I bought a Regency wood stove three years ago, a black cast-iron monster that sits in the corner of the living room. It takes 10 minutes to crank it up with a few logs, but then the stove crackles happily for hours and warms half the house. Sitting in front of it with the dogs on a bitter night is one of the sweetest pleasures of life on my upstate New York farm.
My last fire was in early April. Then I had the stove cleaned and closed up for the warm months. If previous winters were a guide, I wouldn't need it again until late September. But I had to keep paying attention to it. In spring, for reasons nobody seems to understand, wrens and sparrows and phoebes are drawn to the stovepipe that runs up the outside of the house. The birds hang out, they build nests, and occasionally some of them come plummeting down into the stove and end up trapped behind its glass door.
Attempts to free them are high drama—birds rocketing around the house, crashing into windowpanes, fleeing from my border collie, Rose. They squawk, hide, bang into things, make mad breaks through hastily opened doors.
My solution, last summer, was to have the stove company install a bird screen at the top of the pipe. But the creosote built up on it over the winter, causing smoke to leak acridly into the house. So, we removed it.
This is why, one morning a couple of weeks ago, I heard chirping and thumping in the stove as I was clacking away on the computer nearby. Through the glass I saw, with alarm, two adult birds and two babies hopping around. Trouble.
I didn't have much time. It was a hot day. They could succumb to heat or suffocate from the ash and dust. They could injure themselves banging into the metal or glass. Already, the adults were thrashing up and down the stovepipe, trying to find an escape hatch for themselves and their bewildered babies.
I ran to get a sheet, and draped it over the stove. Then, slowly opening the door, I reached in and put my hand gently—I thought—over one of the babies.
Crunch. It was dead in my hand.
I reached in for the other, but it flapped around frantically and, before I could get hold of it, fell dead on the stove floor. There was nothing to these little birds, it seemed; they felt as light as air, made of feathers and matchsticks. I felt like Frankenstein's monster, when he tries to caress a little girl and crushes her instead, his benign intentions overwhelmed by his clumsiness.
I fetched a garbage bag, stuffed both the corpses inside, and took them outside to the trash. Then I did what I should've done in the first place and called my helper Annie.