A little less than a month before mother’s day (May 10th), a pair of bluebirds made their nest in one of the bluebird houses in our backyard in Atlanta. I was away studying at the university at the time, but my parents described to me in phone conversations the process familiar to anyone who has seen birds build a nest in their yard: first the birds made tentative visits to the site, then they began to carry in straw, twigs, and grass, finally the mother disappeared inside to lay the eggs and sit on them. We’ve had the good fortune of seeing several bluebird families build their houses and hatch their young in our yard over the past few years, and we were just as excited this time as we had been in the past. We knew that it would only be a matter of time before we would have little speckled bluebird babies chasing mom and dad around, begging piteously for foods with their shrieks and fluttering wings. (The chicks’ whimpering is cute and amusing, the parents’ forbearance inspiring.)
When I returned to Atlanta on May 7th with the semester finished, the babies had been hatched about a week and a half prior. Standing on the back porch you could hear the peeps coming from the nest, rising to a crescendo whenever mom brought back a bug, a seed, a crumble of suet. But I noticed something wrong—it was only ever mom bringing back food. The dad was seemingly out of the picture. As I later learned, this is rarely a good sign in songbird nests; one parent can usually only shuttle 60–70% of the food that two can. Over the next few days, it became obvious that dad had indeed abandoned his family; but adding insult to injury, he still came to the feeders once or twice a day! We all admired the mother bluebird’s tireless effort to make up the deficit in help. She seemed bedraggled and tired, but never stopped from ferrying insects to her children. We also noticed that this mother bluebird had something of a feather ‘dysfunction’: around the base of her left leg, a tuft of white feathers trailed behind. (You can see this in the picture above, or the final one below.) Molting accident? Cosmetic defect? This is exactly what we assumed at first, since the blemish did not seem to impede her nurturing much.
This story comes to a head on mother’s day. That Sunday morning (May 10th) we noticed that the babies seemed to be very close to fledging. They eagerly thrust their heads through the entrance to the bluebird box, and followed with interest the passing creatures. When mom visited, they clamored to the entrance, and always seemed right on the verge of following her when she flew away. She clearly wanted them to fledge, because each time after bringing food she would station herself nearby in sight, and patiently wait to see if they would make the attempt. They came close on several occasions—I was set up with my camera to capture the moment—but as the hours wore on, 8AM, 9AM, 10AM . . . they never seemed to have quite enough courage to shove off. Meanwhile, early afternoon came around and mother was still working hard to bring the increasingly petulant chicks food. ‘What an wonderful treat,’ we thought, ‘to see the bluebird babies fledge on mother’s day.’
That’s when disaster struck. As mother brought food to the babies, we noticed that she was having a more and more difficult time collecting it and hanging onto the bird box to feed it them. She was beginning to fly erratically, almost drunkenly: she swept about in large, unfocused patterns, barely able to land on branches or railings, almost falling from her perch when she did so. Exhaustion? Perhaps. Things continued to get worse, while her flight continued growing messier and messier. She lost her footing on the railing and slipped off, struggling back. She wildly banged into the side of the house before clinging desperately to a nearby trunk. And then, when I was growing more concerned, she missed her perch entirely and plummeted nearly twenty feet to the ground. I ran over to check on her, but she struggled up and took off. Only a few moments later, she crashed down again, her body contorted. Yet she struggled up again; she was not at all comfortable with the idea of me coming near her. She managed to pull herself under a bush in the backyard, huddled up there looking forlorn and exhausted. Nearby, her babies continued their plaintive peeps, ignorant of the mother’s suffering.
I rushed inside and looked up rehabbers nearby who could advise me on the situation. The mother bluebird remained in the backyard all the while, showing no inclination to fly off—but also no inclination to leave the area where her babies were. Since it was mother’s day, a Sunday afternoon, I didn’t get any immediate responses to the messages I left. The only thing I could think to do was remain inside so as not to distress the mother further and to give her a chance to recover. A few hours later, I received a call back from a local rehabber who told me to bring in the mother and babies first thing in the morning. But when I went outside to check on the mother, I couldn’t find her. The contact on the phone was insistent that I bring the mother if I could, so I set out to rummage around and see where she was. I thought that putting her in a shoebox lined with towels for the night would at least keep her warm and safe from predators; the babies I knew were fine, since their box was well protected. As soon as I spotted the glimpse of blue plumage that told me where the mother was, I knew it was too late: she was dead.
Now I was truly distressed. What had been planned as a joyous mother’s day activity, the fledging babies, had turned into a nightmare. The long-suffering mother of the bluebird chicks had died (when inspecting the body it became clear that the ‘blemish’ on her flank had actually been a festering wound), and now in all probability the children she had worked so hard to raise would also. The injustice of nature! To make matters even worse, I had plans the next morning—my brother’s graduation—that prevented me from bringing the babies in when the center opened (9AM). By that time, we would be listening to Salman Rushdie’s commencement address at Emory, and I wouldn’t be able to return until the early afternoon. I had read that baby birds abandoned in the nest had about twenty four hours to survive before the situation turned critical; it would be a close thing for me to be back in time to gather them up and drive them out to a center that would receive them.
My first plan was to wake up early (4:30AM or so), pack the babies up, and drop them outside of the rehab center before it opened with the hope that no predators would find them in the intervening hours. (The dangers posed by roving opossums, foxes, raccoons, and even squirrels also eliminated the option of bringing them over Sunday evening. They were safe, at least, in their nest.) I was talking over the problem with my mom when she had the idea of getting in touch with a local habitat coordinator she knew from volunteer work nearby. She managed to find his number, and I gave him a ring to see if he would be able to stop by and cart the birds over. He suggested this: since the birds had been in the nest almost two weeks and were very close to fledging, why didn’t I wait and see if they managed to get out on their own the next morning? That seemed like a great plan, but it meant that if they didn’t get out on their own, we would still be cutting things very close on getting them to the shelter. Nevertheless, we gave it a shot.
To make a long story short, when I returned on Monday afternoon, I approached the bluebird box and found that the babies had fledged! I also heard the babies cheeping in the trees around me, which meant they hadn’t been nabbed by any predators yet. Over the next few hours, the cheeping faded as the birds dispersed into the forest behind our backyard. I was tremendously relieved. What had nearly been a tragedy on mother’s day turned into a potent symbol of what the day is meant to celebrate: the mother bluebird gave everything she had and more for her young to have a chance outside of the nest. Although she hadn’t survived to see them fledge and make their own way in the world, her persistence in spite of her role as a single parent and the injury she had suffered meant that her children survived to have a chance. Right up until she couldn’t fly any longer she brought them bugs, crumbles of suet, or whatever she could find around the yard for them.
So here’s to mothers—who we should celebrate everyday!