Several years ago I lived on a property where gnarled, overgrown bushes reached out from the back edge of the yard toward my vegetable garden. Beyond the mass of crooked, tangled limbs, my yard ended in a sharp drop down to the alley that bordered neighbors’ backyards.
Many small birds – I don’t know what kind they were – would seasonally sit deep among the arthritic limbs of the bushes and in one motion emerge together and fly to a nearby tree. They would chirp excitedly, then, in one returning swoop, fly back to their bushes, to invisibility. Their activities were entertaining to watch – so many birds traveling a short distance as one shape, moving back and forth in what seemed to be a ritualistic game that would go on for hours. But my thoughts always came back to how ugly and overgrown the bushes were. I wanted to take them out. In fact, I needed to put up a fence where the bushes stood, so, really, they needed to go.
About a week after removing the bushes, a neighbor from across the back alley, someone with whom I had never spoken, much less seen, yelled up to my yard, “What did you do with your bushes?” I replied that we took them down because they were so ugly and overgrown, and we were replacing them with a fence. She asked, hardly containing her anger, “Where are the birds going to go?”
Immediately, I felt a wave of indignation sweep over me that this…stranger…would dare question my action on my property. I replied with a “Who cares?” type of reaction and walked away.
While it might have been nice for the neighbor to have chosen to have a conversation with me long before registering a complaint – or at least to have introduced herself – her words haunted me several years later when I began to recognize that we humans in general are taught not to care “where the birds are going to go” because we view our property – or the property where the newest shopping center or housing development is going up – as ours, as if no other breathing, eating, breeding being lives there or even deserves to live there. We don’t want to share. We paid to live on or use the property. It’s our right to evict whatever else inhabits the area.
I realized that these must have been the thoughts and feelings of the people associated with a nearby community property where a huge osprey nest had been comfortably and expertly wedged among lights positioned on a cement pole. This was certainly not the most convenient place (for the lights or the people) for the nest to have been built, but the osprey was apparently quite happy there for years. So, I was surprised last fall when I saw that the nest, as well as the lights, had been taken down. The cement light pole, of course, remained.
“Where are the birds going to go?” I worried.
I left messages for the people associated with the property. Having a fundraising background, I planned to offer to help raise money, if necessary, for a platform to be installed nearby so that when the osprey pair returned to breed in the coming season, there would be a place to nest.
Ospreys return to the same place to breed each year. If a nest is removed and there is no suitable location nearby to rebuild, they will not breed that year. While these birds are federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, land owners can get permits to remove inactive nests that are causing problems. But replacement structures must normally be erected in the immediate area.
When I realized no one was going to return my calls concerning the local nest, I approached a man who appeared to be the property caretaker and asked him what happened to the nest. He replied that it “…came down.” I asked him who I could speak with about it, and he gave me the name and number of the person I had already attempted to contact.
By then, breeding season here in Florida was upon us. I contacted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in hopes that they might convince the people at the property to install a platform. The officer called me back a few days later and said that the people associated with the property said the nest blew down, that it blows down every year and the bird rebuilds it. I laughed and told him that no osprey can build a nest that size each year – this was years of work that came down. The officer asked me if I could provide him before and after pictures. I did.
The Fish and Wildlife Commission contacted me about a week later. The people were sticking to their story. The officer investigated, asking others, including a maintenance crew, about the situation. Even though 2012 was a pretty mild year storm-wise – much milder than years when osprey nests withstood extremely high winds and days of pounding rain – everyone agreed that the nest blew down. No one mentioned that the lights on which the nest had been built had been removed, too – a strange coincidence.
The Fish and Wildlife Commission officer said the people did volunteer to erect a platform. By now, neighboring ospreys had already met their mates for the season and were busy with their nests. This particular male osprey returned to his nest site and perched himself on the empty cement tower where his home had been. He made some fruitless efforts at building a nest on nearby light posts.
It was disheartening to witness a protected bird’s home destroyed regardless of the law. Therefore, a few weeks later, I felt elated to see that a platform had been installed, and within a few days, the osprey got to work building his nest there. I watched with anxiety the next several days during early morning walks as the male osprey began his displays to the sunrise each morning: He would shoot high in the air, flap his wings, suspend his body and call loudly, seeking the attention of his/a mate. Then he would swoop sharply down, to shoot back up again and repeat his display. I was probably reading too much into it, but his calls sounded forlorn and desperate. I was still worried.
Shortly thereafter, the female – or a female – returned, and the breeding season at this nest began. While I was happy, I soon learned that not everyone else was. It was around that time that a woman associated with the property followed me as I walked near the property to check the nest. She approached me and angrily told me to stay off the property. Within a week, I began to find strange things in my backyard. The first was a snake – a black racer – that appeared to have been chopped in half. I thought it was odd that a snake would enter a small fenced area where two dogs live when there is so much land and greenery outside of the fence. I also couldn’t understand why my dogs would bite a snake cleanly in half and leave the two pieces lying there.
A week later, something much worse was hurled over my fence: a badly decomposing cat. It smelled so awful that the person who threw it used an old pillow case (and, I hope, gloves) to chuck the animal over the fence, so that the pillow case landed in the yard, too. Thankfully, our dogs left the dead animal alone. Even better, they did not grab it and bring it into the house. Long after the animal’s removal, the stench remained.
I made a police report, and allowed the police to say it first: this was very likely done in response to my report to the Fish and Wildlife Commission. I found it pretty incomprehensible. Then I thought back to the indignation I felt when asked by the old neighbor where the birds in my yard were going to go after I cut down my bushes. While my response to my old neighbor was not quite as pathological as throwing dead animals into her yard, I saw the connection: it is the sense among so many of us that birds, or any wildlife, just don’t matter. These are our yards, our gardens, our lights, things that matter so much to some people that they will break the law to try to intimidate their neighbors into minding their own business. We break the law, remove nests illegally, lie about it and then dare anyone to say anything about it.
Although I was rattled by the thug-like behavior in reaction to me looking out for the ospreys, the whole situation showed me how far we still have to go when it comes to our attitudes and thoughts about wildlife, about the earth itself. I recognized even more how the birds and other wildlife hardly stand a chance against these attitudes, and since they don’t speak, they need more of us to ask, and to ask more loudly, “Where are the birds going to go?” Even when others don’t like hearing that question. Even when we ourselves are uncomfortable with it.