After endless cold rainy weeks, we have been suddenly catapulted into spring and summerm with sunshine lighting the fuse for an exposion into bloom of every pollen-bearing thing. Last week, while awaiting delivery of a package, I decided to clean the windows in my apartment. In wiping away the layers of soot and golden dust, I made two interesting discoveries. The first: my apartment is not quite as dark as I thought.
The second: there is a robin's nest in the bush just outside my bathroom window, and hunkered down in it, several hatchlings. I had not seen them until I opened the window all the way, as the glass is frosted. They were motionless and quiet until a parent arrived with food – then they stretched their necks like E.T., their gaping mouths outlined in bright yellow, clamoring, "Put food here! Here! HERE!"
Several days of engrossing baby robin watching have ensued, with Mrs. Peel sharing the observation post with me. She is riveted to the scene, and has learned to chatter "ack ack ack" in the ancient cat tradition.
I have been saying my own version of "ack ack ack". And I have been counting. Sometimes it has looked like four babies are occupying the nest, sometimes three. This morning, it is three. But for the first time, I can see clearly that, a day or two ago, it was four. There are three fat chicks in the nest, pushing and nudging each other, stretching tiny feathered wings. There is also one little head hanging over the side of the nest, from a thin limp neck. One of the chicks has died.
So many things can kill babies that it is a wonder any creatures survive. Myriads of survival mechanisms exist. Some species, like horses, bear young that can be up and running away from predators in a matter of a few hours. Others, humans for instance, and wolves, have a longer outside-the-womb helplessness, and mothers, packs, and tribes that assist in the care. Still others have vast numbers of offspring that require virtually no parental care, ensuring that at least some will make it. Years ago, in a time of frustration and despair over a pre-existing flea infestation in a house I had moved into with my animals, I had a dream conversation with the Queen of Fleas. "I need your people to stop biting us, and leave," I told her. "If they don't, I will use strong poisons, and they will die." She turned a cold eye to me, and conveying the attitude of a shrug, said, "What is that to me?"
Four eggs, three living chicks: 75% survival rate so far. Not bad, I guess. I am reading Ron Powers' splendid book, Mark Twain, a Life, and have learned that Twain saw three of his four children die in his lifetime, which in his era was not uncommon. The losses never left him.
The robins' parents' behaviors don't seem to have changed. They race to and fro, bringing food and removing wastes. The surviving chicks are still quiet till the parents arrive, although this morning I heard the largest chick start to make a tentative version of the adult robin's bossy "cheep!" That one, at least, will probably do well.
I've lived long enough to know that living things die, even sweet, innocent, beloved beings. So I am not devastated as I would have been as a child, and not broken and wailing in pain on the floor, as I was when my dogs Shekinah and Shadow, and my BobbyCat died. But there is a sadness on me nevertheless, and, rising on a breath, a prayer for the little wings that, in life, never got to fly.