Although summer is barely underway, I’ve already experienced the season’s highlight: fledging.
The young finches left their nest box last week, each making its way to the lip, fluttering its wings and then launching itself into space. With varying degrees of loft and aim, they landed in a large juniper shrub a few feet away, the last following the first nearly two days later.
In the way of bird parents, whose hustle and diligence put many human parents to shame, Mom and Dad kept tabs on their little diaspora, gathering dandelion seeds and delivering food to the babies where ever they were.
I’d seen the house finches nesting, but had become aware of the hatch — the incubation period is about two weeks — just nine days earlier. The babies were fuzzy then, silent and small enough to be hidden beneath their mother.
By early last week, though, their heads were visible and a chorus of peeps erupted every time their parents arrived with beaks full of food. Initially, I thought there were three youngsters; later, I counted four, and possibly five. Enough for a full choir, in any case:
The young of most wild birds are altricial: born blind, naked and utterly helpless. Yet within a short time — 11 to 19 days, for house finches — they’re standing at the edge of flight, suspended by a wing and a prayer between the safety of the nest and the ephemeral, unknowable lives of wild things.
As I watched my little finches take that big step, I thought of Air Force pilot Joseph Kittinger, who in a 1960 experiment rode a helium balloon called Excelsior into the stratosphere, 19 miles above earth’s surface. And then stepped into the void.
And fell into the unknown, fell like a stone for four minutes and 36 seconds, hurtling through the dark and silent canopy of space at speeds of more than 600 miles per hour. The security of the balloon rapidly receding behind him, the vast unknown opening and opening before him.
And at 18,000 feet, deployed his parachute, and floated safely to terra firma.
I thought of Kittinger — who at 88 is still alive to tell that tale — and wished the same for all the fledglings of this wild new generation, as they step into unknowable space: May you land safely; may you live long.