May 17, 2016

The Problem with Preferences

By Bear Golden Retriever, Auburn, NY, USA (wikipedia)
By Bear Golden Retriever, Auburn, NY, USA (wikipedia)
By Bear Golden Retriever, Auburn, NY, USA (wikipedia)

I saw a bluebird couple yesterday. “No, NO!” I wanted to yell. “Don’t sit on that nesting box. The tree swallows live there. Try the empty box closer to the house.”

They wouldn’t have listened. So, I watched through my binoculars and waited. My belly tightened. My jaw clenched.

Zoom from above… The tree swallow dive-bombed the bluebird boy. The bluebird flinched and flew away while his lady watched. A bad move if he wanted to persuade her to live here.

She stayed on her perch until the third swallow dive. Then she flew toward the maple tree where I lost sight of them.

bluebird on occupied box
female swallow watching
bluebirds inspecting
bluebirds at empty nesting box

Fifteen minutes later, I walked outside. I kept a distance from the nesting boxes. The swallow watched from his perch at the other end of the railing. The bluebird female burst from the brush where she’d been hiding. A second scare, this time by a clueless human.

In five minutes, the man who mows showed up and parked his truck next to the vacant nesting box. “Uh, could you please park down by the barn,” I asked. “The bluebirds were spooked a few times this morning. I hope they’ll nest in that box.

“OK,” he said. He moved the truck, but he and his young employee unloaded their mowers and roared around the yard like dirt bike racers.

coveted back nesting box and rejected front box

I watched for bluebirds all afternoon but didn’t see them. The swallows relaxed as they settled into the distant box.

This morning, I saw the bluebird boy again, sparkling iridescent in morning sun. The swallow stayed on his roof. The bluebird boy checked out the empty box.

Yes, yes, yes. They’re working it out as they always do—except last year when swallows chased the bluebirds away.

Blueboy must have glanced in the wrong direction or ruffled his feathers too boldly. Swallow folded his wings into his sides and turned into a torpedo. I had to admire his speed and grace, but the bluebird boy took off. My heart sank.

rose breasted grosbeak
Rose breasted grosbeaks
Mourning dove
Mourning dove

I carried the binoculars around all day, peering out the windows, searching for bluebirds, anxious about them and everything else. I had awakened at 5 a.m. with tight free-floating anxiety. It wasn’t about bluebirds. My brother died a few weeks ago. My protector is gone.

I didn’t see the bluebirds again. If he can’t defend the turf, the airways, the treetops, the TV antennae, the female won’t nest here.

And the winner is... Tree swallow
And the winner is… Tree swallow

I’m not a mellow bird watcher, the kind who patiently waits all day for a sighting. I’ve become a fretful watcher. I forget to admire the crest of the cedar waxwing in the weeping crabapple tree. I ignore the startling crimson of the cardinal’s shimmering feathers. I turn my gaze away from the mourning dove and robin and ignore the joyful song of the rose breasted grosbeak. I forget to admire the acrobatic mating dance of the blue-black swallow as he swoops through the air with his shiny mate. I want just one thing.

The problem is I think I know who should live here—and who should live at all. The problem is I’m attached to bluebirds. The problem is I want to choose and control rather than witness and admire.

The problem is my preferences.


What does nature teach you? What do you see out your windows? I’m fortunate to have a fine bird show. My camera isn’t quite up to the distant photos, but you get the idea. For other posts about learning from nature, see Give Thanks for the Teachings of Trees and Planting Joy in a Season of Sorrow.


  1. May 23, 2016 at 3:49 am

    Tricia E. Bratton


    This is beautiful and says so much about needing and wanting to take control of things that are beyond our control. You said “I think I know who should live here–and who should live at all.” I get this. I am facing some changes in my life and I don’t want to make them. I like living alone and having control over that part of my life–my morning routine, how my house is, where the cups go. I have an opportunity to deepen my practice and perhaps move into a shared living situation and yesterday the prospect of it filled me with anxiety and I broke out in hives. Hives! I have never had hives! It’s all about what I am willing to embrace and how much control I am willing to let go of.

    I am so sorry about your brother. Sibling loss is significant. I remember feeling, when my sister died, that I had lost a part of my memory. She and I had shared memories of childhood that I don’t have with anyone else.

    It is lovely that you have all of the abundance of nature around you to help you reflect on these things.

    1. May 23, 2016 at 9:18 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Sounds like you’re considering a daring move, Tricia. Perhaps to live with spiritual family? I’ll be interested in how that develops. I don’t know what I need to do next, but after my brother’s death, I feel myself standing at the edge–the last living member of my childhood family. It’s sobering. Yes, the cups, the particular kind of green tea, the place where my dog sleeps next to my bed. My precious preferences. I know it’s time to go through every piece of paper in this house, every closet, every book shelf, every slide and old photograph, and give away, throw away, and recycle. In preparation for the next move or, if I stay here, so my sons don’t have to deal with what I haven’t dealt with the last ten years.

      I agree about those shared memories, although as my brother and I talked about our past, it seemed we had entirely different parents in our psyches and very different childhood experiences even though we were both there in the backseat of the car with both parents in the front. This is the nature of memory.

  2. May 21, 2016 at 5:17 pm

    Robin Botie


    Such welcome distraction, those bird creatures. I’m always getting super involved in who’s nesting around my pond, the ducks or the geese. And the green herons that stand in waiting at the edges. The occasional great blue. The four pairs of wood ducks. It’s better than watching soap operas on TV. When the occasional fox comes around, I pound on the window and race outside. Yeesh, the drama these birds can stir!

    1. May 22, 2016 at 9:43 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      I never see fox close to my house, but know they’re around because I see their scat on the trails. Coyote, too. Because of nesting boxes and feeders, the birds come closest on a regular basis and get used to my presence. Life would be more enjoyable if I didn’t have so many opinions about who should do what (including me) and who should live where. I’m savoring your lovely book, Robin.

  3. May 20, 2016 at 12:22 pm

    Drew Sheldon


    I’ve always had a hard time dealing with grief. You are always such a help. I’ve been bird-watching casually for a few years now. Great analogy. Thank you.

    1. May 20, 2016 at 1:33 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thanks so much, Drew. For me, it’s important to accept death–and so grief–as a natural part of the cycle of life or the feminine cycles inherent in nature. Nature helps me embrace all of it, even the parts I would rather skip such as old age. But here I come on the downside of life’s curve, so I need to accept and learn. Nature is a good teacher. I appreciate your comment.

  4. May 20, 2016 at 1:28 am

    Ann Marie Ackermann


    I loved this post, Elaine, especially because I’m a bird watcher, but also for its depth and how you connected it up to your brother. I never knew him, but I have a feeling he would have been touched by your writing here.

    In response to Marian’s comment, I also took an ornithology class in college, and it wasn’t quite what I expected. The first day we spent covering the avian disgestive system. The field trips I loved, though, because they got us out into nature doing what I love best: watching God’s beautiful creatures.

    Elaine, have you thought about moving the bird box or installing a new box closer to some brush? Swallows need a lot of empty space in front of their nests for their swooping approaches. Bluebirds, on the other hand, won’t mind a tree or a bush several feet in front of the nest box entrance. In fact, they might prefer it, because the vegetation gives them a place to hide while near the nestbox. A change of location might discourage the swallows and attract the bluebirds.

    Don’t give up on the bluebirds, and I hope they decide to nest with you this year. No matter which species, the birds are grateful for the nesting opportunities you give them; they just can’t express it.

    1. May 20, 2016 at 1:26 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      Ann Marie, bluebirds loved the house in question and nested there for over 10 years. Tree swallows nest in the house with less brush around it. The two boxes are at opposite ends of a long railing and not visible to each other–except from overhead. The vegetation around the bluebird house is just as you describe. I have five nesting boxes on my property and the bluebirds always loved the one that is empty at the moment because of that testosterone driven tree swallow guy. Three couples tried it out. He’s chased all of them away.

      I will keep giving nesting opportunities. It’s part of the conservation forestry plan on my property and part of my perseverence. My hedgerows and woods have dead or dying trees (mostly ash since that’s the latest struggling species here) with perfect nesting cavities made by woodpeckers. Next year, I might replace some or all of the boxes because Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology says bluebirds love new boxes. I hadn’t noticed that the precious 10 years, but something shifted. It isn’t the vegetation. I thought maybe it was too much traffic, but bluebirds nest in my son’s carports and don’t mind the human, car, and dog coming and going. Just the luck of the draw, but I’ll keep trying. And meanwhile I’m watching rose breasted grosbeak and purple finch at the feeder. And a wren in another nesting box. I need bluebird lure–or to have that swallow guy hit the road.

  5. May 19, 2016 at 11:46 am



    During a recent walk to an appointment, I took a little time to slow down and look closer at the nature around me rather than focusing on getting to my destination quickly. Moving a little slower revealed a number of small animals and insects. The anole scurrying out of my path when I disturbed their sunbath. The butterfly repeatedly landing on small branches and leaves searching for food. Each going about the business of life as was I.

    Good luck with your elusive bluebirds!

    1. May 20, 2016 at 1:15 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      Nature is a calming influence and a teacher for me. It’s so true, Monica, that we have to slow down to be healed and inspired by those small things we are usually too busy to notice. The bluebirds did not return–so I watch the swallows swoop and the chickadees move into the bird house. I’ll hope for bluebirds next spring. Thanks for taking time to comment.

  6. May 19, 2016 at 7:40 am

    Susan Scott


    a lovely post thanks Elaine … I would have also been agitated at the here today gone tomorrow. Sounds as if the appearance/disappearance reflected your inner being? Yet being aware at the same time of the conflict of wanting things to be a certain way and having no way to implement this. Take time out to witness … your photos are lovely.

    1. May 19, 2016 at 11:53 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thank you, Susan. Another lesson in the importance of taking a witness position, especially when the will is useless. I’m practicing and have been for 45 years. I think a reflection of my brother’s disappearance and, how even when that’s expected for years, it still feels sudden. There’s a big difference between supporting someone we love and having them move on to new realms.

      I’m getting a little better at witnessing–sometimes. I notice and make a little fun of the part of me that wants to control, fix, and be in charge. The bluebirds appeared and disappeared since March. I got excited each time they hung around a nesting box for a few days. It was probably different mating pairs. In the end, they all decided to nest elsewhere. But there are plenty of tree swallows.

  7. May 18, 2016 at 11:31 pm

    Marty Tousley RN MS


    The problem is that your dear brother died a few weeks ago and you miss him. But clearly you know that already. I hope your beautiful and wise writing helps you as much as it does those of us who are fortunate enough to read it, Elaine. You are in my heart as I send you blessings of love and peace.♥

    1. May 19, 2016 at 11:46 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Yup, that’s the problem, Marty. The bluebirds would be a soothing and inspiring presence as I grieve, but I don’t get their solace this year. I’ll have to settle for all the other gorgeous birds around here. Thank you for your warm heart and blessings.

  8. May 18, 2016 at 10:32 pm



    I loved the way you compared your brother’s protection over you with the bluebird protecting a nest. A beautiful story Elaine. And I hope the weight in your heart for the loss of your brother is lessening with grief and filling with remembered love. 🙂

    1. May 19, 2016 at 11:44 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thank you, Debby. I’ll carry this around for a while, maybe forever. I’m glad to carry him in this way. Vic and I loved watching bluebirds. I miss them.

      I just got an article accepted for The Healing Muse Journal 2016 about my relationship with my brother during his illness. Glad to get an acceptance anywhere, but especially honored to have a third article in this journal. The first in 2014 was about Vic. 2015 and 2016 were about my brother and the sweet opportunities of opening our hearts when someone we love is ill.

      1. May 24, 2016 at 9:33 pm



        Oh how fantastic Elaine! Congratulations! I don’t know anyone better than you for a better fit with experience in healing from grief. 🙂

        1. May 25, 2016 at 10:02 am

          Elaine Mansfield


          I wouldn’t mind a break from this long grief run, but I still have my mother-in-law to help to the other side. At 100 1/2, she still says, “I’m not ready.” I’m not sure she’ll ever be.

  9. May 17, 2016 at 9:03 pm

    Marian Beaman


    I took an ornithology course as a college student. This was a nice mini- review – with a life lesson attached. Beautiful, Elaine!

    Next, to the links.

    1. May 18, 2016 at 10:44 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      I should have taken ornithology, Marian. I saw the flashing orange of a Baltimore Oriole male this morning as he tried to figure out how to get into the hummingbird feeders. I also read my brother’s obituary in the Boston Globe. The up and the down sides are always with us. Thank you.

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