For the Birds Radio Program: Learning to Drive

Original Air Date: Oct. 14, 2002 Rerun Dates: July 22, 2003; March 21, 2003

Watching children grow up and start driving set Laura’s thoughts to Blue Jays.

Duration: 3′59″


In the past two weeks, my younger son passed his driver’s license test and turned 17; and my older son turned 21. Of the three milestones, the most significant to me was Tommy driving.

He’s actually been driving for a long time–in Minnesota you have to have your permit for at least a year before you are allowed to take the test. That’s sort of the way Blue Jays do it, too. If we think of the point when their babies jump out of the nest as getting their learner’s permit, it takes weeks before they’ve finally mastered the flying skills they’ll need to be licensed.

We adult humans usually pay a driving school to give our children some driving basics, but they spend months depending on us to ride with them, guiding them and sharing our own skills. Over the months, we see first hand their developing proficiency, and sense as their nervousness slowly gives way to confidence. This can be an enormous source of pride and satisfaction for us.

There are many rites of passage from the teen years to adulthood, but driving is perhaps the one most intimately shared between child and parent. But despite this pleasure, we also feel trepidation, knowing full well, from our own close calls, from attending funerals of friends and family members over the years, and from news stories we’ve heard over and over since our own childhoods, how terribly dangerous driving can be. At the same time that our children are rejoicing in their new-found power and freedom, our hearts are thumping in fear. It takes time to adjust to this new phase.

But this rite of passage is even harder on Blue Jays. My three children each started learning to drive some months before turning 16, and between each, we had almost a year’s respite before the next one started. A typical pair of Blue Jays raises five babies at once each year, with all five jumping out of the nest for the first time on the same day, hopping here and there, the parents scrambling to find enough food for them and to keep track of them all. If something horrible happens to one baby, nobody even notifies the parents, who will never know about the cat or toxic lawn that took their little fledgling’s life.

Adult jays do their very best to give their young the expertise they’ll need to fit in with Blue Jay society and travel the world safely, so focused on this that they take no time out to have a career or play a game of golf. But despite the fact that Blue Jay parents devote 100% of their time and attention to their family, most of their babies will be dead within the year. Like the Walt Disney movie says, “It’s Tough to Be a Bird.”

Tommy’s a lot more experienced and proficient now than when he first took the wheel, and has a good balance between caution and confidence, so I’m satisfied that he’ll be a fine driver. I look around my neighborhood at a couple of Blue Jay families, the babies still sticking with their parents, as they will for at least a few weeks more. I feel a bond with the adult jays, with their bravery in raising children in this uncertain world, their hope and trust in the future even as that future could destroy everything they love. Overall I feel ever so much luckier than they. But as I watch Tommy drive off into the sunset, I suddenly reconsider. As hard as Blue Jay parents have it in some ways, at least their babies never, ever ask to borrow their car.