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Our Empty Nest
Do you want your heart to break? Take a sick fledgling bird from her mother and put her in a shoebox. Then bring her into your house and listen to her mother crying desperately through your screen door. Listen to the fledgling’s feeble, little chirping responses. Sob, drink wine and try to sleep. Good luck with that.
Once upon a time, a robin built her nest on our porch, high up on a column on a narrow ledge. It was a marvelous feat of engineering. I wrote about it here. My partner (MP for the rest of the story) and I saw her and her mate – Eleanor and Franklin, I called them – through two clutches and felt fortunate to have been a part of the experience. That was the summer of 2020 and in 2021 our front porch was home to two more clutches. In April of 2022, the cycle began anew, but this time the robin looked different – her colouring and size were not the same. I read that urban robins only live about one to two years, so I decided she would be known as Eleanor II (just Eleanor for the rest of the story). I named her mate – who also looked different - Henri.
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Eleanor built what we called “an addition” to the nest, a vertical layer that made the nest higher. A bird’s nest is akin to a cradle and once the babies are too big for the cradle the whole family leaves the space. When the time comes for new eggs, the parents (well, mostly the mother) spruce up the cradle. We knew that once the female started sitting on the nest continuously – with a few breaks for me-time while the male takes her place – it could only mean that the eggs were there. We also knew that the eggs hatch after two weeks and that the birds fledge after two weeks.
Sure enough, two weeks to the day after Eleanor became an almost permanent fixture on the nest, we noticed her leaving and then returning with worms and bugs. Henri was doing the same. Because of the addition, it took a couple of days before we could see little noggins sticking up and squawking, but two young robins appeared, and we could not have been happier. Days later, we realized there had been a stealth baby, so we were looking at a clutch of three.
So much about watching them grow is fun, but what I enjoy most is their transformation: the first views of them looking like odd little lizards, or “dino-heads,” as our neighbour calls them, and then a change that appears to be all-of-a-sudden but isn’t. You look up and see feathered creatures, looking much like their parents, though their orange bellies are spotted, and they have the cutest tufts on their heads. That is also when they start to freak you out by standing up in the nest and flapping their wings, jostling for room, and shoving each other. I had learned from a wildlife rehabilitator friend that it is fine to put a bird back in its nest if it falls – mother birds don’t operate on smell and there is no risk of rejection. On the contrary, you’ll be helping, as it is common for young birds to fall and if not placed back in the nest, they are easy prey. Mother birds can hardly grab them by the scruff, the way a mama lion drags a cub back to the den.
Our first clutch grew and took flight with no glitches, all three leaving the cradle exactly two weeks to the day after they had hatched. It was our fifth clutch in three summers and after each group left us, we exhaled. In early July, the cycle started up again and by the third week of the month we were on “noggin watch.” Two heads appeared and two parents were on high alert, though Eleanor had impressed us all along with how zen she was. She never reacted or left the nest if we stepped outside – the first Eleanor was not so calm. So it was a surprise one night when we heard her calling out frantically to Henri.
What she was saying was, “Predator!” A cat had noticed our bird guests. Thankfully, the nest was not reachable even with the impressive capacity of young cats to leap. But Eleanor and Henri did not know that and began to engage in distraction displays, trying to lure the cat away and, in so doing, were putting themselves at great risk. Heroic. At one point Eleanor swooped so low that the cat almost got her, and I nearly had a heart attack. We were horrified and ran interference, staying outside till past midnight, at which point the cat, frustrated in his endeavours, went on his merry way.
It was certainly not the first night that we had been kept up by the fauna of our urban jungle. In fact, we have often joked about what we call the Symphonie Nocturne of the Animals (shout-out to Saint Saens). It starts at midnight, with raccoons rumbling around the compost bins and engaging in loud discourse. It continues at about two a.m., when skunks spray someone or other who frightens them, the smell so wretched it wakes us, forcing us to run around the house madly closing windows. Around four a.m. one of us innocently re-opens the windows, only to find that at five-thirty, our feathered friends welcome the day with a very loud chorus – it’s like a roll call with everyone chirping out their name, family grouping, and in what tree and upon what branch they are currently perched. “Josh, sparrow, maple tree, branch number 82.”
The handsome kitty was a new movement in the symphony, and the next day he was back and up to his tricks. I found out where he lived, picked him up – he was friendly with a good weight with a nice coat – and delivered him to his humans. I asked if they would keep him in until the birds had fledged and to my great delight, they were not only amenable but apologetic.
Whether cats should roam is the subject of endless debate. See here and here. I never let my cats roam, for their safety and for the safety of wildlife. But I know that the stray and feral cat population is the fault of irresponsible humans. I also know that if someone takes in a feral, it is a challenge to keep them indoors. But the romantic ideal of a neighbourhood cat is just that, and like many romantic ideals, it can end tragically. Our leafy Toronto ‘hood is full of potential dangers for a cat, chief among them vehicles and predators (of the human and non-human variety).
Our birds continued to grow. I named them Darren (the bigger, noisy one) and Eloise (the smaller, gentle one). Yes, I was ascribing gender to them based on sexist stereotypes having to do with size and perceived personality traits. Sue me.
[Eleanor Has Opinions. Photo: Rondi Adamson]
About two days before F-Day (Fledge-Day), the wee one fell out of the nest. It was a scary moment. Her mother began shrieking, and MP set up the ladder and climbed to the top. I picked up Eloise and she puffed herself out and then, resigned, I guess, de-puffed and chirped at me. She gave me the sweetest look. I thought of these lines from Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:
“I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.”
For the next couple of days, rhythms went back to normal. Or rather, the birds’ rhythms went back to normal. Ours didn’t, unless by normal you mean, “Staring out the window at the nest all the time.” Eleanor and Henri continued to feed Darren and Eloise and then, on schedule, early morning on F-Day, Darren took flight and landed in our cherry tree. He looked equal parts thrilled and terrified. Eloise stayed put but our shoulders relaxed some. With previous clutches, some birds left in the mornings, others in the early afternoon. Her parents spent that day squawking at her – “Fly, fly, fly, fly, fly!!!” – to no avail.
By the end of the day, she had not left. We realized that we had never seen her stand up in the nest and flap her wings the way other fledglings do. MP, who, for my sake was trying to stay optimistic, said, “There is something wrong.” By the end of the following day, she had not flown, and she had fallen out of the nest again. We put her back and Eleanor kept feeding her. On the third morning after F-Day, I saw Eloise hanging by her foot from the nest. Eleanor and Henri were distressed and helpless. MP – he seriously is a mensch – got on the ladder and saw that she had a piece of plastic wrapped around her leg and was hooked to the nest. Poor Eleanor must have used it when she did her renovations. He gently removed the plastic and put Eloise back; we both stepped away, hoping she would fly.
We called a wildlife centre for advice, and they said not to place her back in the nest. We put her in a shoebox with a warmed-up dishtowel and left her on the porch where, to our relief, Eleanor went back to feeding her, as though nothing unusual had occurred. We took turns sitting outside, keeping watch. I learned, spending the rest of that day trying to do my job while simultaneously madly searching for a wildlife sanctuary that had space for her, that we do not, in this city, have enough help for these situations. (I imagine this does not set us apart from other cities.) Rescues and sanctuaries were overwhelmed with songbirds. One even had a message to that effect on their voicemail.
I also learned that there are many, many good people who want to help, including one rehabilitator who came over to examine Eloise. Give her another 24 hours, he said, but you must keep her in overnight or she’ll end up a meal for goodness knows who. We brought her in at about midnight – setting her up with more warmed dishtowels - and that is where I found out how to break a heart. Her mother called to her into the wee, small hours. Still, Eloise managed to fall asleep. Us? Not so much. The next morning, we brought her back out and Eleanor began feeding her. It was beautiful to see but it didn’t last. Eloise’s breathing became laboured and she stopped eating. More phone calls and another visit from the wildlife rehabilitator did not make a difference. There was no saving her.
I’ll risk accusations of sentimentality here, but I believe she knew we were trying to help. We cried tears over her and over Eleanor, who looked, to us, to be in grief that afternoon, with a listless posture and sad cries. Soon enough, though, she was back in the trees with Henri, helping Darren learn to be a better wormer and a more confident flyer. One must be a horribly arrogant speciesist to think animals do not feel emotions, do not experience love and grief. But some of them seem to move forward more quickly than we do. No therapy. No processing.
“Waking or asleep,
Thou of death must deem
Things more true and deep
Than we mortals dream,
Or how could thy notes flow in such a crystal stream?
We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”
As MP said, “I know there are a million sad bird stories in the city, but she was our girl.”
If Eloise’s condition was caused by the plastic or aggravated by it, or whether there had been another issue all along, I don’t know. I had been so worried about the cat, though I can honestly say that had he killed any of the robins, I would have been heartbroken, but I would not have been angry at him. My feelings for his humans would have been another matter. We, after all, are meant to show some discernment in what we do, though you’d never know it to look at this story about birds’ nests and litter.
This experience brought to mind a poem my mother wrote for me when I turned ten. It was inappropriate for any ten-year-old, utterly so for a sensitive ten-year-old who adored animals. It was about an environmental disaster in which all avian life dies. I still remember the last line: “And all the birds were dead.” Because there’s nothing a child likes more on her birthday (or any day) than poems about animal death. I cried when I read it and she – never much of a sit-com mum – said, in an exasperated tone, “It’s about ecology,” using the terminology of the era. That explanation did little to improve my mood but thinking about that exchange now makes me appreciate her foresight, if not her judgment.
For those who think one should never interfere with wildlife, I agree, if it is truly interference. I don’t think taking the cat to his owners so he wouldn’t kill a mother bird was akin to, say, being on the Serengeti and trying to stop a lion from taking down a zebra. I don’t think putting a songbird back in her nest was akin to finding a wandering bear cub and carrying it back to Mrs. Grizzly. Leaving Eloise on the ground, unable to fly, was unthinkable. We consulted wildlife experts and did what we could.
It's been nearly two weeks and the cat is back out and visits us on our porch, rubbing up against our legs and demanding cuddles. He is a lovely guy and if he didn’t have already have a home, we would be tempted to file adoption papers. I have tried to focus on the positive: the many people who gave us advice and assistance; the fact that we still see our robin family, though Darren looks like an adult now and doesn’t need parental help to find his meals (they grow up so fast!); our record – three summers, six clutches, thirteen successful fledges.
Our empty nest is still there, though the consensus advice seems to be to remove it and hope that another robin will rebuild – with less plastic - on the spot next spring. By then, I might be ready for the possibilities. After all, I’m not a robin. I need time to process.
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