I stood at the corner outside the school and waited for the sixth-grade safety patrol and the adult crossing guard to wave me across. I was in fourth grade clutching a couple of library books, a notebook, and my royal blue lunch box, deciding on this sunny spring afternoon to cut through the green field between the community’s two churches, one Methodist, the other Presbyterian. I knew the churches well and the field between them. My family attended the Methodist, my Girl Scout meetings were held at the Presbyterian, but I almost always stayed on the sidewalk running in front of their traditional facades. Still not sure why I chose to walk through the field that day, maybe it was to cut off the corner.
Maybe I was influenced by Nancy Drew, just looking for an adventure wherever I could find it. Something different, the smallest deviation from the routine. I remember watching my school shoes plod through the weedy-grassy field longing to be Nancy Drew. She was never bored. Then I saw it. A nest, right there on the ground in front of me. Right in the middle of the open field. My eyes flew open, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. Two baby birds sat huddled in the nest. My protective instincts kicked in. Where was the mother? Why had she built this nest on the ground, left it so exposed? The birds were cheeping now, louder and more frantic the closer I came. They’re hungry and scared, I told myself. They’ve been abandoned, I was sure of that. I can save them, take care of them. Be a hero and rescue them from this terrible plight, this unfair situation.
I scooped up the birds, the smaller of the two cheeping hysterically now, the bigger one calmer, less agitated, as if it already trusted me to put it into my lunch box as tenderly, gently as I could. When I got home, my mother, who was always pretty good about the different turtles we found, hamsters and white mice we had, the insects we collected in jars, knew just what to do. She set an old hamster cage on the heater, shredded some newspaper in the bottom, and got out an eyedropper to feed the two baby birds.
“Look here,” she said, pointing to a picture in a bird book. “They look like Eastern Meadowlarks.” She read the description, and I tried very hard to ignore the line that said Meadowlarks build their nests on the ground in open fields. Too late. The birds were mine, and I knew I loved them.
The next morning, I jumped out of bed and ran to check on the little pair. One had died in the night, the smaller of the two. My mother and I checked it over, discovered that one of the wings was broken. A whole section of a bone missing. Even at nine and a half, I understood enough to know it was better that the little bird’s suffering was over. I gave it a proper burial, then focused on the bigger, calmer bird who had survived the night. My mother’s eyedropper kept the bird going until I could get to our neighborhood five and ten, use my allowance to buy some food for baby parakeets I found in the pet section. We also got a bigger, taller cage for “Birdie,” who was becoming more active, hopping around, eating all the time. Thriving. It wasn’t long before I was back at the five and ten buying a box of birdseed and a cuttlebone for my Birdie.
When my parents enclosed the carport and moved me, the oldest of four kids, into what was now a big, brand-new bedroom with high ceilings, Birdie came with me. “He” was trying to fly, I could see that. See that he was growing up, needed room to stretch his wings. I let him out of the cage and he took off, flew across the room and back again and again. He wanted to fly high, which meant he constantly bumped the bright white ceiling. Which also meant a little pile of poop would hit the shiny new tile floor. I remember running around with paper towels and sponges frantically cleaning up the mess even as I so admired the grace and beauty of his flight. He just knew how to fly and did so easily on his own. He didn’t need me, how I wished he could teach me.
I’m not sure how long I kept Birdie in his cage in my room. At some point, I knew I was being selfish. The right thing to do was let him go. Let him soar as high as he wanted. To go back to nature where he would be happier. Where he belonged. I remember biting my lip, knowing I was making the right decision, acting more like an adult, less like a kid.
The big day came, and I let Birdie out of the cage. He took off, and in a split second was flying high, a dark speck against a huge blue sky. My eyes, my heart followed him as long as I could still see him, ever hoping he would loop around, tip his wing and say good-bye. He belonged to the natural world, a world my suburban house pet didn’t know and he was gone. I hope he made it.
Nest to cage to limited release to being let out. Flying into a world new and unknown. I hope we make it.