At this time of year, it’s easy to pity bird parents, whose every waking moment seems given to providing for babies fully as big as they are.
I observe this each June with robins who — having successfully reared and fledged their first brood — are trailed everywhere by sharply chirping, heavily speckled offspring who seem to have carried one edict out of the egg and into the world: Keep your beak open and food will be put in it.
This morning, I watched a young house finch atop the west fence, fluttering its wings rapidly in the universal language of baby birds everywhere: Feed me. Its father, meanwhile, was not two feet away at a feeder, where the baby eventually joined him — her perfectly formed beak not an inch from a cornucopia of sunflower seeds — and again commenced fluttering.
Her father sighed — I made up that part, though you have to admit he looks exasperated — and then began feeding her, though she was obviously capable of taking the seed directly from the feeder.
This is no doubt a sadly relatable phenomenon for many human parents, whose adult offspring likewise do not seem to realize they have grown up, though in the human world we have these things called mirrors that prove otherwise. They nonetheless expect their parents will keep feeding and caring for them indefinitely, and they often do. (In the United States, cohabiting with parents is now the most common living arrangement for young adults between 18 and 34. That’s 18 and 34.)
The baby birds of June, though, need to achieve independence quickly, as their parents soon turn their attention to rearing a second brood. While the young seed-eaters have only to figure out the feeders, the bug-eaters must hunt for their meals.
This is where I try to help out, and invariably invite a spiritual dilemma. It involves earthworms, which can readily be purchased during the height of fishing season. The idea is to leave these worms in conspicuous places so the young robins will see them, and a little light bulb will go off in their bird brains.
Now, in the apparent manner of farm-raised-for-fishing worms everywhere, one of these earthworms separated from its fellows and left exposed atop the soil will wriggle piteously.
This is good for achieving the feeding aim — the movement attracts avian attention — but spiritually guilt-inducing. I’m sort of Buddhist, and while we don’t believe in God, we would consider it bad form to play Him if we did. In our view, a life is a life, and in sacrificing the worms to the birds, I was judging their lives as less worthy and violating the Buddhist precept against killing.
I thought about that as I considered the worm wriggling on the soil, dangerously exposed. Earthworms have brains and can sense the presence of a predator; I could almost feel its fear. But then the mother robin swooped in. She picked it up and dropped it repeatedly as it thrashed about, trying to escape her beak. Finally, the worm quit struggling, and the robin gathered it for delivery to her youngsters.
I took my garden trowel and the little foam tub that held the 29 surviving worms and dug in the soft soil around my trees and shrubs. One worm in this hole, covered lightly with dirt; two in that one.
It was an imperfect solution. I was sorry for the worm I had sacrificed. And yet I regretted that, in liberating the others, I couldn’t be of more help to the robins. But playing God — deciding which life matters more, which less — is a tricky business, and I knew I was in over my head.
As I was tucking in the last of the store-bought worms, though, I unearthed a native earthworm. And the father robin, who — unbeknownst to me — had been watching from a nearby branch, winged in and plucked it from the upturned soil before I knew what was happening.
I crouched there, slack-jawed, feeling as if I had witnessed — though not orchestrated — some mysterious transaction: the life of a creature who had lived safely hidden in the soil abruptly traded for one raised to die on the barbs of a fishing hook.
I can’t explain it, but that seemed better, somehow: the wheel of life and death turning as it will, when it will, without my direction.