For the Birds Radio Program: Graduation

Original Air Date: June 3, 2004

Laura’s third nestling has fledged from high school.

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Last night my son Tommy graduated from high school. This is the third time I’ve watched a child of mine pass this milestone. The grads are filled with triumph, anticipation, embarrassment at all the fuss, and eagerness, even impatience, to get the night over so they can start the rest of their lives. The parents look more shellshocked after 18 or so years of these beginnings and endings. When our baby took his first step, how could we not swell with pride even as we anxiously inspected the house for danger, already anticipating the inevitable falls? Sending him off to kindergarten, teaching him to cross the street all by himself, taking off the training wheels, teaching him to drive a car—parenthood is a long string of milestones, each preparing for the next, bigger, one. Parenthood is as much about letting go as it is about holding and loving.

In that respect, parenthood is a lot like rehabbing a baby robin, only more drawn out. We feel such warmth and tenderness feeding and caring for a nestling. But every day nestling birds stretch their wings a little more and grow ever more eager, and ready, to jump out of the nest. They’re still dependent on their parents when they fledge, but quickly figure out how to find their own food and shelter. Robins make a high pitched warning call whenever they detect a bird of prey or other dangerous predator, so even after babies are entirely on their own, they’re benefiting from the older generation’s experience. But overall, baby robins gain independence from their parents not in 18 years, as we humans do, but in little more than 18 days.

When inexperienced people raise a baby bird, they often keep it indoors for weeks longer than a wild bird would remain in the nest, and then take it to the woods and let it go. That’s no different from holding a human child in the house, with no interactions with other people and animals and no experience outside the house for thirty years, and then dropping him off in a big city and abandoning him. The moment baby birds can jump out of a nest, they need to be outdoors, grabbing branches with their toes and learning to negotiate trees and shrubs. But just as a human child may ride off down the block on his tricycle, a fledgling bird still needs parents to feed and shelter it and teach it independence. Fledgling robins spend most of the day away from their parents, who are off finding food to bring back to them. When we raise one, we aren’t nearly as skilled as a real robin parent at keeping track of the baby, but if we overprotect it, out of laziness or concern, we’re dooming the baby once we do release it into the real world.

Adult robins have little control over the condition of the world they send their babies into. They have no way of influencing pesticide regulations or cat leash ordinances, no control over hawk populations or the weather. They give their babies the skills they have, and hope they’ll prosper. The world facing a newly-independent robin is far more dangerous than that facing a human graduate—most robins that fledge this year won’t see their first birthday. Parent robins may or may not understand that terrible statistic, but they still give their all to raising these babies, and could never even begin to imagine sending their young off to fight wars the parents started and yet are unwilling to risk fighting themselves. Some of us parents spent so much of the past 18 years making a good home for our children that we’ve rather neglected the world they’re now headed into. We watch these draft-aged children heading off into the world that our generation, not theirs, forged, run by a man who didn’t trouble himself to see his own daughters graduate. These are dangerous times for our dear fledglings, and we can’t childproof the world. But perhaps we can adult-proof it.