For the Birds Radio Program: Tommy's Birthday

Original Air Date: Oct. 7, 1999

If Laura were a hawk, she’d stay larger than her sons.

Audio missing


Once a year, people celebrate their birthday. Most Northland bird birthdays are concentrated between May and July, and they don’t bother to celebrate even then, but people birthdays are more spread out through the year than birds’, and are more festive occasions. I’m not sure why this is. Up until people are about 21, they seem to get a great deal of satisfaction seeing their age go up each year. The year I turned 10 and got into double digits I was thrilled, and 11 seemed even better for a girl born on November 11th. I was pretty excited to turn 18 even though in Illinois at the time that wasn’t the age of majority yet, and was super thrilled to turn the big 21. That turning point had the added bonus that my mother had promised to give me $100 if I got to 21 without smoking. That was the easiest, and probably the best $100 I ever earned.

During their 20s, most people still don’t mind the progression and often insist that they’ll never mind getting older. But for most of us, that all changes by the late 40s, when some people I know seem downright discouraged by the advance in years that accompanies each birthday. But still we send cards and gifts and sometimes even have a party.

A lot of people were born on October 7, which, by the way, happens to be National Frugal Fun Day. Birds may not share that birthday, but they certainly know how to have fun without spending money. People who have October 7th birthdays include Yo-Yo Ma, Desmond Tutu, Oliver North, John Mellencamp, June Allison, and my little boy Tommy. Actually, even though I think of him as my little boy, this 14-year-old teenager who goes by the name of Tom is now a couple of inches taller than me. I look at family photos and wonder when the size scale changed. Russ and I used to have to sit or kneel down to keep all of us nicely in the picture frame, and naturally we were both in back. Now I’m the shortest person in a family of five, wondering what the heck happened. Baby eagles leave the nest bigger than their parents, like teenagers with oversized egos who think they know all the answers, but with age and experience they shrink back down to size. Most birds stay exactly the size of their parents, and hawk mothers are always larger than their sons.

Like many adolescent avian males, Tommy produces a lot of music, though his comes from a tenor sax rather than a syrinx. He’s more of a Cedar Waxwing in temperament than a blustery, intense, competitive Sharp-tailed Grouse, so he’s always pleasant to have around even as he’s grown taller than me. Like sharp-tails, Tommy’s competitions with other males are performed in small gatherings, but are more cerebral than physical, as the boys play Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars role-playing games.

More birthdays will come and go, and Tommy will prove he’s no hawk by growing even taller, leaving me in the dust. Before I know it, he’ll have turned into a man. But somehow he’s always going to be the same two-year-old that I used to drag on birding adventures, the six-year-old who used to let me walk him to the school bus stop wearing my binoculars just in case a good bird came by, the twelve-year-old who cringed but eventually forgave me when I made birdcalls in front of his junior high science class. Within a few months of hatching, eagles and Sharp-tailed Grouse go off on their own, quickly reaching a point where they don’t recognize their parents. Their parents probably forget them, too. This is one way n which we humans are luckier than most birds. For even when Tommy grows up, I’ll always get to be his mom.