Scene and Heard

SCENE AND HEARD: Like Humans, Birds Also Subject to Empty-Nest Syndrome

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By Scene And Heard
Sunday, July 12, 2009

Aaaah, yes, the parents who yearn to become empty nesters. You know them, don't you?

I know parental pique when I see it, and right now, staring out my kitchen window, I see a mother and father who have had it up to here with their offspring.

I refer to a family of songbirds, genus Turdus migratorius, better known as American robins, a family that has become a familiar sight in my back yard for several weeks. Several weeks, according to ornithologists, beyond the time fledgling robins leave the nest for good and set out on their own.

Early on, the mother and/or dad (I can't differentiate between the sexes because robins all look the same to me), appropriately fed and protected their two youngsters in a nest under the eaves, in the bend of an outdoor motion sensitive spotlight. Once the chicks left the nest, they wisely perched near a canopy of evergreen branches in case they needed to dart out of harm's way, while both parents, heads cocked to hear the slightest twitch of some invertebrate in the dewy grass, rushed their catch to the hungry youngsters.

Watching the robin family early on filled me with a sense of calm. In spite of all the turmoil that swirls around us in this world, there is a measure of predictability in these selfless little creatures who know no human way to describe devotion to their children. They know how to raise them, and how to teach them to move on. Or so I thought.

Alas, after many weeks, the robin family is still here. The offspring hurry along behind their parents, beaks agape. But now these kids are as big as their parents, and except for a fluffy white puff or two of fledging feathers, they are fully grown and able to fly away.

I was not mistaken the other day when I saw a parent roll its eyes after it captured a particularly fat worm and a demanding juvenile appeared and insisted on eating the morsel.

I've done a fair amount of research on American robins since I began observing this family. I've learned that they typically have two to three broods per breeding season and that a new nest is built for each brood. But this couple seems to have had one brood, one nest and one pair of kids with no apparent interest in leaving.

Birds aren't supposed to do this. Is it possible the recession has affected creatures other than humans? But robins don't worry about the economy. What do they know about foreclosures, pension plans, Medicare? Yet they're supposed to know about empty-nest syndrome, and these birds haven't been there yet.

Just recently, I watched Dr. Phil try to reason with several families assembled to complain about their adult children living at home. "I don't have time to find a job," a lanky 26-year-old explained, arms defiantly folded, a knit cap pulled over his eyes. By the time he gets out of bed at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, he must consult Facebook for a couple of hours. What with dinner and bar-hopping with friends, his day is shot.

I threw open the kitchen windows and summoned the robin family to perch on the casing and listen. "Is this what you want?" I shouted. "You're heading right down the path to certain failure!"

Perhaps next spring, when the ground thaws and crocuses appear, I'll find the elder robins following their two children around, badgering them about when they plan to have their own broods and advising them to make their kids leave the nest.

Unlikely, but you just never know.

-- Nan D. Nelson, Bethesda


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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