For the Birds Radio Program: Katie to Oberlin

Original Air Date: Sept. 2, 2002

Human babies are dependent on their parents for far, far longer than bird babies are dependent on theirs. But even human babies eventually fly away.

Duration: 5′06″


Eighteen and a half years ago, I gave birth to a baby girl. We humans take a long time to rear our young—Katie couldn’t even hold her head up by the age that a Blue Jay baby can fly, and she could just barely sit for a few minutes before toppling at the age that a baby Blue Jay’s parents would have sent it off on its own. Young Whooping Cranes remain with their parents almost a year, but despite that extended period of dependency, they’re still independent at an age before my own children could walk by themselves.

In order for human parents to stick with our children for so many years compared to most animals, we have to have a powerful bond that makes us hold fast to them through every stage, from their begging for food in the middle of the night, through their gravitational studies by dropping food from their high chairs, to their pretending we’re not there as we pass in the hallways of junior high school. Painful as it can sometimes be, our bond to our children has to hold steadfastly even as they’re severing their bond to us. For just like jays and cranes, the whole point of our raising young is to protect and guide them until they have the skills and self assurance to fly off on their own.

Different species have different ways of breaking the parent-child bond. With many songbirds, it just sort of happens. Babies get more and more adventurous, exploring the world, and eventually wander off and lose track of their parents who are so busy caring for other fledglings, raising a new brood, or dealing with the rigors of molting and fall migration that they hardly notice. With most birds, young cling to adults more tenaciously than adults cling to young. If adult loons don’t leave their nesting lakes as soon as their babies can feed on their own, they risk depleting the lake of appropriate­ sized fish before the young can fly to another lake to feed. Father hummingbirds never establish a bond with their young, and mothers abandon their young and migrate as soon as the young are flying and feeding on their own. Again, this ensures that as nectar­-bearing flowers dry up for the year in late summer, the babies won’t have to share limited food resources while they’re completing their growth in time for their own migration.

Florida Scrub-Jays maintain family bonds over a few years, with young of one year sticking around and helping their parents raise the next year’s babies. Parent Sandhill Cranes stay with their babies through winter and then leave them behind in a hormonal rush in spring migration. Once when I was birding at the Port Wing sewage ponds, a yearling Sandhill flew by at a distance, calling. I made a mediocre imitation, and it changed course and flew straight toward me. It circled over my head three or four times, looking into my eyes, calling in such plaintive tones that I found myself crying. It was thoroughly unscientific, but I couldn’t help but imagine that this bird felt lost and abandoned after spending a full year—its entire life—in the security of its parents, and was hungry for someone—anyone—to fly with it so it wouldn’t have to face the big world all alone.

Some birds apparently forget their children after their time together ends—a mercy for parent chickadees and wrens whose babies have less than a 50% probability of surviving until their first birthday. But some birds do remember their children from one year to the next. Canada Geese and swans probably associate with their young from previous years in migration and winter flocks. I’ve never heard a report of geese or swans, or jays or cranes or any other birds, giving their grown young advice or criticizing their choices in life. The family bonds they maintain are simple and straightforward, uncomplicated by parental expectations and demands or youthful rebellion.

I’ve been thinking about the ways birds set their young free as Russ and I make the long drive home from Ohio after dropping Katie off at Oberlin college. On the way there, and through the orientation events and exploring the campus together, we all felt proud and excited and apprehensive, though the pride and apprehension were stronger on the parental end, the excitement stronger on the Katie end. She’s smart and kind and enthusiastic, ready to embrace her own life and fly.

I can be logical and scientific about the process of fledging and becoming independent, and realize that I’ll be seeing Katie in a mere 51 days when she comes home for fall break. There will always be a powerful and joyful bond of love between us, but in that final moment as we said goodbye, I could feel the last slender threads of her dependence on me snap. It’s time for my silver girl to fly, not behind me or ahead of me, but setting her very own course. And on this joyful occasion, not being a bird at all but merely a human, all I could do was cry.