Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Empty Nest

The trees are gone.

The tree guy showed up Friday and took down three massive, dead trees in our back yard, leaving only the tulip tree and a couple of tiny stragglers. The tree guy really wanted to take down the tulip. He was chainsaw-happy. "That tree is going to be enormous in just a few more years," he warned. But we're happy with it. When we're ready, we'll take it down. Right now, it's healthy. So it stays.

There are plenty of other trees around the perimeter of our property. Behind the property line is an urban classification of "woods": Roughly 50 yards of dense brush and trees. And my neighbor Mary's tree likes to hang out on our side of the property, dropping buds or leaves.

Or birds.

Late Sunday afternoon, Ian walked into the house from the day's spring heatwave and said, "Did you see the dead birds in the backyard?"

I was startled. "What are you talking about?"

"There are a dead baby birds in the yard, right by the house."

I went out and inspected, with Nolan by my side. Sean leaned into the screen of the living room window that overlooks the yard and chimed in. "Yep, I see them," he said, Wii controller in hand. "They look ... dead." Seconds later I heard Super Mario bleeping and blooping through the window.

Nolan and I crouched and examined the birds, which were identical except that one was very tiny, and the other was nearly twice the size. But both had only recently hatched. Their little bird bodies were featherless and had swollen bellies. They looked as if their eyes had never even opened.

"What happened, Mom?" Nolan asked.

"They were probably sick, or there was something wrong with them, and so the mama bird kicked them out of the nest," I said. We both looked up at Mary's tree. We couldn't see a nest, but it had to be up there.

I grabbed two trowels from my gardening bin in the garage and gently used one to carefully scoop the birds into the other. Nolan, my willful assistant, asked to serve as pallbearer and carried the birds to the spot by the garage where we would bury them. Earlier this spring we buried Timmy, our turtle, over there. Next to his cross, I dug a hole, and Nolan unceremoniously dumped the two baby birds into it. "Can we dig up Timmy to see if he's disintegrated?" Nolan asked.

"No. We just buried two animals. We're not digging up any bodies."

We said a quick prayer, covered the hole with dirt, checked out the tree once more, and then went inside to wash our hands.

A few hours later, after dinner, Ian walked into the kitchen from the yard where he was playing with the dogs.

"There's another bird out there."

I was incredulous. "Are you kidding me?" I threw on my gardening clogs and ran out, joined by Nolan decked out in pajamas and flip flops. There, in the exact spot where the first two birds were found, we found a third. But this one wasn't dead. He was still breathing. I looked up. I wanted to find this nest. I wanted to shake this mama bird and have her tell me why the hell she was throwing her babies to the wind. I speculated that maybe the nest was in one of our gutters. Ian crawled onto different levels of the roof to inspect. From every angle he could find no evidence of a nest.

Next door, Mary ran out onto her deck, seeing me visibly upset from her side of the fence. "What's wrong?" she exclaimed, thinking something might have happened to one of the kids. When I explained the mystery of it all, she disappeared to get her binoculars and returned, as eager as me to figure out where the nest might be.

While Mary scanned the branches for empty nests, I once again grabbed two trowels to gingerly scoop up the baby bird. The heartbreak! The little bird silently opened its mouth in fear or pain when I gently rolled him into the trowel. He never opened his eyes, but his great big, yellow mouth was fixed in a smile, though I don't think he was very happy. His breathing seemed labored, and he appeared to shiver. There was so little we could do for him, except try to make him comfortable. I tore an enormous tulip leaf from its stem and made a little tent around him in the trowel, hoping that maybe it would make him just a little less cold.

Nolan asked a lot of questions and was full of suggestions to fix the situation. "Why did he fall? Why is his sick? What can we feed him? If we can't throw up food into his mouth like a mama bird, maybe we can find a mama bird who will. What if we give him really clean, mushy worms? Can he eat those? Maybe we should go to the pet shop and get a mama bird and a bird tank and he can live with the new mama bird in the bird tank." Bird tank. Melt my heart.

I had to break it to him that the bird wasn't going to make it, but I didn't have the heart to tell him that no other mother would want to care for it. Besides, that wasn't true. I wanted to care for it. I just wasn't equipped to do so.

We never found the nest. Night was closing in and the sun had set. After staring at the little bird for a long time, I decided it was time to put him somewhere relatively safe. I refused to bury him--he wasn't dead yet! But we couldn't keep him. So Nolan and I opened the gate at the back of our property, and gently placed him on a nest of sorts--a pile of leaves and grass in the "woods" behind the house. "Give him his blanket!" Nolan said, concerned. I covered the bird with the big tulip leaf, and we said goodbye.

Today I scooted home at lunch to let out the dogs and take Cee Cee on a quick walk in the brilliant afternoon sunshine. As we headed back toward home, I enjoyed a welcome sight: an empty, broken robin's egg lay on the sidewalk. I smiled. Somewhere in the branches above me, a baby bird was warm and cozy with its mama.


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