The handoff took place at noon, inside our dim garage. Our neighbors, tense and talking fast, were in a hurry to get out of town.
They thrust the case of supplies at me. A syringe. A rubber heating pad. A bag of dog kibble. A container of crumbled hard-boiled egg and moist kibble. And then, to my son Gabe, they handed over the stainless steel bowl containing the baby bird.
It sat in a tangle of dried sphagnum moss commonly used for orchid-growing, which is one of our neighbors’ more conventional hobbies. It lifted its black head and blinked sleepily, as the family, talking over one another, rattled off instructions for caring for the wild bird they’d rescued. Feed the bird every ninety minutes, sunup to sundown but not overnight. Remove poop from the nest by hand; the bird defecates as soon as it eats. Mash the dog kibble and egg very small. Place bits into the gaping beak until the bird stops chirping. Tweezers or a syringe could work; otherwise, fingers would do. No water, though — the bird could drown.
I stared warily at our new houseguest. A few days ago it had been almost covered in white downy fluff, and much smaller. It had looked helpless in its makeshift nest. Now, with more dark, mottled feathers sprouted, and a white tufted Mohawk, it looked less like a fuzzy alien and more like an actual bird. What kind of bird, none of us knew. What I did know was that caring for this bird for a week would be harder than we thought.
The bird had not had a great start in the world. It had fallen twenty feet from a nest on a floodlight outside our neighbors’ house. They went up a ladder and replaced the bird. It tumbled out again the next day. Assuming it was injured or rejected, or both, the neighbors’ teenage daughter had brought it inside their house, safe from predators. She’d been hand-feeding it diligently, her dad pitching in as needed. But then their family had the opportunity for a beach house rental on Cape Cod, a rare treat in a pandemic summer. That’s why they had thought of the next best people to take over on short notice: my animal-loving son, and me, to supervise. Besides, we were already babysitting their chickens in their absence.
“So, um . . . what’s the long-term plan?” I faltered, while my son made cooing noises at the bird. “I was reading online, you can’t keep a wild bird in your house without a license. Maybe this should go to a wildlife rehabber.”
My neighbors agreed. They’d tried to find one. But it turns out, wildlife rehabbers are a bit like unicorns, especially approaching the Fourth of July weekend. Especially during a pandemic when lots of places are closed. Even in normal times, there are not many rehabbers listed on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife website who will take in songbirds. Most of those listed have specialties like raptors or bats. Almost all rehabbers are at capacity and only take in clearly injured birds.
This bird looked pretty vigorous, shifting around in the moss. The slight upturn of its beak seemed like a smirk.
“Do you think it might want to fly soon?” I asked.
“If it does, you could just build it a little outdoor structure for it to move around in,” my neighbor suggested. “With some wood and mesh.”
I blinked. Ah. Sure. Let me just gather some wood and mesh and build something. In between the hourly feedings from sunup to sundown. No problem. I’ll just stay tethered to your bird all week. You guys go have fun at the beach.
Gushing thank-yous, backing hurriedly out of our driveway, the neighbors headed off for vacation. Their car zoomed away.
Gabe and I brought the bird and supplies upstairs to the guest room. I closed the door firmly to keep out the cat. How had I let myself get strong-armed into this complicated caregiving situation? Why did people always think that just because I worked from home — even before Covid days — I was endlessly available to look after their plants, their chickens, their children, their dogs, their wild birds that have fallen from nests?
Gabe set up a card table in a dim corner. Grown birds flitted in the treetop outside the window, freely making their way to and from our feeders. Our little guest cocked its head. I closed the window and lowered the shade so it wouldn’t be jealous.
The bird closed first one eye, then the other, settling in for a nap.
As I watched Gabe fuss with the bird’s guest accommodations, I marveled at his lengthening limbs, the new angles in his face. He’d reached the edge of adolescence, having recently turned thirteen, and suddenly seemed so capable, as he plugged in the heating pad and placed the bird bowl on top. He arranged the food and feeding supplies, including tweezers and toothpicks if the syringe didn’t work. Maybe this was a good project for him. Covid had canceled his normal summer plans. Maybe it was a good project for me, too. Saving one small thing, after so much loss in the world, had a distinct appeal.
We watched the bird breathe.
My breath caught in my throat. Suddenly this creature seemed so very fragile. Our caregiving efforts could fail. Or nature could take its course, and the bird would die on our watch. I didn’t think I could handle one more sad outcome. Tears burned. But I blinked them away. Don’t bond with the bird, I instructed myself. We have to get it into more capable hands.
Speaking softly while the bird snoozed, I showed Gabe the Massachusetts Department of Wildlife website. “Rehabbing birds is a delicate thing,” I explained. “We’re not trained. And this site says not to feed baby birds or bring them into your house. Our neighbors meant well, but this is like kidnapping. It’s against the law.”
His eyes widened. “Will we be arrested?”
“Well, probably not,” I admitted. It was hard to picture U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents showing up at our door. Still, I like to think of myself as a law-abiding citizen.
Gabe nodded, taking this in. “We should keep trying to find a rehabber,” he said quietly. “I mean, I want to keep it, but I know we should do whatever’s best for the bird.”
I hugged him. “Great. I’ll keep calling around.”
We didn’t have time to discuss it further. The bird gaped its yellow beak and chirped urgently.
“Oh my God! It’s hungry! Get the food!” I cried, helplessly waving my hands around.
Gabe calmly took tiny crumbles of moistened dog food and egg and dropped them into the yellow beak. The bird ate several drops of food, then wiggled and pooped. Gabe unflinchingly scooped the poop out and threw it away. He tenderly fluffed the moss around the bird.
The bird closed its eyes and went back to sleep. The soft breeze from the air-conditioning stirred its feathers and down.
My son’s chest puffed a little. “See? This is easy.”
“Ten feedings a day until we can turn it over to a rehabber,” I reminded him. “I might not be able to get anyone until Monday. That’s two whole days away. That’s twenty feedings.”
“Mom. I can do this.”
“Okay,” I said. I chewed my lip. “But I still think we need advice or help sooner.” And suddenly, I knew just whom to call.
Somewhere deep in the woods not far from our house lives renowned bird artist and expert David Sibley. His field guides to birds are among the most revered books for birders. His illustrations are scientifically detailed works of art; we have identified all of our regular backyard visitors thanks to Sibley’s work. Gabe and I looked through one of his most recent guides, and guessed that we might have a robin.
If I stumbled down enough side roads I might have found David Sibley eventually. He’s an almost-neighbor who I know is out there: not visible but in calling distance, like a red-tailed hawk, or an eagle. He swoops in and leaves autographed copies of his books in our local bookstore, but I’ve never heard of local friends boasting they had a Sibley sighting at the local market. He’s a low-profile celebrity, well-known to serious birders and probably amateur birdwatchers like us. Anyway, I was briefly tempted to track him down and leave our baby bird at his front door, like a foundling. To ring the bell and run. Much like I wanted to leave my infant son with the renowned sleep expert Richard Ferber in a nearby town, when attempting to sleep train and the effort felt overwhelming.
But finding David Sibley and begging him to take over was not a practical plan. Instead, I sought out the closest approximation I could think of: Greg, a young man in our neighborhood who had studied ornithology in college. He was now in graduate school. Covid had closed down his campus last spring. So he was living — like many twentysomethings I know — back in the nest, quarantining with parents.
His mother gave me his phone number. Greg was actually back in the lab for his graduate program this week, but would happily be on call for our project.
I texted Greg the photos of the makeshift nest on the heating pad, and told him about the feeding schedule. Greg confirmed the setup was perfect, though we might need to feed a bit more often — maybe more like every forty-five minutes. Twice as often as our neighbors had instructed us.
Oh. Okay. We’ll just feed it every forty-five minutes. No problem. An image flashed into my mind: our unencumbered neighbors frolicking in the waves on a Chatham beach.
Greg also confirmed our suspicion from the Sibley guide, and identified the bird as an American robin. He texted a link to an infographic with a two-week growth model. The proportion of feathers to down suggested that the robin was eleven or twelve days old.
They leave the nest at day thirteen or fourteen.
This was welcome news. We’d simply open the window and let it go! Assuming the bird was uninjured, our problem would soon be solved.
But Greg’s next text message caused a fresh surge of anxiety.
So what is the plan, post-fledging?
Plan? I texted back. What do you mean?
A fledgling bird, it turns out, is an avian adolescent. And just as we don’t send thirteen-year-olds into the world to fend for themselves, robin parents continue to feed the baby for a couple of weeks after fledging. Not only that, fledglings do not return to the nest once they leave it. They move to a new, nearby roost with the parents. They hop around and gradually learn to use their wings and fly, which can take up to a week. In a month, they become proficient flyers with full-grown wings. Meanwhile, the parents — usually the dads — feed them and teach them valuable social skills, including how to identify bird calls that are critical to their survival.
I felt the floor fall away. Suddenly feeding by hand twenty times a day sounded relatively easy. Fledgling care was a whole different level of hard. I spent the next hour frantically googling. I read some rare accounts of people who’d raised fledglings and released them, with limited success after days of devoted care.
Just feed it some mealworms if you can’t find real ones, but cutting up some real earthworms is better. Be sure to crush the mealworm heads. Just put out some bugs in dishes and teach it to feed itself. Just teach it to forage. Just continue to make sure it’s eating a couple of times an hour since it’s spending a lot of energy growing its wings and muscles.
The bird shifted in its bowl, startling me out of my research. It half-stood for a moment, then settled back down. It gaped for food and chirped. We were not yet at the forty-five minute mark, but it was clearly hungry. This job was definitely outside our pay grade. Fingers fumbling, I texted my on-call ornithologist once more.
So what are the signs it’s getting ready to fledge?
Hopping, Greg texted back. Moving its wings a lot. Getting in and out of the bowl. I take it you’re keeping it outside?
No. Inside. Guest room.
Oh OK. Good, he wrote. That way when it starts to fly, you’ll be able to find it.
I should have been relieved he wasn’t reporting us to the authorities for keeping it inside. But I was now more anxious. This bird was going to have a whole different set of needs very soon. And this realization reminded me of times when I’d suddenly noticed my baby boy was more toddler than baby, outgrowing the car seat or the bouncy chair, and I hadn’t yet bought the next wave of gear or finished childproofing the house. Or that sudden shock of clothes not fitting. A beloved toy no longer serving its purpose. That feeling of wait, wait — I’m not ready! — followed by rapid preparations, and settling into the next phase, adapting to new needs, providing for my child in a whole new way.
The bird’s track record for leaping wasn’t great, so Gabe and I laid blankets and towels on the floor in case the bird should try to launch from the card table. But my heart felt heavy. I knew full well we could not possibly provide for a fledgling, filling in for what its parents would be doing in the wild. There was even a danger the bird would imprint on us and no longer recognize its own kind.
We hadn’t just taken in a baby bird. We’d taken in a teen bird.
And a problem.
Our neighbors were right. No wildlife rehabbers were answering phones on the Fourth of July, and the Tufts University Wildlife Clinic — the most reputable operation in our area — was closed.
Late in the afternoon, Gabe and I went to the neighbors’ yard to feed chickens and to inspect the original nest. We wanted to see how the siblings were doing.
More internet research indicated we could rig a nest close to the original nest, if the parents were still in the picture, and they might take over the feeding. Our neighbors had missed that chance, understandably assuming the bird was being rejected. I’m sure we would have assumed the same.
But robins, it turns out, are vigilant, hard-working parents. They might have three broods in a season, but only about 40% of their eggs will hatch, and only 25% of their fledged offspring will survive until the fall. Yet robin parents will do all they can to maximize every chance of success. If the bird is alive and visible, the parents will likely continue to care for it.
If this particular robin’s parents had done anything wrong, it wasn’t due to neglect. It was more likely a bad real estate situation. The nest was perched precariously atop the floodlight, over twenty feet off the ground, with no ledge and no barriers around it, and not even a tree to break a fall. Probably the birds had grown and filled the nest, and our bird had fallen. Twice. Replacing the bird a third time could cause even more harm and scare the siblings, Greg cautioned. We could see the two siblings, their yellow beaks open, their growing bodies filling the nest to capacity.
Suddenly, a shadow passed overhead. Gabe and I stepped back, observing in awe as an adult robin swooped in and fed the siblings. Back and forth it went, worms dangling from its beak, while the two birds in the nest twittered with excitement. Another adult robin looked on from a nearby tree. This family was still functional. We just happened to have the missing piece.
We ran back to our house and got the bird bowl. We put it on a short stepladder beneath the original nest.
“There’s your baby! Feed your baby!” we coaxed the adult robin when it swooped by for the next feeding, a mere twenty minutes later.
The parent continued to swoop in and out, ignoring the chirping bird, focusing on the siblings. We let it go hungry for one feeding, waiting and hoping, before Gabe fed it mashed dog food himself and we brought it back to our house. “Maybe the neighbors were right,” said Gabe. “This bird’s parents didn’t want it.”
Sundown — and an end to the frequent feedings — couldn’t come fast enough. I lowered the shade. I tiptoed backwards out of the room, as I used to do when Gabe was a baby, mindful of every floor creak that could wake my light sleeper.
Our neighbors had said to just start feeding the bird whenever we got up in the morning. But I set my alarm for 5:30. We’d seen such frequent feedings of the siblings that afternoon, I knew the bird would be hungry. I volunteered for the first two shifts, and Gabe promised he’d do the rest.
Very early the next morning, I paused with my hand on the doorknob. The room seemed eerily quiet. I dreaded opening the door. Much as I wanted relief from this growing problem we had on our hands, I didn’t want to bury a bird. I suddenly had a profound fear that the bird didn’t make it through the night.
Life felt so fragile, even precarious, lately. Hundreds of thousands of people were dying of this virus, often with little warning. People without the virus died abruptly, too. A dear friend of mine had quite suddenly lost her son. Her handsome, healthy, twenty-six-year-old adult child came home in March, along with her other two grown children, to quarantine in the family home. In June, he had a sudden health issue. He held on to life for a week, then passed.
My friend and her husband were excellent parents, the family extremely close-knit. They’d provided for their children, educated them, and done all the right things. During a public health crisis, they’d taken them all back in to keep everybody safe. That a random tragedy could strike this way simply made no sense.
I grieved with my friend every day. I wanted to help her. I could not do more than reach out by email and send a condolence card. Covid, cruelly, made a memorial service impossible. It also took away the basic comforts I could provide. I could not sit with her, hug her, or help her with household tasks. I did not want to burden her with obligations to reply to my check-ins, either. At the same time, I did not want to leave her alone in her grief. All I could do was send brief, occasional emails and texts, like bird calls: I am here for you. I am here. I am here. I rarely heard a response. It was as if my friend had vanished into dark woods, into a grief so deep I could not find her.
Standing with my hand on the guest room doorknob, unable to open that door, I worried my caregiving inclinations might inadvertently harm. I might have overfed the bird. I might have shined the light of the world too brightly at a grieving friend who wasn’t yet ready to face it. How best to approach someone in a fragile state, someone whose world has been upended — whether because they’ve fallen, or because their baby has? How much to intervene? Why couldn’t I back off and let things be?
I could always tell myself stories to justify my efforts. The bird was abandoned. The friend wants comfort. But the stories had more to do with me. With my own fear of change and loss.
I turned the knob. I opened the door. I opened my eyes.
The bird chirped. Its yellow beak opened wide as it saw me and clamored for food. My heart pounding, I hurried to it with my freshly prepared egg-and-kibble food, and fed it. Half the food dropped into the nest; I lacked my son’s nimble dexterity. But some got in, and eventually the bird pooped and settled into the nest again, apparently satisfied.
So was I. I hadn’t failed this bird. It survived the night, and I brought it some comfort.
As I wiped the table, something white caught my eye. Bird poop. Not in the bowl, but outside of it, on the heating pad, a few inches away. This bird had at some point hopped out of the bowl and gotten back in.
We had even less time than I had thought.
Which is true not just of birds, I suppose, but of life itself.
After two more bird feedings and a human breakfast (skipping our own usual fare of scrambled eggs, which suddenly lacked appeal), Gabe and I made a decision. We would take the bird back to its original home to keep an eye on the siblings. If our bird was ready to fledge, the siblings would be too. They could fledge together. They could be reunited on the ground, and the parents could take over.
We took the bird bowl and carried it across the street, slowly and carefully, until a giant hornet pursued us and we had to pick up the pace.
In our neighbors’ yard, still shaking from the close brush with the hornet, we put the bowl on the small step stool beneath the original nest and walked back about ten feet.
The fledgling looked around, a soft breeze rifling the last little tufts of white down that poked up through dark feathers. His breast was more spotted now, and faintly brownish red. Was he looking for us? For me — his mom now? I swallowed hard. It was hard to ignore those plaintive peeps. But if we continued to hover too close, the real parents would not approach.
There was a lot of rustling and chirping going on in the original nest far above him. Excitement in the air.
While we waited for a parent, I worked the phone. If Operation Robin Reunion failed, this bird had to leave our house. We could not care for the bird once it fledged.
I finally reached someone at the Massachusetts Audubon Society. She informed me, in a clipped tone, that they do not take in birds, and, furthermore, it’s against the law to have a wild bird in your home. “It needs to go to a rehabber,” the woman informed me. She suggested the same websites I’d already looked at. “But we’ve all done it,” she added, in a softer tone. “We’ve all taken in a helpless robin and tried to do our best for it. Unfortunately, it usually doesn’t work out the way we hoped. I wish you all the luck with your bird.”
The sun burned hotter. The robin parents had not yet appeared. Did something happen to them?
The vibrating phone in my hand startled me; I nearly dropped it. “H-hello?”
“This is the Tufts Wildlife Clinic. We got your message. About the bird.”
Relief coursed through my veins. Tufts! Surely they would help.
I told them all about the bird. My temporary joy ebbed when the administrator confirmed that rehabbers for songbirds were hard to find, and that their clinic only took in injured birds. Our bird didn’t sound injured. “If you truly can’t find anyone, you can bring it here,” she relented. “But we’re likely to euthanize it even if it’s healthy, if no one can take it in.” She proceeded to give instructions on how to place the bird in a box for transportation.
I ended the call with a heavy heart. Someone would take the bird off our hands. That was what I wanted. Right? This was the best possible outcome of a bad situation. But after all this valiant effort, somehow it didn’t feel right.
“I don’t think the parents are coming,” Gabe said with a sigh. He fed it a bit more dog kibble, then backed away again.
The bird still seemed restless, not inclined to nap as it usually would after eating. It was moving. Moving a lot.
Suddenly the bird jumped out of the bowl.
Gabe and I rushed to it, arms outstretched.
The bird shook its feathers and lifted its head. Then it leaped onto the ground, eluding us.
Gabe and I dropped to the ground as well.
It hobbled a bit, then began to hop. Slowly, at first, then faster, changing directions. On sturdy legs.
We followed on hands and knees, still keeping a careful distance, but not daring to let it out of our sight.
The robin parents returned, one of them feeding the siblings in the nest above, ignoring the lost baby on the ground.
“Maybe he fledged too soon,” I whispered.
“But he’s so strong,” Gabe whispered back. “Oh, no! Come back!” he then cried, as the bird headed into a blueberry bush, away from the nest area, out of the sightlines of the flying parents.
Gabe got up and ran in that direction. He followed the bird into the bushes. I started to protest — don’t scare him! — but bit my tongue.
Moments later, he emerged with the flapping bird in his hands. He carried it gently to the middle of the lawn, directly beneath the parents’ flight pattern to and from the nest. “They need to see him,” he said.
The fledgling looked so tiny and lost in that vast expanse of lawn. I hardly dared to look away in case I lost sight of the speck of dark brown.
Back and forth the parents swooped, feeding the two siblings still in the nest.
Our bird, softly, then more insistently, began to chirp.
An airplane roared overhead, drowning out its pleas.
I buried my face in my hands. Having an adult bird see or hear the fledgling, and connect with it, seemed as remote a possibility as the SpaceX shuttle docking with the international space station, a miracle of precision planning and timing and some degree of luck.
And yet, that miracle had indeed happened a few weeks before. Why not hold on to hope that these birds, too, would align?
The plane passed. The fledgling continued to chirp, louder now, insistent. I am here. I am here. I am here.
I looked up again. A shadow fell on the ground.
A bird. A large, dark robin. One of the parents.
It landed on the lawn about ten feet from the fledgling, tilting its head.
Gabe and I clutched each other’s arms and watched, hardly daring to breathe.
The adult robin ducked its head and pulled a worm from the earth. It hopped to the peeping fledgling. Closer. Closer.
The fledgling hopped to the adult. It gaped its beak.
The adult robin ducked its head almost entirely into the fledgling’s beak and fed it the entire worm.
I texted Greg, my fingers shaking. It’s happening! I snapped a picture of the next worm-insertion, as proof.
His response came fast. That’s amazing!
The parent found several more worms, which the fledgling eagerly consumed, twittering with excitement between each feeding. Then the parent flew off, and the fledgling hopped to a shady patch of daylilies and settled into the grass. I also sent pictures of the whole sequence to our neighbors who interrupted their Cape Cod fun to respond with virtual cheers and smiley emojis.
I turned to Gabe. “Wasn’t that incredible?”
He nodded, but scratched his bug bites. “Can I go back home now?”
I frowned. “You should stay and see this through,” I said.
“I did. We’re done. It worked,” he said. “And all my friends are online.”
So I let him go, watching his loping gait as he ran back across the street, eager to escape to the virtual world that enticed him. More and more I would be seeing this view of him. His back to me, running off. Fledging. Then flight.
I, the original reluctant foster bird parent, remained in the neighbors’ backyard, rooted to the spot, baking in the sun. I felt morally incapable of leaving. Or emotionally incapable. I just wanted to be sure it wasn’t just a one-off feeding, a pity handout, and that the parent bird was really going to take over.
I nodded off in a plastic chair, until a chirping bird woke me. The fledgling! It was back on the lawn, much farther than where we’d originally placed it. In the shade. Would the parents see it again?
I scanned the surrounding trees for signs of the adult robins. The trees were still. No birds sang. I followed the fledgling softly, the container of dog food in hand.
The fledgling gave me what felt like a passing glance, but its attention was elsewhere, scanning, looking for the real parent.
I held out a pinch of food. The bird paused. Then it peeped and hopped away from me. This was a good thing, I reminded myself. A bird imprinted on humans would not likely survive. But if the parents didn’t appear again, what were its odds of survival?
I texted Greg an update. So now what?
Just keep your eye on it throughout the day, he texted back. The parents should continue to feed it. The siblings should fledge soon. And then the parents should take everyone to a safe space for the night.
What if they don’t? I asked.
You can just try to catch it and take it inside again.
As I was contemplating how to recapture a fledged bird that no longer wanted my offerings, and the ethics of driving it to Tufts at this point, a rustling of wings startled me.
A parent was back, a worm in its beak. The fledgling hopped straight to it. Mealtime number two had commenced. I watched in rapt attention. Only after I saw the fledgling hop back to the daylilies, belly full, did I feel I could leave.
I returned to the yard multiple times throughout the day to check up on the robin family. When Gabe came with me on one check-up visit, he pointed to the nest and gasped. Bits of straw hung over the floodlights. No little brown heads or yellow beaks were visible.
Sometime during the day the siblings had fledged too. We’d missed the big event. But where were they? Our bird appeared to be the only one on the lawn, and still one of the parents kept watch, perching on nearby trees, then responding to its cries for food. Had the siblings survived the drop to the ground, and managed to hop to safety? Or had a hawk swooped in before they even had a chance?
I returned to the yard with binoculars and settled into the neighbors’ treehouse, scanning for the siblings. No luck.
After dinner, I returned to the treehouse one last time, and could not find the siblings nor our fledgling. The sun was dipping low, turning the tops of the trees to gold, but clouds were fast approaching. My weather app warned of a storm. High winds, driving rain. If I were going to take it in for a night, this would be the time.
I scanned every tree ringing the lawn until I saw the fledgling. It was in a slender pine tree, about two feet off the ground. Already it had grown strong enough to flutter up and perch upon a branch. The new roost. The parents had found shelter.
The parent robin swooped on to the branch and fed it. I let out a long breath, and wished them well. I lowered the binoculars, climbed down from the treehouse, fed the chickens, and headed home.
That should have been the poetic end of the story. But in fact I spent much of the next several days camped out in the neighbors yard with binoculars. Gabe went back to his friends and his video games, the novelty having worn off, his work complete. For him, the story had a happy ending: the bird returned to its parents. I felt compelled to continue to watch, to monitor, to hover. I caught glimpses of it at times, no longer on the lawn, but deeper in the woods, higher up in trees, still being fed. I was sure I heard other peeps as well, which I hoped were the siblings.
My world, already shrunk by the pandemic and our cloistered existence, shrunk even smaller to the size of what I could view through my binoculars. I couldn’t leave this bird. I couldn’t leave this story. I wanted the assurance of a happy ending. Even by the third day, when I couldn’t see the birds at all — when I could only hear the distant birdsong in the woods — I trained my lenses on the thickets of trees, hoping for a flap of feathers, for a rush of motion. Okay, I’ll admit it — for a nod of recognition. A lingering gaze as if to thank me. A real Disney ending.
None of that happened. The neighbors eventually returned from the Cape, a bit early, looking surprised — and, frankly, amused — to see me exiting their yard with my binoculars in hand, twigs and leaves hanging off my clothes and hair. That put an end to my frequent yard visits. The bird was not mine. I had to let go.
Still, in the weeks and months since then, I’ve stopped to look at every robin in our street, wondering if it is our fledgling, wishing I had some confirmation that it is thriving in the world. I would like to think that it is. Robins are amazing parents, persisting despite the slim odds of their eggs hatching, their babies fledging, their fledglings surviving.
And people are amazing parents too, as well as great launchers of beginnings. We launch children, stories, space shuttles, all kinds of hopeful endeavors into the world, despite not knowing the endings.
Despite efforts and good intentions, though, not all fledglings make it. Some fall, no matter how hard their parents try, no matter how much help is offered.
Reuniting the bird with its family felt satisfying, but did nothing to change my friend’s situation, the loss of her beautiful boy. It did not restore any sense of balance to the universe. What it did do was help me better understand the reality of loss. Loss happens. It happens all the time. Sometimes there’s simply nothing we can do. There’s often no explanation.
Now the summer birds that remain are busy, eating and getting stronger, preparing for fall migrations. Flocks of birds startle me lately, with their sudden movements and sounds and their exquisite beauty. So fragile yet so strong. I take time to watch them in a way I never did before.
Similarly, I watch older kids — high school and college kids, graduate students, all those in Generation Z who are flying a bit ahead of my son. Gabe will be flying in that V-formation with them in a scant few years. Where will they all be going? What kind of world will they enter? How will they confront this enduring virus, or climate change, or other dangers to come? Many of these fledglings reversed migration and came home; can they launch again? Have we taught them enough? Will they know where to find food, where to shelter, how to build, and our calls?
I am here. I am here. I am here.
Even though I don’t know the final outcome for our bird fledgling’s new life, I marvel at the incredible relay race we got to be a part of in its launch: from our good-Samaritan neighbors, to our young ornithologist friend, to the original bird parents, all of us passing the baton, sharing the load, trying to give it a shot.
If all we gave to the bird were opportunities for fresh worm meals, and sunlight, and a soft breeze in its feathers, and a safe perch in a pine, and the chance to grow and stretch its wings and learn to fly a little, even if just for a few days, then that is already a story with a happy ending.
Maybe that’s what parenting is. We do the best that we can, in the time that we have, not knowing the end result.
Maybe that’s what life is too. Appreciating all the happy endings we can find. Then releasing. Then letting them go.
Image: Photo supplied by the author.