My son and I tried to save a baby bird on our walk together. At a first glance, all we could understand was, that it had either fallen from the nest or been pushed out, and was since then lying on the grass next to a tree. It had soft, new feathers on it, and seemed to be calling out in distress. The baby bird could scarcely fly, and remained in one place, very close to the road where we took our walks at night. As it was helplessly hopping around, I tried to usher it away from the main road. When I felt it was safe to leave it alone, we resumed our walk.

Later that night, I still couldn’t stop thinking about the baby bird and decided that something needed to be done. I pulled out the base plate off one of my planters, filled it with water, and walked across the street to put the water by the tree where I had left the baby bird. When I approached it, I was relieved to notice that it was still alive and sleeping. The thought had crossed my mind that I should take the bird in with me, but having informed the Austin Zoo earlier in the day, I had been instructed not to disturb it, because the mother bird might be on the lookout for it, or could even be feeding it.

The baby chick was alone when I arrived with the water, with the moon shining down on it for company.  As I sat down, a bit away from it, putting the water I’d brought, down- I started to weep. It was a tough time, my son who was eighteen would be graduating from high school soon, and would inevitably leave home. I thought now, about his flying the nest, and all my apprehensions about him, while he was away from me.

We had been a single nest for four years, just he and I, as my daughter was already away at college. And now, it was time too for him to follow in his sister’s footsteps and join college. The thought of him moving away was in a way more frightening, than the time when my daughter Emma had left for college.

The brown-headed Cowbird, belongs to the parasite brood of bird species, that lays its eggs in the nests of other species. The female Cowbird flies around, not in search of string and sticks- like other birds, in order to build her own nest and lay eggs- but instead searching for a nest built by another mother bird for her eggs.  Sometimes the Cowbird even tosses out other fledgling babies in the nest to make room for her own eggs.

In Texas, the bird is a frequent visitor to nests across the state. The female of this breed is plain brown in color, with darker colors around the wings. According to the Houston Audubon society, the female brown-headed Cowbird goes into record-breaking activity of laying as many eggs as possible, during egg-laying season.

After losing the family home and most of my clients as a part of my divorce, I worked hard on rebuilding a nest that would be safe for my fledglings and myself. A fledgling by definition is “A young bird that has grown enough to acquire its initial flight feathers and is preparing to leave the nest and care for itself.”

My two children, Emma and Gibson, my young fledglings, had their initial flight feathers on, but were not fully prepared to leave a nest so abruptly and then move to a new nest after the divorce. In a way, each of us were all fledglings out of the nest we had grown and nurtured over the last sixteen years. The nest I found for us was on the progressive seminary campus of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. After my first year of seminary, my daughter Emma graduated from high school, and that summer, my son and I moved her to her own dorm room in Denton to start college.  We cried for most part of the trip back home, and my son didn’t want to sit in the front seat of our car, knowing that it had been his sister’s seat so long and now she would no longer need it.

I had by now done enough of web research to understand that our little bird on the ground was a house sparrow. The nests of the house sparrow are usually made of coarse dried vegetation, often stuffed into the hole until it is nearly filled. The birds then use finer material, including feathers, string, and paper, for the lining. House Sparrows sometimes build nests next to each other, and these neighboring nests even share walls. In the seminary, my children shared neighboring walls with the other spirit-focused humans, who hoped one day to take flight out and roost in nests of congregations where others would pray, commune and feed from comforting homilies echoed across churches on Sundays.

Some people set Cowbird traps because the birds endanger other breeds. Studies show, that the removal of one female cowbird, enhances the survival of 35 songbirds per year. A sparrow is a songbird.

Brown-headed Cowbird chicks almost always hatch and develop before the young ones of the host species, giving them a head start on feeding. Strangely enough, these chicks sometimes even toss out the other eggs or fledglings from within the nest from which they had hatched. I wondered if this is what had happened to our beautiful lonely sparrow. Had it been tossed out of the nest too, without its mother being aware of it.

Brown-headed Cowbirds have been recorded laying eggs in the nests of over 220 different species; some of the more common hosts include Red-winged Blackbirds, Song Sparrows, Yellow Warblers, and Red-eyed Vireos.

It was the last semester of his high school year when my son and I found the baby sparrow on the ground. Each day he would come home from school and we would take our walk after dinner to see if the little bird had bee faring well on the ground. We did not know if the bird was a male or a female, but we had decided to call it Happy. My son observed that perhaps I had become so attached to Happy’s care, because of the realization that he was going to leave the nest soon too.  “I’m the last bird of the nest,” he said to me matter-of-factly on the fourth evening of our visiting the nest.

It was true I had been suffering from the anticipatory feelings of grief associated with the empty nest syndrome. Empty nest syndrome is defined as a feeling of grief and loneliness parents feel when their children leave home, to live on their own. I was in the midst of it during my son’s last year in school, and the closer we moved towards the year end, the more I panicked and drowned in melancholy.

I held my tears back, as I realized he was a deeply compassionate young man who had surmised about me, what I thought I had done a good job of hiding. I was afraid of being alone again in a nest by myself and had no understanding of whether I would ever want to be in a nest with someone else again or not. While I was in love with a man, we were both single parents and had chosen, not to “nest” together while our children were still in school.

Ornithologists note that while it is common to lump all sparrows together, one can find at least thirty three species of native sparrows across the country. In Texas, the sparrows love eating beneath bird feeders, where they scratch the ground for leftover seeds. Different sparrows sing different songs, and almost all sparrows are singers. Sometimes very early in the morning, I could hear the chip-chip-chip of a sparrow song and wondered whether it was happy mother’s chirping, waiting for her baby to come back to the nest, or to fly and be safe from the potential disaster of becoming a fat apartment cat’s next meal.

I wondered too, why the little bird continued to hop around, and for the most part, stayed in the same place where I always found it at night. I started taking plain sunflower seeds and dropping them around the tree, while also filling the water at night. Happy did not become tame, but it did seem that Happy was less inclined to hop away, when we visited the area, she had made her own. I had wanted Happy to fly further up. Indeed, each time we got a bit too close, the little bird would fly a bit, but never gained much height, and then it seemed to tire out and again land in the soft grass. Happy had gained feathers too, but I wondered if the feathers were weighing down the bird, since it seemed that the bird could never rise by more than just a little bit of a foot’s height off the ground.

In birds, the shape of their wings and the way they flap them allows air to move much faster above the wing than below the wing as they soar into the air. This difference in air force, or air pressure, is what lifts the bird from the ground. In young people leaving the nest, the shape of their wings (love, safety, respect, encouragement, nurturing) all contribute to how fast and far they fly. By the time fledgling humans leave their nest (or fly the coop), they have probably tired of being penned in and are ready to leave and journey farther than previously allowed.

I started visiting the little patch of grass where Happy lived, when my son was at school. I would go out and eat lunch on the opposite side of the grass and watch her putter around on the ground by the tree. I once spied the bulbous grey apartment cat that wandered around the area, but he did not seem to take notice of the bird at all. Happy blended in well with the brown and green grass and chirped very infrequently and softly. I wondered if Happy had not yet had time to learn the sparrow songs from its parent because of her dislocation from the nest.

Each day as we came closer to where Happy had been the day before, I would pray Happy had not died or been eaten by the apartment cat, or had just vanished. I did not know which would have been worse. The first I reasoned would be merciful, as Happy over a week’s time still did not seem able to fly that far, and I worried that its mother would not come to save it. If she was eaten by the apartment cat, that would have been a terrible fate even though the cat acting in its own nature would just be doing what cats as predators do. And if Happy vanished, I knew that I could somehow make up a story in my mind, about how the mother bird had finally found her fledgling and come back to save it. I would imagine the two of them reunited with the other birds eating, with their faces full of worms, that the mother might have brought back from a successful outing.

On the seventh day of our checking in on Happy, the bird flew toward us just a bit. We were by the road, and I wondered whether we had scared the bird. I tried to flap my arms to get it to stop flying toward us and the road, but she kept at it. I was in tears, apprehending the bird flying into the busy traffic filled road.  

As I flapped my hands back and forth, trying to get the bird to move away from the road, a car came through, and Happy was hit. Flying into the windshield at speed.

The car pulled over, as I ran towards Happy and picked her up. The bird wasn’t breathing and I was sobbing by now. My son started crying, and the man who had hit our Happy, helped me up from the ground and walked us to the side of the road.

I tried to explain to him what had happened and why we were so upset and he said, “I’m sorry Ms. I think you’re getting too upset. Birds are going to be birds. I couldn’t have seen that bird in time to stop it from hitting the windshield. I’m sorry but I have to leave now.” Saying this, he walked back to his truck and drove away.

I sat on the lawn holding Happy. My son went to our porch and retrieved a small cardboard box. It was a small box we had first thought we could keep Happy in until the Austin Zoo people had told us to leave Happy on the ground.  The soft white washrag was still in the box, and my son Gibson gently lifted Happy from my hands and placed the little sparrow in the box. Gibson took some grass and a red string he had been wearing on his wrist made a little nest around the now quiet sparrow. Then he picked up the sunflower seeds I’d been putting out around the tree where Happy had been and put those in the box too.

I watched him through my tears and knew I was seeing a fledgling boy flying with emotion and compassion in this world. I knew my son would be fine out of the nest. He knew how to make a new nest filled with love and tenderness and joy. We closed the box and carried it together to the porch of our house.

Late in the night, we took the box, a flashlight and dug a small hole by the rosebushes in the garden. I said, “Bless this Happy and may she fly on forever.” and we buried the bird.

A year later, in August, my son and I walked to where we had buried Happy and we could hear the chirp, chirp, chirp of a sparrow as we got closer to the rosebushes. We could not see any sparrows, but they were there, flying up in the trees. The rosebush had sprouted a new growth right above where Happy had been buried, and one small, single pale rosebud hovered over the sparrow’s grave.

In August, I helped my son carry up the belongings he had gathered for his dorm nest. I had bought him a foam pillow so he could sleep well, and a plant so he could have good air in his room. After the last trip of boxes, he climbed in the front seat of the car with me. I was starting to cry and holding my hand, he said, “Mom, I’m just moving to a new nest, but you can just fly over and visit anytime.”

Photo by Jacques LE HENAFF on Unsplash

Nettie Reynolds

Nettie Reynolds is a screenwriter, playwright, and essayist in Austin, TX. She is a Goddard College alum. She has most recently completed her draft memoir, "You Only Like the Fun God".