For the Birds Radio Program: Joey Goes to College

Original Air Date: Sept. 11, 2000 (estimated date)

This fall, Laura is facing her son going off to college: something hummingbird mothers think is no big deal.

Duration: 3′52″


For the past few weeks I’ve had dozens of hummingbirds coming to my feeders. The ones still passing through are just about all immatures—birds that hatched this year who are making their very first journey south. Like human teenagers they’re certain they know exactly what they’re doing, and no way are they going to take advice from their parents. Of course, hummingbird parents don’t need parenting books to tell them it’s time to let go—they just get out of the way and let their young do what they must.

Female hummingbirds are devoted mothers until August, when suddenly they lose all their maternal feelings in a rush of wanderlust and head south, leaving their independent teenage children to their own devices. A lot of the young ones end up dying—killed by hawks, ensnared in spider webs, gobbled up by fish leaping out of the water as the hummers feed on jewel weed nectar. But the ones that survive this college of hard knocks are the ones that pass on their genes to the next generation. The mothers never know which children made it and which didn’t, since hummingbird families mercifully don’t keep in touch.

We humans are a lot different. I personally have three teenagers, and suddenly one of them is leaving the nest. Unlike a functionally illiterate hummer, Joey is off to college. I caught him with a tear or two as he said goodbye to his cat. I know he was torn about leaving his best buddies Ian and Ramiro, and his last few days home he spent an unusual amount of time with his 14-year-old brother Tommy, gave me bear hugs several times a day, and even hugged his sister goodbye when we left him at the dorm.

Hummingbird siblings are too independent to travel together. My kids sometimes squabble, but Tommy and Katie insisted on coming along on the 800-mile round-trip journey to Milwaukee to see Joey off. As we unloaded all his stuff in his dorm room, Katie made the bed, I put away all his clothes and toiletries, and Tommy and Russ helped him set up his computer. I’m sure Joey was eager to have us gone so he could start feeling independent, but he graciously allowed us to fuss over him this one last time.

Every year of their adult life, hummingbirds raise a new clutch of two babies, and as they send them on their way, they know they’ll have yet another fresh start with next year’s batch. We humans put all our eggs in one basket. In two years, I’ll be sending Katie to college, and in two more years, off Tommy will go, and I will be done with child-rearing. Maybe the reason humans feel so sad sending our children off is that we close such a fun and lovely chapter of our life for good as they leave. Come Thanksgiving, Joey will migrate home again, at least for a few days. But he won’t be a nestling anymore.

We sent him off with a lot more stuff than baby hummingbirds get—books, computer, clothes, toiletries, bedding, alarm clock, video-recording equipment he will use as he pursues his major in film—things a hummingbird never imagines. Of course, the biggest thing he took was a huge chunk of my heart. But my sadness is for me, not for him—that great big wide wonderful world is out there just waiting for him, and like this year’s hummingbirds, my Joey is ready to face it.