Photograph by Brian Gordon Green, National Geographic

Photograph by Brian Gordon Green, National Geographic

First Person: Letting a Backyard Go Wild

A suburbanite invites wildlife into his yard, but the birds have other plans.

Part of our First Person series, where we invite writers to share personal stories.

After an unusually long and blustery winter, nesting season has begun in our South Carolina backyard. The sunlight suddenly has a kind of heft to it, a promise that every living creature seems to recognize.

Will this be the year the wrens finally select one of the nesting boxes I built from scratch and sited thoughtfully in various corners of our backyard?

Probably not.

It's been five years since we moved here from Chicago and I began the process of transforming our backyard into wildlife habitat and certifying it with the National Wildlife Federation.

Little by little, I've shoveled away our patchy lawn and planted flowers that catch the eye and provide nectar for bees and butterflies, such as milkweed, butterfly bush, purple coneflower, goldenrod. Rather than haul our leaves and branches to the curb, I've mounded them into shady corners where anoles hibernate and toads hide between rainstorms. Simple things.

When I first got started, however, I was an ambitious builder. It seemed to me that the true test of a backyard habitat was whether or not other species actually put down roots there. Had I done enough to make the shrubbery feel like home? Or was our place just a rest stop, just a place to pull over on the way to someplace better?

What I had in mind was a brand-new neighborhood of birdhouses and bat houses and bee blocks. There would be nesting space aplenty here, prime real estate. At least, that was the theory.

The wrens seemed like great candidates for a new home. One inquisitive "little-brown-job" had darted through our open back door and hopped along the kitchen countertops before I scooted it back outside.

Another had even begun building a nest in the eaves of our garage after a contractor pulled the plywood off the back wall. As the builder worked to replace it, the desperate bird kept darting inside the ever-shrinking gap, trying frantically to finish the nest before the wall went up again. If those wrens were so eager to come inside our house, I figured, maybe they really were in need of my help.

I found a blueprint from the Missouri Department of Conservation for a wren house, a quaint little cabin with a pitched roof and a single round hole sized just right for a tiny bird, although what I wound up with after combining my poetic sense of measurement with some reclaimed lumber was a bit oversized, a wren McMansion.

I put five of these boxes up in promising locations all over the yard. I imagined that first spring would play out like an avian version of one of those television makeover shows where the owners leave their cramped domicile for a couple of days and when they come back, voila! There's a spacious new mansion in its place. What could be better? If those wrens could shed tears of gratitude, I imagined, they'd shed them for me.

Not long after, I watched eagerly as a pair of wrens fluttered from perch to perch along the base of the old wire fence, following a pair of cardinals as they scratched and pecked at bare patches of soil. Just a foot away from one of my McMansions, the male bowed to the female and paused, his gorget swelling as he tipped his beak vertically and his whole body convulsed with song. Yes! I thought, ready to celebrate. Our habitat is a success!

But they never went inside. In fact, the closest any avifauna came to one of my nest boxes, as far as I could tell, was the roof, where I discovered a wren-sized dropping one morning. Not the most favorable review.

I didn't hear from them for a while, until one day I reached inside the brass mailbox next to our front door and found a woven pile of leaves and pine needles. It couldn't be, I thought. Our old mailbox? Really? This must be just a "dummy" nest: Wrens are known to make a series of fake nests in addition to their real one, right?

Soon, however, a clutch of tiny eggs appeared inside, and then a trio of expectant little faces, their beaks ringed with fluff. The kids and I could stand by the window and watch the adults bounce from the bushes to the porch rail and disappear into our mailbox, one family observing the business of another, separated by a few inches of wall. It was a precarious spot; although we tacked a note to the box, we occasionally had to scramble to keep those youngsters from being crushed by an errant delivery of junk mail.

As it turns out, I'd missed a crucial bit of information. Everything I'd read suggested that wrens aren't choosy. Give 'em an old boot and they'll nest in it. Hang up a gourd, or even a skull, and they'll make themselves cozy. That's all true for the widely distributed house wren, Troglodytes aedon, a bird I knew quite well.

But the Carolina wren—and I discovered this only later, as a footnote in a state park brochure—apparently prefers to build its own nest. Thryothorus ludovicianus, our state bird, doesn't mind using human habitation as the foundation, but when it comes to the actual nest this wren is almost always DIY. It didn't matter how big or snug or beautifully decorated my nest boxes were—this species wouldn't use them.

I've left my subdivision of model cottages alone, although they remain unoccupied. To my eye, they look even more enticing now, shrouded in jessamine and ivy, mottled as the bark of an old oak, although I know better. I try to see those houses, and the rest of our backyard, as a small native bird might. I glean what I can from my brief but daily encounters with the creatures that live right on the doorstep. Those small but surprising moments, often occurring on my way out the door, are the chief reward of a yard gone wild.