Tag Archives: bushtit

The Fragile Season

Midspring was a time of astonishing busyness in the forest, with May Day full of singing and sprouting, building nests and tending the eggs of this year’s hope.

Female Bushtit parent flying from her nest to collect food

Female Bushtit parent flying from her nest to collect food

Then things got tough. Continue reading


Starting Small: Bushtits, Beethoven, and the Art of Memoir

The forest is in high gear these days, with everyone busy at the different tasks of life in springtime. Uncertain speckled juvenile robins are trying to copy their parents as they forage on red elderberries.

Juvenile Robin in elderberries

Juvenile Robin in elderberries

The park is ringing with the cawcawphony of teenage crows arguing with each other…

Juvenile crows on rooftop; 2 on left objecting to the one on right having the treasure (a conifer seed)

Juvenile crows on rooftop; two on left objecting to the one on right having the treasure (a conifer seed)

…and harassing their parents for one more, another, another feeding they don’t have to get for themselves — yet.

Parent feeding juvenile crows

Parent feeding juvenile crows

Flicker parents pry the ground open in search of ants, beetles, and other bugs to deliver to their hungry young, still in the nest for just a bit longer.

Male Flicker feeds two young - more aggressive one is blocking its sibling

Male Flicker feeds two young – more aggressive one is blocking its sibling

A pair of Bushtits are busily helping the forest economy through new-home construction. It seems late to be getting started, but they’ve chosen a lovely spot in an aging Pacific Madrone, with a nice view of Puget Sound. The husband harvests the dried flowers of a nearby oceanspray and carries them over to the nest.

Male Bushtit harvesting dried oceanspray

Male Bushtit harvesting dried oceanspray

He then disappears into the opening they’ve woven into the lengthening bag, it wiggles for a bit, then he reappears and flies off to Avian Home Depot for more hardware. His wife arrives a few seconds later with some soft fluff in her beak: bedding for the tiny eggs that will become these tiny birds, perhaps?

Bushtit brings fluff to nest Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Bushtit brings fluff to nest
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Their nest is the woven story of the forest: tube lichens from Douglas Fir bark, silk webbing from our Cross Spiders, dried grass, Madrone flower petals. Reading a bushtit nest, you learn where you live.

* * * * *

I’ve recently begun considering a memoir of some kind, stretching myself to write in a new style. But although I’m comfortable writing academic pieces, I’ve never tried anything as intimate as a memoir. How on earth do you go about it? Being the aforementioned trained scholar who’s spent decades honing my scientific research skills, I put them to good use: I went to Google and typed “how to write a memoir.”

Behold, up came William Zinsser’s marvelous essay on the topic, creatively titled “How to Write a Memoir.” Zinsser begins by relating his father’s annoyingly straightforward and angst-free writing of his own memoir: the man just sat down in his favorite armchair with pencil and paper, wrote the thing out in one draft, had it typed and reproduced, handed copies around to everyone in his family, and was done.

Since it isn’t that easy for many of us, Zinsser taught memoir courses. A woman in one class wrote about her journey to Poland to unravel her Jewish father’s early life in the village he escaped at 14, one of few survivors to do so. Zinsser describes his own World War II experience of riding across North Africa in a “forty-and-eight”: a train car that could hold forty men or eight horses. Like a peephole camera, the tiny lens of a single short time span allows a whole world to come into focus on the page. You don’t have to write the Whole Big Drama Of Your Life — you just have to start with one memory, and then another, then another. You can trust Life to shine through your life.

* * * * *

On the spur of the moment a couple of weeks ago, Rob and I decided to attend our local stage theater’s penultimate performance of the season, “33 Variations” by Moisés Kaufman. In the play, Katherine, a contemporary Beethoven scholar, seeks to understand why the great composer used such an unremarkable rustic dance theme, written by his publisher Diabelli, [1] as the basis for a grand range of complex variations, working far beyond the original task even as his health is giving way towards the end of his life.

Katherine’s story is interwoven with that of Beethoven. As her own health deteriorates from ALS, she is able to see that in her life as an academic, her search for the universal has led her to disregard the particular, the individual—especially her quirky daughter. Ultimately, Katherine comes to understand Beethoven’s motivation and his genius in the Variations: he is glorifying the profound beauty of the mundane, showing that even a mediocre theme, a rustic dance, the simple events of a single life, are the shimmering seeds of the transcendent.[2]

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day! sings Jesus in the carol of that name, as he dances the redemption story “for my true love.” Transcen-dance: a grain of sand becomes the world, an hour holds eternity. A little nest is a mosaic containing a forest full of dances.

* * * * *

Zinsser’s final advice for writing about your life is: Think small. Moments become memoir; motifs become meaning; one life becomes a lens to the drama of history. A bushtit, second only to the hummingbird as tiniest in the forest, weaves her nest from the inside. The setting sun illuminates her form as she performs her own rustic dance, transforming the small bits of the forest into a home for her true love.

Male Bushtit (upper left) holds decoration as female works inside nest  (Click for 90-sec video of her work)

Male Bushtit (upper left) holds decoration as female works inside their backlit nest
(Click here for 90-sec video of her dance)

[1] You can hear Diabelli’s theme here: http://www.amazon.com/Beethoven-Diabelli-Variations/dp/B000TPXKK8 by clicking on the first item, “Tema: Vivace.”

[2] In the piece’s title, Beethoven chose the unusual term Veränderungen, rather than the more traditional musical term Variationen. Why? Veränderungen implies transformation rather than simply variation.

Room to Move: The Space of Stories

Room to move,” cautioned my excellent photography instructor, Meredith Blaché, during my first digital-photography class. “You’ve got to give your subject room to move in your photo.” She showed us comparative photo-pairs of faces, children, nature. All of the pictures looked a whole lot more interesting with space integrated into the image.

Here’s an example. Look at this first photo of Rob in our neighborhood park:

Contemplating in Lincoln Park

Contemplating in Lincoln Park

The photo is placid and still. His head and body form a stable triangle with the log. The image emphasizes being here.

Now, notice the different energy in this second photo, taken a moment later but with a shift:

Contemplating in Lincoln Park - II

Contemplating in Lincoln Park – II

This photo has more energy. The space in front of him raises questions: what is he looking at? How did he get to this place? Is he making a resolution of some kind? Might he be about to get up and walk forward into the green forest? With this new room to move, the scene has a past and a future instead of only a present. In this photo, the man has room to move: he has a story.

For a different kind of room to move, consider this information.

Bushtit nests are pendulous and sometimes reach 12 inches (30 cm) in length, with an entrance near the top. When the outer shell of the nest is completed, the pair spends the night roosting in it.

A nest can take from two weeks to almost two months to complete, but adults will abandon a nest they are building if disturbed. Bushtits recycle previously gathered materials to use at a new site.

–From The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, National Audubon Society

Interesting, isn’t it? How long those tiny bushtits will keep working until their nest is constructed to their satisfaction, and the fact that they are recyclers?

One April day I watched as a pair of bushtits worked on their nest. Alternating, the dark-eyed husband and golden-eyed wife flew in with treasures of spider silk and twigs, then disappeared one at a time into the nest.

Bushtit male arrives at nest with material Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Bushtit male arrives at nest with material
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

I could see the crocheted bag wiggling as the bird wove each new bit into the structure. After a moment or two of hookwork, the bushtit would appear at the entrance, peer around, then fly off for the next round.

Bushtit male exits nest after weaving material Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Bushtit male exits nest after weaving material
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

But once, a male bushtit brought in a twig that was just a little too long for the nest entrance.

Proud bushtit with twig at nest entrance Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Proud bushtit with twig at nest entrance
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

He tried to poke it into the nest, but got it tangled with some spider silk at the opening:

Bushtit's twig too big - and now stuck with spider silk Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Bushtit’s twig too big – and now stuck with spider silk
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Now what? The little guy tugs and yanks, to no avail:

Bushtit pulls valiantly to extricate twig Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Bushtit pulls valiantly to extricate twig
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Finally he had to give up in disgust and just let the stick hang there. Maybe he told his wife it was a lovely creative new doorway decoration. (“Honey, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature!“)

Know that feeling of the home-renovation project gone wrong? That hope that no one will think to remind you of the old saying to measure twice, cut once?

The space of story

As with the two initial photos of my companion in the forest, the first portrayal (the paragraph of Sibley facts) is accurate and interesting but inert, still. Like the second photo, though, the anecdote of the bushtits’ nest-building gone awry opens up time and empathy. The bushtits become people to us; we can empathize with their plight, their hard work, their desire to create a home for their children.

A story opens this room to move, a kind of space we can enter and explore. Stories invite us to move through possibilities, with imagination, into an as-yet-empty future. Moving through time, we project ourselves forward with the story’s protagonist: what’ll happen next? What would I do in that situation? What will the hero choose?

It’s this capacity to enter into story, into a space of imagination, that lets us create our future—and thus ourselves. “L’existence précède l’essence,” wrote Sartre: existence precedes essence. Who we are is not limited to facts or a still pose; the basic concreteness of our existence yields to an essence that we develop over our lives through our choices. We write our own stories.

Do animals tell stories?

I’d argue that we’re not the only ones who do this. An inner voice left over from my philosophy education kept pushing me to finish that previous paragraph with, “It’s what makes us human.” That’s what Sartre thought. But I don’t buy that. What’s the evidence that animals don’t have access to the story-space that allows such existential—essence-ial—choices?

And there is evidence that many nonhuman animals do share our capacity for storytelling, including birds, cetaceans, and fish. This article, for instance, includes the charming assertion that there is more solid evidence for transmission of culture by fish than by nonhuman primates. How else do we creatures pass along our cultures than through stories told through one manner or another?

John Marzluff has documented the passing of information across crow generations through experiments in which he and his students once wore caveman masks as they captured 7 crows for banding. Five years later, 28 crows were still harassing mask-wearers, even though nothing else “bad” had been done to the original crows during that time and the other crows had never personally had a negative interaction with mask-wearers. The crows had passed the mask information to their children—excellent and effective storytelling.

For us storytelling creatures, stories serve several essential purposes. Stories teach us who we are as individuals. They also show us the possibilities for our roles in our communities. Stories are thus the intersection of the personal with the universal: they’re how we make meaning in our worlds. We all, both human and nonhuman animals, need room to move, space to create our stories and thus to shape our selves.

Listening to another’s story—human or not—opens that space: one of the profoundest gifts we can offer. What’s your favorite story?

Bushtit Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Lincoln Park, West Seattle