ESSAY- Flocking together: Making unexpected intruders welcome

We were worried, my sisters and I, about leaving the house vacant. What if burglars came in the night and walked off with our family treasures? In the midst of this worry, we received a report of a strange car snaking up the long driveway. With that image in mind, we had a security system installed in our late father's home in Orange County. The expense seemed worth the peace of mind. We resigned ourselves to punching a code number onto a key pad whenever we walked inside the farmhouse that has been in our family for three generations. 

When I arrived in Virginia in late June to do research in Charlottesville and check on the house every few days, nothing was amiss. Perhaps the signs at the end of the driveway announcing the security system were enough to discourage would-be intruders. But things did look different. I walked from room to room, noting the places where my sisters had removed furniture and other objects. Now it was my turn to pack up items I had chosen from the estate. It was still our family home, quiet and dear, its windows looking out on the trees and hills I knew so well, but it was also a house in transition. 

My first weekend there, I went out on the screened porch and looked around. It needed a good cleaning. I hosed down the floor and set things right again. In the process of straightening up, I forgot to return a wastepaper basket from a table to the floor.

A couple of weeks later, something about that basket caught my eye: its plastic liner was askew. When I was within a few inches of it, a bird flew out, practically into my face. With an explosive speed I have never mustered in athletic competition, I burst out the door and ran screaming into the backyard.

In my family, that's a standard reaction to birds showing up in unexpected places. I remember many a childhood summer night when my mother and sisters and I would huddle together in one room while a bat or sparrow banged around the house. When my father got home, he would open a window or make good use of a pillowcase, and the rest of us would be released from captivity.

But on this occasion, I didn't have to rustle up a pillowcase or even open the back door. The winged intruder had flown through a bird-sized hole in one of the porch screens.

Sensing more to the story, I edged back to the wastepaper basket later in the day. Inside it was a beautiful nest– a deep conical swirl of twigs and paper scraps. Bending down for a closer look, I caught my breath: I saw four small eggs.

A week later, they had hatched. Four tiny hearts were beating in the shade of the porch. On my next visit, I brought along my friend Tom, a carpenter, to do a week's work on the house. From the kitchen, we watched the mama bird, a little wren, hop through the hole in the screen and bring worms to her offspring.

Tom said he could replace the screen, and I bought the necessary supplies. In the meantime, I became so used to the birds that I no longer avoided the back porch. Periodically, when the mama wren was nowhere in sight, I would gaze at the babies and marvel at their yellow eyeliner and pointy beaks. One time, one of them opened its mouth as if to speak to me– or maybe just to yawn. Like the deer that ventured ever closer to the house, they were at home here.

My time in Virginia was drawing to a close. Tom and I talked several times about the screen repair and the necessity of moving the nest. In the end, however, he didn't fix the screen and I left the birds where they were. 

My indecision was really a decision. Though leaving a family of wrens on the porch was impractical, I didn't want to evict them. While the mother bird had startled me at first, I quickly realized she and her brood were no cause for alarm. Even our security system could vouch for that.

Now that I'm back in Lowell, Massachusetts, I picture the fledglings finding the hole in the screen and sailing off on some warm summer morning. They will fly toward the Blue Ridge, their small shadows touching the acres my family and I have loved for so many years. 

The next time I'm there, I'll listen for their homecoming song.

Hilary Holladay is a professor of English and director of the Kerouac Center for American Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell.