Fledging From Free Food to Freedom

Yesterday was fledging day at my house. For several weeks, as I awoke at first light, I was greeted by the chirping of what was clearly a large crop of nestlings, as their parents brought them their breakfast. Finally, the day had come for them to leave the nest and fend for themselves.

What is it that makes creatures realize that the moment has arrived? A couple of years ago, while on vacation in North Carolina, I was treated to the sight of a sea turtle nest undergoing what is called a “boil” – the frenetic activity of hatchlings rising through the sand to the surface and heading down the beach toward the ocean. A single nest can contain dozens of eggs, and they sit there doing their thing for several weeks. Then, of a sudden, all of the wee ones know that the time is upon them – they break through their shells and claw their way to the surface. How is it that they all do this within minutes of each other?

Similarly, what was the signal that told the little birds above my bedroom that it was their time to fly? Instead of their usual gentle chirping, there was a clamorous scramble for the exit. Their nest is situated behind the gable above the windows of my bedroom. There are ventilation slits, and between these and the attic is a screen to keep critters out, but there is just enough space there to construct a nest that is well-protected from the elements.

Judging from the noise, the space must have been fully occupied. As they all scrambled to escape the small confines of the nesting area, there was much squawking and jostling. Then, one by one, a missile would drop past my window and find its way to the nearby maple tree. They all gathered together on the tree, hopping from one branch to another. Then, as if by signal, they all launched themselves into space and tried out their new aeronautic abilities.

Most seemed to do quite well immediately, but two or three were a bit disoriented. A couple of them flew back toward the nest, and mistook the lights of my windows to be open air. Fortunately, they had not built up much speed in the few feet from the tree to the house, so their discovery of the hardness of glass did not seem to harm them at all. My house is oriented to true north (built by a Freemason, no doubt!), and my bedroom is at the south end. I also have a window on the west side of the house, and despite the fact that the blinds were drawn, I could see the shadow of one of the birds as he fluttered against the glass, trying to get in. After a few vain attempts, he gave up and joined his nestmates on the tree.

I’m not certain what species my temporary tenants were, though they could be phoebes or some similar bird. I was reminded, by their evident joy, of a similar incident I witnessed in my youth. As a teenager, I had a job working at the Garden Center in Stockbridge (now known as the Berkshire Botanical Garden), and one day, as I was mowing the lawn, I paused to watch some young swallows who had obviously just fledged. They flew high into the air and then plunged straight down, only to swoop back up just before they reached the ground. They flew in circles and then repeated the whole performance, weaving among and between each other in a glorious celebration of being alive.

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