Andersen: A most heroic single parent
The husband and father lost his mate and never knew what happened to her. One day she was there, tending to the young, and the next day, she was gone.
This dedicated widower kept his vigil with relentless attention to the fledglings who depended on him for life and for whatever form of love a bird can show. If love is the delivery of life with full attention at every waking hour, then love was written in every detail of this father’s role as a single parent.
The father was a brightly colored mountain bluebird. His brood was incubated in our birdhouse, perched on the hill, just beyond our kitchen windows. Watching this single parent give himself so fully and completely to his progeny became a daily ritual in our home. His untiring devotion inspired awe, admiration — and considerable anxiety.
The father’s mission lasted many weeks, beginning in early June with customizing our birdhouse alongside his equally eager mate. The renovation was done with sticks, straw and blades of grass, but only after choosing our birdhouse like any homebuying couple will do.
Choosing a home is perhaps the most important thing a couple does together, and this couple discussed it in high, piping tones. Once settled, the bluebirds wasted no time in hatching their babies, deep in the dim interior of the small wooden box perched high on a cedar fence rail at the edge of our garden terrace.
The female bluebird is colored a faint blue, mostly dun-colored and understated next to her brilliant, flamboyant, singular blue mate. It was he who commanded our attention, flitting here and there, doing what expectant fathers do — worry.
When two birds were feeding the young, the babies had plenty to eat. But when the mother vanished, the job was left to the dad. For at least 10 days he did the work of two — racing off and returning a minute later with a large, winged fly in his beak.
With uncanny persistence, he delivered his catch to the small, circular opening of our birdhouse, fluttering to the hole, inserting the fly into a gaping beak and then dashing off for another happy meal from the fast-food larder that is nature.
The insect world was considerably diminished by the gnawing appetites of his progeny, whose chirping grew in volume as they grew in size. We first heard their peeps with the joy of grandparents, exulting at their high, piping pleas. As their voices developed, we listened with concern, wondering if they were getting enough food from just one provider.
When should we intervene and assist in the feeding? This became a discussion around our dinner table as we craned to watch for the comforting blue flash that reassured us that our demanding babies would survive.
If the bluebird was not attentive every 10 minutes or so, we became alarmed that the brood had been orphaned, that a cat or a hawk had eliminated their only hope for life beyond the nest.
Their fate rested on the fast wings of this stoic little father bird whose energy never flagged, who always arrived with food, who routinely scoured the birdhouse to remove a slurry of white excrement. In this way, he acted in accordance with any diligent housekeeper.
Finally, on July 5, one of the babies perched at the birdhouse opening. We gathered at the window to watch this newly minted beauty taking its first glance at the big wide world. And oh, how it gazed.
Its eyes were wide with wonder. Its head swiveled from side to side as it surveyed the enormity of existence from the small hole that had emitted only a halo of light. How surprised it seemed at feeling the sun, testing the breeze, feeling the need to fly.
When it finally happened, the first flight was a stumbling, lurching, stalling glide straight into our fragrant, blooming honeysuckle. Here it perched shakily on a flimsy stalk and felt, for the first time, the freedom — and the associated fear — of life.
Three fledglings emerged, long gone now. With them went the bright, endearing father we came to love and respect.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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