Mothering. It will delight you and it will drive you to distraction.
Thus, I found myself in the backyard of our home early of a late-April morning when, in an hour or so, my husband and I were set to leave for Charlotte to catch a flight bound for Dallas to help our adult son feather his new apartment nest.
I was barefooted, wearing my pajamas and wielding a post-hole digger. I looked like heck and I felt worse.
A bluebird box that I’d been keeping an eye on as a pair of feathered sweethearts built a nest in its interior, laid eggs and birthed babies was suddenly on the ground. Likely marauded by a stealthy raccoon or cat.
No, I had not gotten a call in the middle of the night about it, swimming up from a deep slumber to wrestle with whatever was being reported on the other end of the line.
No, I’d not experienced that particular kind of quiet a teenager can manage when he or she is tiptoeing around the house, hoping that last night’s hijinks will go undetected.
Nor even that Friday-afternoon-when-the-doctor’s-office-is-closed complaint: “My ear hurts.”
Nope. None of that stuff that sends maternal instincts into overdrive.
I had, however, grown terribly fond of this bluebird couple and while my own nest was empty – not such a bad thing – the twigs-and-leaves assemblage inside the pine box had become a sort of second home for my mama soul, filling my heart with the ebb and flow of how it is to raise a family.
A lot of work; a lot of reward. A lot of angst; a lot of alleluia. A lot of everything.
And now this lovely feathered family of mine was on the ground. In trouble. Vulnerable.
Dare I say the visceral determination of a materfamilias never dies?
Protect, protect, protect.
The red and blue Southwest jet would just have to wait.
I reset the box on the top of the pole. I moved the pole away from the fence. I searched the sky and the trees for the mom and dad and did not see them. I swallowed hard and carefully opened the lid of the bluebird house.
I was prepared for mayhem and what might be left of several little lives that I had come to embrace as a bit my own.
Three tiny gray creatures were in the nest. One appeared to be breathing. And upon closer inspection, maybe the other two. Praise God.
So, I closed the lid and did what every mother must at some point do – I let them go. For the baby birds, allowing nature to take its course. For human children, letting them go too. Letting them make their mistakes and learn and live on.
While in Dallas, my other adult child, a daughter, checked on the bluebird box and reported that all appeared well. The parents had returned to the nest. They were busy going in and out, feeding their young family.
I breathed a sigh of relief only a mother can and because I was curious, I called the Carolina Rescue Center in Columbia to find out more about bluebird families.
The center, on Bush River Road, is a busy place with hundreds of rescued wild creatures in various stages of care. At this time of year, about 500 animals live there, including a slew of baby birds and baby possums.
I chatted with Jay Coles, executive director of the center.
I asked him what was the right thing to do if a bluebird box has been attacked, and like mine, was on the ground.
“Simply return the box to a secure location atop the pole,” he said. “Check to see that the nest and babies are positioned correctly.”
“Will the parents return to the nest if I mess with it?” I wanted to know.
“Yes,” Jay said, “they will hear the babies calling for food and return to feed.”
“What about touching the baby birds – putting them back in the nest if they have fallen out?”
Urban legend says human scent will drive the parents away. Is that true?
“An old wives’ tale,” Jay said. “Birds have little sense of smell.”
“About how long is the period of time between when a bird lays its eggs to when the babies fledge the nest?”
“Bluebird eggs take about 14 days to incubate and hatch and another 20 days to fledge.”
“I have another nest in a covered area of my back porch, way above our heads. Purple finches, I think. In any case, if the babies fledge out of the nest in one direction, they won’t have far to go to land on a hard surface – the deck of the porch. But if they go another way, they are in for a two-story fall or flight, as the case may be, to the ground below the deck. I’m worried they are going to break their necks if they go in the wrong direction. Any ideas? Advice?”
“Not likely a problem. Fledglings flutter to the ground, not fall. They often leave nests high in trees and come to the ground without any issues. … As the baby birds mature, they begin to develop their first flight feathers and are ready to begin feeding on their own. At this point they are also becoming too large for the nest. If they don’t jump out of the nest, the parents will push them out. The parents will follow the fledglings around, teaching them to feed, fly and escape danger. The parents will often stay hidden from sight until assistance is needed.”
And to think I was in Dallas helping my son feather his new nest, trying not to give too much advice about why table lamps are essential for a certain sort of ambiance. How to place furniture and hang artwork.
While I didn’t stay hidden from sight, I did try to keep my mouth shut until assistance was needed.
Hard for any kind of mother to do, feathered or otherwise.
Happy Mother’s Day.
Salley McAden McInerney is a local writer whose novel, Journey Proud, is based upon growing up in Columbia in the 1960s. She may be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The center is at 5551 Bush River Road.