Every time the gong of empathy is sounded, that measure of kindness will reverberate endlessly along the wavelengths of our universe.
This is a true story that encompasses the whole of life in a microcosm. My story spans birth and death, love and friendship, terrorism and the kill, worry and joy, loyalty and familial duty, the balance between industry and leisure, and the essence of home. It happened to me, and what I like best is that it’s a sutra about interspecies mutualism. I came away from the adventure knowing for sure that all of us are in need of each other no matter whether we wear skin or scales or feathers or fur.
Here is my story.
The four speckled eggs were beautiful. We positioned a step-stool by the azalea tree so that my 6, 5, and 2-year old granddaughters had a view into the nest that was nestled inches from two windows. The eggs were soft-washed pastels in shades ranging from ivory to moss depending on the light. They looked as if they had been hand-painted by an accomplished watercolorist, as, come to think of it, had indeed been the case. They were perfect in the singular way that eggs exemplify perfection. Their elliptical shape and the way they looked so right, so at home, cradled there within the twiggy crib, seemed to represent the concept of balance. They were lovely and they were charismatic. They exuded the irresistible charisma of new life.
The parents-to-be and I had been getting to know each another for the past six months. I had bought and moved into the property on which this pair of cardinals had staked a claim many seasons ago, which made me the interloper. They were cautious but kind, reserving judgment until I proved myself friend or foe.
They were clever, these two. They had chosen as their private breeding grounds an azalea tree growing inside the open-air atrium around which my new home was constructed. The atrium, which is 20 by 13 feet, is accessible to humans only through a sliding glass door near the kitchen or by parachute. Floor-to-ceiling windows all around bring nature inside. In my first winter here, when snowflakes floated down into the atrium, I felt like I was a character inside an animated snow globe. Springtime provided its own drama with a flashy parade of color as plants and flowers emerged yawning and stretching from winter to proudly strut their stuff. But when two expectant parents made this magical little space their own personal labor and delivery room, my atrium became more than just pretty. It became thrilling.
The cardinals were wary for a while. They flitted in and they flitted out. Acting as decoy, the male was always the first on the scene. I came to know their voices rather well, as they kept up a constant stream of communication, a call-and-response essential to their survival. “Cheep, cheep,” he would call, and I would hear her answering from somewhere up on the roof. Once satisfied that she would be safe he signaled all-clear, and then she joined him. Sometimes, in the hopes that they would become accustomed to my voice, too, I opened the door and joined in the conversation.
The first few months in my new home, I got the distinct feeling that I was being assessed, as if I were a rushee pledging some prestigious sorority. The couple engineered random visits to the atrium where they would busy themselves inside the tree, as if they were landlords checking up on the rental property. (Video: Checking Me Out) Often I’d catch them peering in at me as I went about my business on the other side of the glass walls. I must have passed inspection because eventually they began working in earnest on the refurbishment of one of the nests, with Lady Bird in charge of construction and Big Red as head of security.
And oh, was he a hunk. You couldn’t help but admire him as he energetically muscled his way through each day, the backyard bird version of an Under Armour model, a scarlet gemstone sparkling in the sun. And, in these stressful, dangerous times of the pandemic, I appreciated the impeccable standard he set for wearing a mask.
When I moved in, the 10-foot tall azalea was bare and it was easy to spot remnants of nests scattered amongst the dense tangle of branches. Frequent fliers. This time, however, the couple constructed a more spacious nest by refurbishing a sturdy nest they had used once before. Slender twigs were woven together over the course of some weeks until it assumed the size and shape of a Tibetan singing bowl. A soft, spongy lining in the form of two oversized maple leaves was imported and pressed into the gentle curve of the hopeful nest. The nursery was ready.
And so by the time my daughter Brittany and her three children whom I had not seen for five interminable Covid-19 months came to visit, the scene was set. Brittany was the first to spy the beautiful eggs, and there was great rejoicing. Nobody treasures babies quite like we do.
Drama in the Nursery
The expectant couple worked as a unit during the incubation period, typically between 11 and 13 days. The mother was exemplary, sitting upon the eggs hour after hour. The father-to-be checked in on her throughout the day and delivered all of her meals. I’d catch the flash of scarlet out of the corner of my eye and know that he was there with something to eat. But even she needed to stretch her wings, so every evening at around 6 o’clock she allowed herself a brief getaway. Without fail, no sooner had she taken off than dad made an appearance. It was remarkable. How did he know? How did he always know? Between the two of them the eggs were never unguarded.
Sunday, 21 June: could it be any more perfect? The babies began the hard work of hatching on Father’s Day. They were still chipping away at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. When Mama took a break I ran to the window. The sight of the little eggs rockin’ and rollin’ like Mexican jumping beans caused me to catch my breath in wonder. Meanwhile dad was a nervous wreck. I’d never seen him like this. His pinball-chaotic flight patterns seemed the avian version of pacing the waiting room.
At last the first bird broke on through to the other side. It was minuscule but it was alive. My heart swelled. Its tiny little body heaved with every breath, thrummed with every heartbeat. Before long there was another, a tiny little thing that seemed to be all beak, and it was stuck beneath the first bird. I cringed. I wanted to tell the first hatchling Move over, kid, your brother is struggling to breathe!
There they lay, two brand new little creatures now part of the planet Earth. Their skin was so translucent, I could see shadows of their internal organs. The hatchlings were monochromatically gray except for their beaks, which were yellow. Each beak was so wide it seemed to take up more space than their heads could allow for, and so comical in its grimly-set line, the hatchlings looked like grumpy old men. I was awed at how hard they worked just to breathe. Their heaving chests, thin-skinned and featherless, revealed hearts straining toward life. They reminded me of ET when he got emotional.
By 7:43 pm I was a little worried. All day the father had been flying in and out, in and out. I felt inept, like a receptionist in a labor & delivery waiting room who wasn’t doing a very good job. By the time darkness descended it was still two down, two to go. I went to bed feeling if not confident then certainly hopeful. I knew these parents would do right by their offspring. They were obviously devoted to each other and to their joint enterprise. The babies would get born. They would be fine.
The next morning I awakened to the sound of loud thumps. In my sleepy stupor this made no sense. But—there it was again: thump. Thump. I went into full-tilt boogie wide-awake mode. What was that sound and where was it coming from? When I realized that the sound was coming from the bird nursery I leaped out of bed and ran down the hall. What I saw made my blood run cold. A fox squirrel was inside the nursery and it was terrorizing the birds. (Video: Squirrel)
The parents were cheeping like crazy. Mama trembled in fear but she held her own. She spread her wings and compressed herself down into the nest, which made her look oddly flattened. Dad zoomed through the air like a crazed cartoon superhero in a dramatic attempt to draw the squirrel’s attention away from the nest. The damn squirrel didn’t give him a passing glance. I pounded on the window. The squirrel looked up for a split second, then went right back to harassing the stalwart mother. Evidently I wasn’t all that intimidating either. Unbelievable. Insulted by a squirrel? We’ll see about that.
I ran to the sliding glass door, pulled it open and charged into the atrium. I looked at Dad, he looked at me. “Good job, Dad,” I said. Still cheeping like mad, he flew to the roof where he could supervise the counterattack. Never leaving his family during the crisis, he was close enough to step in. Even so, right now he was going to give the human a shot at helping.
The squirrel took one look at me inside the nursery up close and personal and disappeared deep in the heart of the tree. Once there, he froze. Brown-on-brown, he was camouflaged so well it took me several minutes to locate him flattened onto one of the branches. Oh man, the things that came out of my mouth. The things that went through my mind! The nerve! Invading a nursery! Terrorizing the new mother! Making the father risk his very life to defend his family!
I shook the branches to dislodge the squirrel from his cowardly hiding spot.
Fine. I decided that I would drench him out of there.
I got out my lawn hose and turned the full force of the nozzle upon him.
Conflicting thoughts careened in my mind. Recoiling at the thought of hurting him, I backed off from doing anything more aggressive because I was mindful of the squirrel’s right to his own life. Even so, I knew I had to get him away from the nest and out of the nursery. I saw his eyes narrow with hatred but he held his ground—er, branch. I’m not sure if I saw or imagined seeing his claws tighten but, either way, he was riveted. It was me against him but I was advantaged by the most powerful motivation of all: motherly instinct. After a few minutes of this, he leaped from the tree and hit the ground running. He scurried to a corner in the atrium where the broad leaves of hosta plants provided him the perfect cover.
I’m a peacenik and a vegetarian because I honor and respect all life, so engaging in this kind of violence was, for me, deeply disturbing. No wonder I stood there shaking.
I went inside, found my phone and texted Brittany, who was back home in Ohio. Ever the reporter, she jumped right on it. Within minutes she had the facts. She sent screen shots about whether squirrels eat eggs and/or baby birds (yes), various methods of capture (a humane trap using peanut butter as a lure or luring it through an open door and then throwing a blanket over it and taking it outside). She made calls to local humane societies (sorry, they said, can’t help due to Covid-19 but good luck) and animal/pest control companies ($500+ for immediate help and we said thanks but no thanks).
While we were considering my options, the cardinals unleashed another strident cacophony of calls. Their cries were unlike anything I had ever heard. This was a whole new language. This was the vocabulary of anger, or anguish, or aggression. Or maybe all of the above.
A new sound was simultaneously also piercing the air. It was the squirrel, screeching as if he was an animal three times his size. His vocalizations were blood-curdling. What we were dealing with here was an insensate hunter on a murderous spree.
When the squirrel was successful in driving the mother from the nest, he wasted no time. I watched in horror as he bent over the nest in the classic squirrel pose and plunged his greedy forepaws inside. I pounded on the window, pounded and roared and felt fury for the unthinkable thing he was doing right in front of those parents. But he didn’t care. He didn’t even flinch. It was as if he was in a mad trance.
The sight of such violence and the sounds of those parents beside themselves with fear made me sick to my stomach but this was no time for puking. I stormed into the nursery and shook the branches until that damn thing understood I meant business. When he moved away from the nest, I again drenched him with my hose. He stared at me for as long as he could take it, then executed a flying leap that took him all the way to the hostas in one fell swoop.
Okay, so on an intellectual level I knew that this was the way of the world, and the squirrel was not evil, and these reprehensible behaviors are the product of instinct, and all that jazz. I realized that this kind of thing happens all the time in the natural world. It’s so treacherous out there, some 30% of all birds never survive beyond the hatchling phase. But this was different. This was my home and these were my birds because they had chosen me, and I am not and never will be okay with an assault on the helpless.
The big shocker of this drama was the unmistakable evidence of how much the bird parents were willing to sacrifice for their babies. They were facing unspeakable odds and yet they defended the nest with everything they had. Their courage was regal and it was noble. The ferocity, the teamwork, and the heart with which they fought for their offspring made me feel small in their presence.
Even more than all of that, I was struck by manifestations of great suffering. In fact, it broke my heart to see how upset the cardinals were. Their behavior as well as their voicings indicated a kind of reflexive selflessness and inconsolable worry that I, who raised and love my own children with all my heart and soul, recognized and related to. These parents were nothing short of heroic, and I was beginning to feel toward them a sense of awe. A sense of filial patriotism. I willingly signed my name and joined the ranks because it was a privilege and an honor to fight for them. With them.
As I stepped from the nursery back into my house, I bellowed the fiercest of warnings: “NOT ON MY WATCH, SQUIRREL.”
Right on cue, he crawled from his hiding place and, digging his claws into the walls, made an attempt to shimmy up the siding. He made it four or five feet up before he began sliding downward, a firefighter on the station pole, and then he loosened his grip and just enjoyed the ride. He dismounted with a graceful leap and scurried to the hosta hideout.
An uneasy quiet settled over the nursery. I looked at the clock: 12:20 pm. Dad hovered over the nursery, Mama hovered the nest, and I hovered the whole wretched situation.
Death in the Nursery
At 1:22 pm the mother left the nest and I seized the opportunity to peek inside.
The little one who was first to hatch was lying with its neck stretched to its fullest extent. Its head dangled over the edge of the nest. The fierce heart that had worked so valiantly to keep beating was motionless.
I stood there staring at death, and I wept for the life that never had a chance to be lived. Four minutes later the parents were keening. Oh my God, I thought, this is so sad.
There seemed to be faint signs of life in the little one that was second to hatch, but it was hard to tell given that he was still pinned beneath the body of his sibling. Dad came swooping in. He made his way to the nest, there to hover and flutter and fuss.
Was he trying to revive the babies? It seemed so. I wondered, had Mama sent for him as a last resort? Had she begged him to do the impossible? I had witnessed this very act of plaintive beseeching in my own family. My mother had looked to my father as the knight in shining armor who would rescue everyone and make everything all better. But there came a time when not even he could fix what was so very wrong. I watched Papa Cardinal and it took me back in time. I saw in the bird’s ministrations images of my own father bending over the caskets of two of his sons who died side-by-side in a head-on car collision. It was the first time I had seen my Dad so powerless. (Video: Father at the Ravaged Nest) Maybe if we as a culture showed on the nightly news the mourning, the wake, the funeral or the burial instead of mugshots and the scene of the crime we would get it through our collective skulls that every young life cut short has life-altering consequences for their loved ones and, ultimately, for us all.
Brittany texted: Oh, how super sad. Don’t you feel so damn invested?
Yes, I do.
It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon of a very, very long day during which things escalated between me and the squirrel. It was one-on-one now. Every time the rodent made a move for the tree, the birds let me know by cheeping and I went into action. I grabbed my cleaning duster, went into the nursery, and used the stick end to poke that little rascal down to the ground. My hope was that he would learn. Operant conditioning: pair a negative consequence with a behavior and the behavior should disappear.
In hindsight, I should have gone to a store to buy a humane trap. In my defense, I was afraid to leave the house. This was a time-sensitive thing because there were unhatched eggs in the nest. Also, in my further defense, I had been deceived by the hours of calm and quiet. So I stood guard. I put food out for the squirrel just in case the nest raids were inspired by hunger rather than blind bloodthirstiness, but even I didn’t believe that was the case.
At 8:35 in the evening and for the umpteenth time, I chased the rodent out of the tree. Brittany, who once raised by eye dropper a whole family of abandoned baby birds and who is compassionate about life in all forms, texted in response to this report: I might have killed him so you’re a better person than I. Lol.
At 9 o’clock the phone rang. It was Brittany. Her friend TJ had a great suggestion: put a ladder inside the nursery. If the squirrel was at all interested in getting out, he would be able to use the ladder to get a head start on a difficult climb. Bravissimo! Immediately I dragged a ladder from the garage, through the kitchen and out into the nursery. I set it on the step and leaned it against the house. The ladder didn’t reach to the halfway mark but, even so, I hoped for the best.
The next day I couldn’t bear to look inside the nest. I just couldn’t. It wasn’t long, however, before I heard the hideous screeches of the marauding squirrel. Doing battle brought me pretty close to him, and darned if it didn’t look like a totally different critter. This one looked bigger than the other. But maybe it was just me–the whole thing was getting almost unbearably stressful.
After using the duster to chase the squirrel out of the tree I decided enough was enough. It was time to make a more definitive stand. I got in the car and drove to a hardware store.
Now, a hardware store is not exactly the best place for someone like me whose lupus qualifies her as high-risk in the midst of a pandemic. Someone who follows quarantine/stay-at-home protocols to the T. But the need was great and I had pledged my honor so I donned my black mask (black in solidarity with Mr. Cardinal) and nitrile gloves, took a deep breath, and stepped through the threshold of a place where people who typically scoff at the notion of masks hang out.
It was a little bit terrifying. I had to ask an employee for help. Some random well-meaning, good-natured, slightly idiotic customer caught the gist of my inquiry and decided to trail me, as if he was my toddler, as the clerk led me through a labyrinth of aisles. I kept speeding up, whereupon the stranger would close the distance, and then I would again try to put more distance between us, until finally I turned and explained that I was auto-immune compromised and needed to keep proper social distancing. He looked at me as if I was speaking Gaelic.
At any rate, the store didn’t have any traps in stock. My groupie and I followed the clerk through the maze of aisles to the Help Desk, where she made some calls and located what I needed at a sister store ten miles away. And so off I went. Great. Two shopping nightmares instead of one. But I bought the trap, brought it home, studied the directions and set it up.
It was a long day. Every few hours I was called into action. Mama stuck to the nest, so I was unable to verify whether anything or anyone was inside. I knew that the first two hatchlings had died, either at the paws of the squirrel or as a result of the trauma roiling all around. As far as the remaining two eggs, there was no reason to believe that they had not been eaten, which naturally made me wonder if the poor mother’s mind had snapped. How else to explain her staunch determination to continue incubating?
The trap remained undisturbed throughout the day and night. So much for that.
Wednesday began with more heart-pounding horror—what a way to wake up. Dad was cheeping like crazy so I checked out the nursery but didn’t see anything; however, since his cries continued unabated, I took a closer look. I didn’t see a squirrel but I knew it was there; it would show itself soon enough. This new-life adventure which had once seemed so pure, so full of romance and promise and Walt Disney wonder had become stressful in ways that were getting me down. So as Mama stuck to her nest and dad and I battled the squirrel, I couldn’t help but question her sanity.
I removed the humane trap from the atrium because I was afraid one or more of the birds might be tempted by the peanut butter to hop inside, and they might injure their wings trying to escape. Wouldn’t that be just our luck?
And then—as always, in life and in fiction—came the turning point.
I was standing in the hallway just opposite the nest, lost in thought. The mother suddenly flew away for a quick break. I peeked in at the nest and what I saw made me gasp.
She WASN’T crazy!
Despite all odds, one egg had escaped the raids. Despite everything she had been through, Mama had stayed true to her motherly instincts and, in so doing, had brought new life into the world. (Video: The Lone Survivor)
When the squirrel returned I mounted whatever defense was necessary to ensure the safety of the lone survivor. But, thankfully, this was the last of the squirrel invasions. From the next day on, peace and tranquility reigned. The parents were able to focus on feeding and sheltering their one surviving offspring.
The world was not yet done with us, however. Friday night brought torrential rainstorms. Lightening, thunder, and a brutal rainfall pummeled the mother and newborn all night long. To be honest, I don’t know how the hatchling survived the punishing storm. I got up many times throughout the night to check on them. Each time I looked in on her, Mama was hunkered down, her wings spread wide to cover the entire nest. Each time, she was wide awake and looking toward the interior of the house, almost as if she knew I’d show up. Each time, she returned my gaze with equanimity. Exactly as she had conducted herself earlier, she was once again staunch and strong and resolute throughout a frightening ordeal.
Day broke and there came, as there always comes, an end to the clamor. The rain stopped, the menacing clouds moved on, and between a departure of the mother and an arrival of the father I was able to catch a glimpse of their baby peering with bright-eyed curiosity at the fresh, dewy world.
Sunday was another stormy day. Again, the mother was magnificent, protecting her baby through hours of punishing rains and fierce winds. The father did his part by bringing them food so that she never had to leave the nest, which meant that their baby was never exposed to the elements.
Each day the baby’s wee voice became a bit stronger. It grew from a teensy squeak to an adorable, musical little chirp, and I was entranced. I noticed that when the mother brought food the baby cheeped once or twice, a nice little acknowledgment of gratitude. It was a totally different story with the father. Whenever he fed the baby that little bird went wild. “That’s a Daddy’s girl,” I said to myself. A few days later my hunch was proven correct. On her last day in the nursery, the baby bird and I got a good long look at one another as she clung to a branch and I crouched opposite her from the other side of the window. Was she memorizing my face? I’ve read that birds get to know the faces of the humans in their habitats. At any rate, I was able to see that this little lucky one was her mother in miniature.
Meanwhile Ben, who knows that winter is my favorite season of the year, emailed me a Neil Young song I’d never heard before:
All her friends call her Little Wing
But she flies rings around them all
She comes to town when the children sing
And leaves them feathers if they fall
She leaves her feathers if they fall
Little Wing, don’t fly away
When the summer turns to fall
Don’t you know some people say
The winter is the best time of them all
Winter is the best of all
Little Wing. It’s perfect. The baby finally had a name.
On Sunday, 28 June, Ben was in the music room having his first cup of coffee while I set the table for brunch. We had placed Ben’s favorite chair so that he could look out over the zen-like moss garden we planted in the atrium. We heard the birds cheeping not as if danger was imminent but rather as if something a bit out of the ordinary was happening. In his morning reverie, Ben spotted movement as slight as a fallen leaf. He took a closer look and realized when it moved again that this was Little Wing, and she was hopping on the ground. We slid open the door, listened to the parents cheeping from the rooftop, and tried to understand their message. Had Little Wing fallen prematurely from the nest? (Video: Little Wing Grounded)
I fetched a step stool from the house and placed it next to the tree. I was a nervous wreck because Little Wing was really covering some territory in her hopping mania. This, combined with how difficult she was to see, blending in with the soil as she did, meant that I could easily step on her and———let’s not even go there. Anyway, I scooped her up in my hands.
I’ve done this before. A few years ago I saved a baby cardinal that had fallen from its nest down onto a sidewalk in the quaint but busy town square at Oberlin College. I held that bird for half an hour, talking to it all the while, as construction workers brought a ladder tall enough to reach the nest. Holding a creature that small and vulnerable, not to mention adorable, was an incredible experience. My motherly instincts were awakened to such a degree, I felt bereft when it was time to let it go.
So, just as I had done with the Oberlin bird, I talked soothingly to Little Wing while I carried her to the tree and placed her back in the nest. In an instant, she leaped right out and careened from one branch to another all the way down to the ground. She landed. She lifted her face and on it was an expression of saucy impudence.
I looked up at the parents. “You deal with her,” I said, throwing up my hands. “And good luck!”
Then Ben and I had brunch.
Baby bird was eight days old. First thing in the morning, as had become my habit, I checked the nest. It was empty. Half an hour later I heard the parents clamoring. I rushed to the nursery and saw rustling in three different sections of the tree. My heart pounded. Not another squirrel! I slid open the door, poked out my head and asked, as if they could answer, “What’s going on out here? Is everything okay?”
Just as they had done when I helped them fight off the squirrels, the parents flew out from somewhere inside the tree and took up perches on the roof, where they peered down at me. Sounds of further rustling continued from inside the tree. I approached with caution, following the trail of trembling leaves until I saw a brown thing. Was it a squirrel? Or one of the old nests? I wasn’t certain. I went back into the house and took up an observation post. If it was a squirrel a bloody ruckus would break out in no time.
Instead, the parents flew from the roof back into tree and resumed their cheeping. Then I saw the cause of the commotion: it was Little Wing. She was clinging to a branch about two-thirds the way up from the lowest branches. Mama and Dad fluttered about from positions deep within the belly of the tree. I followed their movements by the dancing leaves. They alighted here and there, all the while keeping up a steady stream of exhortations as they shook the branches. Their antics seemed designed to dislodge their offspring so that she would practice her flying, but she wasn’t having it. She just sat there looking alternately sullen and scared.
I dropped everything I was doing, pulled up a stool and watched, fascinated, as the parents cajoled, threatened, bribed, enjoined, urged, cheered for, pleaded with and otherwise would not leave their baby alone.
Little Wing was staying right where she was. She refused to leave her perch but neither would she climb back into the nest. Oh, my, I thought, I guess we’re too big for the crib. That may have been so but apparently she wasn’t a big fan of flying either. There she sat with an unattractive scowl on her face while her parents tried to shake her free of her comfort zone.
At long last Little Wing responded to her parents. Hesitantly and in tiny increments, she hopped her way up the tree. It was comical when her little head popped up over the top layer of leaves and she looked all around with her bright sparkly eyes as if she couldn’t believe she had done it. What a cutie. But then Mama ruined the treetop view with her insistence that they had to get through this flying lesson, and if she had to shake the tree or even get underneath those tiny little legs and push that reluctant flier up and out, well, then, so be it. (Video: Mama Won’t Take No for an Answer)
Dad positioned himself at the roof, (Video: Dad on the Roof) leaving Mama, who apparently was designated driver for a kid with no drive of her own, to shake down the thunder. Shake-and-cheep, shake-and-cheep. Mama was patient, persistent, and not to be ignored. Little Wing responded by fluffing her baby feathers. There, she seemed to say. Satisfied? She settled her wings and pondered.
Perhaps she was considering the complicated maneuver known as lift-off. I say this because, after thinking for a few minutes, she gave her feathers another shake, perhaps as a demonstration for the benefit of the folks that she was doing her best. Adorably, when she did this she looked awkward and uncoordinated, a little “off,” like a parachute with knotted suspension lines or an umbrella with broken ribs. She tried it again. And yet again, as if to get the feel of those feathers being somewhere other than tucked in tightly to her round little body.
Mama cheeps and shakes the branches.
Little Wing is open-beaked and nervous.
Dad calls from above.
Aaaaaaannndddd——lift-off! (Video: First Flight)
In the blink of an eye she was out of sight. She headed toward her father’s preferred roof-edge, the one that borders the back yard, the one directly above where I was seated in the music room. My heart ballooned with pride.
Then I realized that even though I could no longer see her I could hear her, and she sounded terrified. I saw in my peripheral vision the shadow of her body as she fluttered down, down, down, a tiny astronaut in the final phase of re-entry. She landed on the ground with a plop, and I cringed.
She stood as if stunned. She cheeped sweetly, pathetically. Cheep, cheep.
She tried to shake it off. She retreated to the nearby corner, a featherweight prizefighter between rounds, there to stand in the shadows for quite a while, as if considering her options. She got distracted by a low-riding insect, as if the ADD had kicked in. She followed the insect, then, distracted from her distraction, changed course to investigate the moss I planted a couple of months ago.
Mom and Dad went nuts. CHEEPCHEEPCHEEP! CHEEPCHEEPCHEEP!
Little Wing looked up. There was pathos in her wee voice. Cheepcheepcheep.
She regrouped. She hop-hop-hopped ever closer to the tree trunk. She turned toward the west wall, tilted her head, and, with Mom and Dad wildly cheering her on, she fluffed her downy feathers. She got some lift, waggled the wings, and made it all the way up onto the windowsill.
The crowd went wild.
She hung out on the windowsill for a couple of minutes before fluttering back to the ground and then she had had enough. With an attitude of studied deliberation she ignored the parents, plastered the mask of adolescent insouciance over her face, found her way back into the tree, and hunkered down to tend her wounded pride.
Still cheeping, Mom and Dad flew up, flew down, flew in, flew out, flew all around. But their baby’s silence communicated quite clearly her message: What. Ever.
The next day, the flying lessons continued. The industrious parents went through the same routine, energetically cajoling and encouraging, expending boundless energy in the demonstration of flight tutorials. To my human eyes, it looked like it was hard work. Meanwhile, I had the good sense to set aside all of my own work. I may have had a zillion things to do, but I chose instead to allow myself the luxury of learning. I pushed open the sliding glass door, set my stool on the threshold, and forgot about my world in favor of learning something about their world. I’m glad I did because by the following day, Little Wing was strong enough to make it over the wall, and the family moved out of the nursery for good.
Little Wings Matter
I missed them. Missed them terribly. The place felt so empty without their chirpy presence. Talk about empty-nest syndrome—this was the real deal.
Two mornings later I heard a familiar voice coming from the front yard. I rushed to a window. There in all his crimson glory was Little Wing’s father. I went out the front door and walked toward the slender tree on my right where he perched, singing a song. He stopped singing long enough to cock his head in that cute, flirtatious way he had, as if he was winking. I was startled by the rush of wings coming from my left. It was Mama. She landed right next to Dad. “No-one’s ever gonna believe this,” I said to myself.
I swear to God they were letting me know everything was good, they were fine, and thank you, we appreciate you. I talked to them. We had a nice conversation. Just when I thought the whole thing couldn’t get any more magical, Little Wing joined us. She looked me up and down, and I told her she was beautiful and my had she grown, and then she tried to fly from the small tree up to the roof but she kind of blew it. Her flight looked ungainly, like the junior varsity cheerleader who couldn’t nail her round-off, and I laughed. I told her to keep practicing. And then, together, the three of them flew away.
I ran inside and sent Ben an all-caps email extravagantly punctuated with an excessive number of exclamation marks. BEN! I JUST SAW THE FAMILY! LITTLE WING IS BEAUTIFUL–SHE’S GROWN SO MUCH! FLYING REAL WELL TOO!
As I write this memoir, the family is still together. Forsaking the cool comfort of my air conditioned home, I drag my laptop and books and all my meals outside where it may be hot and humid but where discomfort is irrelevant if I can catch a glimpse of my birds. And, from time to time, they do stop by. Dad, acting as the Secret Service agent, checks out the environment before he allows Mama to come splash in the birdbath. (Video: Mr. & Mrs. Wing Pay A Call)
So far, Little Wing has stayed mostly hidden in the trees that surround my backyard, but I can always hear her distinctive little voice. She’s quite a singer. (Video: Little Wing Sings Her Song)
Yesterday, Mr. and Mrs. Wing flew to the branch that hangs artfully over my backyard deck. They tilted their beautiful heads down toward me and we had a nice chat. I may sound like a nut-case but all of this is the honest truth.
And so what does all of this mean? What is my take-away for having gone through this nonsense? Well, my first take-away is breathless admiration for the parents. They did this together every single step of the way. They built the nest together. They hatched the eggs together. They battled marauding squirrels together. They endured severe weather and torrential downpours. They fed and watered the hatchlings. They mourned the three they lost even as they tended to the one who survived. They gave flying lessons. And now, they were mentoring their lone offspring until she was ready to live on her own.
Every single day, the father had been right there by the mother’s side. It took a while for me to realize that the reason he knew when she left the nest is that he was a sentry self-stationed on the rooftop, where he could keep a watchful eye on the family. And, just as noteworthy, Mama allowed him to be fully present throughout all the stages of bearing the hatchlings and raising the nestling to fledgling.
Their togetherness, their seamless partnership. It humbles me.
My second take-away is that it was all worth it. To be part of a life-saving endeavor? Absolutely. Make no mistake about it: when two birds decided to build a nest inside the open-air heart of my home, I never dreamed their presence would prove anything but entertaining. How could I know that to welcome them was to welcome both life and death? And yet I know in my heart of hearts: I’m glad they chose me. The reward was that they let me in. They bestowed their trust upon a very large thing that was not of their species and did not speak their language. As far as I’m concerned, to be considered trustworthy is as great an honor anyone can receive.
The third take-away was just exactly that: I received far more than I gave. These little creatures presented me with a precious opportunity to help, to make a difference, to do good, and to witness the emotional complexity of birds. I learned many things from them, including, much to my chagrin, that they were more invested in and committed to their offspring than some human parents.
In the end, it is not unreasonable to anticipate that many people will doubt the value of this tiny drama. I can’t blame them. I asked myself why I should care about a couple of birds. Why should any of us care?
Because empathy is an agent of change.
Because every time we choose to care about someone or something else, we participate in redirecting the planet.
Compassion gives us power to nudge the world in such a way that it spins differently toward the future: it continues on in a less destructive and therefore more desirable path. Here’s the way I see it: Every time the gong of empathy is sounded, that measure of kindness will reverberate endlessly along the wavelengths of our universe.
And so, if these two birds decide to once again repurpose my atrium and make of it a nursery, they are more than welcome. I’ll be there for them.
We’re all in this together.