My ten foot metal ladder was splayed open precariously at the edge of the wetland. I stood high on it, clinging to the side with one hand, trying to open the top of a brand new nest box with the other. The box was on a tall wooden post, too tall to reach without a ladder. The nest box and my ladder were the only structures that rose from the flatness, aside from several other boxes scattered in the distance around the perimeters of the marsh. There were no trees. The box’s plywood was still clean and new; the tiny metal loop I had to twist, tight and stiff yet. The back of a hammer would have turned it, but I had forgotten to bring one.
It was a big nesting box, and intended for wood ducks. But two days ago when I checked this same box, it held five small songbird eggs. They were bluish white, and the nest was messy, piled full of sticks and reeds and feathers in no particular arrangement. Another box had the same. They were definitely not the large, creamy white duck eggs that I had hoped to find, ten or twelve at a time in an impeccable nest rimmed with down. That much was obvious.
The ladder got more and more lopsided as I jostled around on top. The half I stood on was planted in an uneven hummock of dry marsh grasses, and the other half was partially sunk into the mud, one leg in particular. I heaved my weight in one direction to try and balance it out. When the box’s metal loop finally budged I opened the top, leaned hard, and peered over the edge. That figured. The eggs had already hatched, in just the last two days. My job was about to get harder.
I hadn’t known what would use a nest box in the flat open wetland impoundment besides the wood ducks. Swallows, maybe. Either that or starlings. Two days ago, one box already housed newly hatched babies, pink and naked with their eyes still closed. Those, too, were definitely not ducklings. But they were large for songbirds—large enough, unfortunately, to be starlings. All I had to do was check if starlings laid blue eggs.
So I had gone home, done a little research in the library, and talked to the director of the nature center where I was living and working that spring. Of course, starlings laid pale blue eggs in a messily constructed nest, just like the one I had found. They were indeed the culprits.
Here on the center’s four hundred acre property, there were whole trails of boxes, for bluebirds, for wood ducks, or any other bird that wanted to use one. There was even a screech owl in one of the duck boxes, raising four elfish little owlets. But non-native species like the English sparrow, or European starling, were not particularly welcome. And now it was my job to get rid of them.
That’s why I was back in the wetland now, lugging the ladder around and peering into boxes. But still, I was cautious. Earlier this morning I watched the wetland for nearly an hour, just to make sure. I kept an eye on the three suspect boxes until I saw the starlings sail in on their black triangular wings, an obvious air of agenda about them. They looked ridiculous sitting on the oversized boxes, but they would nest anywhere. They compete with native birds for nesting sites and usually win, probably because they think nothing of driving adults out of their nests, even killing them in the process along with their nestlings. Starlings themselves are natives of the Old World. They don’t need these artificial cavities like the wood ducks; they can just as easily nest on a rooftop or in a gutter. They can adapt to anything, and gradually spread themselves out across most of North America ever since some misguided enthusiast released a hundred birds into Central Park in 1890. Now they are ubiquitous, the dingy birds of power lines, moving about like schools of fish, numberless, so that the sky shimmers with them darkly.
As I watched them land on the boxes earlier this morning and linger, their casual pose of ownership irritated me. Once I had my proof, I hopped into the truck, drove to the shed and loaded the ladder in the back. Parking the truck, I set out into the wetland with the stiff grasses poking at my legs. The easiest way to carry the ladder, which was more awkward than heavy, was to lay it flat, step right into the middle of it and lift it up around me. That way, the weight was perfectly balanced. Someone had told me that; I never would have discovered that kind of trick on my own. Propping the ladder beside the first box, I climbed up and saw the pale blue eggs. They were still there. I lifted them out, remarkably light, and threw them one by one onto the spongy ground. They just barely broke. When I climbed down I glanced at the spilled yolks. They didn’t look very far along. All I could make out inside were a few streaks of red and brown. I trekked across the wetland to the next box.
That had all been easy enough. Now I clung to the top of the unstable ladder, looking in dismay at the five newly born starlings bunched together, the light flooding their pink transparent skin. At least their eyes were sealed shut and they gave no sign of being disturbed. They hardly moved except for a slight general tremor that came from being so new. I looked around at the wetland. The water was scattered in shallow pools interrupted with areas of mud and tall grasses. This used to be a field like much of the rest of the property. In the aerial photos of the place, there was nothing here. The long gravel entrance road cut a thin line through cornfields on either side. Only recently was this side turned into a wetland impoundment to vary the habitat. From the ladder I could see over to the fields beyond, where bulldozers sat in the distance waiting to turn the ground for even more wetlands. Birds loved the shallow waters. Shorebirds stopped in, and waterfowl—the waterfowl that inspired the town to hold a festival every November. People came from all over the country; enthusiasts, hunters. They auctioned off antique decoys and had duck calling contests for the best imitation. Artists displayed their wildlife paintings, bronze sculptures, intricate wooden duck carvings with feathers so real you could pluck them out. The ducks and geese congregated around the Chesapeake Bay all winter by the thousands. This was their south. They settled into the fields among the flattened cornstalks. All night the Canada geese kept up a subdued honking, and some mornings shots rang out from the creek where hunters crouched in their blinds just off the property. You got used to the honking; it was soft like rain, something to fall asleep to. The shots were always a surprise, jarringly bright and palpable, like someone releasing all the window shades on you and the outside world flooding in as they snapped up.
I pulled on the pair of stiff old gloves I had found in the shed and reached down into the box. I didn’t quite know how to grab them; they were clustered together and I didn’t want to hurt them, not before I had to. Because their eyes were closed, I wanted to think they didn’t possess too much awareness yet. Gingerly, I managed to get my hand around a couple and pull them out. They were warm through the glove. I went down the ladder one rung at a time, trying not to jostle the delicate cargo, sensing, somewhere, the irony of that. I took a few steps to the edge of the water. It wasn’t much more than a foot deep. All the water here was shallow, really; it didn’t even cover all the flat ground. It lay mostly still in different-sized pools spaced irregularly apart. Just put them in the water, I’d been told, when I had asked if there was any particular way to do it. That made enough sense, and I hadn’t questioned it. I tossed them away, hoping they wouldn’t know what hit them, and they sank down. Then I climbed back up, got the other three and did the same.
In seventh and eighth grade, my grammar teacher was a hard-edged lady with drawn-in eyebrows, red lipstick, and a garish voice, who wore her hair piled atop her head and pinned mysteriously in place, day after day, exactly the same. I didn’t think of her very often anymore, but later that day, I remembered what she said once—probably in between diagramming sentences—about hunting animals. Sure, she said, it was a sin unless it was for food. I was surprised and a little impressed by the nobleness of the remark because nothing much about animals ever came up in Catholic school religion lessons. But I also sensed, even then, that it was part of the rigid pattern, like her make-up and her hair. There was a simple rule for everything. She could stand before us and pass judgment on the world in black and white. I wondered what she would say about how I had spent my Sunday afternoon. Would she understand things like overpopulation and competition, the subtleties of invasive species, controlling one kind of bird to give all the rest a better chance? Would that be a good enough excuse?
But I didn’t dwell on it.
The last nest box seemed a long distance away. I set out walking, cutting through a section of high grass instead of circling the marsh’s perimeter. The stiff dry stalks somehow lodged in the crevices of the ladder, and I had to push through hard to break free. When I hit water I didn’t bother to go around; I just slogged through in my old sneakers. It didn’t seem to matter. But the wet shoes got heavy and cumbersome, so I took them off, balanced them on the ladder, and continued. My feet were already wet anyway. Except for stubble here and there, the mud through my socks felt smooth and cool. Indulgent, almost. I dropped the ladder around my feet and stopped to rest. Looking around, I noticed I was right in the middle of the wetland. I had never seen it from here. I wasn’t far from the driveway on one side or the road on another, but a casual visitor wouldn’t come strolling out here without a little effort and a good reason. I sat down on top of the folded ladder rungs, down nearly at ground level, the level of the shorebirds that must be probing this mud every day now. It was May; there were probably lots of them, fattening up on their way north. Not far from me I saw a few plump, teetering bodies. I’d had no time to come out here and watch them, even though I lived just at the other end of the property, down near the banks of the tidal creek that most people would call a river. But here in Maryland the rivers flowed from the Bay and anything off them was a creek. On a map all the water together cut into the land in the shape of tree roots. Just now I didn’t want to be anywhere else but here in the middle of water, by myself, gliding through the mud in my socks, as if to see how lightly I could step through the marsh this day, how much I could hide my reason for coming.
Three wood ducks flushed instantly from the cover of the grasses nearby. That’s how they always were. They spooked before you even knew they were there. When you did get to see them, they always seemed to be flying away, vanishing into sky, trailing nothing but a thin alarmcall that sounded like a door swinging on a creaky hinge. I had been traipsing through these woods and coves and streams trying to help the wood ducks, but had been rewarded with barely a glimpse of one. I had marked out spots to put new boxes and hauled them into place until every muscle in my body was thrillingly sore. The holes I had dug with an auger, four feet deep in ground so wet that I hit water nearly every time and could hardly break through the suction to pull up the load. I knew what was below the surface, the years of history packed cylindrical, the layers and layers of dirt and clay, bands of gray and copper, slippery and smooth far down. But the wood ducks were a mystery. They hid away among fallen branches, moss, the shadows that come in the evening, even the males with their exquisitely patterned faces, colors that looked painted on. They lived in a contoured maze of a world, gaudy in the dark. Unlike starlings, they were far from ubiquitous. Early in the twentieth century they had been hunted nearly to extinction, but now people put out boxes for them, monitored their progress. You could stand ten feet high, balanced on a ladder half sinking into mud, and open the lid a sliver to find a hen huddling there, holding her ground, or a perfect heap of eggs still warm to the touch. But it didn’t make sense to help the wood ducks if the starlings could overrun their boxes and multiply with ease.
And so I got up from the ladder, hoisted it around my waist, and walked on to the last nest box knowing that four baby starlings were inside, at least two days old. If only I had gotten to them before they hatched. I climbed up, the rungs hard now under my socks. I held on tighter to keep from slipping.
These were a little bigger than the last ones. They were knobby, their beaks wide and splayed, and wrinkled skin gathered around their necks. They were still featherless, but some had opened eyes. Again I put on the gloves and pried one away. It squirmed a bit and pushed against me with bony feet, grazing my wrist where the short gloves stopped. Through the glove my hold on it felt tentative, slightly distant. Maybe I needed that separation, thin and useless as it was, to do what I meant to do. It was just enough. I pulled up another pink, awkward weight, which released a smear of whitewash onto the brown glove. The water began nearly below me, and I didn’t bother to climb down the ladder. I threw the two as far as I could so they would fall in the deepest part. In the air they separated from each other and their legs tumbled over their heads. It was a strange and alarming sight, the tiny frames flying into distance, growing smaller and smaller before they disappeared.
Not wanting to draw the process out any longer, I cast away the other two and stood still, staring out over the water with the slanted afternoon light hitting it. Then I noticed something horrifying. I rushed down the ladder and into the water, toward the place where it had covered them. Something was rippling the surface, protruding just slightly. Were they alive and struggling? Or their bodies just floating? It wasn’t clear, but either way I was unable to watch them bob at the surface. I pushed them back down, closed my eyes, and pressed them to the cool solid mud until I was sure.
I peeled off the wet gloves and went to gather up my ladder and my shoes. The water moved faintly, rippling towards me, closing over the place where death had happened. About to turn away, I saw, from the corner of my eye, the small dark flash of movement. The adult starling swooped down and landed on the bank, hesitating, her instinct sensing that something had gone wrong. Her nestlings had had little idea of what was happening to them, at least, but she was all tragedy. She just stood there, not sure what to do with her beakful of food, such blunt purpose, thwarted; all her energy spent for nothing. I didn’t have the heart to watch her just then. Walking away, I could only reason that the same instinct would no doubt tell her to try again.
Later that evening I drove down the long driveway, passing the wetlands again, heading to town with a coworker. With the windows down, the lush air rushed into the truck, and I couldn’t resist pulling over for a minute. We got out, jumped the ditch, and walked a bit into the stubble. It was heartening to have another person with me. I felt like I’d been alone for ages, lost in some primal, solitary test. We stopped still and listened to the shorebirds die down over the water—plaintive killdeer, the alarm of the yellowlegs reverberating as they lifted off. It was still spring. The air was green and dusky. Frogs chattered too, in rapid and garbled languages, probably a dozen species I would never be able to tell apart. The sun left quickly when it decided to go, and nothing held us to the earth. In the dark we could have blended into the deepening grass, and anyone going by would never think to look, but for the truck empty and waiting at the side of the road, the telltale headlights I’d forgotten to shut off, shining up the gravel.