COLUMNS: Fly with the birds

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Fly with the birdsBy Aaron J. Brown

A couple years ago some sort of swallows built a nest beneath our deck out in the woods north of town. We looked up the birds in a special book. I could try to tell you what species they were but not with any authority, nor without abandoning all readers who aren’t avid birders. And now the birders have their pens out, ready to correct my errors of which there will be many. Giblets. Plumage. I am not ready for this.

Regardless, each summer since these birds laid several batches of eggs. As many as nine birds hatched out of this nest this summer, with another half dozen out of a little auxiliary nest built in a nearby tree, we think by a relative bird – maybe a cousin or ex-lover. Some kind of drama there, but we stay out of it.

The birds, eggs and nests were a big deal for our three boys throughout this last season as they provided plenty to check on every day. We seldom saw the mama or papa birds around, though they did flit through on occasion.

“They must be scared of us. Now their eggs won’t hatch, because they aren’t sitting on the nest.”

This is a real thought I expressed verbally to adult people, a vestigial inaccuracy from first grade and the chicken incubator and “Are You My Mother?” In truth the eggs did hatch without the mother sitting on them all the time because SERIOUSLY, THIS IS NATURE.

Now I’m going to take you back in time again to when I was a kid and my parents finally let me have a hamster. We went to the pet store in Eveleth, the one that burned down just like the pet store in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure did. Mom insisted on getting a boy hamster because they don’t have babies. We bought a boy hamster and a couple weeks later I was walking by the cage and WHAM, there was all this ham laying around. “M-m-mom! The hamster found ham somehow?”

Of course, the hamster did not find ham. It was a rogue female and the ham was babies. I tell this story to show that the Hollywood images of the natural world that dominate the minds of TV-era American children belie the reality that baby hamsters look like ham and so do baby birds, except with beaks.

So over the summer the ham-birds grew feathers and, honestly, did almost nothing the whole time. Every hour or so an adult would stop for a moment. The baby birds didn’t say anything, just feebly arched their necks upward when they heard something, flopping their heads back down if it was anything except a larger bird with food.

After a while they looked like furry ham. But then one day I’m mowing the lawn and I see these birds stumbling around the edge of the nest, looking like the kinds of things hawks would eat.

“Well, that’s neat,” I thought. They’ll be flying soon. By the end of the day they were all gone. Just plain gone. Never came back. More eggs showed up a few weeks later and another batch of birds. A little while and they were gone, too.

With the fall, birds from all over the continent pour through our property on their way south for the winter. We furiously page through the bird book trying to keep up with it all, usually in vain. It did strike me that so many of the birds we saw were headed not just south but WAY south over the border and beyond. Those hapless, flaccid birds from under our deck will see Mexico probably decades before I ever do.

I want to say, BIRDS! I caused that deck to be built and allowed your nest to stay there over two winters! I could have poured hot sauce on that ham pile and THEN where would you be? Birds? Big shot, traveling birds?

But I do not say this because after a moment of fuming, I realize with amazement that this is how it works, and it does work. It is me playing Angry Birds on my iPad that is unnatural. Surely, those real birds must have peered in my window, wondering how all that ham got in there.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and Hibbing Community College instructor. He is the author of the blog and the book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”


  1. AH HAA HAA! I love this post! I’m down in SW MN, so the birds we get here may not be exactly the same as the ones you get, but I too, enjoy watching those little bits of ham grow into fuzzy blobs and eventually into greedy things that eat me out of grape jelly.

    I’m enjoying discovering new-to-me Minnesota blogs, as I’m relatively new to the blogosphere. My husband grew up in Ely and Duluth (which is where I met him when I was a new Minnesota “recruit”), so I kind feel like I undersand some of the Iron Range issues you’re talking about. I look forward to reading more of your posts!

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