(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange has been sealing up his house, as he does every spring, against home invasion – from the air.
(LANGE) In the warm afternoon sun, I pounded happily with my framing hammer. Then I noticed that every time I pounded, a bird squawked nearby. Hm. I ran a test. Bang, squawk; bang, squawk. Pause. No squawk. It felt like that classic film scene in which Harpo Marx pretends to be a mirror.
Suddenly, it came to me. They were back! The garage! Down the ladder I came, across the dooryard and into the open garage door. A set of wings fluttered past my head. Nuts! I’d have to keep the garage doors shut for a few weeks.
The Eastern Phoebe is a flycatcher. It’s a little more nimble in the air than most other birds and likes to hang around people, where there are generally more flies. Madame Phoebe likes a roof over her head, too, while she’s engaged in maternal activities. She eyes my garage, with its doors open to the spring sun. In particular, she favors the tops of the light fixtures between the overhead joists.
The problem is that garages are for vehicles, and this one holds a nice shiny truck that I’m at some pains to keep that way. So I shut the doors whenever the phoebes are nesting, which is at least twice a summer.
Flycatchers are efficient little machines designed to sweep the air for nourishment. Their tails are longer than those of most birds; their beaks are broad and stubby. At rest, the phoebe bobs its tail like a conductor giving a downbeat. You can spot that as far away as you can see them. With global warming, they’re found farther north every winter eating berries, but they prefer the Sun Belt and follow the bugs north in the spring.
I’ve often cheered my phoebes while we’ve worked in the yard. There’s a welded steel sculpture at the foot of the lawn, with a large C-shaped member, like a thin section of a satellite dish. The phoebes perch on its top edge to watch for food. The lower end protrudes farther than the top, and they’ve whitewashed it over the years, somewhat limiting its artistic impact. But flycatchers aren’t critics.
I’m more than willing to do what I can to keep birds around. I stay out of the woods where I hear the ground-nesting ovenbirds singing. I leave the dead snags standing for the woodpeckers. I’ve left a little hole in the soffit at the back of the boat shed where the phoebes can get out of the weather. And I move the boats quietly when I need one.
Sometimes I frighten the parent off the nest, and two or three buzz-cut heads on skinny stalks glare at me over the edge. I apologize earnestly, hope they like our home and suggest they tell their mother about the ground hornet nest down by the pond.
This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.
Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.