The scratching was what caught my attention, sounds from the gutter in early spring. I looked up and saw a junco perched on the gutter's edge, peering down at me.
"Could it be you?" I wondered, staring at the slate-gray songbird. "Are you the same one?"
Two years ago, male and female juncos set up residence in our garage through midsummer. Most days, the male perched outside on the roof; the female stayed inside on a window sash, silhouetted by light filtering through dusty, cobwebbed windowpanes.
Juncos usually fly north to New England and beyond to Canada by spring, but some rare nesters here in Ohio's Geauga County live year-round in isolated pockets. They commonly build concealed nests on the ground, often near cool ravines. Others may build nests eight feet off the ground inside trees - or so said John, our local naturalist.
However, our juncos' nest was almost eight feet off the ground ... built atop several citronella candles stored on a shelf. After laying eggs, the mother alternated between the preferred window perch or on top of the nest, warming her future brood.
That first year, the female did what any protective mother bird would do around suspected predators. Every time we entered the garage, she flew over the cars to her window perch, diverting attention from the nest. When we raised the garage door, she flew outside and waited on the nearby brick walk.
Sometimes, she was locked out and waited on that walk until our return. Other times she was locked in and eager to get out and forage in the woods. Whenever we cruised up the driveway, we watched incoming or outgoing bird traffic as the automatic door rose.
During that first year, she flew into our house along with arriving dinner guests. She eventually entered my son's room, followed by our guests advising how to induce bird departure.
One summer day we heard the chirping of recently hatched offspring. I e-mailed birth announcements; our newest family members had arrived. Eventually, we saw the young birds flutter up and down in elevator fashion, testing their new wings. Within a few weeks, mother, father, and fledglings were gone.
Assured their departure was final, I cleaned bird droppings off the window and work areas. I sanded the unpainted wood and gave it a deserving coat of primer and topcoat of glossy white enamel. I did not remove the nest, a pleasant reminder of the juncos' stay. Nor, did I use the citronella candles beneath it, not wanting to disturb their former home.
Last year, the pair returned. Their routines were similar, although I observed less drama and effort in their diversionary tactics. By summer's end, both mother and father were hopping around the garage while I painted. From her window perch, the mother bird watched and chirped as I rolled paint on unfinished garage walls. In the cadence of her song I thought I heard from time to time, "You missed a spot. You missed a spot."
We cared about our expectant parents. While we were on vacation, a teenager hired to take in mail also opened the garage door every day so the mother wouldn't roast and the father could bring food to the hungry family.
One warm evening, the mother made another appearance in my son's room, but seemed less distressed than last summer. We knew the drill: close the bedroom door, remove the window screens, turn out the light, and hope she'd fly toward the brighter light outdoors.
She flew to his window and perched, chirping. We closed the door. Left to her devices, I knew she'd be fine. A half hour later, we returned to the room and saw that she was gone. We eventually found her back in the garage with her young.
The hatchlings were a marvel to behold: stringy feathers, gaunt faces, snuggled together in the cup-like nest. The mother tolerated our few visits, waiting on the window perch. I urged the children to be brief, remembering the steady stream of well-meaning visitors after each of my own deliveries.
After the family had departed a few weeks later, I cleaned the bird-splattered woodwork and windowpanes. And I left the nest undisturbed, ready for a possible third visit.
John, the naturalist, said I am not seeing different birds each year; they are the same returning couple.
It's as if they have found this little paradise and they're saying, "We like it here," he said, adding that a junco's life expectancy is only a few years; five or six years would be the exception.
And, so, on a cool spring afternoon this year, I watch the mother bird atop the gutter, not knowing when this annual tradition will end. Glad to have her company, I appreciate this gift: the juncos teaching us about nature's simplicity, patterns, and beauty.
The junco perches for another moment on the gutter's edge, then flies into the garage.
"Welcome home," I say to her in my mind, and head toward the house to tell family and friends that our uninvited but always welcome guests are back, for now.