Why I killed two baby birds.

Stories from the farm.
Aug. 4 2006 1:07 PM

Snow White vs. the Monster

What happened when four birds got trapped in my wood stove.

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.

I have dogs, sheep, cows, chickens, and donkeys. I write about animals for a living. But I know how little I understand about them whenever I'm with Annie. Her life revolves around loving and caring for animals. She has the gift. When she shows up for work, every animal on the place dances with joy. Elvis, my 2,000-pound steer, holds perfectly still while she treats his eyes with ointment to keep away flies. Mother, my ferocious barn cat, closes her eyes and purrs while Annie picks her up to check for ticks.

Annie has already saved my rooster Winston from certain death (as of this writing, he is alive, well, and loud) and healed two infected goats. She is studying with an animal shaman in Vermont. So, if anyone could rescue the remaining birds, she could. I told her the situation, shading the body count a bit.

Ten minutes later, her truck pulled into the driveway and Annie came rushing in, screwdriver and hammer in hand.

"What are those for?" I asked warily.

"In case we have to take the stove apart," she said.

I wished the birds freedom and long life, but I was not about to dismantle my precious wood stove. An elemental rule of rural life—where repair people can be many miles away—is that it's easy to take things apart, not so simple to put them back together. It had taken nearly a year to get my broken screen door replaced.

Annie flashed me a fierce look, however, signaling that this fight was not over. Seeing my wood stove in pieces would mean nothing to her, compared to saving the life of the wrens. We could hear the birds fluttering around in the stovepipe.

"Don't touch anything," warned Annie, pulling up a chair. "Just stand back and hold the sheet over the top of the stove."

She began a soothing, reassuring conversation. It seems she speaks bird as well as sheep, donkey, and cow. "It's OK," she assured them. "We'll get you out of there. Don't worry." The patter continued and in perhaps 15 minutes I saw two birds hop down from the pipe to stare at her curiously through the glass door.

I leaned forward quickly with the sheet. "Stay still," Annie hissed.

"Come on, now," she urged the birds, advising them to be calm and not hurt their fragile selves. They actually seemed to be following her instructions. They'd stopped their frenetic activity. Every now and then they chirped at her and she responded, assuring them that all would be well.

Eventually, one bird hopped into her hand and she enveloped it. When I'd tried that, the birds had paid with their lives. Not so with Annie. She stood and stepped away from the stove and continued chatting. "OK, let's go outside, where we can find trees and a better place to live."

If I was the monster, Annie was Snow White, singing to the birds as they hopped in and out of her hand.

We went out onto the front porch. "Go on now, little guy," Annie said, releasing the captive. "Fly off and be well." Then she repeated the routine with the other bird, who lingered a bit in her hand and permitted Annie to stroke the top of her head.

I felt lousy about the birds I'd inadvertently snuffed. Also annoyed that they insisted on roosting in a stovepipe when hundreds of huge trees were a quick flight away. On a farm, animals die regularly—cats get hit by cars, chickens are assaulted by foxes and ferrets, lambs don't always survive birth. If you mourned all those losses, it wouldn't be possible to live here.

But I don't want any unnecessary casualties. So, I've ordered special metal netting for the top of the stovepipe, with wider spaces that will allow smoke to flow out and prevent birds from flying in. It's supposed to arrive in a couple of weeks, long before the first fire of the fall.

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