For the Birds Radio Program: Children and Birds (Placeholder)
Laura’s children are growing up in a strange household. (3:58)
My children set off for school each day from a not-quite-normal household. Seven-year-old Joey leaves his two roommates, Mortimer the starling, and a crow with a broken wing whom Joey handles with expert confidence and gentleness. Katie, who’s five, sleeps with a nighthawk next to her bed. She is in charge of feeding it and exercising it, which she does like an ornithologist. Tommy is only three, but his small pudgy fingers have gently held a tiny, fragile baby Pine Siskin, a Cedar Waxwing, robins, and Katie’s nighthawk. Tommy developed a special attachment to Woody Woodstock, the Blue Jay who was poisoned by chemical lawn sprays. Tommy, who like the jay is also little and unable to control his own life in the face of bossy grownups, holds and strokes the baby jay with a tenderness I’d never have expected of a three-year-old, and is proud to share his room with him.
There is a cost for everything. Taking care of 15 wild birds in a summer, most of whom required serious attention several times a day, has meant we couldn’t take a vacation, or even an overnight in the Twin Cities so we could go to the zoo and museums. When my husband and I had our 20-year high school reunion in Chicago, the children, home with Grandma, took care of most of the birds, but the Blue Jay was in such grave condition that we had to bring him along for the long car ride, making for a less-than-romantic escape from parenthood. My children clean up molted feathers and bird droppings in their rooms like other kids pick up socks and toys, and I wonder when the day will come when they get embarrassed about having a house so different from their friends’.
Raising children is a lot like rehabilitating birds. The goal in either case is to give them the strength and skills to question our authority and finally to leave us. There’s aggravation and mess, my time isn’t my own anymore, and my office has to be cleaned a couple of times a day—cleared of broken crayons and bird droppings. But there’s also a matchless intensity of joy in watching a shattered nighthawk heal and take wing; in remembering the trusting look in a Pine Siskin’s eyes, his lungs punctured by a cat, when a month later his special note of greeting rings out from the treetops; in watching Joey master wheelies on his bike; in seeing the look of fear combined with curiosity and pride in Katie’s eyes as she sets off for the first day of kindergarten; in feeling Tommy’s grip loosen on my finger as he drifts off to sleep at lullaby time.
At night, when the house is quiet and at pease, I like to review the situation—to record the progress each bird has made that day in my rehab journal, and the funny or sweet things the kids have done in my personal journal. But most nights I don’t have the time or energy. I’m too busy fighting off sleep myself as I write scripts or prepare slide programs. The earth is filled with beautiful treasures, but we get so caught up in day-to-day hassles that we seldom take the time to stop and look at the migrating birds coursing through the skies, or the children migrating through our lives. We must take the time to see and appreciate our true valuables before, like the last robin song of summer, they are gone without a trace.