“That robin’s been working hard on a nest here, I’ve been watching her for days,” my husband told me as he handed me a cup of coffee one morning in May.
As our family’s de facto lunch-packer, coffee-brewer, and kid’s-breakfast-maker (I’m so lucky), my husband spends a good hour in front of the kitchen window each morning. The window looks directly onto a lush ornamental pear tree in our side yard.
The nest was tucked into a crook where a big branch veered off from the tree trunk. It was protected beautifully from wind and harsh sun and was somewhat disguised from predators’ prying eyes.
On a Sunday in late May, after cautiously looking around for a protective mama bird and not finding her, my husband stealthily reached his phone up over the nest and snapped a quick photo of its contents: three perfect, blue eggs.
As the following week passed, we made frequent checks out the window, watching for babies. We Googled “robin eggs” to learn about the gestation period (12 to 14 days after the egg is laid), the period of time we could expect robins to live in the nest after hatching (about 10 to 15 days after fledgling), and whether we needed to worry about mama robin abandoning the eggs or babies if we were to get too close (not likely, thank goodness).
And on the Wednesday evening after Memorial Day, I tiptoed over to the tree, stood balanced on my toes, and peered over to see if the nest had any activity inside. And to my surprise, I was met with three fuzzy tops of heads. BABIES! There they were, already instinctively waving their opened mouths, blindly (their eyes were still unopened) waiting for their mother to poke food inside their hungry faces.
Meanwhile, as our babies (as we’d come to think of them) were passing their first days in our pear tree, our 9-year-old daughter was doing some important growing herself. We’d bought her a new “big-girl” bike on Memorial Day, and suddenly, in a matter of minutes, she went from struggling to pedal, afraid of hills and reticent to ride, to flying down the hill to her buddy’s house down the hill and around the corner (and out of sight), with barely a wave back to us.
Another evening later that same week, I sat at the dining room table and watched through the sliding glass door as she, with no prompting from us at all, reassembled the patio chairs and their cushions on our deck. The chairs had all been messily strewn for days since the prior weeks’ storm. She meticulously reordered the lounge chairs, gently placing the cushions on top and fluffing them, carefully arranging the little ottoman just so.
“Wow,” I said to myself. “So responsible. So grown up.” Through the glass door, she all of a sudden looked so grown up.
The baby birds finally opened their eyes, and by the first weekend in June, Mama and Papa Robin were taking round-the-clock turns plunging bugs and worms into those tiny, devouring mouths, which were getting bigger by the day. My own mom came that weekend for a visit from California, and we never even turned the TV on once, so consumed were we with the fascinating show going on outside our window. We’d laugh as Mama Robin would plop her butt on top of the fast-growing babies to keep them warm at night, and we marveled at how long and strong their necks had grown in such a short amount of time. Even after she drove home to the Bay Area, my mom would text daily for baby updates: “How are those babies? Do they look like they’ll fly soon?” And, after my report of snake sightings in the area, “Do you think the babies are safe?”
We became extraordinarily, needlessly protective over these babies who were receiving the best possible care from their two capable parents, doing all the things nature had provided for baby birds everywhere, all day, all over the world, since the dawn of time. We went so far as to keep our cat out of the windowsill, after noticing that Mama and Papa seemed to be hovering and hesitating to deliver their worms to the nest and fearing that perhaps our little “predator” had them spooked.
As the next 10 days passed, we began seeing only one gray head alongside mama in the nest. We feared the other two babies had been lost and curse the unknown force — snakes? bats? blue jays? a fall? — that had taken them from us. We worried for poor Mama’s feelings. We were afraid to turn away for a moment for fear we’d miss the big flying lesson that would take her last baby from us all.
When the baby was 10 days old, our daughter complained that her chest hurt.
“You mean, like a cold” my husband asked. “Are you sick?”
“No, it hurts on the outside, like here,” she said, pointing to her breasts.
“Oh,” I said, feeling excited, terrified, and grief-stricken all at once. “I know what that is.”
Fifteen days after I discovered those blind, fuzzy heads in the nest, I stood up from the desk in my home office and stretched, preparing to go to the kitchen and make a glass of iced tea. I took a second to glance out the office window, toward the pear tree. Perched on the fence next to it were two birds: Mama Robin and another one, a gray, fuzzy robin that was almost Mama’s size. And as quick as a wink, that young, gray robin flew, strong and fast, to the fence across the alley from our house. Here he sat for just a moment, under mama’s watchful eye. And then he flew around the corner and out of sight. Mama sat staring in that direction for a long while, and I was mesmerized by her, looking at once forlorn, lonely, strong, and proud.
Days later, I took my daughter to buy her first training bra. I felt like that mama bird, watching as nature was doing its thing, acknowledging that even though I was cheering with her, inside I was thinking how someday, in the future that was coming in the blink of an eye, she would leave my nest, too. And I hoped by then I would have done a good enough job that she’d have wings strong enough to fly.