Are parent birds stressed by their duties or anxious to be done with their fledgling peeps?
One Saturday morning this June, during yoga, my second class of the day, over the heads—or rumps actually as they were in downward facing dog—of my students I saw a small songbird perched on the streetlamp outside the studio. The fact that the bird was on the streetlamp at eye-level to my second-floor studio meant both that it was two stories in the air and that it flew there under its own power. Nonetheless, every time a bird that looked to be the same variety swept by, the bird I was watching flapped its wings. Was it frantic or hopeful? “Feed me,” it seemed to be saying, as were so many of the fledglings spotted about on the grass in my back yard. They were in that perilous moment between being taken care of and birdy adulthood when they will fend for themselves.
Hunting for food is not, in birds, a straight-up instinct. I learned this from a man wearing a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) shirt and a photographer stationed on the bike path not far from the studio a couple of summers ago. They were watching and taking video of a young great horned owl, wide awake in the early evening, who was taking swipes at a much smaller bird that was swooping around the owl. “They almost look like they’re playing,” I whispered.
“In a way, they are,” explained the man from the DNR in hushed tones. “The owl isn’t disturbed by the bird; he’s just intrigued. And he probably isn’t too hungry yet … his parents will have fed him enough so that he can survive for days eating nothing.”
“So, he’s not trying to catch the little bird?”
“Not yet. He doesn’t yet know he can. He’ll learn to, though. Play becomes prey.”
It’s different, I think, from the way humans learn to provide food for ourselves. Much of what we do is imitate the caregivers who raise and feed us. And, too, we are often driven by hunger to seek food, sometimes any food. But playing with it is the providence of toddlers who are learning how to eat, not how to obtain food.
Even so, the parallels from the bird world to my own fledglings are impossible to ignore. Recently graduated Seventeen has a bright future ahead, the college of his choice to begin in the fall, and a kind of invincibility that I envy. His sister, newly Fourteen, doesn’t seem far behind to me. Each of them is fully capable of building a meal from the contents of the refrigerator and pantry, and Seventeen is working this summer at our favorite grocery store. Instead of making my weekly treks to stock up, I hand him a list and he brings home every single thing on it with a gratifying attention to detail and one mystery item he’s excited to share.
Still, when they’re really hungry they look straight to me. Seventeen has perfected a kind of big-eyed look that we both know is a put on and nevertheless melts my heart into scrambling eggs for his breakfast or heating up leftovers at lunchtime. Fourteen takes a different tact: “There’s nothing for lunch,” she’ll assert, often around three or four on a summer afternoon. Reminding her that lunchtime has long since passed does little. Instead I leave off what I’m doing, cut up an apple, get out other things I know she likes, and point out options.
I wonder, at such moments, how the bird parents feel. I know that I am impossibly torn. Celebrating Seventeen’s high school graduation and watching him get ready for his next chapter, I could not be more proud. Giving in with a smile to his pathetic feed-me face, I’m not-so-secretly glad I can keep him close a little while longer. Lying on Fourteen’s bed while she figures out just how to register for Silver Cord hours (her high school’s program to encourage volunteerism), I’m happy for her to lead the way, but glad too when I can show her she’s flown by the pertinent screen. Are parent birds stressed by their duties or anxious to be done with their fledgling peeps? When mine were really little, I did find feeding them somewhat stressful. But we outgrew that together. Today their physical care is a kind of pleasure I’m not yet ready to relinquish.
In between the new moon and the full, I’m playing a little catch-up here at OverneathItAll. The end of the school year, graduation, and the Great American Road Trip all meant I put writing largely aside for a bit. Even the most compelling of activities require breaks now and then. I’m happy to be opening my computer again and looking forward to sharing the journey with you. With gratitude and big love as ever, Rxo