The first and foremost problem with eggs is that birds come out of them.
Purposefully unflattering photo of Momo (cockatiel), after a shower. One doesn’t generally do this kind of thing to one’s friends on a blog, but in the service of a sound point, it must be allowed.
One has to keep one’s cockatiel from procreating. Anyone who’s met a cockatiel knows this.
One has to keep one’s conures from procreating, too. Anyone who’s met Jim knows this.
The second problem is minor, and it is one of not-necessarily-welcome inspiration. For example, one may have a teensy compulsion to decorate all available eggs in the painstaking, time-sucking, back-ruining, soul-crushing Ukrainian style (great supplies and design books at the Ukrainian Gift Shop). This compulsion manifests a few months before Easter and can linger for several months.
Here I did the same design on three eggs. Sorry, no prizes for those who guess which is the cockatiel egg.
This means that frenzy may require fresh challenges, like smaller and smaller eggs (stolen from the cockatiel stash), or absurdly large eggs (goose eggs acquired at the local tree-hugging grocery, where, god bless them, both duck and goose eggs are available for several months in the spring).
Goose and duck eggs I decorated in the Ukrainian style
The third, and most difficult, problem is what I will call “the sadness of the egg,” and it’s related to problem #1, and best described by Tennyson in his “In Memoriam”, in which he calls nature “red, in tooth and claw.”
To understand what he means, ask yourself when you started letting or would start letting your kids see and understand the everyday nature of death. Because it’s everywhere, all the time, but especially in the cruel spring, and especially among avians. Around March, Other People And Their Kids start having visions of cutesy peeping fluffs on the horizon, while I see Nature herself, fangs dripping, in a crown made of cute birds’ bones.
6-9 day old Tree Swallow chick, suffering the fate of all nestlings, which is to look like Jack Nicholson.*
Four broods of eggs or hatchlings– one Black-capped Chickadee, two Eastern Bluebird, and one Tree Swallow– disappeared entirely, each seemingly overnight, from the nesting boxes in my back yard. It was a great, looming, lurking, horrible mystery. I found no forensic evidence, even when I combed the area for parts, feathers, blood, anything at all (anyone who deals with birds, as I learned from chickens at a young age, must steel herself against death and destruction. Chickens are very good at getting themselves abducted and disassembled).
Even on the Cayugabirds list serve (great edutainment), where some of the top bird-brains in the solar system mill about intertextually, I had to paw through several responses to my inquiry (something to the effect of “hi smart people, what they hey is disappearing my birds?”) before finding a theory that I could tell, from corroborating details, was hitting the nail on the head. It was from a woman who’d grown up on a farm, the gritty way, and knew the culprit without hesitation: House Sparrow. She knew because she’d had to trap and kill her own, lest all the bluebirds be killed.
Tree Swallow pair on nest box. A Tree Swallow can be a worthy opponent for humans meddling with its nesting box, but alas it tends not to be formidable enough against House Sparrow marauders.
Now, some interesting and difficult realities: 1) House Sparrows are “non-native” to North America, are now very common after their import from Europe, and are widely hated by bird lovers, despite their lively intelligence, because they threaten the breeding success of native cavity-nesting birds, who are already in a pinch because of habitat loss and a hundred other gloomy factors. 1.5) Any non-Native American human is also, technically, “non-native” to North America, by the by. 2) House Sparrows often harass or even kill their neighbors, either to gain actual use of coveted nest boxes or just out of sheer competitive instinct to defend and dominate their territories.
The Cayugabirds list serve woman’s solution had to do with trapping the male inside the box and twisting his head off. There are people I know, love, and respect who have killed their nesting House Sparrows out of fierce devotion to Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows and other native cavity nesting birds. And although I have killed a mouse with a brick (because it was suffering), I did not feel I was someone who could twist the head off a House Sparrow, even if he had murdered (manslaughtered? birdslaughtered? simply erased?) upwards of fourteen baby native birds on my watch. Whether this puts me on higher moral ground or confirms me as a nincompoop is a mystery to me.
Tree Swallow egg, with beginning vascularization. I let the girl running the study do this part because it scared me to death.*
But I can, it turns out, remove all House Sparrow nesting material that I find in my boxes, and toss the eggs, though the first time I did this it gave me serious ethical hives. (Bluebird nests are very tidy and deep and made of finer flora; Tree Swallow nests most often involve a downy canopy of collected feathers from other species, like a little alien pod for safe delivery of their young; Black-capped Chickadee nests are composed of moss and animal fur… and so forth. It’s become easy for me to tell a House Sparrow nest because it’s made of larger materials and uses messier construction techniques, and the eggs are a faint gray-turquoise speckled with a fine brown. I’ve kept a few of these eggs because they’re beautiful, and because, like Eddard Stark, I believe if I’m going to kill something, or keep it from living, I shouldn’t pretend it never happened.)
I’ve also rigged up my version of what the interweb calls a “monofilament” and constructs of fishing line and a tidy little lead weight. Mine is brown thread from my husband’s travel sewing kit and a screw I found on the floor for a weight (perpetual home improvement debris…), all held up by a thumbtack. (I always end up making “my version of______”, usually from lack of patience, and also a keen willingness to fail in complete ignominy if it means a small chance at earlier success).
The idea here, with the “monofilament,” is that the House Sparrow doesn’t like having to fly into and past a line drawn down the center of the entry hole, but a bluebird who has already laid an egg will plow past it no problem, because she’s already invested so much of her energy inside that box. It may also have to do with flight and landing styles– I’d wager so because sparrows are more ground-based, stubby-winged, less elegant fliers in general than the graceful airborne insect-eaters, like swallows and bluebirds.
Bluebird eggs, with purposeful-looking spot of divine light.
So far? I hesitate to type it aloud, but for now there remains a clutch of five bluebird eggs in the box– this pair’s third attempt at a family this season (that I know of). Of course, it’s frightfully late in the season to be having babies: imagine trying to keep up with and feed five flying children, without the use of your hands, and get them independent and ready for migration or winter survival on their own in less than two months. So, even if they make it past the House Sparrow problem, they’ll have to deal with the whole problem of how to keep living.
As someone who has carried and lost a pregnancy, and come close to death, I’ve had a million thoughts, of course, about what it means to create life, and to lose it– but one that stands out is the comfortingly biological view that one who lives with bird eggs is at risk of developing: eggs are both extraordinary and common; they are both absurdly fragile and miraculously effective; they are gained and lost every day.
I don’t know whether my part in the equation of all these eggs is net positive or not. I’m trying to do what I feel is most beneficial for the most needful populations. But if I’m telling the truth, I think the reason I love birds, and their eggs, is that it’s they who are helping me.
Labeling, with careful, even breaths, because when you hold your breath, that’s when you break things.*
*All photos in which I am handling wild viable eggs or chicks were taken during a supervised study at Cornell.