Treading lightly the path to enlightenment.

Empty Nest

Bald Eagle

Decorah North is the given name of this eagles’ nest and the streaming nest camera I’ve been watching since early spring. As snow and freezing rain fell on Mother and Father eagle, two eggs were sheltered deep in the nest, and guarded always by one or the other. Explore.org and The Raptor Resource Project supplies the cameras, and mans them from time to time to zoom in or pan the treetops.

The streaming site would remain open on my computer at work. Folks arriving in the morning and passing my desk were greeted with the view. The computer window minimized during the day (in case I needed to actually work), the sound would come to us from Decorah, Iowa. This was fun in the shop, when someone would look all around trying to locate the source of birdsongs, raindrops, wind, and the occasional chainsaw. As I worked, it often provided a comforting backdrop to my day. I listened, checking the video from time to time, as the sound of chickadees and jays welcomed the songs of robins and the arrival of red-winged blackbirds.

Finally, somewhere at the end of March or early April, the first of two eggs hatched. Within two days, the second egg hatched. A day later, the second chick was discovered in the morning to be lifeless. Who can know the reasons why? Such a delicate and helpless stage of their lives. One false move will do them in. A snowy night, just too cold to survive, perhaps. Nature is not scripted.

We mourn the passing, yet are transfixed by the only child, designated DN9. Each day, I looked in on the little family. Eagle parents share equally in the duties. He would sit the nest while she went to hunt and eat, and vice versa. They would bring fresh trout and small mammals, tear pieces off and patiently feed them bit by bit to their charge. With the computer window minimized, I could tell when the lunch delivery arrived by the screeching of Junior, growing quickly and eager to be fed.

I watched the nearly-naked fur ball immobilized by his out sized feet. At one point I began to wonder if he wasn’t deformed, unable to walk at four or five weeks of age. Then I read that their clownish feet are much too big for newborns, and it was normal to take a while to grow into them. I was delighted when DN9 took his first plodding, stumbling steps. It was almost like seeing a child at that same remarkable, fascinating stage of development. Weeks passed, and “Superchicken”, as I’ve nicknamed him, continued to grow from a fuzzy blob into a real bird. Feathers grew larger and more plentiful, and DN9 hopped and reached right in for the scraps of fish and meat offered.

This past week or two, along came the mayflies. Swarms clouded the nest, and poor little DN9 could only scratch with his giant foot, and shake his head constantly in self-defense. I was wishing for him, no doubt speaking aloud to the computer screen, that his day of fledging and flight would be soon. He’s a big bird now, probably as big as a chicken. He’s started “branching”. Leaving the nest to walk out on its supporting limbs, stretching and testing newly-formed wings. This morning, there he sat, harassed by the mayflies in the nest. It looked maddening, and I again wished the freedom of flight for him. “You’ll see,” I encouraged, “you can fly away from these bugs. Take a nice bath in the creek.”

Twenty minutes later, I walked past my desk and saw the nest, empty.

Such a strange feeling that evoked. Here this nest, family and particularly “Superchicken” DN9 have been part of my daily life for several months. Now, in an instant, fledging season ends at Decorah North. I miss him already, yet in my heart I am simultaneously overjoyed. This was the goal! This is the whole purpose of what’s happening. I’m reminded of the sort of hippie, sort of corny thing about “If you love something, let it go.” 

I rewound the video to the time he was last seen. I watched as he stepped out, branching, onto a large limb that supported the nest. He looked down. He looked outward. He was getting ready. He took another step onto a flimsier branch, and in his inexperience, lost grip with his newly-acquired talons. One flip of a wing, and he dropped out of sight. So it was not the glorious Hollywood-style leap into the crisp air, broad wings soaring above the open field. The folks at the Raptor Resource Project started scanning with the cameras, up and down, all around the base of the nest tree, out into the field adjacent, filled with dairy cows and home to a rushing stream during spring melt. No sign of the little guy.

I had every confidence in DN9’s parents. Certainly all this is normal in the context of nature. He’ll be fine. I checked the other nest cam in the area. Decorah, was fortunate to have three big, healthy fledglings. Wouldn’t you know? That nest was empty, too. And this brought me some comfort. Being about the same age, this meant DN9 was old enough to make that big leap, that first giant step, to leave the nest. Had this been a sparrow or robin, a grackle or starling, I would have worried for its survival, yet unable to fully fly, making short hops and bursts of uncoordinated flight. As big as a crow already, and with two adult bald eagles keeping tabs on the youngster, threats would be few.

By afternoon, the camera operator for the Raptor Resource Project had located DN9 in the open field between the nest tree and the creek! He was on the ground, standing, and remaining still. The curious dairy cows would stop and take a second look as they ambled by. “What’s this big bird doing here on the ground? Just sitting here staring at us?” A short time later I saw the camera pointed up into a nearby tree, where one of the parents perched, keeping an eye on junior.

Immersion in nature and close association with her offspring bears many wonderful gifts. Aside from the joy of life itself, and seeing beautiful things, a clearer perspective of real life in the real world may be had. I would be inclined to disagree with you if you claimed animals did not share the breadth, depth and range of emotions accredited to that most highly developed species, humans.

Most don’t have a brow to furrow with worry, nor lips to part in smiles or turn down in frowns. No eyebrows to raise in fear or consternation. No tear ducts to produce evidence of great sadness or supreme joy.

But aren’t eagles and robins and starlings and weasels and possums and field mice and beavers still parents? Clearly they are driven to protect and nurture their offspring until they can venture out to lives of their own. Will you tell me the eagles were not saddened or heartbroken or disappointed at the loss of their own issue? Would you expect me to believe they were not startled or scared or worried when the little one fell from its perch to the Earth below? An Earth with predators; coyotes, dogs, bobcats.

Yet there is a balance in the natural world. These fragile things live daily with apprehension and fear. Starvation, predation, drought and hurricanes. Falling from a nest just a week too early. Still, it seems, their lives are not ruled by emotions, fueled and driven by feelings as their primary motivation. That would be humans. Every act a reaction to emotion. Joy, sadness, pride, regret, love, hatred, jealousy, envy, admiration, jubilation. Human hearts fling their emotions in every direction like sailors in the tempest. Nature takes a more centered and humble view. What seems the greatest of emotional extremes for humans are but the limits of the pendulum daily for so many beings.

The next day, DN9 was nowhere to be seen. The camera pilot (no doubt driven by emotions, including scientific curiosity), panned and zoomed the terrain repeatedly. This is the simple rule in nature. We do the best we can, and keep our hopes high for the best outcomes. The rest is really out of our control. And now I, too, swing through the pendulum’s arc.

I am sad that DN10 died before his second day in life, and I am overjoyed that DN9 prospered. I feel a sense of loss, loneliness, as I gaze upon the empty nest, and simultaneously I trust that DN9 has more than a sporting chance, and two doting parents. I feel compassion and sympathy for the eagle parents. The work and worry of it all. To keep those babies warm and safe and fed in the nest as long as necessary, and no longer. To flood every waking and sleeping minute with a vigilance worthy of a palace guard. To return one day to an empty nest, and, with just a little melancholy perhaps, celebrate this grand miracle. There is a powerful, silent beauty to the empty nest.

Hence we are kindred. Akin to the eagle and robin, the badger and rat, the polar bear and skunk, I, too, look proudly ( and not without a little twinge of nostalgia) on the silent beauty, the power, and the glory of an empty nest of my own.

Seek peace,

Paz

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