We left the garage door open for the better part of a day – as one does. Normally that results in a few leaves being blown into the garage, but little more.
On that day, the open door left adequate time for a Carolina Wren to build a nest in a box of stuff I use when washing the cars, right beneath the bill of my old Jimmy Johnson No. 48 NASCAR hat.
I was inclined to remove the nest, but Susan thought it should stay, so it did, and we started leaving the door open enough for a bird (and hopefully not a human) to get in and out.
A few days later Susan spotted an egg in the nest, and over the next couple of days, two more.
Then, rather quickly, there were five. Two of them, as they sing on Sesame Street, were “not like the others.”
I had noticed a pair of Brown-headed Cowbirds hanging about the bird feeders, but I didn’t think much of it. It turns out that they were watching the open door, too.
And the inviting nest.
Cowbirds are known as “brood parasites.” They don’t build nests or raise their chicks, but sneak into another bird’s nest, deposit their eggs, and leave all the hard work to the unwitting foster parents.
This can be a problem, especially when the eggs end up in the clutch of a smaller bird, because the cowbird chicks grow more quickly and can dominate at feeding time.
They don’t kick the host bird’s babies out, as cuckoos do, but sometimes the smaller ones don’t survive.
My first thought was to take up for the little wren, get a spoon, and toss the cowbird eggs out, but it’s not that simple.
Turns out, it’s not even legal.
Cowbirds are native species, and as such their eggs are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It’s against the law to remove their eggs without a permit, according to the Audubon Society.
Permits are only granted when the cowbirds’ nefarious actions are threatening an endangered species, not just because they’re messing with a bird you like better.
And legality isn’t the only thing. Birds generally lack the ability to distinguish one egg from another, but they do keep up with how many eggs are in the nest. If they detect that some are missing, they may abandon the nest.
Perhaps they’re instinctively afraid that whatever got the missing eggs might come back for them, too.
Apparently, the cowbirds also keep tabs on the nest, and their eggs. When Brown-headed Cowbirds see that their eggs have been removed, they have a tendency to go back and ransack the nest, destroying the other bird’s eggs.
In other words, removing the intruder’s eggs could end up causing more harm than leaving them alone.
I may not like it that the poor wren will have to work twice as hard to feed two big cowbird chicks along with her own trio of fledglings, but it’s all part of how nature works.
Cowbirds have a right to live, too, and it’s not as if they’ll suddenly learn to build nests and raise their own chicks because we want them to do things differently.
The cowbird dilemma reminds me of so many other situations where we would like to step in, but interfering can lead to even bigger problems.
Parents may not like what their children are doing, for example, whether they’re still in the home or out in the world. They want what’s best for their kids, but if they come down with too heavy a hand, the distance between parent and child may only increase.
When we look at the wanton destruction Russian troops are wreaking on Ukraine, it’s surely tempting to send our top guns over to shoot down Russian bombers, and to have a few attack planes or missiles of our own take out their mortar positions.
But confronting the Russians directly could escalate the conflict into something much worse. Nobody wants World War III, other than a few end-timers who think a battle with Gog and Magog will trigger Jesus’ return.
On the other hand, Vladimir Putin claims he was worried about Ukraine joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and he thought his troops could win a quick victory over the smaller country so he could install a puppet government.
He should have left those cowbird eggs alone: now NATO countries are actively supporting Ukraine in defending their sovereign land, and Putin has turned his unfortunate people into global pariahs.
Speaking of war, imagine the bright-eyed new pastor of a rural church who believes that American flag doesn’t belong in the choir loft. Should he or she assume the authority to take it out?
It’s hard to know when (or how) to get involved, and when to let things be.
It’s a dilemma. Choices can be hard.
I suppose that’s one of the reasons we need to think things through and seek wise counsel, and an even bigger reason why we should pray for discernment.
Just don’t ask me to pray for cowbirds.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.