For the Birds Radio Program: Nora Is Five!

Original Air Date: Dec. 15, 2003
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Nora When I was five years old, my brother and I found a baby robin hopping about in our backyard. It never occurred to us that the parents were somewhere near. The little bird looked at us with its sparkly black eyes, opened its capacious yellow mouth, and fluttered its wings, begging for food. The instinctive urge to rush in and care for small things with big eyes and plaintive cries is rooted deeply in our species’ genetic code. So Jimmy and I couldn’t help but pick it up and dig up a worm behind the garage to feed it. The little robin eagerly gulped it down, gratifying us, so we put it in a shoebox and brought it five or six more worms that day.

The baby robin fascinated me. Every time we opened the shoebox, it popped up like a little jack-in-the-box, its brilliant yellow mouth gaping and huge. As soon as it swallowed, it produced the weirdest poop I’d ever seen. When we weren’t there, to prevent it from jumping out and fluttering away, we kept the box closed up. Of course we punched out air holes, but we never considered that baby robins need light and space. We had no way of knowing that this fledgling was at almost exactly the same stage of development that Jimmy and I ourselves were, still requiring parental care to be sure, but needing to move its body and study its species’ vocalizations and social cues and explore the world around it just as we did. How were Jimmy and I to know we were thwarting this baby’s essential education?

But more urgently, we didn’t understand that baby robins need many more than five or six worms a day to stay alive. When weather and rainfall conditions are favorable, robins may feed their babies six FEET of earthworms a day, supplemented with a smorgasbord of insects and berries for balanced nutrition. Young children, even when fascinated by a baby bird and eager to give it everything it needs, have far more limited attention spans than parent robins, who are impelled by hormones and instinct to stay focused on their young almost constantly from sunup until sundown, and equipped by keen vision, hearing, and instinct to know precisely how and where to find appropriate food.

So of course, a couple of days later, we opened the box to find the robin dead. We solemnly gathered our younger sisters and brother for a backyard funeral. Being Irish, we held a wake first, making everyone kneel at the Velveeta-cheese-box casket and make the sign of the cross while looking at the spent little body, curiously misshapen, cold and stiff. Then we closed the box and recited mangled snatches of Latin phrases we remembered from Mass. Jimmy gave the homily, assuring us that the bird was in heaven. I pictured God holding it in his warm, loving hand until it started breathing again, and then setting it on St. Francis of Assisi’s shoulder. After the funeral, we commended it to the earth under our lilac bush. We never dreamed that we ourselves had killed it. One of our aunts told us baby birds always die no matter what you do. So that little robin was the last baby bird I touched for almost two decades.

That same summer, the Walt Disney movie, Sleeping Beauty, came out, and we went to the Mercury Theater in the city to see it. I was transfixed by the scene of Aurora in the forest singing and dancing with the owl, squirrels, rabbits, and little birds. I played that joyful scene over and over in my mind, and even today, Sleeping Beauty remains one of my favorite movies.

I’m almost a half century older than I was then, but now I have a dear little friend who is turning five years old today. If Nora ever finds a baby robin in her yard, she will know someone who can tell her that its parents are somewhere near, so she’s already got advantages I didn’t have. She likes a lot of the same movies I did when I was little, though she watches them on DVD or video, something we couldn’t even imagine when I was her age. Back then, our town sprayed DDT routinely in the summer. Phosphates from laundry detergent choked our creek. There weren’t rules that kept mercury from spewing into the air from power plants. Thanks to the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency enforcing them, in the 1970s things started getting better. Now of course, an administration singularly swayed by corporate interests may be bringing us back to those toxic old days.

But whether back in the 50s or nowadays, five is a magical age. And on Nora’s birthday, my wish is that we grownups will try harder to make this world a more wonderful place for these little children so every five year old child may grow up in a world that is cleaner and kinder than the world every 50-year-old grew up in. When we grownups truly start looking out for our children, this will be a wonderful world indeed.