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From the Publisher: Fly or Die

By

MATT MORRIS
  • Matt Morris

The combination of age and COVID-19 has opened my eyes to the fragile beauty of birds. Of course I admired them before we were stuck at home last winter. We have a hanging feeder that attracts all kinds, even on the coldest days, and they're a joy to watch. But during the pandemic they brought a deeper, existential comfort. And the birds were all right; coronavirus didn't seem to affect them. It was an enormous relief to discover that this particular health crisis was not on the list of threats to their survival.

In "normal" times, we probably wouldn't have noticed the robin's nest. But there are benefits to standing on the sidewalk, shooting the breeze with your neighbor. Even though it was July — late for babies, we thought, erroneously — we noticed a bird repeatedly visiting the camouflaged space between the underside of our front porch roof and the top of a vine-covered trellis, fully protected from the prevailing south wind.

It was obvious to anyone patient enough to observe: This robin was building a nest. A week or so later, we could make out five baby beaks in the greenery. Then mom and dad got busy delivering food.

For what seemed like a couple weeks, they were one big happy family, until we found a nestling walking around on our front porch. Then he was in the neighbor's backyard. Then in ours, perched on the back of an Adirondack chair. At least for the moment, he didn't appear able to fly.

This is a normal, albeit life-threatening, part of the fledging process, according to my sources, but there was no sign of the other robin siblings.

Thus began a 12-hour vigil during which we watched and rooted for the baby bird. For hours he remained on the back of the chair while his parents flew about frantically, bringing him worms and berries to eat. The whole show was silhouetted against the slowly darkening sky, which signaled the threat of nocturnal predators. My immediate neighbors who own outdoor cats coordinated a lockdown via email.

Still, as I lost sight of the bird, I had a bad feeling. It was a brutal, fly-or-die introduction to adult life.

In the morning, my partner found the little guy, still alive, in the cup holder of a portable folding chair we'd left leaning against a tree. We didn't know how he got there but, the next time we checked, he was gone. No carcass. I had to conclude: Either this slow learner took wing or something snatched him up for breakfast.

I have new appreciation for the perils — and hard work — of parenting.

Once a year, Seven Days devotes an issue to the animal world. You'll find more stories of human-animal interactions inside.

And a note to fellow bird lovers: Songbirds may be safe from COVID-19, but something else has been killing them along the East Coast this summer. Whatever it is hasn't reached New England, but the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department recommends that you stash your feeders and birdbaths for now.

On the plus side, I heard a loon call the other morning, from the Burlington waterfront.