When Wings Take Thought

Preface — From a piece I wrote in the fall of 2010 for the Greater Mohican Audubon Society newsletter:

Nature and Nurture

“Birds,” I said, repeating the word each time I saw her little eyes catch and follow the flight of goldfinches, nuthatches and downy woodpeckers coming and going at the feeders.

My 4-month-old granddaughter, Kiley, and I were exploring, just as I had done with her mother decades ago. I carried her from room to room, pausing to look at artwork on the walls, our reflection in the bathroom mirror, the dog sprawled across a rug in the kitchen. But none of it caught and held her attention more than the birds flitting around outside the living room window.

I thought about why I was doing this, other than the simple pleasure of interacting with a baby – or “portable human,” as I like to call them. I wondered about why I had done this with her mother and my son before that. It seems to be an intuitive process, imprinting language, building associations between words and objects. It’s not something I learned from books on parenting or magazine articles. No one told me to do it; I just did it.

But this time was different because I realized that the educational process was a two-way street. Watching Kiley’s eyes, I began to see that mankind’s fascination with birds is universal. It transcends generational and cultural boundaries. It touches us regardless of our level of development and sophistication.

Later that day, after Kiley had gone home and the shadows in the yard grew deep in the fading autumn sun, the lesson began to sink in even further. It occurred to me then that someday the cycle of life will have come full circle, that I could be lying there, as helpless as a baby. The world that was once mine to explore could be constrained to a view of the yard through the windowpane.

But there will still be birds.


Kiley is all smiles after releasing a cardinal

Fast-forward to December 30, 2014. Four-month-old Kiley is now four years old. She’s spending a few days in north central Ohio during the New Year’s holidays — spoiling her grandpa.

Yesterday we took time out from playing — camping in a tent set up in the basement, hiding from the monsters in the monster-proof closet, trekking through the pasture and forest — and we fed the birds. Later in the morning, we found a dazed cardinal on the doorstep, a window strike.

After the cardinal convalesced in “the recovery room,” a pet carrier set up for that purpose, Kiley helped let it go. She was apprehensive about putting her little hand too close to the skittish cardinal, but we finally managed to release it together. The look on her face and the gasp of delight were priceless.

Lessons from the first four years of her life seem to have taken wing. That includes what she’s learned from her mom and other adults in her life.

Over the years, she’s learned to identify other birds by sight and by their habits, such as nuthatches with their peculiar practice of landing upside-down. During one visit, I introduced 2-year-old Kiley to turkey vultures, which roosted near her apartment in west central Ohio.

It didn’t seem to bother Kiley when I told her that vultures eat dead things. Why would it? This is a girl who, at the age of three, announced to her mother, “Everybody’s going to die.” Asked why, Kiley responded, “Because they’re alive.”

Even children can think deep thoughts when the sky’s the limit.