LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
For the first ten years or thereabouts that we lived on Charlie Brown Road, Loretta kept an asparagus fern sitting on the front porch from early spring until mid-October.
Potted in an old churn, it never bloomed but it was one of those plants that stayed green year round and require almost no maintenance other than a pint of water when one of us thought about it.
Every year, a pair of fearless wrens nested in the plant and used the same nest year in and year out. I’d like to say they were the same birds, but I’m not sure wrens live that long. In any event, up around the end of May, we’d walk out on the porch and the wrens would be busily engaged in tidying up the old nest by dumping old twigs and feathers on the floor and searching around for a few blades of newly-mown grass and some fresh feathers to line it.
Three days later, there would be three eggs in the nest and Hen Wren would take up full-time, 24-7 residence on the nest except for a couple of 10 minute breaks to fly off and do her business and catch a grasshopper for her meals. Ben Wren (I named them Hen and Ben) never came about while the eggs were incubating. He roosted in the trees in a fence row beside our lawn.
Every morning at the crack of dawn he would be gustily singing “sweet-tater, sweet-tater, sweet-tater” over and over at the top of his lungs. (My pal, Tom Miller, maintains the lyrics are “cheese-burger, cheese-burger, cheese-burger” but my mom taught me that it was “sweet-tater” and that’s what it sounds like to me). Anyway, it’s the happiest birdsong I’ve ever heard.
About three weeks after Hen went on the nest, both she and Ben could be observed flying to and from the garden and the surrounding pastures from daylight till dark, returning within minutes with mouths full of crushed bug or dangling worm that they placed in a gaping mouth before repeating the process many times each day. In rainy weather, Hen would stay on the nest while Ben shouldered all the hunter-gather responsibility.
By mid-July the babies would start practicing flight from the fern to our porch swing and then from the swing to the huge azalea bush in the front yard and back to the nest in spite of much fussing and scolding from Mom and Dad. Three or four days later, the entire family would make it into the tree line and they would literally disappear. I figure they ultimately flew across the road and into the woods on the other side of Lowell Branch.
But, just when I’d start to believe they were gone forever, Ben and Hen would return in mid-August, tidy up the nest, and proceed to raise another brood that ultimately left in late September. We’d see wrens on the feeders all winter and speculate as to whether they were Ben and Hen or their offspring, and, of course, we hear the sweet-tater song all over the place after every day-time shower.
Then, about three years ago, we left the fern out way too late and it froze to death. We kept the dead foliage sitting around all winter because Loretta insisted that a little TLC and Miracle Gro would bring it back to life. But that didn’t happen. The only thing the ugly old thing ever had going for it was the wrens, as far as I was concerned. Hen and Ben took to nesting on my knife shelf in the garage which was okay by me except we still didn’t see much of them.
On Mother’s Day, this year, my son Chris bought his Mom a huge hanging basket full of pink geraniums and some sort of viney plant with small bunches of pretty little yellow flowers and I hung it up at the end of the porch behind the swing.
Loretta swore it was the prettiest hanging plant she’d ever seen, mostly, I suspect, because Chris bought it for her. I’m rather partial to the two baskets of ultra lovely purple wave petunias I started myself, but I’d been watering the geranium every day and doping it with Miracle Gro Blossom Booster for a couple of weeks and I must say that it was starting to look lovelier and lovelier.
Then one morning I saw Ben and Hen checking it out. By the end of the day they had a nest half finished. I didn’t let on to Loretta.
Next day they finished up. Late that evening I parted the leaves much to Hen’s chagrin, to see how the nest was oriented so I could safely water the flowers without dousing the nest.
“Guess what,” I said to Loretta that night. “The Wrens are back.”
Her eyes lit up. “Where are they?”
“In your geranium.”
“Get’em out of there right now!” she commanded.
“Too late. They already have an egg in the nest,” I lied. “But not to worry, Hen and I have already figured out how to water the plants and everything will be just fine.”