Eye on the Sparrow: What I've Learned from My Irrationally Personal Relationship with a Pair of Birds
by Rachel Held Evans
(I know it's Monday, but today's post isn't about sex; it's about birds. We'll get back on schedule next week.)
The first rule of human-animal relationships is this: Never name an animal that isn’t your pet. You don’t want to get too familiar with the pig you’ll be sending to slaughter or the stray cat that spends too much time by the road. If Charlotte’s Web taught us anything, it’s not to get attached (and not to take an unsupervised rat to a fair).
So we didn’t name them at first—this family of flycatchers that built a nest in the corner of our carport four springs ago. We just watched their progress as each day their home grew from a mess of moss and twigs to a sturdy little fortress, high and safe from the elements, with a lovely view of our garbage cans.
Location. Location. Location.
We’d had a bit of a mishap with a family of Carolina wrens who set up camp in our grill two years before. The existential crisis brought on by sacrificing an entire summer of cookouts only to have them eaten by a cat was not something we wanted to repeat.
But not long after the first round of tiny eggs became observable from our poop-splattered car, the flycatchers in our carport became the Pips. Mr. and Mrs., we presume, but we wouldn’t judge if it were some other arrangement because we’re progressive like that.
(I can read the hate mail now: “Dear Mrs. Evans, I have followed your blog with great interest over the years, but have written to say I intend to ignore you from now on due to your blatant endorsement of alternative lifestyles within the animal kingdom.”)
One thing we did know was that the Pips were an egalitarian couple, switching out the duties of sitting on the nest and hunting for bugs, singing instructions and encouragement to one another from the railing on our front porch and the power lines above the house. We could watch all of this from our living room window, learning their routines, admiring their skills, wondering where they got off to and if they were okay when we hadn’t seen them in a while. I knew we were too far gone when, while watching “Dexter” on the couch, Dan and I spotted our little feathered friend just outside the window and said in perfect unison, “Hey, Pip,” like he was a member of the family just strolling through.
The Pips are also Catholic, apparently. We marveled as their first brood of five grew so big we had no idea how they managed to stay piled on top of each other without toppling over, a precarious pyramid of wings and beaks and eyes. One sunny afternoon, I sat undetected in the car for an hour and watched them leave the nest—each one squawking nervously for about ten minutes before taking a giant poop and then flying away.
To our surprise, a second round of eggs appeared not long after, but this one didn’t fare so well. Within a few weeks, we found the body of dead baby bird just below the nest. And the Pips—the whole family—suddenly disappeared.
This pattern repeated itself for three years. The Pips would suddenly appear in the same nest each April, raise five healthy babies by mid-May, try again in June, and then disappear by July, leaving a nest of bones behind.
After nine months away, they would come back, kick the leftover bones out of the nest, and start the cycle again. It became something of a seasonal delight, like strawberries in May, blueberries in July, and the Pumpkin Spice Latte in October. And, despite our best efforts, Dan and I got emotionally invested in the whole thing.
Once, when I caught a pair of mockingbirds (otherwise know as the assholes of the sky) giving the Pips a hard time, I ran outside in my pajamas with a broom and screamed, “HEY! THIS IS PIP’S HOUSE! GET OUT OF HERE!”
I imagined myself as something of a St. Francis figure in all of this, but Dan said I just looked like a crazy lady running through the yard without a bra on, screaming obscenities and waving a broom around.
But don’t let him fool you. Dan loves the Pips as much as I do. Once, when he was mowing the lawn, he spotted a bunch of feathers scattered about near the edge of the property. Dan came inside, and gravely asked if I’d seen the Pips recently. We both stood by the window in nervous silence until, at last, we saw the pair of them flit up to the power line. “Pip!!” we shouted together in relieved delight. Dan played it off, but I could tell he was truly relieved.
We thought that perhaps our story with the Pips had reached an end when, last summer, after they had left for the season, Dan insisted on removing the nest. It had attracted a bunch of mites and spider webs over the past three years, and to be honest, we were getting a little tired of this reminder of the frailty of life that showed up in our carport without an invitation each year. I confess I got a little teary as Dan ceremoniously lifted the well-worn mess of leaves, twigs, moss, trash, and bones out of its spot to take it back into the woods.
No trace of the Pips remained. By winter, I’d nearly forgotten about them.
So you can imagine my surprise when, nine months later, I pulled into the carport one chilly April evening and my headlights illuminated a mama flycatcher perched in the very same corner of the carport with her tail feathers in the air and frazzled look that plainly said: “Where’s my nest, Bitch?”
And so this year, we enjoyed yet another season of Pips, discussing them as though they were human neighbors:
“Look! Pip’s got a caterpillar and is banging it against the railing to stun it! Nice!”
“The last baby has left the nest! Maybe this year they’ll have the good sense not to try again.”
“Pip’s mad. Look at his tuft; that’s what he does when he’s mad, I think.”
“So I may have chased a cat down the street today. She was watching our yard a little too closely. Had to send a message.”
“I haven’t seen Mr. Pip in a few days. You think he left her?”
“How do you know it’s Mr. Pip and not Mrs. Pip who left? Maybe he’s been abandoned.”
“There’s a dead baby bird in the driveway. Please can you take care of it? It just makes me so sad.”
“The Pips are gone. You think they’ll come back next year?”
Jesus said that not a sparrow falls to the ground without the Father knowing.
I’m not sure why God is so partial to sparrows when the flycatcher is clearly the superior bird, but regardless, unlike most Christians, I’ve never found this statement to be of profound comfort.
Jesus said God knows when a sparrow falls, not that God will do anything about it. The fact that we are worth more to God than many sparrows will not spare us from the same cycle of life and death we watch play out in carport every year.
But I suppose it’s nice to know that God isn’t afraid of getting too attached, that even though His most valued creation will experience suffering, pain, sadness, and death, He still gives us names.
Judging from my Facebook wall, we’re not the only ones invested in the lives of a little bird family each spring. So I guess I wrote this post to let you know that if God’s eye is on the Pips, then God’s eye is on your birds too. Heck, it may even be on the mockingbirds.
What a privilege to see the world a little more like Him each spring.
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