For the Birds Radio Program: Thanksgiving Reunions

Original Air Date: Nov. 26, 2003 Rerun Dates: Nov. 28, 2019

Not many birds gather with their family members on Thanksgiving, but some do.

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Thanksgiving reunions

I’ve been asking various people lately what their favorite holiday is, and by far the one with the most votes is Thanksgiving. The consensus seems to be that Thanksgiving is important enough to bring families together over big distances, but without any expectations or pressures of gift-giving or cards and all that.

Thanksgiving has usually been a simple traditional family gathering for my family. The years that something hasn’t worked out have been disappointing, but that makes the years that everything jells even better. We virtually always have turkey, but my favorite Thanksgiving of all we had tuna noodle casserole in our tent in the Florida Everglades. The kids were 3, almost 5, and 7. After dinner, we played games for a while, until dark. Then we drove to the Anhinga Trail so I could look for a Limpkin, a nocturnal relative of cranes, while Russ and the kids waited in the car listening to Raffi tapes. I found my lifer just a short ways in from the entrance, and as I headed back to the car triumphant, a Barred Owl flew over my head and landed on a streetlamp in the parking lot where everyone got to see it. Then we went back to the tent, the kids got into their jammies, and we headed to the bathroom. When the coast was clear in the women’s bathroom, the boys got to come in to see all the frogs that gathered every night in the sinks and toilets in some strange amphibian nighttime ritual. Three lovely children, two great birds, and a bathroom filled with frogs—who could possibly have more to be thankful for?

But now that 7-year-old boy is 22, and this year he’s spending Thanksgiving in Florida without us, working at Disney World. Happy as we are that he’s enjoying his job, this leaves one of those aching empty spaces within, which makes me understand why Thanksgiving is a human holiday, not a bird one. Our human lifespan is long enough, and our children stay with us long enough, that statistically we have a very high probability of enjoying many Thanksgivings with our children before they fledge, and even after they’ve established lives of their own, they are likely to return home at least occasionally for Thanksgiving. Fewer than half of the chickadees and Blue Jays hatched in a year live to see their first birthdays, so every Thanksgiving would be weighed down with at least as much sorrow for lost children as joy for the blessings the survivors enjoyed. This time of year, many blue jays are with their family members from this year. Many first year birds migrate with other young birds, but some do stick out the winter with their parents. Chickadee babies all leave their parents in fall, and each one joining a separate winter flock. This apparently allows them the time and space to forget all about one another so they won’t accidentally mate with siblings if they forget who they’re related to by spring, but it also allows chickadees to mercifully forget their relatives so they never feel the need to mourn. I guess a chickadee flock really is one big happy family, so they have no need of any other family. Blue Jays know everyone in their neighborhood. Pairs often or usually stick together year-round, and during winter may stay with some babies from that year, along with a few of their young from previous years who may join them from time to time. But neither blue jays nor chickadees has a single day on which they give thanks—they seem to make every day a raucous celebration.

Even when one of our children is over a thousand miles away, we humans have plenty of cause for thanksgiving. So far our little planet has been resilient enough to withstand the abuse we’ve meted out to it, and although most of the people on Earth will go hungry tomorrow, many of us will be able to afford a succulent meal of thanks. As we enjoy the bounty of the day and share our blessings with those less fortunate than we, we can look out at those chickadees and blue jays—two more parts of our everyday lives to be thankful for.