The Birds and The Beast: A Real Life Fable

In the spring of 1990 an intruder tried to kill our family. Well, not our family exactly, but the pair of phoebes who nested under our second-story deck each year, and their family – two shell-bound chicks. We’d watched these little grey fly-catchers for three consecutive springs, our faces pressed so close to the deck slats above their nest that errant breaths ruffled their feathers. Through the cycles of laying, hatching, feeding and fledging we’d grown so familiar and fond that, while not family, those birds had become at least cherished neighbors. Suffice it to say we had skin in the game when the beast arrived.

Mom saw it coming. The moment an ominous third egg appeared unexpectedly in the nest, this one larger, brown and speckled, she pegged it for the mortal threat it was. “Cow bird”, said Mom. “It’s gotta go.” My brother and I didn’t need to be told who was tasked with the eviction. But we weren’t terribly keen on abandoning our basketball game for wanton ovacide, and the ladder was half-buried in the black widow infested garage. It all sounded terribly unpleasant, so we protested.

“It’s an egg,” we said. “How bad could it be?”

DSC_0323“That egg,” explained our mother, “is the beginning of the end. If it hatches, the chick will push the phoebe eggs out of the nest. Then it will fool the parents into caring for it as their own. They will work day and night to keep up with its greedy demands until, just when the cow bird is big enough to leave the nest, they finally succumb to exhaustion. Listen to me. Do you understand what I’m telling you? The phoebes will work themselves to death, literally, trying to feed their babies’ murderer.” She paused here for dramatic effect before summing up. “It’s gotta go!”

She was a bird expert, our mother, and she’d made her position clear. But when she turned and walked away, my brother and I, doubtful optimists and shameless cowards that we were, quickly found an out in the fine print.

“She said if it hatches right?” I asked.

“That’s what I heard.” said Trey.

“So it’s not a sure thing.”

“Seems like a total long shot. Pass the popcorn.”

The sun set, the sun rose, and life went on as before for Trey and me. All the while a nagging guilt haunted my thoughts, but I managed to reason my way past it. (It was a complex situation. Kill a bird today to save a bird tomorrow, how’s that supposed to work? What do I know about the mysterious forces of nature after all? Maybe I’ll do more harm than good.) What I couldn’t reason away I buried easily enough with assorted distractions. I knew of course that this willful oblivion couldn’t last, but I was faithful to the pursuit until Mom woke me one morning before dawn.

The cow bird had hatched, and my brother and I quickly learned that our procrastination had earned us a much nastier job. My mother stood by this time, arms crossed and toe tapping, as I plucked the pitiful, peeping little baby cow bird from the nest and handed it to my brother. He in turn carried it in gently cupped hands the length of the backyard, then lobbed it into the deep dark woods. The first pinks of sunrise were painting the eastern sky, and the chick screamed the whole way.

“Hey kid… if you want to keep meeting like this, you’re dad’s going to have to do something about climate change…. stat.”  Photo by Matthew Copeland

“Hey kid… if you want to keep meeting like this, you’re dad’s going to have to do something about climate change…. stat.”
Photo by Matthew Copeland

Mom’s gone now, so I can’t ask her, but I never imagined that she considered the experience a live-action parable. It was pretty straight forward for her I think – some birds needed protection and some sons needed a kick in the ass, so she rolled up her sleeves and made things happen. For a quarter century, it’s all seemed simple enough to me too; fodder for an oft told family story, but no great repository of wisdom. But then I saw my adolescent self quoted in the paper…

“We’re just beginning to explore what mankind’s role is in climate change, so I’d argue that the jury’s still out.” – Rep. Cynthia Lummis, Wyoming

…and I realized with a frightened start that I’m now the “responsible adult”, that I’ve seen this story before, and that this time no one is coming to shake me awake in the last fateful moments.

The assertion of a hung jury is so farcical that it’d be hilarious if it weren’t terrifying. Scientists know that climate change is happening and that we’re at least partly to blame. The United States armed forces are so certain that they factor global warming into their near and long term strategic planning. Insurance companies, the true masters of modeling, are already doing business in the new climate paradigm and adjusting their rates accordingly. Sober deliberation has happened and the verdict returned. The nest has been soiled.

Meanwhile the pronghorn, mule deer, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, grouse and trout that tether my kid to the substance of life stand to lose every bit as much as Mom’s songbirds. Climate change is advancing disease, destroying and degrading habitat, warming rivers, shifting ranges and siphoning off life-giving water from populations that in some cases are already in prolonged decline. Left unchecked this beast will destroy hunting and fishing as we know it, if not for us than certainly for our kids. That is not an option I’m willing to entertain.

Thank God I had a fine teacher. Mom was a fierce defender of what she loved and she wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty when necessary. I know I’m not alone in this good fortune. We’ve all learned about tenacity, initiative, sacrifice, risk, integrity and plain old guts in the field. Now it’s time to apply those tools to combating climate change. And if the people we elect are unwilling or unable to keep up? Well I know what Mom would say…

“They gotta go.”

9 Comments on “The Birds and The Beast: A Real Life Fable

  1. I wish I could like this twice. I’m always very pleasantly surprised when other outdoorsfolk end up having opinions similar to mine. Typically, I’m the dissident keeping my mouth shut, but thank you for writing this.

    • Thank you for reading it Amber! I don’t know when, why or how conservation was divorced from conservatism – Teddy Roosevelt certainly recognized the natural pairing – but somehow conservationist has become an epithet in many of the communities that are the most critical to and capable of addressing the problem. That’s a real shame and it needs to change. Maybe a few more dissidents…

  2. you nailed it! love thinking about your mom in this story. thanks for bringing her to life, again!

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