They called it an “accidental fledge.” The 73-day-old bald eagle wasn’t expected to make his first flight for at least another week or two, but while hopping on branches around the nest and flapping his wings, the eaglet slipped, fell to the ground and sent thousands of online viewers into a panic.
Was he injured?
Would he be safe on his own?
Will he ever come back to the nest?
And, when nightfall came and he had yet to return, Was he alive?
These are the same questions I asked when my depressed and anxious teenage daughter ran away from home and, later, when she moved out on her own. Even now that she is healthy, married and in her 20s, I am sometimes tempted to ask these questions, because I am still a fledgling when it comes to this empty nest thing.
I learned of the Southwest Florida Eagle Cam in December. The bald eagle parents, Harriet and M15, took turns sitting on two eggs, which had been laid in November. I loved their egalitarian partnership, and how they shared the duties of nesting, fishing, hunting and vigilance. Along with tens of thousands of others, I watched online as the first pip appeared in one of the eggs. Unlike humans, it’s the babies who do all the work as they enter the world. The baby, labeled E9, pecked away for two days and freed himself of his shell on the morning of Dec. 31.
I don’t know E9’s gender, but I’m using male pronouns because he reminds me of my son as a toddler — smart and active and scaring the wits out of me by speeding down the driveway on his trike toward the street and opening a secured door like Houdini to venture onto a balcony without a railing.
Just like with my children, I have watched E9 grow, form his own personality and begin to stretch his wings. By the time he was 2 ½ months old, like many kids in their teens, he was full grown, measuring 34 inches from beak to tail and weighing seven or eight pounds.
I was sad when the second egg was declared not viable. I wondered whether eagle parents grieve the loss or whether, in their avian wisdom, they instinctively know that nature takes its course. They protected the egg for a month after it should have hatched and eventually M15 buried it deep in the nest.
For three days when my daughter was off the grid, I barely slept. Instead, I lay awake clutching my phone, desperately hoping for texts and fearful I would miss her call. The morning after E9’s accidental fledge, I woke early and grabbed my phone. I wasn’t frantic, but I was concerned about his welfare. I had bookmarked the eagle cam website early on and I check it at least once a day. I was curious to see whether he had returned to the nest overnight, and my heart sank when I realized he had not.
I fretted awhile before falling back asleep, and woke up later to find E9 was perched on a tree branch not far from his nesting place in a pasture with horses and a nearby pond. He’s alive! What a relief! Hours later he was still there and I took frequent breaks from my writing to check on him. He’s like a kid riding a bike, letting go of the handlebars and shouting, “Look, Ma. No hands!”
Just like there was nothing Harriet and M15 could do when not-so-little E9 slipped off the tree, there was little I could do when it was time for my children to fly the coop. I didn’t worry so much about my son, because his high school experience wasn’t as rocky as his sister’s.
It took me some time to learn what the eagles already know: Nature has to take its course. They intuitively stand in the middle place between overprotective helicoptering and complete abdication of parental responsibility. They don’t freak out. They are calm and wait patiently, knowing that they have given their precious eaglet a safe place to land, and that they’ll still provide him with meals of fish and squirrel.
As one of my fellow eagle watchers said in an online chat, “E9, you were ready … we weren’t” — our own maternal and paternal instincts are far too human to take an eaglet’s first flight in stride.
My anguish around E9 was but a whisper of what I felt during my daughter’s teenage angst. I would have gleaned much about parenting and letting go from the eagle mom and dad if I’d had the opportunity a few years ago. Instead, I continue to practice unclenching my talons to allow my daughter to fly on her own. Or rather, to accept that she, too, is a force of nature who is finding her own way, her own path, her own flight.
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