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Thursday, 27 June 2019 04:22

Bird Lessons

Written by Bob Short
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Bob Short - Executive Coordinator

In mid-April, a female robin began constructing a nest on the flower trellis just outside our back door. Completed in a few days, the nest looked perfect. To the best of my knowledge, the robin had no access to YouTube or Building a Bird Nest for Dummies to help her with the construction. I spent the next four weeks observing Robi (naming creativity not being my strong suit) several times each day. Though Robi never gave any indication she wanted to become a Maryknoll Affiliate, what I observed over those weeks was an inspiration to me.

Day and night, she spent ninety percent of her time maintaining the nest, often through long periods of cold and rain. Then the eggs came and her motherly resolve grew stronger. Robi was acutely vigilant, as birds need to be, but in time she came to trust and allowed me to get very close to the nest. On each visit I carried on a conversation, essentially the same one every time. Many would say that’s all we humans ever do anyway. I also assured her that I’d do my best to protect her from the neighborhood cat that frequently visited our yard. Robi appeared attentive and receptive but never uttered a peep in return. Even so, I convinced myself that we had become friends.

Then, on the morning of the eleventh day of incubation, a day or two before the eggs were ready to hatch, I opened the back door to ask Robi how her night had been, but she was gone. In her place, inches from the nest, was a squirrel rotating a blue egg, the last one of the clutch, in its front claws – just as squirrels do with an acorn before biting into it.

I couldn’t begin to process all this. How must Robi feel!? Was she distraught, defeated, filled with revenge? Do birds feel, think, have a hidden belief-system or life philosophy to help them deal with such terrible losses? Did she stamp her tiny claws and ask, ‘Why me?!’ Did she just accept it as one of nature’s inevitable cruelties? I wondered too if on some instinctual level birds have a built-in moral code about murder and ornithological injustices; or, perhaps a batch of existential questions around sin, redemption, and an afterlife. Admittedly, these are almost assuredly the entirely wrong questions emerging from a small, inchoate human mind. I had to check myself. Were all these queries and projections simply yet another example of anthropomorphic excess that we humans apply to so much else in the cosmos, including God?

Yet, I couldn’t let go of the possibility that there must be a lesson in this for me. Robi, like everything in nature except us humans, never left the confines (and freedom) of life’s natural rhythms. She knew in a different, non-cerebral way without needing to ask either existential questions or the tedious ones that often consume our lives. She knew in a different way—perhaps much like the monk who, after forty years of searching for ‘the answers,’ came around the bend on a mountain trail one early spring morning, saw a peach tree in full bloom, and proclaimed to himself, “Now I understand!”

Last week a robin built a new nest; this time on the door ledge of the porch outside the entrance door of our house. Squirrels could never get to this one. I have to believe it’s Robi. We’ve resumed our conversation.


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