Empty Nest Syndrome

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“Look. There’s my doves.”

Shelby and I were sitting on the back porch, talking, when two pairs of doves flew in and started pecking at the spilled safflower seed on the ground around the bird feeder.

Your doves? Mom, those aren’t your birds; they’re Nature’s birds.”

She is, of course, right. I can’t lay claim to nature’s creatures, but while they’re in my yard, they’re referred to as “my birds.” We enjoy quite a varied lot of avian visitors – much more than just the flocks of sparrows and house finches that crowded the feeder when we first moved in. My plantings of trees, shrubs, and gardens have attracted daily regulars – robins, jays, my wren, goldfinches, chickadees, nuthatches, hummingbirds, cardinals, and Earl the downy woodpecker, (I have no idea if it’s the same woodpecker I see every day; all woodpeckers are named Earl); occasionally there will be a red-winged black bird, grosbeak, or flicker.

And my crows. Given they’re my favorites, it’s odd I haven’t given them names, except The One with the Broken Crower. Though it chatters constantly, I’ve never hear it “caw”; instead it lets out a series of clicks, and a gurgly trilling call that sounds like a lawnmower badly in need of a tune up. I have a lot of admiration for crows. They and their kin – the raven, magpie, and jay are extremely intelligent birds; perhaps the most intelligent in the bird world. There is a flock of about 200 that roost in winter in the huge pine tree behind our across-the-street neighbor’s yard. In spring, they break into their family units. Crows usually mate for life, and it is not unusual for their young to remain with the parents for a few years. The four that are constantly in my yard this year are probably parents and their grown offspring. They are clowns, always doing something entertaining.

Spring always brings a lot of migratory birds that stay for a brief time before continuing on their journey to more northern grounds. A flock of warblers that hung around for a week in April announced that this was going to be a season for the birds.

May began with a promise. At the nursery, the pair of green herons returned to the pond for the third year. The species of birds at the nursery is much more diversified than in my yard in town. Its woods, fields, and pond habitats are also home to wild turkeys, great blue herons, cedar waxwings, indigo buntings, scarlet tanagers, orioles, and birds of prey – the hawks, owls, and turkey vultures. Nearly forty acres of prime nesting ground to choose from, and there are always a few that insist on building their nests in the most inopportune places. Robins and chipping sparrows are the worst offenders.

Last year, I took this picture of a chipping sparrow’s nest, nestled right in the center of a potted perennial – which seems to be a favorite nesting place for these little birds.

This year a robin built its nest on one of the big metal racks on which we keep the perennials; there’s a robin’s nest somewhere on the racks every year. Three pretty blue eggs lay in the nest in the busy area Mrs. Robin chose. It’s a wonder how she manages to hatch the eggs and raise her babies among the constant disturbances.

At home, another pair of birds chose an inopportune place to raise their young. We watched Mr. and Mrs. Blue Jay busily making a nest outside our back door, way at the tip of one of the maple branches. Every time the wind blew, part of their construction job toppled to the ground. But they were diligent, working hard from morning ’til dusk. They finished sometime the following day – apparently just in the nick of time. Mrs. Jay was already sitting on the nest when I got home from work, while the Mister brought food to her.

June nearly broke my heart. May’s promises were dashed by one of the stormiest months we’ve had on record. The blue jays quickly abandoned the nest soon after it was built. Jays, I’ve read, are secretive nesters. With its close proximity to the porch, I think there was too much activity going on around them for their tastes. Although Mrs. Jay was already sitting on the nest before they departed, I don’t think she’d laid eggs yet – when the wind brought down the nest, it was empty.

The baby robins on the perennial rack at the nursery grew big and fat. Sadly, an animal – we think a raccoon – got to them. Determined, Mama Robin built another nest on a different rack (I am really going to have to sit her down sometime, and have a talk with her about her poor choice of nesting places). Three more babies looked as if they were nearly big enough to fledge when a storm hit. Sustained winds of 70 miles an hour blew the plants off the shelves, taking the nest with it. The babies didn’t survive.

It also destroyed the chipping sparrow’s nest I discovered the week prior. Again, this nest was smack-dab in the middle of a pot, tucked in the center of the plant. I quickly put the pot back on the shelf when I found it contained three bald babies, and hoped Mama wouldn’t abandon it because it was found. She didn’t. A storm hit, and blew the pot over, scattering the babies on the rack. They were still alive; we gently scooped them up with gloved hands, and put them back in the nest, thinking surely the mother wouldn’t return this time. She did. Unfortunately, the same storm that did in the robins, took the chipping sparrows too.  

These racks get a lot of traffic: customers browse, pick up plants to purchase, and then the shelves are restocked. Daily. Yet everyone, seeing the nesting birds, gives them a wide berth, trying not to disturb them. For weeks this goes on, only to have it destroyed in a very short period of time. It seemed so unfair. It got worse…

At home, I witnessed one of my crows die. I watched as he fell 30 feet from the above-ground electric wire, hot after the storms. Within seconds his companions came to investigate. One of them nudged it with his beak as if to say, “Get up! Get up!”

On a drizzly, gray morning a few days later, still sad about my crow, I sat on the front porch drinking my coffee before getting ready for work. A bird kind of half hopped, half flopped into the center of the street. The manner in which it was hopping and flopping made me think it was injured – a blackbird, maybe. I left the porch to go see what might be wrong with it.

When I got closer, I discovered it wasn’t a blackbird, but what I’m almost sure was baby crow! It was a caricature of a baby bird covered in blackish-gray fluff except for its featherless, bald face containing those too-big-for-its-head bulgy eyes that all bird babies seem to have, and black cartoon feet nearly as long as its body. It appeared to be much too young to be out of the nest.

Keith, getting ready to go fishing with his friend, saw me from the garage, and came to see what led me to crouch down in the middle of the street, still in my pajamas. He got his gloves and moved the baby bird to the grass. The baby hopped/flopped to the center of the driveway just as Keith’s friend rounded the corner. I waved my hands frantically to stop him from pulling in the driveway, and moved the little bird to the garden.

The entire time I was getting ready for work, I worried about the little crow. Was it its mother that died earlier in the week? Would the father and older siblings take over the mother’s duties, and care for it as I read they sometimes do? My remaining three crows were nowhere in sight. Was this little guy even related to my crows?

It was getting late, and I had to get to work. On my way out the door, I told Shannon to make sure the baby didn’t hop into the street again, and to keep the dog away from it.

From the nursery, I called the nature center as soon as it opened. The naturalist I spoke with was not optimistic after I described the baby as being a big ball of fluffy feathers. Fledgling crows are nearly as big as, and look exactly like adult crows; it’s difficult to tell them apart. The little guy in my yard looked more like a Looney Tunes character than an adult crow. She said though, that baby birds grow extremely fast, and perhaps the other crows would feed it until it was able to fly. She offered to try and find a certified wild bird rescue person to foster it, but added they were overwhelmed with all the recent storms.

The over-cast drizzly day turned hot and humid. My crows had flown to the maple, and Shannon called to them, imitating the sound the baby made. One of the crows answered back each time Shannon called “gaaak-gaaak”. This is not a new thing, actually. She’s played back and forth with a crow a few times this summer. She “caws”, it’ll “caw” back; they’ll go on like this for 5 to 10 minutes, until they both tire of the game. Whether or not the crow was answering its baby’s calls that Shannon imitated, or if it was just continuing their game, I don’t know. Mid-afternoon, she called me, sobbing into the phone, to tell me the baby died.

In retrospect, I should not have told her to keep an eye on the baby. She was too diligent in keeping it under her watchful gaze. If the other adult crows had any inclination to fly in and tend the baby, I’m sure her presence kept them from doing so.  

The girls and neighbor kids buried Perry in the yard, using a brick with his name inscribed as a headstone. I’m not sure where they came up with the name “Perry” unless it’s in homage to Perry Crowmo, the great crooner of the bird world.

Despite making a bad pun about his name (I couldn’t resist), Perry’s death affected me more than I thought it would – more than it should have, perhaps. I became almost desperate to see a fledging bird safely leave the nest.

July lifted my spirits. My friend from Texas, knowing I was distraught about all the bird casualties of the summer, surprised me with a photo documentary.

Spotting a nest in a rather exposed location on the wooden beam of an awning near his office, he photographed a dove from the time she started nesting, to the successful fledging of her two babies.

This tenacious creature and her young survived Hurricane Alex, 4th of July fireworks, the raising and lowering of the flags each day on either side of the overhang , and sidewalk pedestrians passing directly under the nest. He wrote, “Through summer heat, hurricane wind and rain and cars and people and whatever else, the sun rose, a determined mom raised her young, and it’s going to be okay.”

While he was taking pictures of the dove, at the nursery we were anxiously watching yet another robin who built her nest on one of the perennial racks.

Her eggs hatched, the babies grew, and the forecast predicted stormy weather ahead. The storm hit during the night. The first thing I did when I got to work the next morning was check on the robins. The nest was intact, but one of the babies had fallen out. With Mama Robin loudly scolding me from her nearby perch on the overhead sprinkler head, I scooped up the baby, and put it back in the nest. There was no need – within a day, the nest was empty, and we had three fledging robins learning to fly.

This post could have ended here (and probably should have, given its length). After-all, I got my happy ending, right? “There you have it”, my friend had written. It’s all okay.

But what about my birds?

August brought my crows’ numbers down to two. The One with the Broken Crower was missing. Was he a juvenile who has moved on to his own territory? Or did he suffer a demise similar to the crow on the electric line? I missed his weird, noisy chatter; the yard seemed too quiet without it.

One evening, Shannon called me to the window. “What kind of bird is this?” she asked.

Looking at the fluffy ball of feathers in the sand cherry next to the house, “It’s a baby robin!” I exclaimed.

Shelby was doubtful. “Are you sure it’s a robin, Mom? His chest is spotted, and not very red.”

“He’s still young”, I said. “It’ll get redder when he gets older.”

All three of us watched quietly at the window as Mother Robin flew to the bush with a worm in her beak, then flew away when she saw she had an audience. We closed the shade to give her some peace. I wondered how long the baby would stay in the bush…and how many days the cats would have their noses pressed against the window, refusing to budge. The cats must have been disappointed; within a half an hour the mother and baby were gone.

I’m always thrilled to witness one of Nature’s miracles. Seeing a baby robin in my yard may not be the greatest miracle nature has to offer; after all, robins are a dime a dozen, right? They are here in abundance anyway; the robin is our state bird. But it is pretty miraculous taking into consideration that on average, only 40 percent of American Robin nests successfully produce young. Of that 40 percent, only 25 percent of robin young survive to fledge. Fewer than half of crow couples successfully raise young past the fledging state. As a whole, songbirds have a high mortality rate: one in four survives their first year.

September: The nests of summer are all empty. Trees are starting to put on their showy, Technicolor autumn garb, as flocks of Canadian geese fly overhead in V formation. In the not too far distance, the familiar rattling sound of a broken lawn mower makes me smile.

Dove photographs courtesy of Chris Davis.