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Where the Forest Meets the Stars(9)

By:Glendy Vanderah

“Where? I want to see it!”

“You will. Follow me.” As they pushed through wet roadside weeds, the buntings remained silent. Not a good sign. They should be chirping alarm notes. Jo’s suspicions were verified when she saw the wrecked nest.

“What happened to it?” Ursa said.

“You have to figure that out, like a detective who looks at clues to solve a crime. Sometimes inexperienced birds build a weak nest that falls down. If the nest wasn’t constructed well, rainy weather like we had today could have made it fall.”

“Is that what happened?”

“From the clues I see, I don’t think so.”

“What are the clues?”

“First of all, I remember this nest was sturdy. Second, I see no eggs on the ground. Third, the parents are completely gone from the territory, which means this probably happened before the rain hit. And the biggest clue is how much the nest is torn apart. I’m guessing a raccoon pulled it down. If a snake or crow had gotten the eggs, there probably wouldn’t be that much damage.”

“The raccoon ate the eggs?”

“Whatever tore up the nest ate the eggs. On some nests I set up cameras so I know for sure what predator did it.”

“Why didn’t you have a camera for this one?”

“I can’t put cameras on them all. Cameras are expensive. Let’s go to the next nest.”

“Will they all be eaten by that stupid raccoon?” Ursa asked as they walked back to the car.

“I doubt it. But my hypothesis is that buntings will have lower nesting success in human-made edges, along roads or crop fields, than they do in natural edges, like next to a stream or where a big tree has fallen. Have you ever heard the word hypothesis?”

“Yes, but people from Hetrayeh use a different word.” She crawled into the back seat. “I had a hypothesis about you today.”

“Did you? What was it?”

“If you didn’t bring the police back again, you never would.”

She’d articulated a hypothesis with remarkable competence. And with too damn much confidence. Jo twisted around to look at her. “What does that mean? You think your hypothesis is proven and you’re staying with me?”

“Just until the five miracles.”

“We both know that can’t happen. You have to go home tonight. Shaw—my advisor—will be here in a few hours, and I’ll be in trouble if he finds out you’ve been living on the Kinney property for two days.”

“Don’t tell him.”

“How am I supposed to explain a girl sleeping at my house?”

“I’ll sleep somewhere else.”

“You will. At home. That’s why we’re out here. You’ll show me where you live, and I’ll bring you to the door. I’ll tell whoever takes care of you that I’m going to check on you every day. And I will check on you. I promise I will.”

The girl’s brown eyes swamped with tears. “You lied? You didn’t really want to show me your bird nests?”

“I did. But afterward you have to go home. My advisor will—”

“Go ahead, take me to every house, and the people will say they don’t know me!”

“You have to go home!”

“I promise I’ll go home when I see the miracles. I promise!”

“Ursa . . .”

“You’re the only nice person I know! Please!” She sobbed, her face almost purple.

Jo opened the rear door, unbuckled the girl’s seat belt, and held the child in her arms, the first time a head pressed against her bony chest. But the girl didn’t notice what was missing. She tightened her grip on Jo and cried harder.

“I’m sorry,” Jo said, “I really am, but you must see I’m in an impossible situation. I could get in trouble for letting you stay with me.”

Ursa pulled out of her arms and dragged the back of her hand across her runny nose. “Can we see another nest? Please?”

“There are four more, and you can see them all. But afterward you have to go home.”

She wouldn’t agree. Most obstinate child in the universe. Jo drove on. Other than a flush in her cheeks, the girl had completely recovered from her cry by the time Jo parked at the next orange flag. “I hope the raccoon didn’t get the eggs,” Ursa said.

“It should be babies. They would have hatched within the last day.”

Ursa jumped out and read the text on the flag tied to a sycamore sapling. “It’s an indigo bunting nest that’s seven meters northeast and one meter off the ground.”

“Good. Now we’ll find northeast with my compass.” Jo showed her how to use the compass and sent her in the correct direction. As Ursa approached the nest, the parent birds began to call in alarm. “Do you hear those loud, abrupt chirps? That’s what indigo buntings do when you get too close to their nest.” The agitated male balanced on a milkweed plant, his sapphire feathers lit by a setting sun that had finally emerged from fleeing rain clouds. “The male is right there in front of you. Do you see him?”

“He’s blue!” Ursa said. “He’s all different colors of blue!”

Her excitement was intense and real. But if she was from that road or any other nearby road, she would have seen that bird before. Buntings were common on Southern Illinois roadsides.

“I see the nest!” Ursa said. “Can I look inside?”

“Go ahead.”

Ursa parted belly-high weeds and peered into the nest. “Oh my god!” she said. “Oh my god!”

“They hatched?”

“Yes! They’re really little and pink! They’re opening their beaks at me!”

“They’re hungry. Their parents had trouble finding insects for them in the rain today.” Jo looked at the four newly hatched buntings. “We have to leave them alone. Do you hear how upset the parents are?”

Ursa couldn’t take her eyes off the tiny birds. “This is a miracle! This is it, the first miracle!”

“Haven’t you ever seen baby birds in a nest?”

“How could I have? I’m from a planet that doesn’t have baby birds and nests.”

“Let’s go,” Jo said. “Their parents need to feed them while there’s still light.”

When they got to the car, Jo asked, “Was that really the first indigo bunting you’ve seen?”

“It was. It’s the prettiest bird I’ve seen on Earth so far.”

They checked the next nest, which had four eggs. After that was a white-eyed vireo nest. Vireos weren’t Jo’s target species, but she took data on any nest she found. The nest was still active with three vireo nestlings and one cowbird nestling, and on the way back to the car Jo told Ursa about brown-headed cowbirds and how they laid their eggs in the nests of other birds, called “hosts,” that raised them.

“Why don’t cowbirds want to take care of their own babies?” Ursa asked.

“By laying their eggs in the nests of other birds, they can make lots more babies because other birds do all the work. In nature, the winner is the one that produces the most young.”

“Are the vireos mad about raising the cowbird babies?”

“They don’t know they’re raising cowbirds. They get tricked into doing it. And often the host’s babies don’t get enough food because cowbird nestlings are bigger, grow faster, and cry louder for food. Sometimes the host species’ nestlings die.”

“Will the vireo babies die?”

“They looked okay. Their parents are doing a good job of keeping everyone fed.”

Ursa stalled getting in the car to look at the last nest. She stopped to look at flowers, asked Jo about a beetle, and pretended to be fascinated by a rock she found in the weeds. Ursa remained preoccupied with the rock in her hand while they drove to the last nest, passing Egg Man’s lane on the way. They left the car, but before Ursa had time to read the flagging tape, a white Suburban with a university plate drove around the bend. From behind the wheel, white-haired Dr. Shaw Daniels waved at Jo. He parked behind her car and ducked his lanky body out the door. “Working at this late hour?”

“It isn’t late,” Jo said. “It’s only six o’clock. I didn’t expect you until closer to eight.”

“The last session was canceled because of food poisoning.”

“You’re kidding?”

He shook his head. “It was something people ate at the reception the night before.”

Jo looked through the open driver’s side door at Tanner, seated in the back of the Suburban with Carly Aquino. The guilt in his returned gaze was obvious, as was his attempt to hide it behind a smarmy smile. What had Jo ever liked about him other than his pretty face? She looked away from him, at Leah Fisher in the front passenger seat. “Did any of you get sick?”

“We’re all okay,” Leah said.

“Fortunately, we didn’t stay at the reception for long,” Shaw said, “because we had dinner with John Townsend and two of his students.” He kept glancing at Ursa. “And who is this?” he asked.

“Ursa lives around here. I was showing her how I monitor nests.”

“Nice to meet you, Ursa,” he said. “I’m Shaw. What do you have there?”