Almost Empty Nest

Mar 18, 2016

Credit Vincent Mancini

I’ve observed a great-horned owl on her nest for the past three months. This triggered a reflection on parenting similarities humans and critters share. 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 away, leaving behind an unnaturally quiet house, 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 is like.”  

As homo sapiens, 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 that new normal, 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 when only the founding couples occupies the home.   

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. Compounding 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, recollections of early child rearing invade my mind every time it wanders.

In February and early March, that owl momma attended her incubating eggs obsessively. Once they hatched, she fluffed her feathers and spread wings wide to keep 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 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 were often alone when I drove past. If that mom is anything like her human equivalent, she enjoys her freedom away from the nest. While she’s hunting, her children mind the boundaries of their world, but like their unfeathered counterparts, it seems they inch closer to the edge every time I see them. One morning, a little daredevil stood on the lip of its nest, stretching developing wings.

Eventually, momma owl came home to find her nest empty. I wonder if she was as surprised as I was to discover my young had moved out. Do owls reconsider their time management since the need to feed and clean up after offspring has ended? Will Mom 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 down 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 are ready to live on their own, leaving behind parents to figure out what to do with extra time and space.

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