Saturday, May 10, 2014

Almost Empty Nest

I’ve observed a great-horned owl on her nest for the past three months. This triggered my reflections on similarities between human and critter parenting experiences. It also added questions to those already swirling about my busy brain. One of those is do birds experience a sense of unsettledness like the one humans have when their young first leave home? After surviving those aching months when our youngest moved from home, leaving an unnaturally quiet house behind, I recall a moment when my husband and I looked at one another, and said something along the lines of, “We’re going to have to relearn what a world without kids in it is like.”  

As humans, we spend more time rearing offspring than wild creatures do. As a result, the empty nest stage jars our senses at first. To make it through those first weeks, we review photos and videos of earlier times with our youngsters. These remind us how clever, inventive, and cute they were. Thankfully, human parents have late teen and early twenty years when kids are out more than they are in to prepare for a future where only adults occupy the house.   

Seeing that great-horned owl and her nest progress from egg -laying to ready-to-fledge time has triggered a flood of memories about raising our girls. To compound these emotional flashbacks is the fact our eldest and her husband are experiencing the infant and toddler years with their two little ones. Between my watching these escapades through grandmother eyes and snapping weekly photos of maturing owlets, reminiscences of early parenthood invade my mind every time it wanders.

In February and early March, that owl momma attended her incubating eggs obsessively. Once they’d hatched, she’d fluff her feathers and spread wings wide to keep her babies toasty on frosty mornings. As weeks passed, I observed two downy heads peeking over the edge of the nest under momma’s watchful golden eyes. Eventually, days grew warmer and growing babies’ feathers filled in.

 As the nestlings matured, they crowded their home. Eventually, Mom ventured out to forage. I’d spy her leaving her young, who now occupied the entire bowl of their treetop home, gazing after her as she swooped low over the prairie searching for rodents.

Lately, her babes are often alone when I drive by. If that mom is anything like a human mother, she enjoys this freedom. While she’s hunting, her children mind the boundaries of their world, but like their human counterparts, it seems they inch closer to the edge every time I pass. The other morning, one daredevil stood on the lip of its nest, stretching developing wings.

One day soon, momma owl will come home to find her nest empty. I wonder if she’ll be as surprised as I was to discover my young had left home. Do owls reconsider their time management since the need to feed and clean up after offspring has ended? Will she soon perch atop power poles as she did last fall?

Whether human or critter, parenting cycles follow predictable patterns. For a time, babies tie mommas close to home with barely a moment to go to the bathroom alone. Slowly but surely, little ones mature, freeing parents from total dependency. In what seems like a flash, those youngsters develop until they’re ready to live on their own, leaving behind parents to figure out what to do with that extra time and space.

I guess we know what I did with mine. I started owl watching and telling you what I saw.

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