For the Birds Radio Program: Joey the Eagle

Original Air Date: Oct. 8, 1999

Laura’s son completed the last requirements for becoming an Eagle Scout, with not a moment to spare!

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Eighteen years ago I turned into a mom. I put a lot more thought into the decision than birds seem to. They go strictly by the seat of their pants, and never seem to agonize over world population problems or whether nature or nurture is more likely to make them an unfit parent. They just do it. During the brief time that birds are taking care of eggs and then nestlings, they spent virtually 100 percent of their waking hours taking care of those babies, but after a matter of weeks, they’re totally finished with their parental responsibilities for almost a year. Some species, like robins, raise a second or even third batch of birds in summer, but by now their babies have all fledged and the parents are off for adult adventures until next spring.

Human parental duties last a lot longer, and if we get time off each day for our own stuff, we still are responsible each and every day, even when our children are off visiting friends or at summer camp. But I think we have it better than birds. Even though they gain freedom a lot quicker, I don’t think they actually enjoy the parenting as much as welcan. Even the jolliest Blue Jay parents get bound down by the work involved in feeding five hungry mouths constantly, and they never have a moment to play with their young. I don’t think birds even have a clue what playing is, at least not when it comes to parenting. No Candy Land or the license-plate game or Twenty Questions or listening to bad jokes for birds.

The little person who turned me into a mom used to be called Joey. Now he’s Joe or Toast, and he’s taller than me and knows a lot more answers to the questions of life than I do. He has longer hair than some of his teachers like, prefers to do the absolute minimum on school assignments, and would rather play video games than accompany me to my favorite sewage ponds to do some birding. But his happy brown eyes are the exact same as when he was a curious and smiling baby, and even at the lowest points of adolescence, he’s always woken up happy.

When Joey was in second grade, he joined the Cub Scouts. I helped his Webelos den to earn the Naturalist pin by helping them learn about bird migration, and when he became a Boy Scout, I helped his troop earn the Bird Study merit badge. I never seemed to have enough time to get as involved as I would have liked, but I did what I could. Last week, Joey attended his last meeting as a Boy Scout. And today as I write this he’s just gotten the last signatures he needs on the last cards he must turn in by tomorrow to the scouting office to apply to become an Eagle Scout. After today it would be too late, because Sunday he turns into a man—18 years old, the age when a boy is through with being a Boy Scout and loses his chance of becoming an Eagle Scout.

In some ways, this system of requiring boys to finish the requirements by the age of 18 seems arbitrary and even a bit unfair. Boys who didn’t grow up in supportive homes with parents helping them or at least getting the paint and wood-working tools to build the cars for the pine wood derbies, make the potluck dinners for the Blue and Gold banquets, and giving them the love and support kids need to thrive would have a heck of a time finishing the requirements for this distinction. Just thinking about the boys and girls who never know a nurturing home makes me sad. Birds may not get to play with their parents, but adult birds dedicate themselves to nurturing their young, and so there aren’t painful inequities in the lives of adolescent birds that we force our children to endure. But the deadline is something concrete to shoot for, and without it, Joey would certainly not have gotten out when he did to construct the bridges at Harley Nature Center that were his Eagle Scout project, and he certainly wouldn’t have been out driving tonight at 9:30, desperately trying to get the last signatures he needs from his troop leaders. They must be filed by tomorrow or he loses his chance of becoming an eagle forever.

Bald Eagles were described by Benjamin Franklin as birds of “very bad moral character, and often very lousy,” rather the antithesis of the Scout’s aim of being cheerful, clean, and reverent. A close examination of the eagle’s character could be as disillusioning as looking too closely into the lives of our presidents. But for all that, there is something magnificently uncompromising and wise in the eyes of an eagle–an embodiment of a spirit that gives us something to aspire to. As I watch my first-born baby spread his wings and soar, making college plans and playing a big role in his high school plays, my heart swells as full as when I saw my first Bald Eagle over a lifetime ago. I’m glad the scouting program has stayed uncompromising in their Eagle Scout program, and I’m proud that my son aimef for an reached such an estimable goal.