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© Meg Hanrahan                   Email:                 Phone: 513-604-9581      


Tale of a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher

A hot cup of coffee warmed my hands as I sat at the kitchen table one cold December morning, enjoying the quiet. I was reading from a book of essays by the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. The beauty and simplicity of a poem he cited made me pause:

I have lost my smile,

but don’t worry.

The dandelion has it.

I gazed out the back door. It was barely light but I saw two deer come into view, grazing along the terrace. They looked like the fawns that had been born that spring. I reached for my binoculars to take a better look and the world outside came into focus. A Red-bellied Woodpecker was eating seed out of the trough. There were also Cardinals and Juncos out and about. Soon, the Titmice, Nuthatches, and Chickadees would join them. These were the regular winter residents one could see every day. It was a special treat to see less frequent visitors like the Yellow-shafted Flicker, searching for ants on a particular patch of ground, or the Brown Creeper, working it’s way up the tree trunk.


My avian reverie was abruptly interrupted. The construction workers always started early. The incessant beeping of heavy machinery backing up was less frequent since they’d actually started building. Now they were joined by the sounds of concrete trucks and hammers.

The noise disrupted my peaceful mood. I thought back to the spring before the trees came down. We’d done everything we could to stop the development. The fight had gone on for months, but we’d lost the battle. The neighbors who’d sold their properties had moved out, but the hillside had yet to be cleared. The weight of an uncertain future hung over our peaceful neighborhood like heavy fog.                  

But it was May, and the peak of spring bird migration. My first pair of binoculars revealed it to me in a way I’d never seen before. With the enthusiasm of a child and beginner’s mind,

I was amazed to find Baltimore Orioles and Scarlet Tanagers in my yard, to see a Yellow-Billed Cuckoo at close range, to hear a Wood Thrush. I even watched a pair of Cedar Waxwings enact what must have been a mating ritual. They sat side by side on a branch passing a berry back and forth between them.

Sometimes I walked on top of the hill behind my house, practicing my newly acquired bird watching skills. That’s when I found it. But the nest was so tiny, it was a miracle I ever did. The activity of the bird itself, so busy flitting about, must have attracted me to it.

The Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher’s cup-shaped nest was built of plant down held together with spider web, and covered on the outside with bits of lichen. When the Gnatcatcher, only 4 inches long, hopped into it, all I could see was its long tail sticking up. Enchanted, I came back again and again, looking for signs of hatchlings, but all I could ever see was the tail poking out as I did the day I discovered it.

As the houses around me came down and the heavy machinery moved onto the wooded hillside, the Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher sitting on its nest became a symbol of all the wildlife that lived in the woods around us. All the baby squirrels and bunnies and birds on the nest. All the animals and trees and wildflowers that would be lost. My heart was breaking as I watched and waited. The demise of so much life was just a matter of time, and I was powerless to stop it.

The Black Locust where the Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher had built its nest was just one of many trees that came down. Days upon days I stood by helplessly, listening to the crack of trees falling. The “Magnum Force” chipper shredder droned on. When it was all done, the trees had been reduced to enormous piles of smoldering chips.

My heart ached as I thought about it, and the memory made me cry. But I was again interrupted by a sound outdoors that called me to return to the present moment. It wasn’t the annoyance of machinery this time, but the clear, bright whistle of a Carolina Wren. Perched just outside the door, on the back of a wrought iron chair, it erupted into a song of pure joy and unencumbered optimism. 

The hillside was raped and scarred and ugly. I felt embarrassed for it in its ugliness. But I tried not to worry. The wren was holding my smile while I mourned the devastation. A new poem came easily, as a gift, delivered on the wren’s song:

I have lost my smile,

but don’t worry.

The wren has it.

                                                          Meg Hanrahan. Revised 2012.