Bill Newman: The tenants in the treehouse

Last modified: Thursday, July 02, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — What I saw early last Friday morning took my breath away. Perhaps it shouldn’t have. After all, we are adults who live in Northampton, where this kind of thing happens a lot.

But in my whole life I don’t remember ever having seen this before. Photographs and paintings, sure, but this was right in front of my eyes, close enough to touch except that I was surreptitiously peering out through the first-floor bedroom window, standing on the bed in order to get a good look.

After reading some of the morning newspapers, I’d needed a break — anyone would — what with stories about Sen. Mitch McConnell demanding an extension of the privacy-robbing Patriot Act and former House Speaker Dennis Hastert paying millions to silence a former student about sexual assaults he is said to have committed as a high school wrestling coach.

I repaired to the bathroom to read innocuous stories in the sports section and peruse the comics. While exiting, I glanced through the window in the adjacent bedroom, which reminded me that in the past few days we had seen robins building a nest just below that window in the rhododendron bush.

I stood up on the bed to look out the window to see what I could see. What I saw was a nest with three robin-blue robin eggs.

They were perfect. Fabergé had nothing better. Cezanne never painted eggs as exquisite.

My wife Dale should see this, I thought, so I quickly stepped back and banged my head hard on the ceiling light fixture and fan. After lying down for a few minutes, I felt sturdy enough to find her. She, too, thought the eggs spectacular.

That evening at dinner with friends, I shared my morning existential experience with the robin eggs — omitting the part about my encounter with the ceiling fan.

They know, it turns out, quite a bit about robins, having lived in the country and had many bird nests with eggs in their bushes and trees. In response to my excitement, their affect, I would describe, was less than awed, nonplussed perhaps — although they happily shared some facts about birds and bees.

Many robins live in the Pioneer Valley. (I knew that.) Indeed, this year, according to our friends, there appears to be almost a surfeit of them. Yes, robins are couples, but no, they don’t mate for life. They mate for a season (which reminded me a lot of college). They lay two or three clutches per summer. The male isn’t misogynist, but has limited abilities. Males don’t sit on the eggs, for example, because they have no brood patch. They do, however, help with feeding and childcare.

It was kindly suggested that I not become too invested in the robins, their beautiful eggs, their fragile nest and the new life to come. Blue jays and crows both like to feast on robins’ eggs, I learned. And most robins don’t survive their first year.

While driving home, I suggested to Dale that after the robin babies were born, maybe we could buy some worms at the bait and tackle shop and put them in a planter, a sort of baby-shower gift. We left the possibility open, concluding only that I definitely should not share this idea with our dinner hosts.

Arriving at our house, we parked on the street because pulling the car into the driveway, we’d discovered, caused the robins to freak out and streak from the nest or the rhododendron to roost on a midlevel branch of the large maple next door. We then tiptoed to the back door, remaining considerate landlords for our new avian tenants.

But inside, upon further review, motivated and informed by our dinner conversation, I announced my new position on the robins. After the babies have fledged and left (that would be in, maybe, six weeks), I was reclaiming the driveway. After all, whose stupid idea was it to build a nest in a bush between the back door (the one we usually use) and the garage — where we park our cars. Not mine. So there. Take that, you robins. Final answer.

But then Dale reminded me that once the eggs hatched we’d have to keep Roxie, the cat, inside. She added that Roxie would undoubtedly feel unjustly incarcerated and likely would respond by ripping up the new couch and a chair or two.

The next morning, from the kitchen window, I saw two orange-breasted birds hopping about and pecking for worms in our back yard. Our robins or visitors? I couldn’t tell. I went back to stand on the bed to look at the nest. The three robin-blue eggs were still nestled there, still perfect.

Bill Newman is a Northampton lawyer, host of a WHMP weekday program and author of “When the War Came Home.”


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