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By Samantha L. Wolman
     Since the dawn of humankind, people have been awestruck and delighted by birds of all shapes and sizes, as birds can fly and humans cannot. Romans of ancient history believed that birds' flight patterns foretold the future. Recently, scientists have used bird populations and flight patterns as clues into environmental alteration. Presently, lay people find birds entertaining and mysterious; they find bird watching relaxing and educational. While some seek out the native homes of exotic birds on interesting trips, others are fortunate enough to witness the life cycle of numerous birds in their own back yards, or should I say, front porches. 
     Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of TALKERS magazine, renown expert on the talk radio industry, and my boss at the TALKERS office in Springfield, Mass, two weeks ago found a tiny bird's nest (perhaps a sparrow's) containing five tiny eggs, beautifully created, in a hanging plant on his front porch. As it was a lighthearted and enjoyable subject to discuss amidst the seriousness of deadlines and publication, the bird piqued my intrigue and I was on my way toward an interesting research project. Naturally, a number of questions arose for it is not every day that a bird builds its nest on your property, let alone in your hanging plant. Should I call the MSPCA? Better yet, should Michael charge the bird rent and begin to lease out his porch to other members of the feathered persuasion? After all, the bird is living in his plant. This could turn into a very lucrative business. Before we began to draw up a lease, I thought it best to do some serious research into the matter. 
     The eggs hatched two days ago, so this added haste to my rather eclectic inquiry. First I pondered, if you touch the eggs or the chicks, will the mother smell human and abandon her babies? Angela King, assistant to the head of the bird collection at the Springfield Science Museum, affirms that this is a myth. She says, "Birds don't even have a sense of smell, but it is a rule of thumb to not repeatedly interfere with nature and its course." I have heard other myths as well, such as, if you throw rice at your wedding, birds will eat it, the rice will swell in their bodies, and the birds will die. I have also learned that birds cannot eat peanut butter. Both of these rumors are false. So throw all the rice you want at your wedding, and keep the peanut butter in your bird feeder. 
     Next I wondered, if one of these chicks was to fall out of the nest, should I put it back? King recommends keeping something soft underneath the nest in case something like that happens; and yes, it is all right for you to return the baby to the nest. However, if it should happen again, it would be a good idea to put the chick in a box near the nest so that the mother may tend to it. 
      I was curious as to which animals are the natural predators to small birds and their eggs. An avid bird watcher from the Birds of North America Association explained that the most dangerous birds are bluejays and crows as they enjoy eating and destroying eggs. They are rather cowardly, so the chicks on Michael's porch are most likely out of harms way. In general, cats are the complete antithesis of birds. The watcher proclaimed, "cats are the like the oil spill to the animal world." In other words, when released in nature, they destroy or terrorize anything they can get their hands on. This is not a humorous Sylvester and Tweety situation; cats are lethal in the bird world. Housecats alone, kill over one billion song birds every year. When I learned of this terrible atrocity committed year after year by these seemingly harmless felines, I wanted to know what people could do to help. The answer: keep your kitties away. So folks, if you want a bird to build a nest at your house, Tabby has got to go! 
      Odd bird behavior baffles me. Michael described a situation in which the bird would fly away at the sight of him during the day time, even if he was fifty feet away, but at night, no matter how close Michael was to the bird, she would not move. This intrigued me so I called the Academy of Natural Sciences, and spoke to Doug Weschler, head of the Vireo bird photo collection. He explained that the mother will fly away during the day in order to distract the predator (Michael) from her chicks. Sometimes, she may even play the "broken wing" trick where she will lie on the ground and pretend to be wounded in order to lure the enemy away from her babies. On the other hand, Mamma Bird, whom Michael affectionately named Phyllis, will remain in the nest because she cannot see in the dark. If she flies away, odds are she will not be able to find her way home to her children. Instead, she will remain perfectly still in the nest and hope that the predator will not see her or believe she is dead, and go away. Upon asking, Weschler asserted that it is illegal to keep any of these chicks as pets. Sorry Michael. 
      Every once and a while another bird comes to visit, but never stays for a long time. I have discovered that this could be the father, simply bringing food to the mother. That is the male role in some species. In others, after the mating is done, the father disappears altogether. And still other species are fortunate enough to have fathers who share all of the parenting responsibilities with the mother. From feeding to keeping the eggs warm, the proud papa is always there, by the mother's side. And just to clear up any misconceptions, while birds do not have any protruding sexual organs, they do mate as most other animals and can even perform the act while in flight. 
      My final question: what will happen next? Will the chicks fly away in three weeks when they are too big for the nest and able to find food for themselves? Will Michael pass out as Tony Soprano did when his ducklings finally left his pool? Or will Michael experience "Empty Nest Syndrome" as he watches his chicks become mature, independent birds? I guess only time will tell. 

National Housing Shortage Sweeps The Nation's  "Blue-Feathered Friends" 

For more information concerning birds of the wild, contact: 
The Birds of North America
1900 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy
Philadelphia, PA

Academy of Natural Sciences
Springfield Science Museum
263-6800 x397