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Looking forward to the breathy flutter of wings

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Dan Conradt column mug

I couldn’t remember where I’d gotten a sheet of neon orange construction paper, but it again proved my theory that if you save something long enough, you’ll eventually find a use for it.

The message on the sign seemed pretty clear, but it needed a little something.

I pulled the top off the Sharpie and added an arrow, pointing up.

Perfect!

I tore four strips off a roll of duct tape and added them to the corners of the sign; with all due respect, Scotch tape, you’re not up to the challenge.

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I left through the back door and walked up the driveway, pausing at the corner of the house to listen: tires hummed on the highway. A dog barked -- probably the schnauzer on the next block.

The chirping was always there these days. It started before sunrise and continued until well after dark.

There was no sign of her, but I knew she wasn’t far away. She was never far away.

I hoped the neighbors weren’t watching.

I ran around the front of the house, reached the top of the three-step landing in one big leap and used the heel of my hand to mash the duct tape to the siding, midway between the mailbox and the porch light; not since "Mission: Impossible" had an operation been planned in greater detail.

There was the airy sound of wings and something brushed my left ear like a whisper.

I jumped from the top step and retreated to the safety of the sidewalk.

The sign wasn’t perfectly straight, but I wasn’t going to fix it:

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BEWARE OF BIRD!

The arrow pointed toward a light fixture that held a pale yellow bulb, which made after-hours visitors look jaundiced.

The robin’s nest was wedged into a narrow gap between the fixture and the side of the house. Mother Robin was perched on the edge of the nest with a morsel she’d pulled out of the front lawn.

The chirping reached a crescendo.

I’d caught glimpses of the robins flying past the front window for several days, and thought that they’d found a sheltered spot in the overgrown arborvitae that flanked the front door. The chirping began two weeks later.

I found the egg shell and the nest mostly by accident; the front door is used almost exclusively by my left arm, which reaches out to collect the day’s mail from the box mounted to the side of the house. I spotted the egg shell,a shade of blue that is one of Mother Nature’s more glorious successes, on the edge of the Welcome mat, and stepped out to pick it up. And when I straightened up to examine the shell, I came eye-to-eye with Mother Robin, who was sitting on her brood in a crown-shaped grass-and-twig nest atop the light fixture, watching me with a wary, protective glare that said "This spot is mine."

I wasn’t about to argue.

The neon orange sign happened on the day I reached out for the mail at the same time Mother Robin arrived with lunch for her nestlings and we nearly had a Hitchcockian encounter at the front door.

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Mr. Mailman, you’ve been warned.

I began to look forward to the sound of the baby robins’ chirping and the breathy flutter of wings as Mother Robin flew to and from the nest. I would leave the windows cracked slightly, even on cooler nights when I would have ordinarily kept them closed tightly, to better let the morning wake-up call into the house.

We found that we could co-exist; if I stood quietly at the corner of the house, mama would let me watch her feed her babies, four hungry mouths clamoring for part of whatever squirming delicacy she’d brought them this time.

More than once I shooed neighborhood cats off the front porch.

Each day the babies looked bigger, even from the distance Mama Robin allowed me, and soon the nest seemed impossibly small.

Then, the sounds stopped. The morning song, the brush of wings, gone.

I waited for two days before stealing a close-up peek into the nest; it was empty, except for a few wispy feathers and one tiny fragment of shell in robin’s egg blue.

I peeled the sign off the side of the house and tucked it into a drawer in the kitchen.

Save it, the theory goes, because eventually you’ll find a use for it.

Hopefully, again next spring.

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