During the 2020 summer of COVID, empty nesters themselves, my octogenarian parents adopted baby birds.
Here’s how it happened: in the process of cutting down dead wood from the weeping willow tree in their backyard, tree trimmers had inadvertently disturbed a sparrow nest in a cavity made by a woodpecker.
My parents were fraught with guilt. To improve landscaping they had endangered innocent life, fresh to the world? They called animal control, the local bird sanctuary. The consensus was: leave them. If the birds were to have any hope of surviving, their parents needed to be able to find them in their nest.
So, my parents positioned the three-foot log on the corner of their deck. It being July, my dad stuck up a beach umbrella and my mom left water. One of the sources suggested feeding them tuna fish of all things, but my parents were worried it would only attract cats or other predators.
My feelings were, let nature take its course. Predators have to eat too!
That was, until I saw them in person. They were so fragile, four of them shivering in a cramped space the breadth of my fist.
Fortunately, the parents- the bird parents, that is- found them. And with a vengeance they fed, for hours at a time, swooping down to hungry mouths chirping gimme gimme gimme in their native language. It was as methodical as a blood transfusion.
On the first day, one fell out. My parents picked him up, but he wheezed and was promptly shoved to the bottom of the nest by one of his siblings (mom called this one James, after my Uncle). It’s a dog eat dog world, or bird eat seed as the case may be. He’ll be neglected by his parents, I thought, so they can focus on the ones who still might survive.
“I pray he makes it,” my mother confided. There was so much concern for this little wheezing gray thing in her voice. I wondered where all this concern came from, where I could get some.
We were siting on the deck when she said this, though not for long. When I visited I didn’t go inside because of COVID, and anyway my parents cut my visits short because the Bird-Mom (or was it Bird-Dad?) watched us from the roof like Batman, waiting for us to leave so it could sweep down and feed the babies (maybe unlike Batman).
Also, it was becoming apparent that my parents were more interested in the drama unfolding outside their window than whatever was happening in quarantine with me (“Baked another loaf of bread today! Needed more yeast!”).
It’s true. I grew jealous of birds.
But it was their soap opera (The Old and the Flightless?), at a time when real soaps and pretty much everything else was on hold.
Better than a soap, it was interactive. It gave them something to do.
My dad lit the deck with christmas lights and booby trapped the area around the log with rakes and shovels to scare off any cats or coyotes on the prowl. Kevin McCallister would have been proud.
And, in preparation for a particularly stormy night my parents moved the whole thing under a picnic table. They were worried the parents wouldn’t find them, but they still ended up hearing that gimme gimme gimme.
The drama went on for a week. But with a stretch of bad weather on the way and the babies now spitting miniatures of their parents, these fledglings needed to fly.
It took a village for it to happen. Or more precisely, a knot of sparrows (my favorite name for a group of them) that swooped down one by one, an assembly line of bird feeding.
Early the next morning, my dad witnessed James Bird fly away, and two more fled when no one was looking. The last one, the little wheezer, was naturally leery about leaving the safety of the nest again. But his mother patiently showed him how to hop, and he flew out of the nest and hopped his way into the bushes.
When the storm ended, a flutter (second favorite) came to clean the nest out and make sure no one had been forgotten.
And, months later, in October, a quarrel (third) landed on the log, which my parents had left out, as a keepsake.
The four poked around the nest. They looked at my mom. Then they flew away.
Was it a homecoming?
Listen, before you write in, I’m no ornithologist, or even a bird watcher. I know I’m probably misgendering the birds. I don’t know how sparrows really act, if they’re deep down greedy, selfish things who eat their own young.
But I saw these baby birds survive being uprooted, being small. I saw what care my parents showed, and even if the rest is schmaltzy anthropomorphizing, their care was real.
I have a new appreciation for birds. Digging holes in the lawn. Pecking cigarette butts in search of sustenance. They’re scrappy little things, programmed to make life in the face of ceaseless hardship.
But I’m more in awe of people like my parents, those who innately continue to care even when most of us find ourselves cynically writing the world off, or, (guilty as charged) literally leaving it to the wolves. Not out of malice, but out of fear of what can happen when we choose to care.
But now my parents are at a loss with how to spend their time. On what soap should they steer their attention?
On mine, of course. At least until (if I ever do) have grandchildren.
Patrick May is a 2016 graduate of the University of Florida writing program, and he currently cyber-teaches from Pawtucket, RI.
additional photos by Patrick May