Meghan Cox Gurdon: Fledging grackles avert suburban chainsaw massacre

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Local,Meghan Cox Gurdon,Environment

The first sign that something had changed in the robin's nest beside our porch seemed ominous. The 7-year-old found a fragment of beautiful blue eggshell on the ground, a rather worrying distance away. Had a predator dropped it, to get at its contents?

"Oh please let everything be OK with the babies."

"We'll take a quick look as soon as she -- there! She flew away. Go check, but don't touch!"

One of the older children ran quietly to the edge of the porch and peered carefully into the nest. A grin of relief spread over her face and she gave the thumbs-up.

A few days ago, the nest was home to four beautiful eggs and two glowering, protective adult robins. The adults are still around, glaring just as fiercely, but now the eggs are gone and in their place are four chicks that seem to be doubling in size and featheriness with each passing day.

At first, all we could see of them were translucent pink beaks opened wide, rising tremulously up from the depths of the nest when a grown-up came along with a bite to eat. The babies are still fragile and wobbly, but their beaks are more orange and solid-looking and the nest is beginning to seem crowded.

This week I had just checked on our robins -- looking good, birdies! -- and was taking Billy the Wonder Dog out for his midday constitutional when I was hit by the smell and noise of chainsaws.

We came around the corner and saw men in hooded sweatshirts pruning the trees in front of a neighbor's house. A car was just pulling away from the place, and as Billy and I approached, it stopped. The driver was another neighbor, and she was weeping.

"They wouldn't stop cutting the trees!" she said, "even though there was a nest!"

There was movement on the seat beside her. There, on the passenger's side, was a basket containing five baby grackles, nestlings the same size as the ones at our house. All four of them had their beaks opened wide, silently. Then, as if at a signal, all four of them simultaneously closed their beaks.

"I'm taking them to Second Chance, the wildlife rescue place," the neighbor went on, her voice cracking. She pointed to the back seat, where there was a tangle of leaves and the occupants of a second nest. "It means a drive to Gaithersburg but I have a heart and they don't."

She drove away, and I went on soberly, with Billy prancing obliviously beside me.

It was impossible not to think of the accident of location, and the role it plays in vulnerable life. The nest beside our house was sheltered, protected, watched over (from a distance) and celebrated. Our fledglings might or might not survive when it came time to fly, but they were getting as good a start as any migratory songbirds could.

The grackles just up the road were the same age, just as fragile and just as full of promise, yet the indifference of men with chainsaws had doomed them -- or would have done, if not for the kindness of that neighbor. It is the way of history, the strong acting without regard for the weak; yet history is also full of compassion, and in this case, love won out.

"One of the grackles died shortly after arrival," Jim Monsma of Second Chance Wildlife Center told me the next day when I called to check. "But the other 10 are doing just fine."

Ten baby grackles saved! That's pretty sweet.

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.

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