Into the world with a nudge and a flap
How fledglings approach their first flight is much like how humans face something new.
Stepping out the front door on my way to get the Sunday newspaper, I glance to my left, toward a birch tree at the lawn's edge. A wooden box is nailed to the birch about eight feet off the ground. And within that box is a brood of seven boreal chickadees, northern songbirds that inhabit forests throughout much of Alaska. Born in early June, the nestlings have grown large enough by the end of the month to tightly pack the box.
There's a fluttering of wings just inside the small, round entryway, and at first I guess it to be one of the parents, who has brought insects.
But as the small, brownish-gray bird emerges, it drops awkwardly toward the ground. Taken by surprise, I worry that one of the youngsters has fallen out of the nest while still unable to fly.
I reach inside the door and grab my binoculars. Bringing the box into focus, I see more heads and beaks jostling at the entrance. Then a second bird exits. Flapping furiously, it flies to a nearby alder bush. Landing awkwardly and unable to get its balance, this one, too, flutters out of sight.
Now it's clear what is happening: The nestlings have become fledglings. Blessed by serendipity, I have been granted the opportunity to watch young birds leaving their nest.
After I've realized my good fortune, two questions immediately arise: How many birds are left? And should I awaken Dulcy? Earlier in the morning, I might hesitate to disturb my late-rising wife, who relishes her weekend sleep-ins. But she also has been delighted by the presence of nesting songbirds in our yard.
I rush upstairs and nudge her gently. "Dulcy," I whisper, "the chickadees are fledging. You'll have to hurry if you want to watch."
Bleary-eyed, Dulcy rolls out of bed and joins me on the porch. We stay here, at a respectful distance, so we don't disturb the birds.
Soon a third chickadee flutters out of the nest and lands nicely on an alder branch. Watching through the binoculars, Dulcy murmurs her pleasure, a soft echo of my own.
Now and then we hear faint nasal chirping, as heads and beaks poke out the hole and then pull back in. The box's interior must be raucous right now as the birds push and shove each other in their clamor to get out.
A fourth chickadee pops out. Beating its wings hard, the bird floats through the air as if in slow motion, and then cleanly sets down in an alder that's more tree than bush – 15 feet above the ground and 30 feet from its launch point. A beautiful takeoff, first flight, and landing.
The fifth fledgling, like the earlier ones, tumbles and flutters into the bushes below. Then there's a lull. The remaining birds seem hesitant to take the leap.
As if to encourage the reluctant fliers, one of the adult chickadees zooms in and perches on the lip of the entrance. It peers inside and then leaves, and the other parent repeats the routine.
Again a fledgling cautiously emerges, little by little. First beak and then head – and then neck and shoulders. The chickadee turns its head upward and next looks toward the ground, but stays put.
"They remind me of the first time I jumped in a swimming pool," says Dulcy. "I stood on the edge for the longest time. That would be me, the insecure one, waiting right to the end, needing assurance."
Turning to me, she adds, "I bet you'd be the first, or one of the first ones out, given your competitive nature."
"I don't think so," I reply with a smile. I, too, know the push and pull of conflicting impulses: a desire for safety and comfort mixed with the urge to explore and grow. With change and growth comes risk.
I can look back across five decades' worth of memories and recall numerous times I was perched on thresholds that required a leap of faith. Certainly there were times I backed away, but I've been fortunate to make my share of life-changing jumps.
The next-to-last fledgling is now mostly out of the nest box. At the last moment, it hooks its tiny claws onto the entryway's ledge. Hanging against the box, the bird flaps its wings hard, yet refuses to let go. Finally, one of the parents flies in and gives the struggling bird a soft but firm nudge. Given the boost, the reluctant fledgling drops away, a falling, flapping body.
Now there's one. The last chickadee pokes out its head, pauses for a couple of moments, and then launches itself into the air, a grand first flight to the alder tree where at least three of its siblings now perch.
I check my watch. Only 20 minutes have passed since the first fledgling tumbled out. Dulcy returns inside the house, but I stay outdoors and try to track the boreal chickadees' movements.
It's not easy to do. Occasionally they chirp softly, but mostly they remain quiet and still, except for fluttering feathers.
Hidden by leaves, they're nearly impossible to spot, except when taking short flights from tree to tree. Soon I lose track of all but a couple of the newly fledged birds. The parents remain busy, hunting insects for their offspring and keeping tabs on their movements.
By midday the birds have left our yard and disappeared into a neighbor's woods. Before reentering the house, I glance at the now-empty nest box and my faint longing to follow the birds becomes a smile. All seven, I think. We got to watch all seven of them go out into the world and begin new lives.