When I realized that I had an empty nest, my emotions roiled. I was happy that I could have my space back. I was sad that I might not see the young ones very much anymore. And I was worried about how they would survive on their own: How would they eat? What if they were attacked? What if they weren’t ready to fly? Not metaphorically, but actually. These fledglings weren’t heading to college — they were house finch chicks.
We had been watching them since before they were born. I came out onto the porch one day to find sphagnum moss from a houseplant littering the floor. A commotion rose from a nearby maple. If I sat very still, a female finch would dive into the hanging geranium plant just above me, carrying moss, dried grass, and bits of sticks. When she flew off, I took a peek — the nest was tidy and almost ready.
A few days later, the female again flew off the nest when I stepped onto the porch. She and a male finch perched on the branch and called at me, clearly alarmed. I assumed that she had laid her eggs. I was excited for them, and excited that they had chosen our geranium plant for their family.
Over the next few weeks, Mrs. Finch sat on the nest almost all day and all night. When my husband and I stole peeks and saw five tiny, beautiful blue eggs, we started fretting. Would they hatch? Would the mother abandon the nest because of our comings and goings? A few days later, we saw five moving balls of fluff. The fretting shifted. Would the chicks survive? Were there still five? How about today?
But our surrogate caretaking was nothing compared with the real thing. Mr. and Mrs. Finch were amazing parents, delivering food to the chicks and sounding a loud alarm if we got too close.
And then one day, the nest was empty. In addition to being happy, sad, and worried, I was shocked. It had happened so suddenly and so finally. Mr. and Mrs. Finch’s entire lives had been focused on creating and taking care of their offspring. And now what? Was parenting finished? How did they feel about the chicks leaving the nest?
I know this was a ridiculous question to ask about birds, but of course it wasn’t about the birds at all. The time in our lives we devote to raising our young is so intense — frustrating, rewarding, transformative — but ultimately, it is short. How do we deal with its ending? I thought of a recent conversation with a friend who said her 25-year-old son was not great about keeping in touch: “Is this what it was all for? A five-minute phone call every two weeks?”
And what about the finches? Were the fledglings completely on their own now, all parental ties severed? I did a bit of research and learned that leaving the nest is very dangerous. Forty percent of fledglings do not survive the first week. But staying in the nest would be even more perilous — keeping the location secret from predators becomes more and more difficult as the baby birds grow and get louder. So they leave the nest before they’re able to take care of themselves. And Mr. and Mrs. Finch bring them food for a few crucial weeks.
That part sounded familiar. As every parent of a college student knows, fledging is a process, not an event. They still need us, at least for a while, and of course we still need to be needed. So today, as two of my sons head back to college and the third returns to his home across the country after a short visit, I think of Mr. and Mrs. Finch, and I feel a bit less melancholy. I’m here if you need help, but off you go, boys. Go learn to fly.