The Empty Nest

by Joseph Yanuzzi

The July heat was stifling as I walked out onto the sprawling field adjacent to the airport. We were in the midst of a brutal heat wave that had temperatures consistently in the high ninety’s. The field was a manicured sea of grass that ran parallel to the airports major runways. This area was largely devoid of any foliage, with the exception of an oak tree standing alone in the farthest corner of the field.

I always held a fascination for airplanes and spent many hours here enjoying a cigar and watching the planes take off and land. I stood and watched with excitement, as a large jet roared down the runway, gently nosed skyward, made a sharp right turn, and quickly disappeared. This field offered a great vantage point to observe airport activity and it was a great way to relax.

Today was an especially beautiful day for flying. The sky was a clear, radiant blue, that offered pilots unlimited visibility. The apparent lack of cloud cover seemed to increase the heat and humidity, forcing me to seek shelter beneath the young oak tree.

I stood in the shade of the small oak and watched as dozens of planes took to the sky, or made their final approach for landings. I was self-absorbed in this spectacle, when a faint rustling in the branch above me caught my attention. I looked up to see a beautiful, orange breasted, American Robin, methodically building a small nest between the forks of two sturdy branches.

Initially, I felt like an intruder and contemplated leaving the protective shade of the tree, allowing the robin to work uninterrupted. After confirming my presence, the robin stopped its laborious task long enough to eye me warily. After a few moments, I whistled softly, maintaining eye contact and surprisingly, the robin responded with a melodic, cheery chirping. I accepted the greeting as an approval of my presence and became completely enamored with her. However, unknown to me, a friendship that would span several weeks was about to be born.

I stood quietly beneath the tree and watched in awe as the robin flew off only to return minutes later with an abundance of building supplies. She patiently constructed her nest with a variety of items that included, rope, twigs, leaves, and a muddy paste she smeared inside the nest to solidify and anchor it.

Over the next several weeks, I stood under the oak tree and watched quietly as she sat on her nursery for hours. She was always aware of my presence, even greeted me with her cheery song, but was rather oblivious to any other distractions.

As an ardent Naturalist, the outdoors always served as my classroom. I knew that robins usually breed from April through July, and can have two or three broods per breeding season. A clutch would consist of 3 to 5 light blue eggs, incubated by the female and hatched in about two weeks. Once the eggs hatch, the newborns leave the nest in about 14 days. This would be her last brood of the season.

As autumn nears, healthy robins usually start their southward migration around the end of August, which can take them as far as central Mexico. Those old or sickly will remain and overwinter in their home range. Many of the robins will never reach their southern range because of the hazards they face during their long journey. The robins that successfully migrate return to their home range in February and March.

Several times a week I visited my feathered friend to check her progress and realized that she was nesting far longer than the required time with no results. It was well over a month now and she was never gone from her nest, yet there were no baby robins in the nest. I was gravely concerned, but remained optimistic, knowing that anomalies do occur in nature and change the natural order of things.

I continued my daily visits and upon my arrival was always greeted with the cheery chirps that gave me solace and hope for this beautiful and friendly robin. It was obvious that the robin enjoyed my company as much as I relished her presence but I kept my visits short. I never knew a small bird could be so intelligent and communicative.

The last time I saw the robin was a Tuesday in late August under a portentous, steel gray sky. She greeted me with her usual cheery song but seemed somewhat agitated and restless. She constantly shifted her small body within the confines of the nest like she was trying to anticipate something. Was she finally sitting on a brood of eggs that were about to hatch or was she preparing to submit to something linked to her destiny? Autumn was also fast approaching now and maybe she was just contemplating the long migratory journey south. Unfortunately, I will never know.

The next day began with another bright, hot, humid morning. I awakened early, intent on visiting the nest because of my grave concern for her behavior and safety. I arrived at the field and found an eerily quiet, empty nest. She was gone. I waited for what seemed like an eternity, hoping she would return to her nest but there was no sign of her anywhere.

I stood there in complete silence. There was no longer any cheerful greeting or chirping from the nest. I decided to look inside the nest and to my surprise, I found a single, dark, beautiful, wing feather.

I never saw that beautiful robin again. I looked at her feather in my hand and wondered if her cycle of life was complete and this was her way of saying goodbye.