Friday night last week, our 6 month old puppy Mater was in the backyard acting weird. I saw him looking up at one of our trees going ape shit. He actually tried to climb a 6 foot tall wood fence to get closer. Because we live in a new neighborhood with new trees, we have no normal suburban wildlife (like squirrels) so I didn’t really think much about it and went on with my evening.
The next (beautiful!) day, we spent the entire day doing yardwork. As I was cleaning up the back corner of the yard, I remembered Mater’s behavior and decided to take a look. Sure enough, right at eye level there was a nest with two little baby birds looking at me with their beaks wide open. I stared for a few minutes and then realized that their mom and dad were in my neighbor’s tree watching me and those chicks looked hungry, so I left.
I know absolutely nothing about birds. (I think they may be Western Meadowlarks or Lesser Goldfinches but I could be wrong.) But, man, their behavior was so interesting to me. All weekend I was drawn to this little bird family. It ends up there were not two but four. And they were growing by the day!
It’s no surprise, really, because that mommy and daddy bird were busy! Their routine was something like this: Mom & Dad (making assumptions here…since I know nothing about birds I’m assuming they are in a heterosexual relationship…no clue if that’s right) fly into the area together and make a few circles around the tree where the nest is. They’re checking out the territory and making sure everything is ok. They’re very vocal. One (I like to say Mom but I really don’t know) swoops into the tree to a chorus of baby chirps while Dad hangs out in a high location nearby, presumably keeping watch. Then once Mom is done, they switch places and Dad feeds the babies. The chicks are instantly calmed and Mom and Dad fly away noisily. The chicks curl up together and take a nap and the cycle starts all over again.
D, our 5 year old, witnessed this routine as well and he had a lot of questions and since he still believes that I know everything I narrated the show to the best of my abilities. What was so remarkable, to both of us, really, was how familiar this pattern of parent/child behavior was. Now, if I’m remembering the one day I didn’t cut freshman year biology correctly, the feeding is done when the Mom and Dad regurgitate whatever they found on their hunting expedition for the babies to eat. I’ve never done that, though I did chew food for my kids a few times when they were just starting to eat solids. I’m also pretty sure that if I had left my kids all by themselves in their cribs when they were days old, CPS would have been over to visit with a quickness. But all-in-all observing their behavior was yet another reminder of how natural parenting is for many animals, humans included.
It reminded me of an incident that happened the summer before we moved from DC to California, when I was about 7 months pregnant with B. We had a little townhouse with a little yard and in it we had a blue tarp. We went to clean up the yard before we put the house on the market and realized a mouse (or rat?) had made the tarp its home. We scared it away but realized a few minutes later that there was an entire litter of rodents left behind. I called the local animal services people and the woman on the phone said, “Rodents are mammals. Mammal mothers don’t abandon their babies. She’ll be back.” I burst into tears. The sappy, can’t explain to your husband when he asks what’s wrong kind. (Hey, I was pregnant. I blame it on the hormones.)
My point is that motherhood, parenthood, is not just about procreation. It’s about so much more than that, for wild animals and humans alike. It’s about the things that Mom and Dad bird did to put food in their kids’ bellies. It’s about the pain that we feel when our kids are hurting. The sacrifices we make to keep a roof over their head (or a nest under their bum, as the case may be). And the heartbreak we go through when something goes terribly wrong.
I was so drawn to those four chicks over the past four days that my heart broke a little when I came home this evening and the nest was empty. Of course, D and I celebrated that they had grown up and moved away, lest I discourage him from doing the same thing some day. I just hope they come back to visit and know that when they do, they’ll find their bedroom just as they left it.