The Infinite Difference
- A connection with a bluebird gives a "glimpse of grace that few people experience in a lifetime."
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Tink. Tink. Tink. Tink. Tink. Tink. Tink.
Seven times. That was the magic number. Seven. It could as well have been five, or eight, or six, or even nine. And it wasn’t magic at all, really. But seven seemed right when I began the ritual, so seven strikes became the twice-daily signal, the early morning and early evening summons. I walked out of the back door of my house and across the yard to where an iron hook held a tray that was, for these two periods of time, the center of attention for me and for those who met me there.
My introduction to the Eastern Bluebird came during a move from New Orleans to southern Mississippi. My husband, Jay, was retiring and we decided to relocate to the country and simplify our lives. The house we purchased came with a couple of acres of land and, for a lifelong city girl, seemed vast by comparison. As the movers unloaded furniture and boxes at the new place I stood outside the van, directing them. At one point I noticed a small flash of bright blue flying across the yard. I followed it with my eyes to where it landed on the roof of a decaying old purple martin bird house. The house was high atop a long metal pole set in a clearing. What struck me about the bird was the brilliant hue of its feathers. When it landed and turned in my direction I saw that the breast was rusty in color. I’d seen blue jays, plenty of them, but this bird was smaller and more delicate. The intensity of the blue was breathtaking and, as a nascent bird watcher, I became transfixed. My field guide and binoculars were tucked away in a box, so identifying the bird had to wait. The movers were already impatient.
Over the next few days I unpacked and settled into the new place. While organizing the books and stacking them onto the shelves in the library I came across the field guide. Abruptly I stopped my work and plopped down on the floor. Sitting cross-legged as I perused the book I tried to recall details of the bird’s appearance. I had placed seed in various locations around the property earlier in the week but hadn’t seen the bird on any of the feeders. As I turned one of the pages I spotted the blue beauty. There was no need for binoculars, no question of which species it was. The blue was unmistakable. But the information offered in the field guide was minimal and I wanted to know more. I remembered seeing an advertisement for a wild bird shop in the local newspaper and when the opportunity arose I drove over to it, a place called Lydia’s Audubon Shoppe in Gulfport. I could tell that Lydia saw enthusiasm in my face as I described the beautiful bird that had paid me a visit. When I explained that it didn’t seem interested in any of the seed I’d put out she smiled, saying, “They won’t eat seed. You should feed them mealworms. It’s their favorite food.”
“Great,” was my response. “You have them here, yes?” I’d never heard of giving birds anything other than birdseed or old, stale bread. She guided me to a corner of the store where feeders of various types were displayed, handing me a tray designed specifically to hold mealworms. It was rectangular in shape, a cypress frame about the size of a paperback book, with a chain hanger and a screened inset. “Okay, so where are the worms?” I headed for the checkout counter with the tray.
“I have them in the back. They’re in the refrigerator.”
Lydia must have read the confusion in my face because her next comment was, “They’re alive.”
“What?” I held the tray out in front of me. “I have to put live worms in this thing?” Here I was thinking they were dead, dried, fried, but alive? Oh, no.
“Bluebirds won’t eat anything dead. But don’t worry, you don’t have to touch the worms. They come in a bag of a thousand. You just shake a few out into the tray, close the bag with a twist-tie, and stick it in the fridge. As long as you keep them cold they don’t move around much. It’s no big deal.”
No big deal. I envisioned a brown paper bag on the door of my refrigerator, nestled next to my quart jar of Hellman’s. I could see Jay grabbing for the mayo to enhance his BLT and latching onto an escapee in the process. I’d heard that worms were an excellent source of protein but couldn’t quite picture them as an unexpected garnish to his triple-decker. All these thoughts bouncing around caused me to hand the feeding tray back to Lydia. I told her, “Thanks, but I think I’ll pass.”
Lydia smiled. She suggested I purchase a bluebird house and offer them lodging instead of food. “They don’t eat just anything and they don’t nest just anywhere.” Shrewd businesswoman. The birdhouse was far more agreeable to my sensibilities than worms. I opted for a house and carried the rough sawn cedar bird box to the checkout counter. Lydia further recommended a bluebird book from her surprisingly well-stocked supply. She fanned the pages of the book as she spoke. “I think you’ll find everything you want to know about bluebirds here. And just in case you change your mind, I keep a good stock of mealworms all the time. There was that smile again, that knowing look. I had the uneasy feeling that I was being set up. But then, my discomfort might have been more rooted in the idea of “ookey” things crawling around in my refrigerator.
The birdhouse I’d bought was a little smaller than a shoebox. I read up on where to place it, and when Jay was available he attached it to the side of a pine tree, facing south as suggested. I was able to see the box from our kitchen window and from the back porch of the house. A couple of days later I glanced out the kitchen window. There was a bluebird sitting on the roof of the house, checking it out. He peered over the edge and down into the hole on the front. He shifted his position, hanging onto the front, vertically, and sticking his head all the way inside the opening. The next time I looked in that direction he was inside the box, looking out.
Apparently the lodging was satisfactory. The site became the constant focus of a pair as they built their nest inside, a neatly-woven combination of pine needles and grasses. A few weeks later I climbed on a ladder, lifted the hinged roof, and peered down into the box, discovering four bright blue eggs inside. About two weeks later the eggs hatched, and I watched as the parents labored throughout the days, taking turns bringing food to the nestlings. The nestlings grew and, called fledglings once they leave the nest, took flight and disappeared into the woods behind my house. I enjoyed the experience of watching the development and behavior of the family so much, I knew I would do what was needed to keep them returning to the yard.
Those mealworms appeared in my mind again. What were they, anyway? Going to the internet for information, I discovered that mealworms are the larval stage of a beetle. I’d been a tomboy since childhood and there was no problem holding a beetle. I was probably the only kid I knew who had a dissecting kit when I was younger. It’s possible that I even cut up a beetle or two to see what was on the inside. But then my undergraduate biology memory kicked in, and my thoughts skipped directly to association. The mealworm is to the beetle as the maggot is to the fly. Nice. I’m going to buy the equivalent of a bag of maggots and keep them in my refrigerator.
This was a tough call for me. I thought about a picture I’d seen recently in a magazine, a male bluebird perched on a feeder tray. He had mealworms hanging out of his mouth, so many it looked as if he could not have fit another one. I considered the fact that I am completely comfortable holding lizards, and frogs, and even snakes. Compared to them, how bad could a little mealworm be? And Lydia said I didn’t have to touch them. Well, that did it for me. I’d rationalized myself right into another trip to The Audubon Shoppe.
When I walked in the door Lydia looked up from her merchandising task and smiled. It was that same look of understanding. “I figured you’d be back. Bluebirds will do that to you.” She stood up. “You here for the worms, huh?”
“Yeah,” I laughed. “I’m willing to give it a try." I felt like she was a pusher and I was about to become a user.
Lydia disappeared through a door in the rear of the shop and returned carrying a cloth bag about the size of a plastic newspaper sleeve. Worms. As I bought the feeder tray and the bag of worms I wondered if Lydia ever saw herself as the supplier for someone’s habit.
The song I learned as a child played in my brain as I drove home: Nobody loves me. Everybody hates me. I’m gonna eat some wor-er-erms. Big, fat, juicy ones. Short, slim, slimy ones. Itsy-bitsy, fuzzy-wuzzy worms.
When I arrived at home I took the feeder and the worms out into the yard. Sometime earlier that week I’d read that birds will associate sounds to food sources, either a rapping noise or a whistle, so I grabbed an old tablespoon and a tall plant hook, the kind that looks like a shepherd’s hook, from the garage and brought them into a clearing in the yard. After settling the hook firmly into the ground I took the spoon and rapped it against the hook seven times. Tink. Tink. Tink. Tink... I placed the feeder tray on the ground, undid the twist tie on the bag, and tipped it, shaking it until about a dozen mealworms tumbled out into the tray. As I closed the top and hung the tray on the hook the song in my brain continued: First you pinch the heads off. Then you squeeze the guts out...
Back in the house I opened the refrigerator and put the bag of worms on the bottom shelf of the door, away from the mayo. I closed the door. I opened it again and moved the mayo and everything else on that shelf to a different part of the fridge. Better.
I stood at the kitchen window, looking out at the feeder and waiting for something to happen. Nothing . No birds came to check out what was on the menu. I waited, singing under my breath: Oh, how they wiggle and they squir-ir-irm...
Sometime later I walked out to the tray to see what, if anything, was happening. Only two worms in the tray. Yes. As I looked closer I saw that the rest were crawling on the outsides of the tray or had dropped to the ground and were inching around there. I realized that once off of refrigeration they became quite wiggly, and all too squirmy.
I prepared a special dinner for Jay that evening and when we sat down to eat, I took his hand gently into mine and began, “Dear, I wanted to mention that I bought something at the store today.”
“So?” He’d been familiar with my shopping habits for years and his indifference was evident. He knew I wouldn’t do anything outrageous without discussion first.
“Well,” I continued, “When you go to the refrigerator for your glass of water later, you may notice that some things are not in their usual places.”
He sat and listened, staring at me with a furrowed brow, in that way that husbands sometimes do when they aren’t quite sure which, silence or comment, will bring on trouble and how much. Or if they don’t know if their wives have slipped beyond the rim of reason, or if the entire situation they have suddenly found themselves in is a bizarre set-up, a joke of which, for whatever justification, it has been deemed that they are the brunt and for all that is within them, they cannot figure out why. He just shook his head slowly, remaining silent. I concluded that there are times when it is best not having the ability to read minds.
The next morning I repeated the process that I intended to make my twice-daily routine. I shook a few worms into the tray and hung it on the hook, struck the hook seven times with the spoon, and went back in the house. No response. After a few days of this I began to have concerns about my investment crawling away with no return, but then I glanced out the kitchen window just as a bluebird flew down to the hook. He dropped down onto the tray and ate a few of the worms. I could not have been more thrilled if someone told me I’d won a thousand-dollar raffle.
Once I knew the birds would “bite” I was committed. As seen in a photograph in the bluebird book, I would not give up until I had the birds eating out of my hand, literally. So it continued, every day, twice a day, I doled out the worms and rapped on the hook with my spoon. The offering became as normal a part of my routine as morning coffee, reading the newspaper, and writing, only with a side of worms.
A friend of mine called and in the course of conversation mentioned she was purchasing a new refrigerator. She wanted to know if I knew anyone who could use her old one. Perfect. I gladly took it off her hands and put it in the garage, relocating the worms there. Jay was pleased.
When the following spring came I observed the nest-building ritual as before and in late March, there were once again babies in that cedar bluebird box. The adults were accustomed to me and I continued feeding them and feeding my habit. There were times I’d be walking the property and a male bluebird would come up and flutter over my head, calling to get my attention. He’d fly to the low branch of the pine tree and wait for me to bring out worms. The males, I found, were less fearful than the females, always the first to come closer, always staying longer at the feeder. I grew more and more comfortable with handling the worms, even tentatively picking them up with my fingers on the occasions when they missed the tray as I shook them from the bag. Sure, they wiggled as I held them and, yes, they squirmed. But they weren’t at all slimy or fuzzy as the song suggests; the skin was smooth like snakeskin.
On one of my now regular visits to The Audubon Shoppe, Lydia told me the store was closing. She decided to retire and in doing so, left me in a panic, without a supplier for my bluebird habit. She’d already sold her remaining stock. Though she gave me a source name and phone number for a company up north, when I called I was informed that they didn’t ship to the southern states in the warmer months. I went online and found a supplier, just outside of Baton Rouge, that shipped year-round. The supplier advertised that they were the largest supplier of feeder insects in the nation. I placed an order: five-thousand mealworms, overnight.
I wasn’t home the next day when the shipment arrived, but my arrangement with FedEx allowed for delivery without signature. The package was on my doorstep when I got home, a cardboard box about a foot square and six inches high with cute little insects printed all over it and cut-outs on two sides with screen inserts. I don’t know what time the worms arrived, but when I picked up the box to bring it inside there were some strange sounds emanating from it. I carried it into the kitchen and put it on the floor, cutting the sealing tape. I opened the flaps and tuned in to the equivalent of a horror or science fiction movie.
Lydia’s worms came a thousand per unbleached muslin bag, the worms packaged with sheets of rolled up newspaper. I was expecting five bags that I could pull out of the box and toss into the refrigerator in the garage. What I saw when I opened the box was five-thousand, inch-and-a-half to two-inch long wiggling worms, loose, and at room temperature. Two layers of egg crate material divided the box but did nothing to contain the mealworms. They churned and crawled all over the inside of the box, and all over one another.
To the unaccustomed eye this sight would have been, no doubt, repulsive. And the sound — oh the sound that churning and crawling made, if amplified, would unnerve the most steadfast of men. It was a noise that might be heard if a room full of people, on cue, began wetting their lips repeatedly with their tongues, a low, smacking sort of sound as the lips separated, with no other noises accompanying it. But I was not unaccustomed and had over all those months desensitized to some of the “ookeyness” of my habit.
Once I realized my situation I knew I had to act quickly. I couldn’t return the worms and the longer I stood there, the more mobile they became. Fortunately I had not discarded some of the empty bags from Lydia’s, and I set about the task of getting the creepy crawlers corralled and cooled down. They moved up the sides of the box, over the edge, and out onto the floor. I couldn’t close the flaps without crushing some of the worms, and I certainly didn’t want to do that. Quickly, I spread sheets of newspaper on another section of the tile floor and, with only a moment’s hesitant repulsion, knelt down and cupped my hands into the box, scooping mealworms out by the score, distributing them onto the paper, rolling a sheet of it gently, and placing it carefully into the bags, cinching the ends with twist-ties.
I kept my lower body in place without shifting my feet, my arms reaching everywhere. Worms inched out in all directions on the kitchen floor, and I didn’t want to squish them by moving around. My quick action had the wayward wigglers contained is reasonably short order, under refrigeration, and dormant once more; my habit insured against shortages for a long time to come. Itsy-bitsy, fuzzy-wuzzy worms.
The bluebird babies continued to grow; the adults spent their waking hours gathering food and constantly flying to and from the box. As the nestlings grew I began seeing their heads pop through the entrance to the box in anticipation of food. This is when I revved up my feeding routine to keep up with the increasing demand, often putting worms out several times in one day. As soon as the adults saw me walk out of the garage with the bag they flew to the iron hook and waited. Taking turns they stuffed as many worms into their mouths as possible, dropping one or two, picking up more. The birds flew directly from feeder to nesting box, delivering the morsels to their young.
As fledglings the babies finally left the nest and flew away with their parents, and none of them returned for several days, a common trait as the young learn how to forage and survive on their own. The next time I saw them the babies were flying well but still mostly dependent of the adult pair for food. The entire family called out as they arrived on the low branch, and I headed for the garage and my bag of worms. This was the day I was finally, fully rewarded for my efforts and my persistence. I finally got what I wanted, but the results were not quite what I expected.
Following the routine of the seven strikes with the spoon, I shook a portion of mealworms into the tray as always. When I raised the tray to hang it on the hook the entire family flew down to eat. They were all within reach, fluttering above my head and landing on the hook, gobbling up my offering. That’s when one of the speckled babies landed on my hand, grasping onto my index finger as naturally as if it had been the branch of a tree. It finally happened. I’d made contact, what I had been hoping for all along.
I thought I would experience a smug sense of accomplishment, a feeling of victory, the long-awaited culmination of my efforts of time, money and endless patience. But the instant the unsteady little claws of that slight creature grabbed onto the finger of my outstretched hand, trusting that I would do it no harm, I realized I couldn’t have been more wrong. I held my breath in amazement, staring up at the intense black eye of that innocent, tiny bird and feeling a joy within that was beyond description. It was as if everything around us faded away, and there was just me and the baby bluebird. Nothing else existed. Nothing else mattered.
Only a flash in time and out of time, but in that moment I understood the infinite difference between what I wanted and what I had no control over, between my will and that of nature, my desire to grasp onto a delicate wild thing, and having that creature voluntarily reach out and hold on to me. I realized just how little the encounter had to do with me really; it was the bird’s choice completely. And I was rightfully humbled.
This moment was a rare and precious gift, a glimpse of grace that few people experience in a lifetime. And it was a gift that continues to fill me with awe.