Nests

Our house is built on a slope. The kitchen and dining room windows overlook a school and its athletic fields, and a huge walnut tree grows between the playground and our yard. When the tree’s leafed out, and I stand on our terrace or at the dining room window, I feel as if I live in a treehouse. Walnut trees sleep in. They take forever to leaf out but are the first to drop their leaves in the fall. While every other crown within view—the hazelnut, plum, cherry, and dogwood—is greening this time of year, the walnut tree looks lifeless. And if you gaze upwards into its highest branches, you’ll spot a magpie’s nest.

View out the dining room window in mid-April, 2021.

Our bedroom window also faces the walnut tree. Several years ago, we were awakened in the night by the sounds of animal screeches and screams, a terrific battle between two creatures of different species. In the morning, I spotted a trail of blood and black and white feathers on our terrace. The culprits must have overtaken the brooding female. I knew who they were.

At the time, the poor magpie lost her life, European pine martens nested in our roof space. We had the roof redone that same year, and the workers came across a cache of mummies. It included rats, a hedgehog, a chicken, and the magpie. When we redid the siding, the workers found trails chewed through our insulation. The builder tied scent bundles at strategic points around the house to discourage the martens from returning, which have worked, thank god! No more martens galloping over our heads in an evening. It’s incredible how much noise such a tiny animal can make. You’d have thought they were all outfitted with tiny, bespoke clogs.

Under the roof, a scented bundle deters the European pine martens.

Our neighbor, who hadn’t heard the fight, was delighted to learn that the martens had carried off one of the magpies. Killers, she calls the birds (not that she likes the martens any better). She claims to have witnessed a magpie slicing open the throat of a songbird, aggressions I know starlings are capable of. I don’t mind the magpies, their crisp white and iridescent black plumage, and how playful they are a couple.

That widowed magpie found another partner quite quickly. The following spring, the pair built a nest atop a pine tree I can see from the kitchen window. For several years, they nested in the pine tree. Last year, for some reason, the pair decided to move, rebuilding the walnut tree nest. They raised a family there without incident.

Dining room view once the walnut is happily leafed out.

Two weeks ago, I woke to screams equaling in volume to any rabid toddler’s tantrum and as lengthy as they were loud. Only as each tapered off, did the screams sound vaguely avian. One lead into another. After three or four, the decibels and duration began falling as if being lowered down a series of locks. When the screams stopped altogether, a dark silence followed.

I suspected martens to be involved in another attack, although I heard none of their usual predatory cries. “That’s it,” I thought, “they’ve got the female again.” My heart sank in pity for the male.

But the screaming started again. and followed the same pattern in volume, duration, and sad descent. A final, deathly silence reclaimed the night. And despite my heart aching for the pair, I fell back into a deep sleep.

At daybreak, I stood at the dining room window, peering up at the nest, now disheveled. A single magpie fluttered among the lower branches. When a pair of crows alighted beneath the tree, the surviving magpie chased them off. It treated several house sparrows with the same aggression, returned to the walnut tree’s branches, and pecked at one furiously. I read anger and despair into the behavior. Certainly grief.

Hours later, though, and with enormous relief, I spotted the second magpie sweeping by. As much as one partner seemed to be guarding the tree, the other seemed to be avoiding it. The second bird flittered from the playground playhouse’s roof to the top of the pine tree and onto one of the floodlights of the sports fields. A day later, both were gone. They stayed away for several days before returning. I don’t see them as often as I did before the night screams, and the nest remains derelict. And one bird seems protective of the walnut tree while the other seems to avoid it.

We all want to live in safety, to mitigate as much danger as possible. But when lethal forces breach our neighborhoods, homes, and sense of security, we scream, flee, lash out in despair and grief. In the case of martens and magpies, it’s clear what underlies the struggles between the two species, the need for sustenance versus the need to procreate. The need to survive.

With us, the biggest threat or act of violence we’re likely to suffer is intraspecific. What underlies this phenomenon? And what would it take to replace lessons in proliferating conflict with those supporting communion, dignity, and respect?