I am glued to my computer screen, an addict, watching and listening as three California bird families incubated their eggs and now care for their young. Two seems a magic number. The third egg of the peregrine falcons atop the U.C. Berkeley Campanile clock tower never hatched. Not for lack of trying. The inhabitant attempted mightily but unsuccessfully to crack through to the outside world over the course of several days. I wonder where the egg went, having disappeared from their pebble nest. The ospreys hatched three young, high atop the Richmond Bridge with steel cables supporting their raft-like nest, traffic humming far below, occasional construction noise, gulls crisscrossing the water, and a speedboat or sailboat moving through the picture from time to time. Two of the osprey chicks were constantly visible; I spied the third on rare occasion and then not at all. Where did his tiny body go? The bald eagles at Big Bear have two chicks in a nest cradled between the generous arms of an old pine tree that sways in the wind, the lake far below, a stream gurgling continuously, the regular call of a songbird punctuating the calm.
When the osprey chicks were still incubating I watched, rapt, as one osprey partner alighted on the nest, carefully folded it’s wings and delicately walked the perimeter of the ingenious weaving of large branches, smaller sticks, a red plastic straw, dried seaweed, strips of bark, and dehydrated grasses. The seated partner remained on the eggs. After circling the nest several times, the osprey repeatedly kicked the seated partner until he or she arose and took flight. The kicker promptly settled onto the eggs.
All of the parents sit atop their young, keeping them warm and sheltered, though the peregrine chicks, now too large to fit beneath a parent, hunker under the prominent feathery adult chest for warmth. All the chicks nestle against each other, especially when the parents are out hunting. They remind me of my boys holding hands in the side-by-side stroller and, later, arranging their cots next to each other in preschool, hands clasped during their long blissful naps.
The addition of new material to the eagle nest is entrancing, usually involving the arrival of a large unwieldy branch that is dragged first to one location and then another, the chicks ducking or squeezing under the limb to avoid being smacked or worse, dragged out of the nest. The eagle parent pulls and pushes, nudges and tucks the branch, regards the outcome, then changes his or her mind, transporting the branch to a new spot and going through the same pattern as before. I can never tell what makes one spot right and another wrong. A battered piece of rectangular wooden siding appeared one day in the osprey nest, an ungainly item to transport for a bird. Every few days it shows up in a new spot. There are smaller adjustments to the eagle and osprey nests as the adults grab a tuft of grass or moss or dried seaweed in their beak and mound it in a new place.
Feeding time is dramatic. The eagles bring giant fish to the nest, holding them down with their prehistoric looking claws, tearing at the flesh, delicately offering bits to their offspring. The adults’ talons are extraordinarily nimble, but can also prove quite clumsy, like someone with exceedingly long fingernails attempting to garden or play an instrument.
The osprey chicks also feed on sashimi. Once I saw an adult osprey feed the other adult while the chicks craned their necks upward, eager for a serving. After the chicks had also been fed, one of the adult ospreys removed the remaining fish from the nest and flew to some nearby bridge cables to dine in peace.
The peregrines consume pigeon, wolfing down the meat, feathers and all. Several uneaten feathers and a few bones grace the nest, then disappear. It is like the tale of the shoemaker and the elves: I have never witnessed the cleanup. All of the offspring are ravenous and cry out for more. When the peregrine chicks were smaller, the dark red of their open mouths and throats left no doubt as to where the food should be delivered. The adults are remarkably even-handed when feeding their offspring, focusing first on one chick who, when full, becomes silent and dozes off, then turning their attention to the other.
The bald eagle siblings are growing at an astonishing rate, their pin feathers (the growing adult feathers that appear as shafts) poking through the down, their feet and beaks immense, transformed to ungainly preteens with abundant dark feathers amidst their grey baby down. They totter around the nest and alternate between snuggling, bickering, preening, and vying for food. Once fed and sated, they conk out as if in a drunken stupor, their wings and legs at odd angles, too tired to compose their bodies neatly, and heave immense visible sighs in their slumber.
The osprey chicks wobble around the nest, at times alarmingly close to the edge. They hold their wings awkwardly, as if in a sling on either side of their body, stretching stiffly, bumbling forward and then keeling over headfirst. The transformation from toddling to walking in my boys was as amusing and faltering.
The peregrine babies, now a patchwork of white fluff and dark feathers, stretch their wings, barely able to expand them in the confines of the nest box, teetering off balance like a child trying to run with flippers. In more recent days the peregrine chicks matured dramatically almost overnight, their bodies distinctly plumper, graced with many more black feathers, their baby down waving in the breeze like the tips of a feather boa. One chick was outside the pebble nest and off camera for so long I backed up the recording to make certain all was well. It was then that I witnessed a critical juncture in the family dynamics. Around the same time I was cleaning up from breakfast, the chicks were putting up an intense racket. Their vocal chords have developed impressively and the buzzing sound they make, formerly endearing, is vexing. When my boys were infants their cries were quite tame; as they grew, like the chicks, the volume of their cries amplified considerably and I would come running. As soon as the adult peregrine arrived with a morsel of bird, the bigger of the chicks ducked under the parent’s body, nabbed the food, and hustled off to begin feasting solo in a corner. The parent tried fruitlessly to reclaim the food while the other chick scuttled to and fro, raising a ruckus. After a minute, the smaller chick wrested the remaining mouthful from the larger sibling. By the time the parent grabbed the food back there was precious little left. Soon thereafter, the adult peregrine brought a large bird wing to the nest and began plucking off the longest feathers as if in a race against time. The same shenanigans ensued, with both chicks attempting to pilfer the wing, but this time the parent held fast and doled out bites to the youngsters steadily.
When I hear the chicks calling, I startle as I did when I heard my babies cry. Somewhere deep in my DNA my maternal instincts are triggered. I rush to determine whether something is amiss, fervently hoping a parent returns quickly and attends to the baby birds.
Uncharacteristically for late May it has been snowing in Big Bear and the eagle nest has been blanketed in white. I hoped the cold would not take a toll on the youngsters. I think about them at night and am relieved to see them preening and eating the following morning. Recently I watched the peregrine nest on a particularly cold night and saw the chicks huddled alone in a corner. I waited expectantly for an adult to return, eventually retiring to bed and playing out several worst-case scenarios. In the morning I found the family intact, repeating their daily routines.
Late last night a wet snow descended on the eagle nest. The eagle parent covered as much of the chicks as possible, but though this afternoon was sunny and only a few remnants of snow remained in the nest corners, one of the chicks remained motionless. My heart skipped a beat as I watched for any reassuring movement… to no avail. The website posted the news: the chick had perished in the night, unable to fit fully under the parent, still lacking the waterproof feathers it needed to stay warm.
When my oldest son was about four years old, after several recent deaths among our family and friends, he asked me why people had to die. I paused, thinking how to respond meaningfully to this weighty existential question, then replied: “To make room for all the babies in the world.”
I am enchanted daily by bird life in my garden. My study window looks out on a dwarf apple tree that remains runt-like after more than 50 years. I have hung a birdbath and bird feeder from the branches. The small stubby-beaked thistle seed eating birds visit, especially the brilliant yellow goldfinches. They also gorge on the nearby seed heads of the scabiosa flowers, clinging to the long stems as they sway back and forth, dining right side up and upside down before splashing in the birdbath.
Every year the scrub jays arrive late in the spring, long after the smaller birds. They announce themselves with raucous caws, gulp greedily from the apple tree birdbath, and attempt to land on the birdfeeder. I watched a scrub jay bury an acorn under the apple tree, then inspect his handiwork, hopping from one lichen-covered branch to the next, tilting his head first this way and then the other. Displeased, he moved the acorn several times. As soon as he noticed me watching him from my study window, he swooped down to remove the acorn and buried it elsewhere.
The other day a young squirrel scampered along the utility wires and nearly fell as a scrub jay and then two crows dive-bombed him. I held my breath, then exhaled, impressed by the squirrel’s agility and acrobatic prowess. Although I might wish the squirrels ill for their transgressions (removing all my persimmons when green and consuming almost all my pluots, many of my apples, and the majority of my late autumn figs), I still cannot bear to see them harassed, their lives endangered. Shortly after the squirrel circus act, a pair of mourning doves alighted on an adjacent wire and, despite the scrub jay swooping down on them, remained cooing and unfazed. In the residual warmth of the early evening, our cat, napping in a patch of sun on the balcony gave out a staccato meow as a scrub jay hopped back and forth along the railing, scolding her ceaselessly. Our cat remained in her sunny spot, too old to be bothered to take after the scrub jay, who tired of the exercise and flew off.
I look forward to the arrival of the baby birds on the back patio each spring. When they are old enough to leave the nest they appear on the twining jasmine branches, puffing themselves up, emitting sounds like a whirring wind-up toy, begging to be fed. The parents crack open the black sunflower seeds from my feeder by the score and stuff the babies quickly. This year, the Chickadee and Oak Titmouse babies appeared simultaneously, hopping around in a frantic little dance while they await their meals. In what seems like a heartbeat, the babies become indistinguishable from the adults and the cacophony subsides.
I have raised my two boys first in the nest of my womb where they made themselves known with kicks and elbow jabs to my ribcage and uncomfortable rotations. Once born, they were tethered to me while nursing, carried on my hip and back and chest, nestled in my lap or next to me in bed. I fed them as the three bird families feed their young, worried over their comfort and safety, and watched them develop at an astronomical pace. Their bodies have morphed repeatedly and fantastically and I am awed by their young adulthood. I fret over the chicks as I fretted over my babies. When the boys were infants and sleeping soundly, barely moving, I would check to see that their chests still rose and fell. In a few months time, like the birds, I am expecting an empty nest.
Osprey nest, Richmond Bridge: http://sfbayospreys.org/
Bald eagle nest, Big Bear: https://friendsofbigbearvalley.org/eagle/
Peregrine falcon nest, U.C. Berkeley Campanile clock tower: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EaJuC-rxVAQ