The naked baby bird lay nearly motionless on the ground, opening its beak every minute or so, the periods in between movements so long that more than once I was convinced it was finally dead. My youngest two boys were on either side of me, peering at the hatchlings gasping on the ground. My oldest son stood back by the swing set, hands to mouth, looking down.
“Do you know what happened to the nest?” I asked my first-born. A smile cracked the right side of his stone face, rendering me furious.
“You moved the nest, didn’t you? Did you get the nest down?” He looked at me, desperately trying not to smile, that nervous grin his tell-tale sign he knows trouble is coming.
“Damn you! Why would you do that? Why didn’t you tell us?” I did not give him time to answer. “Don’t you stand back there and lie. Those baby birds are going to die now. Their mother will not come back for them.”
He stood there, silent.
“Get your butt in that house and go to your room. I do not want to see your face. Get inside!” I half-chased him to the door.
I walked back to the baby bird and its nearby brother (it really could have been a sister, but in our house, I assume everything is male). The little guys didn’t stand a chance. The thin, nearly translucent skin of their backs was scraped and bleeding. Their heads lay at awkward angles to their bodies.
I glanced around the yard. The mother was nowhere to be found.
“Can somebody get me some gloves?” unsure of whether or not the mother would abandon her babies if she smelt us on them. Was that just something parents told their children to keep them from creating problems like these? I had told mine the same thing, but it hadn’t made a difference.
With gloved hands, I reassembled their home, positioning the two birds back inside. I crossed the yard and climbed atop the porch railing to place the nest back on the beam where it had been lodged each spring since we’d moved in. Then, I went in the house to find my oldest sulking in his bedroom.
“Alright, buddy. What happened?” Again, he looked down. “How did you climb up there to get the nest down?”
“I didn’t climb,” came the reply.
I pictured the toys littered across the front lawn. A baseball bat. A hockey stick.
“Did you knock it down?”
“You’ll be really mad at me!” the tears rushed quickly now, and he buried his head in his hands.
“I promise you that I won’t. I could not be madder than I already am, bud. You need to tell me what happened.”
“But you don’t look really mad,” six-year-old eyes finally lifting to meet mine. This was true. My anger usually blazed red and loud, and by this point, I had calmed from the initial outburst and was on a fact-finding mission.
“Well, I assure you Mama is very, very angry. But you know what? It doesn’t ever help when Mama yells and screams, so let’s try it this way instead.”
He looked at me again, judging whether or not this version of his mother was telling the truth. Maybe he wasn’t the only liar here.
“I promise, I will not be any madder than I already am. Now, tell me what happened to the nest.”
“I knocked it down with a hockey stick.” More tears.
“Okay.” Deep breath. “Did you know there were babies in there?”
“No! I just don’t like when the birds make nests on our house. They make a mess and it’s our house. It’s annoying.”
Had I said those words before while scrubbing bird shit off the front porch?
“Okay. Well, I get that. It can be annoying, but in the spring and summer, if there is a nest on our house that means there are baby birds inside. The mama is trying to keep her babies safe by building her nest on our house, and we need to leave them alone.”
He nodded his head. “I won’t do it again.”
“Well, that’s not the only problem here. The bigger problem is that you didn’t come find Mom when you knocked it down and saw the birds. What did you do? How did you get the nest and the birds into the woods?”
Another eruption of sobs.
“You’re going to be really, really, really mad at me.”
How brutal was this story going to get?
“I told you. I am already mad. It doesn’t get worse than this. You need to tell me.”
A big pause, words sitting on his tongue, fighting over whether or not they should press forward. I held my breath, too. What was this kid going to tell me next?
“I picked them up by their feet and threw them.”
Okay. Little harsh. I pictured the tiny, naked nestlings being flung head-first into the brush. No wonder they looked so rough.
“And how many were there?” I asked my little psychopath.
“Four!?!” My voice shot up an octave. We had only found two. “You think there were four?”
“Three or four. I don’t remember.”
“You don’t remember? How can you not remember? Did you throw three baby birds across the yard or four?”
A blank stare.
“You stay here. Don’t you move. I need to go see if I can find the others.”
A quick hunt turned up one more bird, in slightly better shape than its brothers. Again, I climbed the railing and placed him in the nest with no mother in sight. I went back to the edge of the woods and searched, tears clouding my vision. I found nothing and retreated to the house, ushering my oldest into the shower to scrub the bird germs off his guilty hands.
When he emerged, clean again, he found me in the yard once more thinking up a suitable punishment and searching for the fourth brother. I couldn’t bear to leave one behind, even if his mother was never coming back, even if she couldn’t save him.
I thought about our little family, the human one that lived inside the cozy wooden house where three little boys, little nestlings of our own, toddled and ran, open-mouthed, begging for food, squawking incessantly. My baby birds still so dependent on their mother (and father…of course, their father, too, but he’s not the one writing this reflection to soothe the hurt of a broken nest and a missing brother bird and the odd pull on the heart because, frankly, somebody has to earn an actual living). I thought about my three little nestlings that had recently become four – so it mattered. The number of birds mattered, and we couldn’t leave one out in the woods, tossed aside, alone.
Their mother had come to our house for shelter. She had chosen our porch on which to build her home, and in doing so, brought us into their cycle of life, however small, however annoying as bird poop splattered the floor boards of our porch. When things come to you for shelter, they aren’t always perfect guests. They aren’t always convenient, like the toad that took up residence in my flower pot last summer, toppling the gerbera daisy every time he burrowed into his newfound home. I let the flower die and the toad live. I’d watched too many things meet their demise under my care. I needed that toad to live.
I thought about the dead dog buried in our backyard by the fire pit, the dog that was hit by a passing car because we never bothered to get a fence when we’d moved to this wooden house with the bird’s nest in the corner of the porch.
I thought about the two barn kittens, brothers, that we couldn’t keep safe either – an angry neighbor demanding we rehome one, us assuming he’d already killed the other.
Those cats haunted me as we moved through the process to become foster parents, their departure occurring right as we finished months of paperwork, training and interviews. I couldn’t keep those cats safe. I had tried to provide shelter to the two playful brothers who came when you called them and nestled into the nape of my neck, and I had failed. Who did I think I was to try again with a kid?
I cried for days over those cats, stuck in a place where fear said, “Do not do this. You can’t keep anything safe. It’s not worth the pain…and the guilt.” And now, that fear crept back in with a busted nest and bloodied birds, three brothers, or maybe four. It sucked the breath from me as four little boys were readied for bed inside the cozy wooden house, and I wandered the pine needle carpet outside, desperately trying to find the last brother, not knowing if he ever even existed.
With teeth brushed and waters by the bedside, I took one last look out my boys’ bedroom window in full view of the resettled nest, the half-dead birds draped across one another somewhere inside.
The mother sat there, sheltering her babies. She had come back. Elated, I brought the kids to the front door and let them peek out to see the good news. My oldest smiled, “So what I did wasn’t so bad then, right, Mama?”
“That’s not exactly true, buddy. Just because she’s back doesn’t mean the babies are going to make it.” How violently these words struck me as they fell from my mouth.
Still smiling, still hopeful, he walked to his room and settled under covers, safe and warm, his baby brothers tucked in beside him, and the tiniest brother, our fostered fourth, loudly fighting sleep in another corner of the house. Those in need of shelter are not always convenient.
I thought about the hours of sleep stolen from us already and the frustration that awaited me that night, too. I wondered if all these restless, infuriating hours meant anything, if they were worth the short-tempered, exhausted mother now standing in the hallway wondering how much love she had left to comfort these children. The reserves were running low. Which little nestling would she choose if there wasn’t enough to go around?
By morning, a baby bird lay dead underneath the nest, pushed out sometime in the night by its mother, her instinct telling her he was not going to survive – the difference between human and animal. There is no wrestling with conscience, there is no battle to do what is right. There is life and death, and that is it. The weak are shoved out to make room for the strong. This makeshift nest in the corner of our porch, this microcosm of what the larger world is quickly becoming, or maybe what it has always been, greeted me as the sun rose and my husband carried the dead bird off into the woods.
Again, I climbed the porch railing to peek inside and check the remaining two, but the nest was empty. I stood on the porch for a moment gathering my thoughts and shoving tears back into a heavy chest. The mother was gone, and so were her babies. She knew they would never fly.
I had held hope just hours before, but nature does not work in terms of hope – only people do. We are drawn to intervene, to stand in the gap between weak and strong, providing shelter to those who need it, even when we don’t have all the tools, even when it is inconvenient, even when it threatens our own resources, taking time and energy away from what we claim as our own because nothing is truly our own. These are all temporary gifts – our homes, our families, our children.
My oldest had disrupted nature by knocking the nest off its safe place in the corner of our porch, and being human, we tried to repair the upheaval with hope and watchfulness and as much love as we could muster for a nest full of featherless, broken birds. It didn’t work, and I shared that fact honestly with my son when I picked him up from school later that afternoon. The birds had died, a consequence of his annoyance with their inconvenient presence on our front porch, but despite my cold, hard truth, he held on to his hope.
“Maybe the other birds are with their Mama. We don’t know they died, right?”
“No, we don’t know that, buddy, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t make it. They were really little. They couldn’t fly yet.”
“But you didn’t see them. They could still be okay.”
Regardless of my explanation, my son believed the birds must be out there somewhere with their mother, learning to fly. And as much as I felt compelled to assure him this simply was not the case, I could not form those words.
“You’re right, buddy. Maybe they are just off flying with their Mama.” Somehow, I could almost see them, flapping their barren wings in the afternoon sun, clumsily following their mother to some better, safer home.
Maybe that is what I needed to believe, to continue believing. How can I carry on believing anything else? How can I let one more sleepless hour pass without that child-like hope that says those battered birds will learn to fly? This hope is what allows us to offer shelter and watchfulness and love in the face of the potential pain we know will follow – a family pet dead in the ditch, abandoned barn cats, naked broken birds, and one infinitely loved little boy taken from the nest in hopes of flight.