MOST summers, the ornamental cherry tree outside our kitchen window offers little more than a pleasant touch of greenery in the backyard. True, it furnishes a pool of shade for weekend reading, and its low branches sometimes double as a makeshift clothesline. But its hard, tiny fruit is inedible, and its scale so Liliputian that even a small child would scorn to climb it. Now and then we have considered it expendable - a tree that might be chopped down.
No longer. This summer it has proved to be heroically useful as trees go. Robins have taken up residence, weaving grasses, straw, and mud into not one but two nests, and bringing new life and purpose into its branches.
It was on Father's Day, appropriately enough, that we first discovered this open-air maternity ward. As we prepared for an alfresco lunch, we heard the sudden flutter of wings, followed by sharp calls. Spotting a nest, we realized the distressed robin was sending a stern message: "Get out of my territory."
We retreated. But from then on we were drawn irresistibly into this small family drama unfolding in our yard. We kept binoculars at hand for a new spectator sport - vicarious parenthood. We fretted when it rained. We watched anxiously when the nest was unattended, and cheered silently each time the mother - or was it the father? - returned with food for three hungry fledglings. Even our cat, strictly an indoor feline, spent extended periods sitting in the window, her eyes fixed on the tree and her ears t witching whenever the suburban air filled with the sound of parent birds defending their young against - what? Other birds? Cats? Lawn mowers?
As days passed, the fledglings' tufted heads and speckled breasts became more visible. Their scrawny bodies filled out, and the nest grew crowded. Finally, one day last week, the backyard was strangely silent. The aerial nursery was empty. As I stood on a stool and angled a mirror over the nest, the only evidence of the departed family was an unhatched blue egg, intact except for a small crack. The young robins had been carefully nurtured. Now we had to trust that they were safely launched.
Sadly, the same cannot be assumed for many American children this summer. A report released last week by the Children's Defense Fund shows that the ranks of poor children grew by 1.1 million during the 1980s, to more than 11 million today.
The Children's Defense Fund attributes this increase to economic changes involving declining wages, cuts in government budgets, and growing numbers of single-parent families. The conservative Family Research Council is more specific. Estimating that 65 percent of babies born this year will be out-of-wedlock births, the council points to the rise in single-parent families as the primary reason for high poverty rates.
No wonder politicians of all stripes are rushing to claim "family values" as a campaign issue, acting as territorial about the American family as the robins did about their brood. Child advocates everywhere are coming back to the notion that the two-parent family is still the best safeguard against the dangers of the outside world, including poverty. A return to the two-parent family, they say, is "the social issue of the '90s."
Perhaps politicians and parents can take a cue from the birds. The field guides we borrowed from the library during our nest-watch explained that male robins stay with the females, helping to guard the nest and feed the young. As one quaintly written old volume put it, "The Robin is looked upon generally as a model of fidelity, constancy, and devotion to one mate.... Both parents are extremely devoted to their young...."
The robins have had the right idea all along. Still, what does the welfare of three young birds in a suburban backyard tree really matter, in a world where innocent families become snipers' targets in Sarajevo, and where children struggle against famine in Africa and hunger in America? Perhaps it is because the summer of '92 is so full of uncertainty, peril, and violence that the safety even of robins seems important. When fledglings successfully leave their nest, it is cause for celebration, renewing ho pe for the well-being of another generation, whatever its species.