I am taking it as a propitious sign that, my first spring in my first house, there are not one but two robin’s nests on our outside lighting fixtures: one in the carport, and one by the front door. We have watched since April as the nests were built, the eggs were laid then hatched, and now the baby birds are being raised by their Mama Birds (with some help from Papa). It has become, temporarily, a three-family home.
My daughter is ecstatic. The light fixtures are a metre or two above the ground, and even I can only see into them by way of a stepladder and a carefully angled cell camera. She loves these pictures, and I send them to her when she’s at her Dad’s house; when she’s at my house, and the weather is nice, all she wants to do is sit outside and watch her “favourite TV show”: the nests. “Mummy! I see heads! Oh, she’s stretching! What a cute little baby bird. I see beaks! They’re chirping! Oh, here comes Mama Bird with some worms! Hungry babies. Aww, now they’re snuggling.” At times she becomes quite indignant: “Mama Bird, where are you! Your babies are hungry and asking for food. When is she coming back, Mummy?” (When she finds some worms, I’m sure.) “Well, how long can that take?”
Mama Bird II, by the front door, has her work particularly cut out for her, as she takes flight whenever my daughter or I enter or exit the house. “Sorry, Mama Bird!” we say. “We won’t hurt your babies, promise.”
We are all about anthropomorphism, at our house.
Look: if you believe that we evolved, along with all other animals, from common ancestors, then our emotions are not a gift that arrived precisely at the moment we became homo sapiens sapiens. Our emotions, too, evolved; and we have them in common with our non-human kin. The relationship between mother and child was first; all of our relationships–father and child, mother and father, nuclear family, extended kin, tribe, friendship, and on and on–are built on the basis of the feelings and patterns of care that first developed between mother and child, millions of years ago. Whoever you love and how much, and however you express that love, is all possible because millions of years ago, an ancestor distant beyond knowing looked at her babies and first felt that she would die for them. That ancestor was not human. She was not even mammalian.
One of those first mothers began the time-honoured tradition of chewing up her baby’s food and spitting it in to the baby’s mouth, soft and somewhat pre-digested; it is from this that our kisses have evolved. Even sex, as much as we like to keep it as separate as possible from any tinge of maternity–all of those good feelings use hormones and chemicals that first evolved in the context of maternal care.
For the newer nest, by the front door, when I first carefully angled my camera phone to take a picture of the first newly hatched egg, that little naked blind bird, so much smaller than even my hand, reached its head up to the camera with beak open wide for food. That helplessness and vulnerability struck me as so essentially the same as our own babies, that dependency on unearned trust because it is only by trusting in the adults nearby that there is any hope of surviving–even if sometimes, even if often, the trust is misplaced and the hovering shadow is actually a snake or a rat, or the adult arms reaching to pick up the wailing infant mean to leave it on a hillside to die. Babies can’t afford to be choosy. They so need care, that they must trust that the care will come, even when it doesn’t.
But the care came for these little robins, with the dedicated and hard-working Mama Birds hunting and bringing back pre-chewed treasures to vomit in their hatchlings’ mouths. And the hatchlings became baby birds, little brown heads with yellow beaks propped on the nest’s rim, waiting for Mama and–possibly–wondering when they get to do more than just stretch their wings. The first nest has already fledged.
I’ll miss them when they go (though we already have plans to take their nests into the house as souveniers, since robins won’t re-use a nest). My daughter will miss the babies, the daily dramas of their feedings and stretchings and growing, their cuteness and compactness and how they are all snuggled in the nest together. I will mostly miss the Mama Birds, how they would scold me from the shrubbery if I ventured too near the nest while they were watching, their effort in hunting the tastiest morsels for the little beaks back home, the solid white chunks of poop they would scoop away in their beaks to keep that nest clean and comfy, their snuggling in with the growing birds–giving them a hug. Because we’re not so different, those Mama Birds and me, and I know they love their babies just as I love mine.