Shelter from the storm

Since we moved into Big Blue, bird families have often nested atop a column supporting the wraparound porch, about eight feet up. No doubt hundreds of birds have done so over the last century-and-ten since the McGraths of Phoenicia built this place. The nest locale is directly beside the front door, very close to where we eat, hang out, exercise, read, and write. You might think the birds – sparrows, swallows, and phoebes – would seek something more private, but no. They’ve tolerated us. They’ve even seemed nonplussed by the occasional cat.

Prior to 2020, however, several years had passed since birds nested there post-equinox. I don’t know what drove them away, but I especially expected another vacancy this past spring, too. Yet, for the first time, two successive bird families have birthed and raised fledglings before our eyes in one calendar year. In this case, both these families have been phoebes, recognizable due to the adults’ head feathers resembling peaked caps. They are so close we could touch them.

This morning, I did, in fact, touch one. The runt, who either fell, was pushed, or tried to fly before his time (unlikely). I found him in the nick of time (cat was sniffing him), replaced him, and at this writing, he is ensconced with his bigger siblings, taking food – bugs – from the parent birds. (Both mom and dad phoebes feed the young.) He is also shitting from the nest, which I’m told is a good sign. He and his siblings are grooming themselves, flapping wings, and readying to vacate. One already has.


I’ve held a bird before. Some years back, I freed a robin trapped in our mudroom. I used my hands. The body of a bird, especially a baby, is so very light – the hollow bones, the almost weightless feathers – but their muscles are powerful indeed. Wings pushing against an enclosed palm, aching for flight – it’s an unforgettable feeling, especially when you let go.

But back to the porch, present day: behold, the second phoebe family to roost at our address in a matter of months, an unprecedented occurrence. Even one nest would have been unexpected, because due to the pandemic we have significantly increased our porch time, to the point of bowing the structure (gotta get that fixed). As the world is afire elsewhere, we’ve soaked into our surroundings more than ever, retreated from screens, from the news, and tried to regenerate amid the lushness. We’ve used the porch not just as a refuge, but as a place to gather strength before heading back out into that world, which we must ultimately do.

What was once a storage place for bikes and such is now an outdoor sitting room. Even when the weather was still raw, we had social distance visits with friends and neighbors. We’ve stared into the humming evening, drinking in the ever-present rushing of the Esopus. We’ve waved at strangers passing.

Perhaps the springtime phoebes liked all of this? And told friends and/or relatives, who are now chirping, feeding as I type? I would have thought our significantly increased porch presence in this distressing time would have repelled our feathered neighbors.

Perhaps the phoebes chose this place twice in one year (so far) because we are doing exactly what they are doing, and they recognize the energy. We’re sheltering, but not fleeing. Like them, we cannot remain here indefinitely. We are nurturing each other, ourselves – and today, I nurtured the runt. We are all taking what the land has always offered, and are preparing to fly into the unknown.

Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.