Last year, the first spring we lived here, we noticed that a pair of black capped chickadees were nesting in the wooden beam across the front of our house. They would flit in and out through a knothole, busy with their little lives. One Sunday in June we noticed a flurry of activity and realized that the babies were leaving the nest. Little chickadees were everywhere, in and out of the big spruce out front. In a couple of days they all had disappeared, off on their little chickadee adventures, I suppose.
Earlier this year we noticed a couple chickadees were again flying in and out of the knothole. I was happy to know they were back.
We got home from church this past Sunday and my husband noticed a dead bird among the spruce tree roots, one of the chickadees. We went inside to eat lunch, planning on doing something with it afterwards. After lunch, my husband saw something fall to the ground from above, a little baby chickadee. It couldn’t have been more than a few days old. Its eyes hadn’t really formed and it didn’t have all its feathers yet. We tried to figure out what had happened – did it fall out by accident? Maybe we were wrong and their nest was actually in the tree and the wind pushed them out? We could hear a lot of birds squawking in the tree above our heads but couldn’t see where they were.
Then we buried the two birds in the backyard. We chose a spot under a leafy bush, out of the way and dug down through some roots and rocks. We placed the birds in with a shovel atop of a bed of grass and leaves the girls gathered and covered them back up. The girls were quiet. My 4 year old put her hands to her chest and said, “Dear God, please let the birds come back to life someday….But not when they are under the ground.” Then she looked confused and I could see the wheels ticking away, that dark understanding coming over her. My older girl said she felt really sad and a few tears came as she leaned into me. It was hard – the little birds looked so helpless. We are so far removed from the lives of these creatures, to see one in its wholeness, in its whole creature-hood was something new. We saw how their feet curled, little tiny talons, like little pins. We saw how the feathers on their underbelly were different than the feathers on their tails. We saw the little baby bird’s skin under its wings, skin that shouldn’t be out in the open, it was red and tender and vulnerable and hard to look at.
I thanked God for their little short bird lives and the girls wandered away.
We came around the front again and noticed movement under the bench that sits under the trees. We noticed, in an unexpected, fast turn, a little fluffy baby bird was attempting to hop around, sticking close to the bench legs. It looked a little more developed than the earlier baby bird but still wasn’t bigger than than the circle my thumb and forefinger make. Its eyes weren’t fully formed, its beak a thin, pointy line that didn’t look like it should even be able to open. But eventually it started cheeping. And it continued to hop around blindly, attempting to use its wings, beating them against the dirt as its balanced wavered. It eventually hopped into a little thicket of dead spruce branches the girls had collected for a fairy house. My older one went and grabbed some long grass from the side of the house to place on top, shielding it from the wind. She and I sat there a long time, in this new part of the story, wondering about the little baby, wondering at what happened. She really wanted to move the baby into the bushes but I wasn’t sure that would be a good idea.
Suddenly, the mother bird was there and started to try to feed the chick. The baby was blind so she had to get right in front of it with her grub and nudge it a bit to open up. Within a foot of us, she came to feed her baby. I was filled with relief–the mom was here. She would know what to do.
And something of the holy flooded that moment watching this momma bird being incredibly brave, flying so close to me and my girl, to take care of her baby. She had known the whole time where the baby was, she didn’t miss a tragic beat, she was on it. That baby wasn’t alone.
We sat with this scene a long time, watching the mom flit down with seeds and little bugs to give her baby.
Then….we noticed the other birds.
Another pair of birds was hanging around the tree. They looked like chickadees but a bit bigger with brown caps (I think Boreal chickadees if my internet search is correct). They started flying up to the beam and into the knothole and the momma chickadee would try to fly after them but always deke away before entering into the beam. And then, as my girl and I watched, a flurry of feathers pressed against the hole, then skin and little legs and in a quick, sickening moment, we saw the bigger bird shove another little baby out of the knothole.
It fell with a quick, light thud. I don’t even know if I heard the thud but we felt it. It lay motionless on its side, beak slightly open for a good few minutes. My heart sank as I realized that all the birds had been pushed out, killed and displaced by the bigger birds. The bigger chickadee we found first must have been the daddy bird, killed trying to protect the nest and then the babies were tossed out one by one. My girl said, very quietly,…”It’s a bird war…..why would they kill the babies though?” Her little heart saying what humans who have been loved should always say—why would they hurt the babies? My husband muttered, “It’s not that different from humans…” and I felt like weeping. Over the baby who died, over the helpless birds on the ground, over the confused but determined momma just trying to feed them, over the disposability of these lives. Over how close this hits to our human experience…..and I cried over just so much.
The third dashed baby bird eventually teetered onto it feet and tried to move around a bit. It hopped towards the other bird. The momma came and tried to feed it too. Then she spent the next hour coming back and forth between her stashes of grubs and her two babies – feeding them, doing all that she knew to do for them.
As it got dark, we realized that the birds couldn’t stay out in the open. The wind had gotten very cold and very rough. It was going to start raining. So I looked around for something to put the babies inside – something where the momma could still find them and get to them but where they might be a bit safer. Brad drilled a hole through the top of an old beside table. We placed it on its side on the ground and put the babies inside of it. It was open to the ground and open to the top. We filled it with grass and twigs and pinecones and tried to make it nest-like. I put on latex gloves and carried their weightless bodies into the shelter. These tiny balls of tiny feathers just sat there, trembling and bobbing with each rapid breath they had to take. We covered the top with boards and a tangle of spruce branches but left a couple spaces so the mom could either squeeze through or at least hear them and maybe figure out the hole in the side.
Then we prayed for them and went to bed.
The next morning I got up early and was thrilled to see the momma bird sitting on top of the little bird box as soon as I opened the curtain. She was going in and out through a space in the top and the hole in the side. The other two bigger birds were there too – flying in and out of their new nest. If I didn’t know how it transpired, I would be thrilled to have a nest being used in my front yard, but now I can’t really look at those birds with anything other than a bit of fear and anger, which is strange to say of chickadees, I know…..
The little baby birds didn’t make it through the night. When we got into the car for school we checked and two little birds lay amongst our attempt at a nest. Their feathers weren’t fluffed up, they were flat against their bodies, which had deflated and were almost flat against the ground. They really were so small. My four year old cried and said, “but their little feet were so beautiful!” And they were; little blue-purple feet, delicate and curled. You don’t get a chance to see chickadee feet up close very often. I guess it was just too cold and they were too little and the fall was too traumatic. But holy smokes my heart was sad. Like plummeting sad. And then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t – there was a part in me where I knew that this wasn’t my world, my driving, texting, cooking, cleaning human world, that these birds belonged to. There’s a part that distances myself quickly, that says, This is nature, this happens all the time.
But then there is a part of me that lives in their world. When the 7 year old and I were sitting on the bench watching the momma feeding her birds, of course my mind went to that verse, “See the birds, they do not store or house food but your heavenly father feeds them.” My father, their father. We live on this same world. Do not worry, you are seen where you are. You are provided for. Providence.
If I put our very human injustice instinct and all the questions that brought up for the girls aside, what was providential to me about this was how a week ago I prayed with friends for ways to start talking about dying with the girls. I prayed I would know what to say and how to say it and when to start saying it. I prayed for their little hearts to understand and have some sort of context for what is happening to their family. And then this happened. Four little birds died before our eyes. And then we had many, many little conversations about death. About how our bodies and our life are connected. About how bodies contain our life and when they can’t work anymore, we die. The bodies stay behind but the life goes out from them when the bodies can’t house it anymore and how this is just all part of what it means to be alive. We talked about how everything dies – trees, birds, humans, stars. The 4 year old brought up the stars – she really likes space stuff and told me all about how when a star dies its life turns into a black hole. Which has always struck me as terrifying, but for her, she just finds it so cool. We talked about why we are so happy to live and what is good about being alive. We talked about how we would feel if we lost someone like the mommy bird lost her family – but only a little bit for now. It was ok to talk about death in a way that reverenced it, in a way the girls connected to, seeing those little birds and being little, created birds themselves. But it was distanced from them too, in a good way for now. They shed a few tears but mostly kept moving. We opened up the little grave and buried the other two birds in it. We packed down the earth and put stones around it. I found it telling how instinctual it was for the girls to want to stand there and be quiet for a few minutes.
Nothing is going to mitigate this for us, for them. But there is a bit more ground to stand on for them, some context for them to understand with. And we won’t and can’t be afraid to talk about the end of life – it does these babies no service. We will be smart about when we connect it to their real lives but this past weekend showed me that I don’t have to figure it all out myself. I maybe only have to pay attention to the details.