterday, just before dawn, Bob muttered “Phoebe!” but I was already awake listening to the sound of the raspy-voiced bird questioning and answering his name: “Fee-bee?” “Fee-bee!” He usually sits on the laundry line that stretches between the crabapple tree right outside our bedroom window and my shed.

     The White-throated sparrows are my favorite. In their spring breeding plumage, they hop across the ground under my feeders with their crisp white throats, black head stripes and little yellow spots at their lores (the space between the eye and beak). These are the “old-sam-peabody-peabody-peabody” birds. In my personal Pavlovian response, I immediately relax and long for wilderness when I hear them, thanks to my teenage summers in the Canadian north where they were my soundtrack. These guys should be here any day.
     The Fox sparrows seem to have disappeared. This is puzzling – and a little disturbing – to me. According to the Project Feederwatch data I collect about birds that visit our feeders, we saw Fox sparrows every year in early April until 2009, and never again.
     Why have they stopped coming? This really bothers me. The problem is that I care.
     I believe that when you learn the name of somebody or something, you suddenly have a relationship. When I walk through the woods seeing wildflowers and hearing the birds, I am among friends. And for me, the next step is to fall in love.
     I used to drive down the coast a ways to get to work, and every day I passed several osprey nests: piles of sticks perched at the top of big power poles, or sometimes located properly in the top of a dead tree. Ospreys return to the same nest year after year. Every spring I waited and waited for my first glimpse of one particular osprey back on its nest. And every spring I worried that something had happened to it during the hazards of migration.
     Now I know this feeling again, as I wait up on a Saturday night for Meg to get home. Deep down I know she will be all right; she has good judgement, and she's a good driver. Deep down I also know that anything can happen. Sometimes I think I should just go to bed, trust the universe, give in to my personal helplessness in this situation.
     And that's the thing. I can't make them come home safely. I've learned that from the osprey. But I also think that we adults have a job to do, whether it is raising our children as best we can to have good judgement, or whether it is actually taking action to stop global warming. Personal helplessness only goes so far. If I can be as noisy, persistent and faithful as the Phoebe, if we all can, then we can have hope that our loved ones will make it home.

Eastern phoebes often nest in the shelter of a barn... or a home