Bullied By The Birds by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

Marathon, Pa., May 2.

I insist that the place for birds is in the air or on the bushy tops of trees or on smooth-shaven lawns. Let them twitter and strut on the greens of golf courses and intimidate the tired business men. Let them peck cinders along the railroad track and keep the trains waiting. But really they have no right to take possession of a man’s house as they have mine.

The nesting season is a time of tyranny and oppression for those who live in Marathon. The birds are upon us like Hindenburg in Belgium. We go about on tiptoe, speaking in whispers, for fear of annoying them. It is all the fault of the Marathon Bird Club, which has offered all sorts of inducements to the fowls of the air to come and live in our suburb, quite forgetting that humble commuters have to live there, too. Birds have moved all the way from Wynnewood and Ambler and Chestnut Hill to enjoy the congenial air of Marathon and the informing little pamphlets of our club, telling them just what to eat and which houses offer the best hospitality. All our dwellings are girt about with little villas made of condensed milk boxes, but the feathered tyrants have grown too pernickety to inhabit these. They come closer still, and make our homes their own. They take the grossest liberties.

I am fond of birds, but I think the line must be drawn somewhere. The clothes-line, for instance. The other day Titania sent me out to put up a new clothesline; I found that a shrike or a barn swallow or some other veery had built a nest in the clothespin basket. That means we won’t be able to hang out our laundry in the fresh Monday air and equally fresh Monday sunshine until the nesting season is over.

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Then there is a gross, fat, indiscreet robin that has taken a home in an evergreen or mimosa or banyan tree just under our veranda railing. It is an absurdly exposed, almost indecently exposed position, for the confidential family business she intends to carry on. The iceman and the butcher and the boy who brings up the Sunday ice cream from the apothecary can’t help seeing those three big blue eggs she has laid. But, because she has nested there for the last three springs, while the house was unoccupied, she thinks she has a perpetual lease on that bush. She hotly resents the iceman and the butcher and the apothecary’s boy, to say nothing of me. So these worthy merchants have to trail round a circuitous route, violating the neutral ground of a neighbor, in order to reach the house from behind and deliver their wares through the cellar. We none of us dare use the veranda at all for fear of frightening her, and I have given up having the morning paper delivered at the house because she made such shrill protest.

Frightening her, do I say? Nay, it is we who are frightened. I go round to the side of the house to prune my benzine bushes or to plant a mess of spinach and a profane starling or woodpecker bustles off her nest with shrewish outcry and lingers nearby to rail at me. Abashed, I stealthily scuffle back to get a spade out of the tool bin and again that shrill scream of anger and outraged motherhood. A throstle or a whippoorwill is raising a family in the gutter spout over the back kitchen. I go into the bathroom to shave and Titania whispers sharply, “You mustn’t shave in there. There’s a tomtit nesting in the shutter hinge and the light from your shaving mirror will make the poor little birds crosseyed when they’re hatched.” I try to shave in the dining-room and I find a sparrow’s nest on the window sill. Finally I do my toilet in the coal bin, even though there is a young squeaking bat down there. A bat is half mouse anyway, so Titania has less compassion for its feelings. Even if that bat grows up bow-legged on account of premature excitement, I have to shave somewhere.

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We can’t play croquet at this time of year, because the lawn must be kept clear for the robins to quarry out worms. The sound of mallet and ball frightens the worms and sends them underground, and then it’s harder for the robins to find them. I suppose we really ought to keep a stringed orchestra playing in the garden to entice the worms to the surface. We have given up frying onions because the mother robins don’t like the odor while they’re raising a family. I love my toast crusts, but Titania takes them away from me for the blackbirds. “Now,” she says, “they’re raising a family. You must be generous.”

If my garden doesn’t amount to anything this year the birds will be my alibi. Titania makes me do my gardening in rubber-soled shoes so as not to disturb the birds when they are going to bed. (They begin yelping at 4 a.m. right outside the window and never think of my slumbers.) The other evening I put on my planting trousers and was about to sow a specially fine pea I had brought home from town when Titania made signs from the window. “You simply mustn’t wear those trousers around the house in nesting season. Don’t you know the birds are very sensitive just now?” And we have been paying board for our cat on Long Island for a whole year because the birds wouldn’t like his society and plebeian ways.

Marathon has come to a pretty pass, indeed, when the commuters are to be dispossessed in this way by a lot of birds, orioles and tomtits and yellow-bellied nuthatches. Some of these days a wren will take it into its head to build a nest on the railroad track and we’ll all have to walk to town. Or a chicken hawk will settle in our icebox and we’ll starve to death.

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As I have said before, I believe in keeping nature in its proper place. Birds belong in trees. I don’t go twittering and fluffing about in oaks and chestnuts, perching on the birds’ nest steps and getting in their way. And why should some swarthy robin, be she never so matronly, swear at me if I set foot on my own front porch?

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