When I entered the post office on an October Saturday, a neighbor pointed up and said, “There’s a bird in here.”
A red-breasted nuthatch was flitting between two hanging light fixtures. It was panicked, and briefly pasted itself against a window, thrashing feathers on glass. If those windows weren’t sealed, it might have been a simple rescue.
As it was, the nuthatch had to pass through a doorway into a compact vestibule, bank right, then exit the front door. The neighbor propped that door open and I brandished a broom, attempting to gently steer the bird. But it focused solely on the windows, and for a moment hovered within reach. I tried to capture it in cupped hands, but that triggered more angst.
Afraid I might hasten its demise, I relented. It flew up to the ceiling and disappeared into the next room through a gap at the top of the wall over the mail boxes.
As the neighbor departed, he said, “It’ll need water.” And food, I thought. The postmaster wouldn’t be in until Monday, but would she be more successful than we, if the nuthatch was still alive? As I drove home I considered sunflower seeds and a landing net, but as I steered along our forested driveway, a better ploy occurred to me.
I watch nuthatches almost daily, and a preferred haunt is the crown of a balsam fir — where seed cones cluster. In the alien environment of the post office, a fir top might serve as lure and refuge.
I selected a balsam sapling along the driveway, a likely victim of the snowplow, and lopped off the top two feet. I shoved it in the trunk, returned to the post office and waited outside while two people collected their mail and left. I propped open the front door and entered, fir in hand. The bird was not in sight.
“Nuthatch … nuthatch,” I cajoled, then tried to mimic its call. I heard whisking wings, and it appeared at the top of the wall, then flew to a light fixture. I stood by the doorway to the vestibule, extending the fir top over my head.
Another patron drove up and parked. I was clearly visible through the windows, standing with a tree aimed at the ceiling. I glanced outside. It was a middle-aged woman, and she didn’t leave the car. Was she texting, listening to the radio, or was she justifiably leery?
The nuthatch flapped from one light fixture to the other. I repositioned the fir between the bird and my face.
After about three minutes, the woman finally entered and I quickly explained myself. She watched the bird as she retrieved her mail, then hurried out.
“Good luck,” she said, sounding skeptical.
A moment later the nuthatch materialized on the fir, two feet from my nose. I squelched a yelp of delight and slowly turned into the vestibule. But as we entered the smaller space, the bird quit the fir and flew back to the ceiling.
Okay, slowly wouldn’t work. I stepped back into the bigger room and raised the tree. Just as I heard another car door shut, the nuthatch returned to the fir. I rushed into the vestibule and out the front doorway, almost slamming into a neighbor coming in.
The instant the tree crossed the plane of the threshold, the bird rocketed free, making a beeline almost straight up toward the limbs of an old white pine.
“Yes!” I blurted to the sky. To the startled neighbor I gushed, “I just freed a trapped nuthatch!”
Given his bemused expression, I suspect the syllable “nut” packed resonance. He glanced dubiously at the fir and I explained again. He said, “Well, I guess a little knowledge helped.”
It often does.
A week before, when I pulled into work, a whitetail doe was creeping across the gravel parking lot. She froze when she saw the car. I eased the door open and slowly exited.
“It’s okay,” I said over the roof of the Ford. “Don’t let me bother you. I’ll be gone in a moment.” Her ears twitched.
She stared as I walked toward the shop, but didn’t budge. Inside, I peered out a window to watch. I was pretty sure what she was up to. At the west end of the shop grow a pair of gnarly old crabapple trees that in autumn literally sag with fruit. I once counted 12 ruffed grouse perched in the branches, pecking at the bounty.
The doe approached the nearest tree, reared up on her hind legs and tugged at the limbs. As she balanced, her hind hooves danced a stutter step in the grass, her forelegs hanging limp; she looked like a kangaroo. Apples shook loose and she dropped to gobble.
A second doe emerged from the woods to forage, and the first doe rose up to reprise her minuet.
I was pleased my arrival hadn’t spooked her. Though the thought is pleasing, I don’t believe she was reassured by my words. She just lusted for those apples.
Still, I often speak to wild animals. Last May, when I spotted a yellow-rumped warbler freshly returned from the tropics, I called out, “Welcome back!”
When a red squirrel chattered at me from the bottom step of our porch stoop, I demanded, “What’s your problem? It’s my damn porch!”
I also speak to trees. Recently, just before I fired up my Stihl MS440 to fall and buck a maple, I placed a palm on the trunk and said, “Thank you for all the shade and fall color, and for the winter warmth you’ll provide.” I did it the courtesy of counting rings on the stump: 45. It was in view from the south windows, and we’d watched it grow over 40 of those rings. An old acquaintance.
I’m aware this all must seem a naïve, teddy-bear approach to the wild, but I’m also acutely familiar with nature’s indifference to my welfare.
At age 11 I nearly died in a local lake, retrieved unconscious from underwater. A burly forest fire almost trapped me. I’ve broken through lake or river ice three times.
While engaged outdoors I’ve suffered frostbite, heat stress, countless insect bites and stings; I’ve been struck by falling tree limbs, gifted blood to thorns, and was twice swooped upon by barred owls with talons extended for my face.
Blue jays uprooted our sweet corn sprouts; carpenter ants attacked the house. A storm dropped an aspen on the roof.
Our dogs were sprayed by skunks and had their lips and tongues perforated with porcupine quills. Resident bugs may share West Nile virus, Lyme disease, anaplasmosis and a rare strain of meningitis that can kill you in 24 hours.
Writing that last paragraph prompted me to revisit a quote from biologist E.O.Wilson in his book “The Diversity of Life”:
“We did not arrive on this planet as aliens. Humanity is part of nature, a species that evolved among other species. The more closely we identify ourselves with the rest of life, the more quickly we will be able to discover the sources of common sensibility and acquire the knowledge on which an enduring ethic, a sense of preferred direction, can be built.”
It’s a fact that no one living can thrive without the deaths of others. Even vegans destroy — can’t be helped. Animals, plants, insects, bacteria — you must kill to live, and/or delegate it to others.
But I submit that one “preferred direction” is to kill as little as possible, nurture and rescue where you can, and, when you do kill, make it respectful and mindful.
I don’t believe in tit-for-tat karma — that the time and energy I expended to help the red-breasted nuthatch was duly noted by the avian kingdom (or the universe), and that I was given credit that will somehow, somewhere, sometime be redeemed.
But the act did give me purpose and joy in the moment. That bird — unless it was picked off by a shrike five minutes later — continued to accomplish its ecological mission, spared an early death. Not a bad Saturday escapade.
Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the author of “Ghosts of the Fireground” and other books.