Empty nest

In what has been a year of firsts – most unwelcome, some not – I witnessed fledglings leaving a nest this past weekend, several maiden flights. It was beautiful, heartbreaking, humbling, and at times anxiety-producing.

I speak of the phoebes about whom I’ve written a couple times in these digital pages, most recently detailing my saving of the runt, who fell from the nest on our porch some days ago. When I deposited her back among her three siblings, one of them, understandably startled by me, launched herself then, crapping on The New York Times as she winged into the trees. That was Tuesday.

For the next few days, the remaining three grew and were fed bugs aplenty by mom and dad as we watched, mere feet away. They began standing on the rim of the nest, grooming, flapping, crapping quite a lot, and, it appeared, rudely jostling one another.


I was alone on the porch early Saturday afternoon – writing for this publication – when the drama began. From the corner of my eye, I saw one phoebe drop into the hydrangeas by the porch, flapping unconvincingly. Sadly, our tabby huntress, Stormy, was outside at that precise moment, I knew not where. Many a time Stormy has brought us a dead or dying rodent from the very spot the phoebe landed. I was stressed.

Thankfully, Phoebe One soon jumped a-flapping to the sill of our bay window, gathered her wits, looked several times towards the sun, and flew into the maple by the driveway. Phoebe Two – not the runt – left while I was inside getting my third coffee refill. Which left Runt and me.

Runt took her time. I will endeavor not to anthropomorphize too much, nor transfer my own feelings to a non-human, except to say she seemed nervous. Finally, she launched herself in a downward diagonal into the hostas in front of the porch. After hopping onto the bluestone pathway, she cast several looks to the bright afternoon sun – her first glimpse of it – and headed toward the road.

I intervened. Perhaps mistakenly, but I did. She did not look ready, and frankly, she was cluelessly suicidal. So I put her back in the nest – again – and sat at the opposite end of the porch, hoping her parents would come back with more food, agreeing with me she wasn’t ready. (They didn’t.)

I Googled what to do if you find a fledgling that looks unready, and Audubon.org (and every other authority) unequivocally advises, “Stay out of it. Don’t try to be what you think is a good parent.” Ouch. It was comforting to know, however, that it’s normal for a fledgling to flop around a bit before they figure out how to be a bird. But again – I don’t think Runt knew there was a cat nearby. I did.

Within minutes, she launched herself again, this time directly at me. She plopped on the floor about three feet away. I scooped her up, walked to the densely wooded lot next to our house, placed her on a branch of a maple sapling, and retreated about 20 feet away to crouch on a birch log and monitor. I did not take the time to put on shoes, yet miraculously ticks and mosquitoes did not molest me. I watched Runt for about 45 minutes, meditatively still, constantly suppressing a familiar urge to “do something.”

Runt soon recovered from being in my hand, which must not be pleasant for a bird. She flapped, groomed herself, pecked at bugs, and took in her shady surroundings for many minutes. As much as I wanted a Hollywood moment in which she would vault like Dumbo into the overstory, I did not get it.

But I did get something. She began to peep, at which point one of her parents swooped through the thick foliage directly to her. I couldn’t quite tell if a bug was exchanged. (Audubon says it is also normal for parents to keep vigil over flown fledglings.) Other birds – different species – entered the scene, some quite close to me. I fancied they were saying, “Like this.” Birdsong became louder.

Runt jumped from the maple and hopped around the fallen branches, leaves, and tree trunks of the understory, all the while flapping and occasionally chirping, moving away from me into denser green and brown thicket. Finally, I said goodbye and gingerly walked back to my porch, where Stormy the Cat was waiting by the door. She would be on subsequent 24-hour lockdown, which seemed reasonably protective of Runt. I entered my own home, leaving Runt to hers, to make her own way, without the curse of my care.

Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.