Those with a tragic view of life are rarely disappointed. Life is full of atrocities both large and small; sometimes their scale is so tiny that they go unnoticed. If life is a veil of tears, the one that follows is less than a droplet – but it’s moving to a sympathetic observer. Several times a day I pass by an alcove open on one side to the outside. Every spring a pair of very small birds makes their nest in one of the two upper corners of this sheltered spot. Come the end of April I look forward to their arrival. They have yet to disappoint. On schedule they arrived more than a month ago and began construction of their nest in the same corner they have used since I started observing them. This year for some reason not obvious to me they stopped building their nest and switched to the opposite corner. After about three weeks the nest was complete and the female spent most of her time in it, though she flew away every time I got close to it even though it was too high for me to reach.
I estimated that her eggs should be laid no later than the middle of June. The eggs should hatch around the first week of July with the chicks fledging at the end of August. Then the nest would be abandoned. In the past the maintenance staff of the building had then removed the spent nest and cleaned the area.
Watching the reproductive process of these tiny creatures was a highlight of my day. It was both an esthetic and scientific experience. I don’t think it necessary to explain the simple pleasure evoked by this avian labor. It’s an inborn human characteristic. It’s why we avidly watch programs, like Nature, devoted to depicting and explaining the various components of the animate world surrounding us. The scientific component was realizing how much we have to learn about inborn genetic actions. These birds perform the complex construction of a nest at an optimal site, lay their eggs at the right time, and successfully raise their helpless young until they become self sufficient. They are not taught how to accomplish these complex tasks; they are programmed to do so. My sense of wonder is how do the various genes that control all this business program the brains of these minute animals to successfully do all of this? The interaction of genes and behavior is virtually as dark as a black hole.
Yesterday morning I walked by the nest site and saw, as usual, the female bird, ensconced in her nest. Also as usual, she flew away as I passed by. About three hours later I again passed the site and found this:
Inspection of the nest site showed that it had been purposefully detached. Both the original abandoned corner and the second that had housed the completed nest had been scrubbed clean. The only conclusion was that a member of the building’s maintenance staff had taken the nest down. I contacted the building’s manager. He said that he had not authorized the nest’s destruction and that it was his policy to leave all nests constructed on the property alone until after its chicks had left; the building is large and has several sites ideal for nest construction, hence the policy of avian benign neglect. He also said that he would try to find out how this act against nature had happened on his watch. He won’t. His staff will not own up to an inhumane and unnecessary act.
Why did this small act of callousness make me feel that the world was more out of joint than usual? I am not a very sentimental person. I eat meat, wear leather belts and shoes, and in my scientific life used experimental animals. I fully subscribe to the law of limited tears. It’s the doctrine that decrees that in a world of so much misery one much restrict the sorrow expressed to just a few agonies. Failure to do so results in madness or ineffectiveness, if not both. Still, I feel sorrow at this microaggression against nature.
Will these birds return next year? If they do, will I feel they forgiven us for our wanton treatment of their previous attempt to live their lives as they were programmed to do? Obviously, forgiveness is a human trait. Nevertheless I hope they come back and try again. I’ll still feel a twinge every time I walk by the scene of the crime. Birds are not human, but people are and they should act accordingly