By Celia Coates
Yesterday (March 19th) Americans were told not to over-react to the pandemic and the financial crash. What is the right level of reaction to events that seem catastrophic? Few of us have developed strategies for dealing with such a wide-scale set of disasters. In the midst of the stress of all that’s going on the just-right book arrived in my mail: OUR CAT ATE THE MOTHER: The Story of Raising Three Baby Bluebirds.”
I flinched at the title – it’s so direct and the image it calls up is painful. It is easy to push aside unpleasant things, but I know that facing what’s true and real is a necessary first step, so that’s where I began with trying to figure out how to deal with the unprecedented events of this time in America.
But first – back to the bluebirds.
Frank Di Perna and Roberta Marovelli, are the couple who created this just-right book. They are both artists and photographers. Frank wrote the text and Roberta created the illustrations and both of them contributed photographs, as did some of their friends. Here, in brief, is the story:
“I saw an Eastern Bluebird for the first time in the early 1980s. I had just moved from the city to a semi-rural area about 25 miles west of Washington D.C. I had read several magazine articles about the bird’s beauty, charm, and that it was in danger of becoming extinct. According to my neighbors there were some bluebirds in the area, so I put up several bluebird houses in my yard with the hope that I might be able to attract them to nest there.”
What Frank had seen was, “…a small dark bird flying out of the sun toward the side yard. As it passed me I saw the blue flash in the light. I knew right away that it was a male Eastern Bluebird. I had never seen any color like it before. It literally took my breath away.”
“In 1989 my wife, Roberta, and I purchased a one room school house about 50 miles west of Washington D.C. … The school was built in 1873 and was the first public school in western Loudoun county. It was a unique property with lots of charm and it was just about the perfect habitat for bluebirds. When we purchased the house in April, I asked the realtor if I could install some nesting boxes before we settled so that there might be bluebirds there when we moved there in June.”
“In the past fifteen years of keenly observing the bluebird I had seen wonderful, surprising and occasionally some sad things. … Observing bluebirds and their behavior became a ritual for me. At the end of each winter, usually on a warm day toward the end of February, bluebirds will begin to show up in the yard. For me their arrival marks the psychological end of winter and the promise of spring and all that comes with it. I know that before long I will be watching the nesting cycle once again. Bluebirds behave in a way that makes it very easy to identify with them. I admire their sweetness with each other, their struggle to find a home and their total commitment to raising their young. It is behavior that we would like to see mirrored in the human population.”
“On August 6, 1996 at about 4:00 p.m., while I was saying goodbye to a friend in my driveway, I saw my orange and white cat heading away from one of my bluebird boxes with a bird cradled in her mouth. I was hoping that I was wrong but I was pretty sure it was the female bluebird that was incubating eggs in that box. I rushed over to the box knowing that there were three eggs inside that were due to hatch any day. I opened the front of the box and found 3 chicks lying quietly in the soft grass cup of the nest. They were alive and appeared to be 1 or 2 days old. As I looked down at the squirming chicks, I recalled that I had not seen the male of the pair for a week or so which probably meant that these baby birds were without parents.”
“I was upset because in the seven previous years of having bluebirds nest in the yard we never lost one to our cats. Since there had never been a problem before, I had become pretty relaxed about the cats being in the yard.”
Frank and Roberta decided to wait for an hour before doing anything with the birds in case the mother bird managed to escape from the cat (sometimes they can), but then, since the babies are fed almost continuously by their parents, they had to step in.
“A neighbor of ours, Kate, is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator and we knew she had some experience with taking in birds of prey and raising them. I called Kate and she told me what we needed to get to feed them. I went to our local vet in town and returned with a bag of powdered hand feed mix, some syringes and some advice from the vet. By now the hour was just about up and we had to make a decision. There really was no choice, if we didn’t feed these birds very soon, they were going to die. I removed the nest, with the chicks still in it, and brought it into the house. I put it in the corner of a cardboard box which I set on the kitchen table. The chicks seemed fine but just to make sure, I touched each chick gently with my finger – they were still warm. I called Kate again and she said she would be right up to show us what to do.”
For me this book was a page-turner. I became fully involved with Frank’s clear, detailed, and charming descriptions of life with the birds and his personal reflections on the experience. (As an artist, he creates photographs that share these qualities – they are direct, bright, focused, beautiful, and deeply felt.) Frank and Roberta’s dedication and discipline in caring for the birds was constant. At first they had to be fed every 30 minutes all day long. The story of the summer with the bluebirds is also a story of generosity, discovery, and love that involved Frank and Roberta – and their community. The birds treated them with the same gentleness they use with each other – in the book you can see the pictures of them sitting on the shoulders and heads and hats of their rescuers.
For me there was something solid and cheering about this not always easy set of events. Frank is a natural teacher. Although it began with a disaster that is micro-miniature compared with what we are facing now, I found that the steps they took together are a useful kind of structure for how to cope now:
* Allow some time to absorb the shock and face what is really happening.
* Size up the situation – preferably not alone.
* Develop a goal. (Frank and Roberta chose to help the birds survive so they could rejoin the natural order of life destroyed with the death of the mother.)
* Get practical about how to achieve the goal.
* Discover who else can help you, and whom you might help. (Work in your community.)
* Keep going, take one step at a time, become persistent.
* Find joy and beauty where you can. Let love grow.
“It was a complex experience for me; it was both real and symbolic. Real in the sense that it was about saving the lives of three beautiful birds and all the energy and sacrifice of time it took to do it. For years I had seen the bluebird as symbol of something good and positive: good in the way they look and positive in the way they behave. To have had something that represents good in your presence adds something to your inner life and when the source of the goodness comes from the natural world, it increases the potency. My love affair with the bluebird had long been a source of pleasure; to have raised three of them was euphoric.”
* * * * *
The image that accompanies this post is by Roberta Marovelli.
Her website is – http://www.robertamarovellistudio.com.
If you wish to have a copy of OUR CAT ATE THE MOTHER, go to
It is important to state that caring for an abandoned bird is illegal. It violates federal and state laws as does possessing any wild native American bird for any length of time without proper permits. Frank and Roberta were able to raise the three baby bluebirds legally because they were being supervised by a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
5 Comments Add yours
Beautiful essay…..thank you Celia……your words are so thoughtful and energizing to me …..especially during this unsettling time of uncertainty……also love the images and discovering helpful resources you share……i.e. book titles, research, articles, and organizations (i.e. A R.E.) that you reference in each WINN post…….all so relevant …..and meaningful to me……thank you…..💜
How lovely. I will get the book for sure.
Your essay is so much more than a book review. Celia. For those who are frightened and unsettled by the coronavirus, this book with its illustrations and pictures will be an antidote, a reminder that life goes on in even the most horrific circumstances. It’s also a reminder of the generosity of which we humans are capable.
It’s very thoughtful of you to share this book and its message with us.
LOVE THIS, CELIA. PUT IT ON MY FACEBOOK PAGE WITH ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO YOU, AND JUST ORDERED THE BOOK. THANK YOU.
Thank you for your guidance in coping. I admit that I sometimes feel a certain cynicism when I hear about heroic, extraordinarily kind acts towards animals. Not that I don’t love what they did, but I feel pain for all of the humans that are ignored and treated cruelly. Refugees in particular. But that’s another topic.