BEAKLESS BLUEBIRDS AND FEATHERLESS PENGUINS: Observations of a Naturalist. By Sister Barbara Ann. Scriptorium Publications. 274 pages. $10.
NOT ONLY is Sister Barbara Ann's eye on the sparrow; her gaze encompasses all of nature's creatures, great, small, beautiful or homely. Nonetheless, the bluebird -- America's symbol of love, hope and happiness -- some years ago captivated her heart.
One morning, while monitoring the bluebird nesting boxes on the All Saints Episcopal Convent grounds in Catonsville, Sister Barbara Ann happened upon a horrifying sight: In an attempt to protect her four five-day-old babies from a sparrow's brutal assault, a mother bluebird and two of the young had just died. The two remaining newborns lay bleeding with severe injuries. Their bills were completely stripped off.
Rarely do badly wounded birds survive. There appeared no reasonable chance that the two babies could be saved. A "devout coward," Sister Barbara Ann put the lid back on the nesting box and prayed for the tiny creatures to die. Then she remembered the encouraging words of her mentor, Sister Fidelia: "No matter how silly you look, what people think or how hard it is, when you see what's right, do it." Sister Barbara Ann responded to the shock-trauma case and brought the birds inside.
In "Beakless Bluebirds and Featherless Penguins," a year's journal, she shares her intimate day-to-day experiences caring for the nestlings. Constant companions Joshua and Eleanor, whom the sister carries around in a tissue-lined nest (the bottom of a soda bottle), recover, assume human characteristics and display individual personalities within the pages of this azure blue and white soft-cover volume.
Now, at the convent, guests ask, "Can the birds sing?" Sister Barbara Ann's reply: "Joshua can. Eleanor doesn't." She says sometimes her beloved children are downright mischievous and should be named Chaos and Confusion. Could it be she "spoiled" them?
From the beginning, the nurture and raising of the beakless bluebirds within the confines of the convent is a community project enthusiastically supported by the Sisters of All Saints.
Often, though, their kindness and forbearance are tested, along with the skill of the veterinarians at Dunloggin Animal Hospital. The road to recovery has many jagged rocks and unforeseen turns.
Prefacing the diary with a letter to friends, Sister Barbara Ann relates a story reported in the 1950s: A zoo receives its first penguins in a refrigerated truck. Upon arriving, the birds refuse to descend the gangplank to their new home. Given the creatures' delicacy, value and ability to peck, zoo officials rule out the use of force to get them to behave.
Then, an attendant notices two sisters wearing the usual black habits, veils, white wimples and collars. He speaks to them, and the sisters cooperate by climbing into the truck and proceeding in single file down the gangplank. The penguins follow, receiving fish as their welcome. The unfeathered ones -- the "featherless penguins" of the book title -- retire to the cheers of the crowd.
Sister Barbara Ann sprinkles beautifully detailed word pictures of her observations on nature -- the seasons, birds, mammals, reptiles, plants and insects.
Dr. Lawrence Zeleny, founder of the North American Bluebird Society, who assisted Sister Barbara Ann in placing bluebird nesting boxes at suitable locations on the convent grounds, wrote the foreword, and the book is full of whimsical black and white sketches of birds, wildlife and plants -- all attesting to the writer's artistic talent. Twenty photographs -- many of the picturesque convent grounds near Patapsco State Park -- will enhance the outdoor enthusiast's enjoyment.
Sister Barbar Ann's fascinating account should appeal to readers of all ages, inspire a renewed appreciation for nature's splendor and, above all, affirm the power of love.
T Jane Lippy often writes about nature and the changing of the seasons in Hampstead, where she lives.