You are here: Home » Reports by Year and Month » 2011 » ERTHAWARE Report #202 “The Miracle Under the Old Blue Bench”
Jun 192011

Publisher’s note: All pictures in this report are displayed full-size; you do not need to click on them for a larger image.
Dear ERTHAWARE Observers,

A few weeks ago Lynn and I were sitting in our backyard Adirondack chairs while absorbing some rare rays during our record cool Spring when we noticed a female Oregon Junco (junco hyemalis oreganus) sitting on the top edge of the wire fence that circles our herb garden. Her beak was loaded with stringy material, looking like a humorous handle bar mustache. Obviously, she was nest building.

The wire fence is a necessity to keep the neighborhood dogs and occasional coyote from racing through, local cats from pawing the soft soil for defecation duties, and to detour raccoons and otters who sometimes rumble and play without manners. The oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, lavender, chives, mint, etc. are vital for our attempts at simple lifestyle cooking from scratch. But our biggest menace are those liquid eyed Bambi-kids who mischievously leap the fence with a single bound and without discrimination start yanking and munching on everything. So to discourage them, we put an old broken Victorian wooden bench painted a ghastly brilliant blue (that we had picked up cheaply at a garage sale with hopes of restoring it) right in the center of the herb garden circle, thus giving the undisciplined Bambis little room to land. It’s working. But…

trip after trip little Jane Junco, her beak filled with stringy material, landed on the edge of the wire fence and then dove under the broken blue bench. The female Junco, after insemination, choses the nesting site – never the male – and always builds her nest on the ground (with a few rare exceptions), seeking secluded spots under exposed tree roots, or cavities, or overhanging ledges, or dense vegetation, or even human debris that has a small protected space underneath. And, yes, each time we spotted Jane Junco with her scavenged material, she dove to the ground under the old broken blue bench. Our first agonizing thought was, there’s no way we can weed this herb garden in the next month with this cute little mama Jane building her nest.

Meanwhile, every time Jane appeared with building materials in her beak, Jack Junco, as proud and puffed up as any expectant papa, flew to the top most branches of our old pear tree above the herb garden and twittered away in a non-stop high pitch. According to ornithologists at Cornell University this is an announcement to other Juncos of their establishing this territory for nesting purposes. Every time Jane left to gather more materials, he stopped twittering. Then, as if turned on by a switch, whenever she re-appeared with material in her beak, he flew to his high perch and started twittering his treble call again. But, if we tried to carefully sneak close to where she was weaving her nest, he started a rhythmic clicking noise, as if to warn her of danger, or else to scold us. This behavioral sequence happened repeatedly for several days.

A few days later, on a very dark, wet morning, I snuck within about 10 feet (3 meters). She was gone and there were 3 tiny spotted eggs. I noticed how the nest was built. The most course foundational material defined the perimeter. The interior material became smaller and more refined and soft. How did she know how to do this? The average life span of Juncos are 3-4 years. Did she take building classes?

We are beginning to learn from recent genetic research that all living animals have an amazing amount of resident information built into their DNA molecules that codifies anatomy and behavioral tendencies. This “resident information” is not in reference to one single life span. Rather, there is long-term species learning. These traits, characteristics and behaviors have been acquired through an amazing developmental process (and I would dare say miraculous process) in multiple generations that results in embedded knowledge. Each creature possesses a vast library of historic information in their genetic sequences that informs amino acids in proteins with a unique blueprint, and with the addition of environmental stimuli and nurturing, their customized development and survival behavior is switched on. Thus each species has, not a static, but an on-going emergent uniqueness within the rich developing tree of interdependent biodiversity on Earth. The fascinating quadrilateral process of competitive selection, endurance, mutation and serendipity in dynamic interplay with the physical constants of the universe, pushes and pulls the creativity of life-forms on this tiny gifted planet. To me this natural process is more miraculous than what we sometimes glibly call an instant miracle. Life is amazing. I am awed. It inspires my spiritual life. It is the vital logos of Life, both immanent in force and trans-cosmic in being, in dramatic action that sustainably holds all things together in adaptable stability and yet explores in many generations creative novelty and emergent life variety. Thus, our tiny spinning planet in space is a 4 billion year old laboratory and priceless museum of costly living art.

Below is a picture of the nest that I extricated as best I could out of the entangled weeds after the Junco family left, and I placed it on the blue seat of the old bench. The interior is no bigger than the cup of the palm of my hand. Certainly I’ve seen more sophisticated nests, for example, the nests of weaver birds. But what amazes me is the sequential choice of materials from course to fine.

A few days after spotting the tiny eggs, I caught a cute picture of little mama Jane, with tail tucked at right angles, warming her fertilized eggs.

Then one very bright morning I went out and there was daughter or son number 1. Was it Jackie or Johnny Junco? Which ever, we all know that all babies are cute…ahh, no matter what we truly think.

Two days later, Lynn crept over to check. She whispered, “I think there are two.” She began to quietly sing “Happy Birthday” and two bright yellow heads popped up with mouths agape waiting to be fed. We joined together in singing and whistling the tune, and the tiny heads quivered with excitement and expectation. We soon heard a “click, click,click” warning behind us. We slinked away and mama Jane flew in to feed her twins.

If you notice the brilliant yellow around the beaks, these are target zones for mama and papa to place food for the hungry chicks and not miss the babies’ mouths in the dim light — sort of like the bulls-eye markings on the deck of a research ship as a helicopter approaches. These little guys will rapidly lose this coloration when they gain their sight and can engage the parent’s more directly.

A couple of days later kid number 3, Joey or Jill Junco, showed up. He or she is the one closest to mama Jane’s beak. Do you ever get the feeling that sometimes 3 kids in the same little bedroom is too much? Johnny doesn’t look too happy in the lower bunk. But you will notice that the blinding bulbous eye-scale has fallen off and he can now see. In about 12 days he’ll be as big as mom and able to leave home. During this time of rapid growth both mom and pa were continuously commuting to and from the nest in a frenzied feeding marathon. We happened to be out of town when the chicks fledged and flew away. So I’m regretfully missing the last picture.

To us, this tiny event, so small in the scale of our human self-importance, is truly sacramental. We are witnessing and partaking of the gift of Life on our home planet. This supposedly insignificant drama of life-replication is repeated throughout our planet in a great variety of ways among millions of differing creatures. We know of no other place in our solar system, or yet in our galaxy of over a hundred billion suns, where there has flourished such a plethora of life, or any life at all. If a single, insignificant Junco nest were retrieved from the barren surface of Mars, it would be one of the all-time greatest discoveries. Need I beg the question?

I wish I could bring the world’s leading politicians and legislators to our backyard, the warring and decorated military men, the CEO’s of major corporations, big traders and bankers on Wall Street, aggressive developers and entrepreneurs and techno-whizzes, the marketing gurus and movie moguls, professors and educators, students of all ages, religious leaders and theologians and mega-church promoters, video-game devotees, sports heroes and music celebrities, every consumer strolling through shopping malls, and drivers pumping gas at the local station and waiting in line at fast-food order windows, and say to them: “Here is true reality. This hidden event under the old blue bench symbolizes the priceless treasure of this planet. Life! Not much of what we pack into our busy lives has importance unless it is related to the flourishing of all life on this tiny spinning molten rock in space, enshrouded as it is with a thin shaky crust covered with large pools of water and a slim veil of air that is warmed by our nearest star. With our modern human exponential growth in population, technological power and domineering wants, we face serious questions in this 21st century: we can either bless and heal and nurture this living treasure, or destroy it in exclusive self-absorption, greed, ignorance, or worst of all, fearful complacency.”

This great battle for a richness of bio-diverse life upon which existence depends has already begun. Many species are un-naturally going extinct throughout our home planet (thankfully the Juncos are fairly safe). But we all can become the priests of redemption and hope and renewal. Little Jane Junco has spoken to Lynn and me about deep things. We are trying to listen.

On the journey,

hugs from Lynn and me

The L.E.A.R.N. Group (non-profit)
2204 Chestnut St.
Port Townsend, WA. 98368 USA
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Hello. Welcome to the Blog version of Erthaware Report. I have been photographing nature for over 40 years and writing about it for almost that long as well. I hope you like the content of this site and come back often!

  2 Responses to “ERTHAWARE Report #202 “The Miracle Under the Old Blue Bench””

  1. Everything came through real fine ….. you are awsome donn…thanks…loren

  2. Absolutely stunning. Thanks so much for all you’ve put into this project. (Hi, Loren)

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