A couple of weeks ago I stopped for the mail and, before I could get my hand into the box, heard the distinct sounds of baby birds. I quickly drew my hand back, suspecting that I might be in the cross-hairs of the mama somewhere close by. A few seconds went by without the appearance of an angry female of the avian variety, and I reached back in, this time seeing two baby birds sprawled across the stack of sale papers and catalogs.
They were scrawny and ugly. All thin skin and sharp angles, bulbous eyes and over-sized beaks. Still slick and gooey with the contents of their former eggs. They couldn’t have been out of their eggs more than an hour or so by my guess and their high-pitched squeaks and squawks conveyed a desperation that I interpreted as a call to action.
The nest filled the entire back wall of the mailbox, deep enough that an opening of only about four inches at the top allowed access. It would not be an easy chore to return the birds to the spot from which it was fairly obvious they had fallen, but I couldn’t just walk off with my most recent invitation to save money on car insurance, the Going Places magazine from AAA and a slightly-soiled Penny Saver assuming that they would resolve the dilemma by themselves.
I rolled the magazine into a half-pipe and slid it along the bottom of the mailbox attempting to scoop up one of the babies. The angle from which I was working and the bird’s determined refusal to cooperate did not, at first, result in success. It took three or four tries before I managed to get enough of the tiny little thing hanging on to the slightly splayed edges of the magazine to lift it and shove it toward the nest.
The baby landed on the rim, promptly and wildly flinging his spastic wings forward so that he fell back on the spot from which I had so laboriously just lifted him. I sighed. I may have made a caustic remark or two.
I tried again. And again. Eventually, the baby bird and his/her brother/sister were both back in the nest, and I was imagining a dinner table conversation in which the mama bird would offer up a tasty worm or two while the young’uns recounted their adventure trying to leave the nest — the perfect setting for motherly admonitions about behaving oneself and not trying to grow up too fast.
The next day was Saturday. I went to check the mail. It hadn’t been delivered yet and the two birds were, once again, outside the nest on the bottom of the mailbox. This time, though, there was no squeaking or squawking. They weren’t moving, but they seemed to be breathing. I stood and stared, hands fluttering like spastic baby bird wings, my thoughts running from past — "Should I have done something differently?" — to present — "Is there anything I can do now?" — and back again — "Did the mama abandon them because of something I did?"
Maybe they weren’t supposed to be put back in the nest. Maybe that had been their moment to leave, to fly. Maybe I had retarded their growth by a day. Maybe the mama was watching even now to see if they would struggle to their skinny little feet, flap their diaphanous little wings and take off.
I decided to wait. I would walk away. I would leave them to their birdness. I would not interfere.
It was hard.
Later, after the mailman’s car had slowed down in front of Sandhill and then taken off again, kicking up dust like a newborn colt, I went back out. Mail, but no birds. Nary a sign.
I want to believe, I want really hard to believe, that they shook themselves out of their lethargy, girded their loins and flew away from the mailbox into the perfect blue sky. I have no idea if that is what actually happened. There are other options, but I have chosen not to consider them.
I have also decided, I think, to clean out the mailbox. The nest that has been inside for at least seven years can’t possibly be the best place to lay eggs anymore. There must be mites and Lord knows what else in there. There’s really not enough room for an adult bird to comfortably get in and out, what with the accretion of twigs and leaves and thread by each year’s subsequent tenant. And, to be honest, despite my optimism, I’m not ready for the possibility of the need for another rescue attempt any time soon.
After a long time of living, I’m finally figuring out that, while I know I can’t save everything, I’m always going to want to try and sometimes it’s just better to remove the temptation.