Empty Nest

In the earliest days of spring, a pair of chickadees got busy building a nest on a piece of wood at the top of a porch column at my mother’s house. It seemed like a fine piece of property at a place where other animals couldn’t climb, sheltered from the elements, with a roof overhead. As soon as they would make some progress, a gust of wind would blow their handiwork to the porch floor and the birds would pick up and start all over.

After a couple of frustrating days, the chickadees moved on. By the next day, I noticed activity at an empty flower pot on a narrow shelf next to Mother’s back door. Over some busy days, the pair of chickadees constructed an igloo-shaped nest incorporating natural elements as well as artificial eucalyptus foliage that had been abandoned on the shelf. The narrow shelf had an Easter cross hanging from it and the birds would perch there as they made their entrances and exits at the nest. The nest is a bit of a post-modern showpiece combining found, natural, and people-made elements. Frank Gehry would be proud, I think.

There was concern that the nest might be bothered by the frequent traffic in and out of the backdoor but the birds seemed blasé about the human and dog presence and Lulu, the trusty chihuahua, stayed mostly oblivious to the activity just a few feet above her head. Occasionally, though, I’d catch her looking up with curiosity; she knew something was up. Since the nest was always visible from the breakfast nook through the backdoor window, it became a daily source of entertainment and the chickadees’ work ethic was fervent and impressive.

Finally, the nest activity got quiet and I would see the female staring back at me as I went in and out of the house. One morning, as I went to replenish the bird feeders, she was gone and I peeped in to see four speckled eggs on the bed of the nest. As I pulled away, I saw the mother sitting on the arm of a lawn chair, watching. As soon as I left, she returned to the nest. After that, activity was confined to the male occasionally visiting the nest and the female occasionally flying out for a few minutes at a time. I am making assumptions about gender here since, to my eye, there appears to be no distinct difference between a male and female chickadee.

After a while, there was increased activity and it seemed the two adults were going back and forth with things in their mouths. I got closer to the window and saw four naked chicks with mouths wide open. The adults were in the yard, digging for bugs and worms, taking turns feeding the hungry babies. Whenever there was sound or movement near the nest, the four mouths would pop open on cue.

After a few days, four mouths became three. I did research on baby chick mortality and learned that it was quite common for chicks to die in the nest. In chickadee nests, the mother either pushes the dead one out of the nest or leaves it there to be trampled by the other chicks.

Time went on and the three babies grew and began to have scraggly tufts of feathers. One morning, while I was preparing breakfast, I noticed a flurry of nest activity and moved to the window in time to see a chick wobbling on top of the nest. An adult was anxiously flying around and finally the chick hopped to an arm of the cross and assessed the possibilities. The other two chicks poked their heads out of the nest opening and watched.

At last, the first brave chick flew/fell to the porch floor and seemed intent on getting into the house. Eventually, it made its way to the grass and finally flew up to a patio chair with its parents watching anxiously, fluttering around.

By the time the first chick got to the lower branches of the rose of Sharon, the second chick was sitting on the edge of the nest. The adults turned their attention to the second baby and it eventually took basically the same path as its sibling.

By this time, the third chick had withdrawn back into the nest. The parents kept popping in with treats and seemed to be waiting for it to fly away, too, but nothing happened. This went on for most of the afternoon and then it stopped. That night, I looked into the nest as I walked out the back door. The hesitant chick sat in the back of the nest, eyes open, and stared back at me.

The next day was about the same, with adults going back and forth with food offerings. Sometimes they came out with their beaks empty and other times the food was still in their beak when they left. That night I peeked in the nest again; now, the little bird was still breathing, but was turned away from the nest opening.

On the third day, adults came back a few times carrying food, and left each time with food still in their beak. The last time I saw one visit the nest, it looked in for a moment, flew up to the arm of that cross, flew back to look in, and flew high into the woods behind the house. As far as I know, it never returned.

I researched what to do and the most common response I found was to leave the nest and the birds alone. One expert even chastised, Don’t try to “save” a nestling and then ask me why it died.

So we left it as it was for a few days with a vague hope something would happen other than the inevitable. Isn’t that the story of our lives – hoping for something other than the inevitable?

Finally, I went out and lifted the beautifully constructed nest out of the flower pot, took one last look at the lifeless hatchling, and filled the nest cavity with straw. Lulu and I walked out to the woods beyond the back gate. I had planned to place the nest under a tree and cover it with straw, but when I was out there, I found a tree with a sturdy fork in the branches, just low enough to reach. I placed the nest in the tree and, as Lulu and I walked back to the yard headed for the house, I realized that this little bird had lived an entire life – and beyond – without ever leaving the comfort of its well cared-for nest. I hope that was enough for it.

As for the two birds that survived the nest, well – occasionally I’ll see a not-quite-mature chickadee scuttering in the back yard or feeding at one of the feeders. I like to think that’s one of the hatchlings from those four speckled eggs not that many weeks ago.

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