Mosaic Community Essays

"Birds"

It was 2020, the summer of COVID, when my parents, now in their 80s, decided to adopt baby birds. 

Here’s how it happened: in the process of cutting dead wood off a tree in my parents’ backyard, trimmers had accidentally sawed off a segment which contained a nest hidden in a cavity of the trunk. This nest contained four sparrows, fresh to the world. 

My parents were fraught with worry. They called animal control, the local bird sanctuary. The consensus was: leave the chicks alone. If they were to have any hope for survival, their parents still needed to be able to find them in the nest where they’d left them. 

So, my parents positioned the log containing the nest on the corner bench of their backyard deck. It was a hot July, so my dad covered the log with a beach umbrella and my mom left a cup of water nearby on a table for the birds. It looked like something that belonged on a postmodern cruise ship. 

One of my parents’ sources had suggested feeding the chicks tuna fish of all things, but my parents were worried it would only attract, y’know, cats. 

When my parents explained to me what had happened, my opinion was more Darwin than Disney. I told them they should leave the chicks be and let nature take its course. Predators had to eat too!

Then I saw the chicks in person. They were so fragile, four of them shivering in a cramped knot of wood the size of my fist. Fortunately, the parents- the bird parents, that is- found them. And with a vengeance they fed their children, for hours at a time, swooping down to hungry open mouths chirping gimme gimme gimme in that native bird tongue. Watching it, it looked as methodical and clinical as a blood transfusion. 

On the first day, one of the chicks fell out. My mother picked it up, but it wheezed as it was promptly shoved to the bottom of the nest by one of its siblings. It’s a dog eat dog world, or bird eat seed as the case may be, I thought. It’ll be neglected by its parents, I thought, so they can focus on the ones that still have a chance to survive. 

“I pray he makes it,” I remember my mom confiding to me one day. There was so much concern for this little wheezing gray thing in her voice. I wondered where all this concern came from, and where I could find some. 

I remember I was sitting with my mom out on the deck, though we didn’t sit out there for very long anymore. When I visited my parents that summer I didn’t go inside because of COVID, but it didn’t matter anyway because my parents cut my visits so short. The Bird Parents would watch us from the roof, waiting for me to leave so they could sweep down and continue feeding.

It was becoming pretty obvious that my parents were more interested in the drama unfolding outside their window than whatever was happening in quarantine with me (“Took up jogging today!” “Watched all the Star Trek movies!” They didn’t care). 

I’m man enough to admit it. I was getting pretty jealous of the birds. But I think I was even more jealous of the meaning taking care of the birds was giving to my parents’ life. 

My dad lit the deck with Christmas lights and booby-trapped the area with shovels and rakes to spook off predators. Macaulay Culkin couldn’t have done a better job. 

When a storm threatened, they sheltered the log under a picnic table. We were worried the Bird Parents wouldn’t find it, but I guess they still heard the gimme gimme from their children. 

This drama went on for a week. But with a stretch of severe weather on the way and the kids now spitting miniatures of their parents, these fledglings needed to learn how to fend for themselves, and fast. 

It looked like it took a village for it to happen. A knot of sparrows swooped down one by one, an endless assembly line, to feed the chicks. 

Early the next morning, my dad witnessed the first one fly away, and two more fled when no one was looking. The last one, the little wheezer, was naturally leery about leaving the safety of the nest again. But his mother patiently showed him how to hop, and he flew out of the nest and hopped on his own into the relative safety of the bushes. 

After the storm, a flutter of birds came down to clean the nest out and make sure, I guess, no one was left behind. Listen, before you say anything, I’m no ornithologist, I have trouble even pronouncing the word. I don’t know how sparrows really act, if deep down they’re greedy selfish souls who are cold-blooded killers. 

But I saw what care my parents showed them, and even if the rest of my story is schmaltzy anthropomorphizing, the care I saw from them was real. 

And watching how they reacted made me realize something about my own response to the pandemic. I had been following the official advice, staying home and minding my own business, and I thought that was enough. I’d protect myself and my family, and the heck with everybody else. 

Birds dig holes in the lawn, peck cigarette butts in search of sustenance. They try to scrape by, just like most of us. But people like my parents, they try to help, even when that help isn’t recognized, understood or appreciated. They try to help those some of us simply write off, or (guilty as charged) are literally willing to leave to the wolves.

They seem to fundamentally follow that old cliche so many of us resist understanding. That all of us, all living things, are in it together, whether we want to be or not. And we’re all in it together because we’re all of us living things. 

They also showed me that something that looks like a hopeless cause can be anything but. 

Months later, four full-grown birds landed on the log containing the nest, which my parents had left on the porch as a sort of memento. 

They poked around. They looked at my mom. Then they flew away. 

It might’ve been a homecoming, a show of thanks. 

Maybe not. 

But whenever I look at that log, I try to remind myself to be less cynical about Covid and this country. 

I don’t know if half the precautions my parents took- the Christmas lights, the glass of water- really had any effect on helping the birds survive. Ultimately, survival was up to birds, and their parents. 

But at least my parents cared enough to try something.

—Patrick May
Pawtucket, Rhode Island
Susan Johnston

Partner with us to record your story.

Mosaic is brought to you by