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Column: The troglodytes on the porch

  • (Micki Colbeck photograph) Micki Colbeck photograph

  • Micki Colbeck. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 7/10/2021 10:20:06 PM
Modified: 7/10/2021 10:20:07 PM

For lack of a more suitable place, I hung an earthenware birdhouse — actually, just a hollow clay ball with a hole in it, an artifact from my old art teaching days — from a pole off the back porch railing. The size of the hole in a birdhouse is important — this one, around 1 inch, is good for a small bird like a wren to come in and out, but too small for starlings or house sparrows.

The clay ball hangs not far from the pink velvet couch where the LBDs (two little brown dogs) and I, and sometimes, when the house is hot, the old well-monitored cat sit. We watch the wrens as they watch us.

I have been in the company of house wrens (Troglodytes aedon), and have worried and delighted over their fledglings, for all my years in Vermont. Their scientific names come from “troglodyte,” meaning “cave dweller” and from Aëdon, a tragic Greek character who, after accidentally murdering her son, is turned by Zeus into a nightingale.

One summer, when a small bird house in the yard packed tight with nestlings appeared to have been abandoned by the parents, I called biologist Chris Rimmer at Vermont Center for Ecostudies for advice about all those frantic little heads I was watching. Chris advised that the adults were surely nearby, withholding food, beckoning the nestlings to take their first flight. “After all, there is not much you can do to save the young if they have been abandoned,” he said. He was right about both. The parents were nearby and the fledges were fine.

Those first flights begin with what reminds me of overloaded cargo planes — fluttering, heavy descents to nearby branches, followed by a rendezvous of siblings into the riverbank shrubs, accompanied with plaintive chirps, upturned tails and fluttering of wings. The female stays with the fledges to teach feeding skills while the male is back atop a different birdhouse singing for a second mate and a second brood.

Our resident back porch wren began his singing in the yard in April when he took up his post atop the clay ball and declared it to be his. Two months later, he and the female were feeding caterpillars and moths to the chicks, and carrying away fecal pellets.

I was surprised at their willingness to be so close to canines and humans, for there are a dozen other birdhouses in the yard. Perhaps they found some safety in closeness with others.

Even the loons, whom I monitor every summer while swimming Miller Pond, have chosen to nest close to human activity this year, on a marshy hummock a hundred meters from the fishing boat put-in. Over the last two years, their nest has been predated — at least I have seen no chicks — where they have traditionally nested in a reedy marsh on the opposite side of the pond. Could humans be providing a bit of protection?

There has recently been a discussion in my community about the effect of humans into the forest, particularly referring to hiking trails. One opinion is that human presence in the forest is a negative influence for wildlife and should be kept out. The other opinion is that we will not learn to protect and love that which we do not know. Hiking trails allow families a safe way to be out into the woods, where children may develop a love for nature. As a member of my local conservation commission, I walk a fine line, seeing the value of both but leaning strongly toward well-designed hiking trails with guidance on how to be a gentle hiker. Children do not become conservationists sitting at home watching the Nature Channel.

As for the troglodytes on the porch, I hope they benefit from some protection from predation as I have benefited from the joy of observing them.

Micki Colbeck, of Strafford, is an artist, a conservation biologist and a member of the Strafford Conservation Commission. Write to her at

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