We found the first fallen fledgling this week. I could tell something upsetting was happening the minute I came out of the house, from the loud cheeping and cawing and squawking. The noise came from the children; the tiny bird they'd found on the porch was silent.
"Don't touch it!"
"I'm not going to touch it!"
"You were trying to pick it up!"
"I was not trying to pick it up. I was just going to move it somewhere safer."
"Yeah, a cat could get it here."
"You're not supposed to -- "
"I'm not about to -- "
"Just leave it -- "
"Now, now, darlings, don't yell at each other," I interjected in what I hoped was a soothing voice. "I know it looks sad, but this is completely normal. Leave the little guy. This is what happens with fledglings."
The tiny bird was a piteous sight, with his scanty feathers and heaving sides. He lay on the porch in what looked like a very uncomfortable position. Like the children, I wanted to rescue him, or at least rearrange him so that he wasn't all scrunched up.
But after a recent conversation with an animal rescue specialist, I had new information about the fledgling process, and I was determined to do the right (if difficult) thing and let nature take its course. I had called Jim Monsma, at the Second Chance Wildlife Center in Gaithersburg, after a neighbor of mine had brought him some baby grackles whose nests had been illegally destroyed by workers.
"Wildlife tends to bring out the compassion in people," Monsma told me. Apparently, all manner of good Samaritans drop by the center at this time of year with fragile baby birds: people in business attire, landscapers, passers-by on bikes. Sometimes, as with the baby grackles from my neighborhood, the creatures have been dumped out of their nests purposely; more often, a nest is brought down by accident, to the distress of the unwitting malefactor.
"But some of the saddest cases come because people don't understand" how fledging works, Monsma said.
Many of us have the idea that baby birds are flexing their muscles to prepare for flight while still in the nest and are kicked out by their firm but kindly mothers when it is clear that they are ready to go. The truth is messier: Birds jump out of the nest before they can fly and can spend as much as week floundering around on the ground before finally taking wing. Their parents are still feeding them during this time, which, in human terms, we call the toddler phase.
Alas, Jim Monsma says, "People at that point see the bird and think it has a broken wing, so they kidnap the bird, essentially, and it's very sad. I wish people would understand that a bird hopping around in the bushes is doing what is it is supposed to do."
"So you see," I concluded, having related this conversation to the children, "this is how a fledgling is supposed to do things. It may not look pleasant to us, but that's how it is. His parents will be keeping an eye on him -- "
"There's one of them!" a daughter said, pointing at an angry looking robin in a nearby tree.
"See?" I said, "he's going to be fine.
To be honest, though, I was not sure. Our own robin's nest still had four babies in it, so this infant must have fallen -- or jumped or been pushed -- from someone else's. I didn't think it was a baby robin, either. But there is only so much tooth-and-claw that children need to hear before they go to school, so I decided not to mention any of it.
Later that morning, I noticed that the bird was gone. Hurrah, he'd learned to fly!
My celebration was premature. Late that afternoon, I found its tiny body far down the driveway. It was already cold.
I decided not to mention that, either.
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.