May 22, 2018
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Can a human and bird mother get along?

By Sarah Smiley

A mother robin made a nest outside our kitchen door. It wasn’t a great choice as far as locations go. I’m sure she realizes that now. But we were on vacation at the time, so how could she have known?

Over the last month, as I’ve watched the robin perfect her nest, lay eggs in it, incubate them and then, finally, feed the babies (she even has three — I’m sure they are boys), I’ve felt a deep kinship with her.

First, I watched as she sat on the newly created nest and struggled with her eggs. Maybe this was just my imagination. Everything I’ve read indicates that female birds do not gain weight when they have an egg, nor do they feel pain when they lay it. (Of course, everything I’ve read was probably written by a man.) Still, I’m quite sure the mother robin looked plump and uncomfortable the day before I climbed a ladder and spotted a new blue egg in her nest. Her chest was squished against her neck (“Lie down,” I wanted to tell her, “It’s the only way to keep everything where it should be: not in your throat.”), and she was breathing heavily with her beak wide open. I bet her ankles were swollen.

We shared a moment when the robin looked through the window at me sitting at the kitchen table. Again, maybe this was my imagination, but she seemed angry at the male robin in a tree nearby. And well she should be! I nodded to show my empathy. I was like the compassionate nurse who knows that the daddy bird just doesn’t get it.

A few days later, the robin sat on her eggs and stayed there to incubate them. I shooed kids away from the area and tried to give the mom a large radius of calm and quiet. I worried that seeing my children with lightsabers and swords might make the mother second-guess her decision to start a family. “They aren’t all like this,” I wanted to say. “I’ve witnessed kids who sit and color. Really, I have! But, well, you need opposable thumbs for that.”

Another two weeks passed, and suddenly a tiny gray, fuzzy head popped up from the nest. The babies had been born! One by one, they opened their beaks and swayed back and forth, eager for a worm. Persistent little beggars.

It was around this time that my relationship with the mother began to change. It’s the same with human women: We commiserate over pregnancies, but once the babies are born, it’s every mom for herself: “My stroller is bigger than yours, and I feed my baby only organic.”

Maybe it was the way I always swept away the robin’s mess — pieces of grass and twigs that fell from the nest. Perhaps she thought my actions were saying something. Or maybe it was the drip from our window air conditioner that coincidentally fell just a few feet away from the nest. More likely, however, our rift can be blamed on that time I saw the mother bird sit on her babies.

I was reading the morning paper, and I heard the baby birds peeping just outside the screen door. They were swaying again, begging for food. The mother flew back and forth, busily presenting one morsel for each mouth. But the babies kept peeping and swaying. The mother could not fly fast enough.

Then all at once, while one baby still had its head resting on the edge of the nest, the mother sat on her babies. The peeping and swaying stopped. The birds gave up and went to sleep.

The mother looked at me and I at her. Her face was indignant. Mine, accusing. I had become that mother at Walmart who gawks and shakes her head while another parent disciplines her child.

The robin continued to stare at me. I knew what she was saying:

“Yeah, I’d like to see you try to feed three babies all at once. I don’t have thumbs, or tools, or even a monogamous mate. And these babies! They just keep begging and begging. Their swaying never stops. They’re fighting and pushing each other in the nest. I can’t even comfortably fit in here with them. Judge me and I’ll judge you: I saw your 4-year-old eat two packages of fruit snacks in a row. And your 10-year-old? Well, he doesn’t wash his hands before dinner. And does your middle son eat anything else besides peanut butter?”

I reminisced about the robin’s pregnancy, when she and I were a team, when we understood each other.

Later that day, my family gathered at the dinner table for a meal. The bird nest was just outside the screen door. My boys were exceptionally hungry. I went back and forth from the stove to the table with multiple helpings for them. I hardly had a chance to sit down myself.

I looked out the window at the robin. She looked back. “Bet you wish you could just sit on them,” she said.


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