To Raise a Mockingbird

A mockingbird family set up residence in our lime tree next to the kids’ toy room. We noticed it while building an elaborate marble maze. 

“Mom, look!” said Seven, my energetic boy, while everyone else was busy watching the silver marbles slide down the loops and turns. “That bird in our lime tree has a worm in its beak!”

In the window, in its full glory was a bird, I later guessed  — or hoped — to be a mockingbird like any Lee Harper fan would do. It stood perched nobly on a branch with a writhing worm in its beak before it hopped through the thicket of limes and thorns to a nest with four hungry babies.

Our toy room has aspirations to be an East Coast mud room or a sun room, but it’s really an enclosed patio with a concrete slab floor that was once an outdoor porch. It was likely a dream of a previous owner in the house’s 80-year existence to create a sunny lounge with wicker furniture, but what was built was a strange room with a lopsided floor. 

The room did have panoramic windows of our driveway and the lime tree with the bird family, which allowed us to see and hear the babies crying from their nest. We literally had a window into a wonder of nature while we played with toy cars.

“I see you mother mockingbird. I feel your pain. When was the last time you splashed in a bird bath or soared through the sky just for the pure joy of it?”

“Soak it up,” I told Four, our emotional daughter. “This is as close to another pet or baby as you will get from now on.”

She did not like this joke at all.

There are four baby mockingbirds covered in dark down in the nest. We named them Eenie, Meenie, Miny and Moe. Seven knew to describe their soft fur-like feathers as down, a word he learned from a Magic Treehouse book about Emperor penguins. 

Of all the baby birds, Moe was the most elusive sighting. 

“Where’s Moe?” Four would often ask craning her neck to look out the window. We soon learned Moe liked to lay low in the nest. He would only pop out when mother mockingbird came back with a morsel of food. 

“There he is! There he is!” the kids would yell when Moe emerged. He was the smallest and skinniest of all four siblings. When the mother bird came back one of all of us always asked her to feed Moe first.

Over the days, we watched the nest. We watched the babies with their gazes always transfixed skyward with their beaks ajar helplessly waiting for their mother’s return to fill their bellies.

She returned time after time with one little bite for four hungry mouths.

Then the kids and I noticed the crying. The baby mockingbirds make a soft cheeping chorus that sounds melodious if you are not paying attention. But if you are hyper vigilant like we were, the cheeping sounds like a shrill, incessant pleading, a deafening cry of hunger and need. The crying stops for five minutes after the mother mockingbird feeds the babies, but then starts right up again.

“The baby birds are hungry again,” said Seven while eating breakfast. He paused, stuffed a piece of toast in his mouth and said, “That mommy works really hard.”

It was in that moment that I realized I was the mother mockingbird. 

To me, she looked smaller and frailer every day as she struggled to meet the needs of all of her babies. We all see her scrounging for scraps of nuts and bugs. Does she stop to feed herself? One time, Seven saw her with a green grape between her beak for the babies. Do birds even eat grapes or is she tired and the grape is like the human equivalent of a frozen pizza thrown in the microwave and onto a paper plate? 

“Just eat this and be quiet,” I imagined her saying.

I see you mother mockingbird. I feel your pain. When was the last time you splashed in a bird bath or soared through the sky just for the pure joy of it?

The struggle seems endless. The need seems insatiable. One kid gets fed and the other wants the same. One is ready to stretch its wings, but another is content with hiding in the nest. Always there is the shrill cry for more. 

Then one morning, I saw the mother mockingbird sitting on the rain gutter above the lime tree. She wasn’t hunting or gathering. She was just sitting there listening to her babies cry loud then louder without moving a muscle. Seven came to the window to look up with me. Then he looked down.

He grabbed my hand.

“Oh, mom! It’s Moe! It’s Moe!” 

On the bed of gray river rocks underneath the lime tree laid Moe. 

We ran out to the tree and stood around his lifeless body in silence for a long time: Seven, Four and I. Above us, the three remaining baby birds were cheeping incessantly, and the mother bird stood motionlessly on her perch. 

A number of things could have happened to Moe. He could have been attacked by a predator. He could have been pushed out of the nest by his stronger siblings who looked like they were getting ready to take off. Maybe Moe wanted to take off, too. In death, his one little wing was stretched out wide.

We don’t know or fully understand what happened to Moe. Seven and Four decorated a shoe box and buried him in our backyard. Seven wrote a poem and read it during the ceremony. Then he lowered his head and cried.

Secretly I wondered what role the mother mockingbird had in Moe’s death. Did she sense his weakness and stop feeding him? Moved by sheer exhaustion, did she think three mouths were more manageable than four?

I have been on both sides of the mother bird: one standing in sheer disbelief and judgement over another mother’s callous treatment of her kids. The other feeling complete empathy for her struggle.

The beauty of life is that what is ravages it also nourishes. Eeny, Meeny and Miny are still alive and chirping in their nest. Every once in a while, we see one of them stand up and stretch its wings before falling over another in a cute jumble of beaks and feathers.

Soon they will leave the home in which they were anchored. They will fly with their strong wings over the bare patch of dirt in our backyard marked with sticks and flowers. 

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