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Child’s fascination with birds fed love of nature

A girl’s feathered friends were the source of much wonder, from recently hatched eggs to divebombing hummingbirds

The sight of a big black crow flying lazily through the morning mists meant other birds would soon be arriving on their annual migration. The sound of a robin’s “cheer up, cheer up” was the surest sign of spring.

When I was about three years old, my mother took me for a walk down to the old orchard to share a secret with me. When she lifted me up, I gazed down at four bright blue eggs in a nest hidden among the apple blossoms. Far too mesmerized to talk, I just stared in silent wonder.

Every day thereafter, I wanted to go and see our secret, and every day thereafter Mom made excuses. In my young mind, had the orchard not been so far (about 500 feet away, but I had never been so far away from home before) and the apple tree so big (at least as high as the sky) I dare say I would have gone to see that nest on my own.

About two weeks later, after much pleading and coaxing, Mom relented. In my mind’s eye those bright blue eggs still lay nestled in the bottom of that nest among the apple blossoms. When we arrived at the tree, however, there were no more pretty white petals on it. And when Mom lifted me up to peer into the nest, I was startled as four gaping orange beaks spontaneously popped open.

My picture-perfect scene was gone, replaced by four ugly little fledglings demanding worms.

I turned my attention to the industrious little wrens nesting in a black-and-red birdhouse my teenage brother had built and hung in the big elm tree in the front yard. They seemed to like the agreement of “rent for a song” and sing they did.

One year, tardy wrens found the accommodation already taken, so made their nest in one of Dad’s work boots he had hung by the laces over the clothesline to dry.

To subsidize farm income, Dad operated a small sawmill powered by a steel-wheeled Lawson tractor. After spring sawing, the tractor sat idle for the summer, but when cranked up in fall, much to Dad’s amusement, there was always an explosion of twigs and feathers and dust from the exhaust pipe, the remains of an abandoned wren’s nest.

During the hot humid days of summer, feisty little hummingbirds frequented the caragana bush in our front yard, dive bombing anyone who ventured too near. I was always afraid they would get tangled up in my long hair.

I still remember the day a cardinal perched for a few minutes in a nearby tree, its scarlet plumage glistening in the sun. Not native to this part of the country, it had evidently strayed off course. It was the only time I ever saw a cardinal until decades later when I visited Ontario.

Being a nosy little kid, I sometimes peeked out through a knothole in the back of the outhouse to see what was going on behind the “house of parliament.” Sometimes a squirrel was sitting on a branch of the maple tree within inches of the knothole, totally unaware that it was being watched. Sometimes a number of sparrows were having a quarrel, or a pair of wrens was arguing the pros and cons of setting up housekeeping.

And then one day it happened.

I peeked out the knothole and there before me was an orange and black oriole sitting not six feet away. Except in pictures, I had never seen such a gorgeous bird, and I feasted first one eye and then the other at the knothole. And even as I watched, the oriole and its mate began weaving their nest.

The outhouse did not provide an atmosphere conducive to bird watching, but every spare moment found me drawn to the knothole. The orioles, oblivious to their audience of one, busied themselves with the task at hand. I was fascinated, for this was no ordinary nest, but a deep pouch suspended by slender woven tendrils looped over a branch. I stood for long moments hardly daring to breathe lest I interrupt the proceedings.

My mother, anxious about my mysterious disappearances, would eventually call, “Alma, where are you?”

Exasperated, I’d leave my post at the knothole just long enough to run into the house and assure her I hadn’t drowned in the nearby river. Then back to the knothole I’d go.

There have since been a few other occasions when I felt as if God had suddenly unveiled His canvas before me with a scene so fresh and vivid the brush strokes of the master Painter seemed not yet dry.

The original masterpiece, however, still hangs in Ye Olde Outhouse Gallery of early childhood as I remember the day the Supreme Artist gave me an exclusive showing for a private audience of one.

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