For the Birds Radio Program: My Boy in Florida

Original Air Date: July 16, 2003

Laura visited her son in Florida in the heat of July when most sensible birds were far north of there.

Audio missing


Every summer as I watch birds raise their babies, I am filled anew with wonder. Each female robin spends about 2 weeks incubating a clutch of eggs, then the pair spends about 2 weeks feeding the hatchlings in the nest, and maybe another 2 weeks feeding the babies after they fledge. By the end of six weeks, the female robin is back sitting on eggs, and by the time they hatch, the first batch is fully independent, go their separate ways, and the male can again help the female feed the new nestlings. And often by the time these babies are launched, the robins have produced yet another clutch—here in the northland, many robin pairs produce three sets of babies in a single summer. And it takes just six weeks from laying an egg to launching the young bird into the big world.

It takes us humans ever so much longer to accomplish that, and even then, we don’t normally separate for life. Of course, not that many people have as many babies in total as robins produce in a single clutch—a robin who lives for six years is capable of producing a good 60 babies over his or her lifetime while I’ve produced only 3. So we invest a lot more time and energy in each of our babies than robins do, and it’s much harder for us human parents to let go.

My first baby hatched out 21 and a half years ago, and is living down in Florida right now, but we talk to Joey on the phone a lot, send him instant messages on the computer, and in early July even flew down there to visit him. Some Minnesota robins may end up in Florida every year, flapping all those thousands of miles on their own power—we just hopped in a couple of airplanes and got down there fast and easy.

But unlike sensible robins, who visit Florida in winter, we went on July 3, when the temperature and the humidity were both in the 90s and not a single robin was anywhere to be found. Robins don’t normally breed in Florida, and in the heat of mid-summer, many birds that do breed down there wander farther north to escape the endless heat. Bald Eagles work their way north, and often southern herons, egrets, and even Glossy Ibises work their way into Wisconsin and Minnesota in mid and late summer. But there were still plenty of birds left in Florida for us to see—egrets and herons, mockingbirds and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Boat-tailed Grackles and Eurasian Collared Doves, Black and Turkey Vultures, and, everywhere we went, the ubiquitous White Ibis. I saw Wood Storks in a few places, and had small groups of Swallow-tailed Kites flying on light wings above the sweltering heat. Elegant Egrets flew past with their beaks hanging open, panting as they flew from one pond to another. And dipping their toes in the water wasn’t exactly cooling—even when we drove to the beach in Clearwater, the water was warm.

The focus of the trip was visiting our boy Joey, which may be why my interest in birds became centered on parents and their children. Baby mockingbirds were all over the place, hiding in thick foliage, but making a soft, simple but musical call every minute or two to help their parents keep track of them. They were adorable, with their tiny stumps of tails and the babyish soft yellow gapes on the sides of their beaks. They were all at the itchy stage of feather growth, and whenever I found one and watched it for several minutes, I saw it spend most of that time preening. But they were tricky to find, hiding in thick foliage, their ventriloqual calls seeming to come from no particular direction. Baby Red-bellied Woodpeckers were easier to see, sitting on the trunks of palm trees, calling frequently as they practiced feeding themselves and then grew impatient and begged their parents for food. They were sort of like our own Joey, who is independent enough to be buying his own groceries, but was happy to let us take him out to eat. Like baby mockingbirds, he grooms himself and is having plenty of fun stretching his own wings and going off on his own, and soon he won’t want to take anything from us. He’ll probably spend most of his life thousands of miles away from us, whole orders of magnitude farther away from his parents than mockingbirds go from theirs, but he’ll always be our Joey, and we’ll keep far closer than mockingbirds do to their young in other ways. I was teary saying goodbye to him, but awfully glad that unlike mockingbirds we humans have phones and computers and airplanes and cars.