A Crash Course in Ornithology


This is our Christmas tree. It is a living thing and a central character in a drama unfolding in our own yard. We purchased the tree 12 years ago in a fit of environmental purity and good intention. “Let’s have a living tree instead of spending money on a cut tree every Christmas.” It has worked well for us. It saw some hard times in the years we were going back and forth to Saigon, but it was always outdoors. We knew it would survive, but there were periods when it was a struggle to keep it watered and healthy, and often we would find brown patches and a deck full of needles on our return.

In April we took off again, this time for Paris, and left it in nature’s hands. What we didn’t expect nature to do was to use it as nesting habitat for a mother bird and her brood, but that’s exactly what happened. Last week when Marilynn started watering the tree again she discovered a smallish opening and inside was a nest and four baby birds.

Before the discovery she had noticed a small agitated bird flitting from the lawn to the deck and back again. She could almost feel the tension and watching from a distance she saw that the bird flew right into our Christmas tree. This is how it looked when we peeked into the opening:


This picture shows only two of the chicks but in the beginning we could see four little beaks reaching for the sky. It was fascinating; we were curious and then protective as the mother flew in and out with food. Almost any time of day she could be seen on the lawn or in the hedge that covers the condo wall and even hopping around on our deck picking up seeds.

I’m not a birder, but I think our little neighbors are rose-breasted or black-headed grosbeaks – small, colorful, and low flying. The mother has a reddish breast and some light flecks on the darker feathers surrounding the red. As soon as we discovered the nest we focused on the chicks and their welfare. Whenever we returned home the first thing we did was check the nest. We worried about predators like squirrels and cats but didn’t see any, and then after a few quiet days we became alarmed when two crows started hanging around.

There are thousands of crows in our area. At sunset the sky is almost black with them flying east to wherever they nest at night, but they rarely come close or hang around. Last year, because there are so many in our neighborhood, we bought a book called “Gifts of the Crow”, written by a UW wildlife scientist and illustrated by Tony Angell, a local artist. Crows are much more interesting than I ever imagined. The book made that clear. On alert because of the baby birds, we became aware that our two crow visitors got extremely agitated; flying low noisy passes whenever I approached the tree. Here’s a picture of one of them above our courtyard.


Very quickly it became open warfare. The crows had ID’d me as their nemesis and waited for me to step out on the porch, cross the parking lot, or walk to the pool in the morning. Whenever I did they shadowed me – flying low over my head, perching on nearby trees, and squawking their heads off. Meanwhile, we were keeping an eye on the tree and the nest. The mother was still in the area – hopping on the deck, worming on the grass and picking up seeds in the hedge. She was very skittish and wary of our movements, but more concerned with the crows and their increasing aggresiveness. Then came an escalation as the crows decided to bomb my car in the lot. The day I had it washed I parked under a tree in the lot and the following morning this is what it looked. War…


Then, just when I thought I had the crows figured out, a subplot emerges to confuse us even more. After checking the nest for the chicks (no movement but I think I can still see three of them curled up asleep) I see some movement in the ivy below the deck railing. When I toss a garden stake at the rustling ivy I startle myself and a wounded crow hidden in the ivy. This one can’t fly but it scuttles through the ivy and disappears into the dense growth near the corner of the building. The other crows are raising a noisy ruckus as I probe around looking for their friend. I’ve lost the wounded crow but the others keep up with the noise and swooping low attacks.

After a week of this back and forth with the crows and our protective vigil around the tree we notice the mother has disappeared. When I check the nest it looks like there is less volume inside but that there might be a chick or chicks curled up asleep. We decide to give it a day and then take a more serious look. The crows are still dive-bombing me on the way to the pool or when I walk out on the back deck. The injured crow is nowhere to be seen. It’s either dead or healed itself enough to fly away.

M and I are almost certain the babies are dead and when we check the nest we find it empty except for one dead chick curled up in the bottom. Did the crows get in there or did the mother bird somehow get them to a safer place?


We are both devastated. Nature is neutral. We are emotional. In our research we are advised to move the empty nest to the trash or another location in order to discourage the mother from using it again next year.

We do that, but there is an alternative end to the story because within a day we discover this in one of our flowerbeds…


Yes, that’s a mother duck sitting on eggs. Now everyone in the condo complex is in a heightened protective mode. We have no idea how long she’s been there or how long she has to sit on the eggs but we check her every morning and hope the crows don’t have her in their sights. This has been a crash course in ornithology. I still don’t know much, but it really helps to have it happening in our own yard. It definitely gets the protective juices flowing – and increases my dislike for crows. Pellet gun anyone?


  1. Hi Jack Can’t wait to get back to Sea. to exchange bird stories. I kept a list of all new birds in our yard for 40 yrs—means I started at 6! I have some other ideas on the kind in your tree. We also have enjoyed. Tony A’s books. Will soon have one out in owls. We have an hysterical tale re: Steve, crow & BB gun. See you & M. soon. Suzanne

    Sent from my iPhone


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