Several weeks ago, Jack and I were drinking our morning drinking on the deck and listening. Jack is a fabulous ambient listener, and a good noter. I frequently complain that my kids don’t listen to me, but really, they listen just fine, and choose to behave differently than I’ve requested. I know this because they laugh at me while they’re not doing whatever I asked. Maybe, if instead of every time I said “You’re not listening to me!” I said, “You’re not doing what I want!” I would start to sound as ridiculous to myself as I probably do to them. An experiment, to try.
But on this particular morning, Jack and I are simpatico. We are listening to all the sounds and saying what they are: air conditioning unit (dragon), truck (truck), siren (fire truck), plane (plane), crickets (I don’t here crickets, oh yes, now I do. Crickets.), what’s that? (cicada), birds (birds). Lots of birds. In particular, a very upset robin.
What is that?
A robin. It sounds very angry. That’s how they sound when they’re upset. It’s probably mad about a predator. Maybe a cat.
A shrill yeep, and then the lower-toned stutter that sounds like skipping friction, like rubber soles on a high-gloss floor.
I look up at the sugar maple, to my right, where they have a nest. Nothing much is going on, although I can’t see the nest directly from the deck, only from below. Jack and I continue to talk, and listen, and talk. It’s not until he moves from his chair, that I understand what all the fuss is about. Through the railing, I see something small and brown in the lawn, moving just a little bit. A fledgling. I hear the robin to my left. It’s on my neighbor’s fence – it drops down to the lawn, fretting and clucking, flies off, then down by the baby, and back to the fence again.
What was a mildly unpleasant background noise is now a drama of the highest order. Has this bird left the nest too soon? Did it fall? It’s clear across the yard from the nest – how did it get all the way over there? Did it come from another nest? Is it supposed to happen this way? Seemingly not, given how upset the mother is. It’s so vulnerable, it will surely get eaten by a neighborhood cat. Perhaps we should go get it. Perhaps that is a terrible idea. What do I know about raising robins? As I play out the logistics of bug finding and feeding, I decide my loving care is unlikely to improve the chances of this little bird surviving. I wish the mother robin would stop making such a racket – it’s drawing a lot of attention. Wouldn’t quieting down be much more helpful to her offspring?
I am totally sucked in. I keep watching, sure that any second, I will see the slinking, long-haired end of this little one creep into the yard, or perhaps, just blaze from behind the flower garden. Instead, I see the mother bring the fledgling something to eat. This is good. It has not been abandoned, it’s being taken care of. I definitely do not need to rescue it. Now, if only the mother would just stop making so much noise.
We eat breakfast. We go inside. We get ready to go out for the day. I walk across the driveway to check if it’s there. It is. It’s moved a little, so it’s probably not injured. I don’t get too close. I’m worried I’ll leave a smell and the mother will stop feeding it. I remember being told this as a kid, that birds will abandon their young if they’re touched by humans. I have no idea if this is true, but I don’t want to get too close. I get the kids all packed in the car, and take one final look. Still there, still alive.
As I drive away, I know I will probably not know what happens to this robin. When I get home it is gone. I don’t see any feathers. Maybe it flew. Maybe it was carried off. I don’t know. Statistically, it probably died – only 25% of fledglings make it through the summer. Nature took its course, and it was a proper course, however it ended. But I can’t help myself – I hope that it spread its wings and flew.
A week or so later, I am in the back yard and I see the arresting blue of robin’s-egg-blue.
Look Colin. Look. It’s an egg from the nest. Look how beautiful it is.
Golden, tacky yolk rests in the cone of the egg. It’s beautiful. I feel sad.
Oh. And here is part of the nest.
A thick, curved shelf of tawny, white-pine needles. Oh no.
Something must have gotten into the nest.
I look up. Unwound plastic bobs in the breeze. Ragged edges press into twigs and bits, like a seamstress lipping a mouthful of pins.
Oh, look. Here are more shells. Something got into the nest.
I don’t know. Maybe a cat, or a raccoon.
What kind of animal wrecks a nest for eggs? I’m not sure.
We scoop up the chunk of needles, and the shells, and place them in the shade of some hosta leaves along the fence.
Last week, Jack and I were on the deck again. It rained hard overnight. I am sitting without a cushion, on the rubbery, white plastic slats of the chair. Jack is sitting on a towel on the cushion. The air is very still. I am watching the leaves on the oak trees at the back of the yard not move at all. Sunlight shines at just the right angle to reveal a large spider web between two leafless branch tips, about a foot apart. It looks like the branches are not healthy, but they’ve made perfect loom for weaving a web.
The leaves rustle. A robin has landed in the oak on the left. Another one lands, above it. They fly off again. And back. This time, I think the female has a stick in her mouth. It’s hard to see. They are very busy on a morning where most everything else is quietly absorbing. Back again, this time with an unmistakable bundle of grass in her beak. She disappears behind the leaves, tiny bits of scrap float down to the lawn. I am suddenly awestruck by the complexity of this task, and capability of this little engineer. Finding and assembling every fiber of the structure, one mouthful at a time. Shaping it with a beak and a wing. Choosing the right blend of materials for structural integrity. Reinforcing it with worm castings (just finding them seems impossible). Lining it with soft grass for warmth and comfort. She is common, and exquisitely skilled. I am humbled by this little mother, with fire in her breast and knowing in her bones. It is time. I know how. I will do each part, not because I was told, not because I think so, but because it is the way. It is the way of my existence.