Thursday, September 15, 2005

Father's Day Observation

Just a little observation I made last June---

What a day I had last Sunday. It was Father’s Day and the weather in Northeast Ohio was magnificent. I took the opportunity of a lazy afternoon to sit on my back porch and while listening to the music of WKSU (my local Public Radio station,) to read a new history of evolutionary thought that I had recently purchased. Evolution, the Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory by Edward Larson, it is called. Reading about the powerful arguments and discussions that resulted from Darwin’s 1859 publication of The Origin Of Species is always a pleasure for me. But especially when sitting in my back yard on a lazy afternoon. It is a wooded lot and I have had the pleasure of watching a nesting pair of house wrens all spring. Sunday was a special day for the House Wrens, and for my wife and I as well. It was a day that reminded me about being a teacher and also about being a parent. Sunday was the day that the young wrens first left the nesting bottle that had been their home for the past 15 days or so. Betsy first noticed them early in the morning. (I was out playing golf too early to even want to remember.) She told me that she saw four small wrens, First two then the next two. They were flitting around the garden. They would fly from the hanging nest bottle to the garden fence. Then to the branches just above the bottle, then back to the bottle. First two, then the other two. Then she said she saw the bigger “parent” birds leave the bottle for a while. By the time I got home the routine was being repeated over and over again, but by noon they were adventuring out much farther a field--to the split rail fence we have maybe 50 yards away--to the branches of more distant trees--then finally back to the nest. But as the afternoon wore on and I kept glancing up from my reading I noticed that there was a ruckus at the nest. The parent birds were not to be seen, but the young were still flying about. When they landed you could see them flutter their wings. Possibly getting feathers into place? Maybe getting used to the new skill of flight? Who knows? But I kind of thought that they were pretty amazed at this flying thing. Of course I was reading a book on the history of evolution, so I was really trying to be more scientific, more objective in my interpretations. Then I noticed what the commotion was at the nesting site. When the young landed and tried to get in there was a loud distress sound coming from the opening and the young bird would fly away. The noise was the same one I had been hearing for three weeks whenever I walked near the bottle, when I mowed the lawn or checked the holes in my garden fence that the local rabbits created when they breached the security of what I thought was an impenetrable barrier around my 5 tomato, four cucumber and 3 zucchini plants. But that’s another story for another time. This distress call was pretty effective. It got my attention and I tended to move away from the nest. Pretty much what was supposed to happen. But now it was being used for another reason. I was nowhere near the nest, only the returning young. I started to wonder about the sequence of steps in the raising of a young house wren, and since it was Father’s Day, in the raising of a young daughter or son (I’m a step-dad to two daughters, but I have an imagination.) Then I thought about being a teacher. It’s pretty much the same, and I have been doing that for 31 years now. I imagined the house wren parents’ thoughts.

“We have worked for almost a month to get to this day. We flew in to the yard, we scoped out the best nest site. We checked the big wooden apple that hangs in the Maple tree near the wooden fence. We looked at a nest we built two years ago in a bottle that is mounted on the shed and even looked at the new bottle on the other side of the shed. We found the hanging bottle that we used last year and started to “fix-it-up.” I added more twigs and some soft grass. Then I lined it with feathers from my own chest. That’s when I started to mark the territory. I marked it with sound. Calling out my bubbling, chatter song at each of the corners of the yard. I did this to attract the mate too of course. Since I had the best nest sites I guess the selection was rather easy. Nonetheless, we got down to the business of creating the new lives. We had four new eggs to care for and we did care for them. Every minute of every hour, one of us was there. Sitting-on or turning. Watching and protecting. Calling out when danger came near them trying to distract any intruders. We took turns getting food for one another and watching and turning and just waiting. The eggs hatched and that’s when the work started. Food, food, food. Both of us getting food for the chicks—four of them!!! Bringing it in and stuffing it into the biggest open mouths in the nest. Get food, fly in, stuff it in and then go get more food. For twelve to fifteen days. Soon we were also cleaning up. Fly in get the white fecal sack and take it out. We did not just drop it. That would make finding the chicks too easy. We flew it away and then dropped it. Fifteen days and then the day of flight came. We taught you to fly. We taught you to catch the winds and to land. We taught you how to look for insects, to feed yourself. Later in the day we started to repeat the song, the song for territory marking and for courting. We repeated it at the four corners of the yard. We sang it by the garden and by the big maple. But we also let you hear another sound. The distress sound. You heard it when you tried to return to the nest. You were tired from your lessons and wanted to come back to the nest. But we have given you gifts. We have taught you how to fly, how to hunt and how to sing. We have given you all the tools you will need to succeed, to survive. You can’t come back home now. That is what the distress sounds mean. Now you need to go out, to go out to find a new yard with your own wooden fence, your own maple tree, your own nest bottles and ultimately your own lives. This is the gift we gave you. We gave you knowledge, skills, tools. We were your parents and we were your teachers. Now you hear the distress sound when you return because you are ready to go off and be house wrens yourselves. Fly now, sing your songs.”

Of course I didn’t hear any of this conversation, but I’m sure it what was being said Sunday afternoon. It made me think about being a teacher (and a parent.) We work hard to get the site ready—the classroom, the unit, the lesson, the special project. We study, we prepare, we devise and we plan. Then we work to give the students the skills they will need to succeed and to survive. That’s what we do; we get them ready to survive. Sometimes they don’t want to leave, but they are ready. They can succeed and they move on to fly, to sing their songs, and we start all over again with a new brood the next season.

So I sit here and listen to the song lessons and to the distress sounds when the young birds try to get back in and I think about doing that for 31 years and then I smile.

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