Learning about life (and death) by watching the birds
“DUCK!” exclaimed my 16-month-old-son, Oliver, as he pointed to the ducks along the edge of the Vltava River on a recent trip to Český Krumlov. “DUCK!” he repeated, this time pointing to the pigeons clustered on the bridge above the ducks. He bounced up and down and flapped both arms excitedly.
I disregarded the fact that Oliver was confusing ducks with pigeons and focused on the excitement of his first intelligible word. My husband Radek and daughter Anna Lee ignored Oliver and I and continued throwing bits of bread to the ducks.
“Say, ‘duck,’ Oliver,” I implored. “Say it again, please.”
Grinning and pointing to a pigeon, he shouted triumphantly, “DUCK!”
Thus began Oliver’s ongoing obsession with anything bird-related (including ducks, geese, chicken, chicks, turkeys, roosters, pigeons…). I thought this bird-craze might die down once we returned to Prague, but instead Oliver searched his picture books for “duck” pictures and proudly carried them to us for verification.
Both of my children are curious about animals in general, but when Oliver sees ducks or geese in the nearby village ponds or pigeons on the city streets his eyes really light up. I remembered Anna Lee’s fascination with Prague’s pigeons during her toddler years, and her continued interest in birds in general.
When we were visiting my parents in Virginia over the summer, we’d observed the various birds that made temporary homes in my parents’ yard. Anna and my mother had faithfully watched a ruby-throated hummingbird that Anna had named Jolly weave a daily route through my mother’s flower bed to collect nectar. Both of the children had eyed my father’s birdhouse curiously, and the whole family had engaged in an impromptu bird hunt after a baby wren had flown from the birdhouse unexpectedly.
Not long after Oliver began saying “duck,” I was in the bathroom of our new house when I heard a loud thud. “Come quick, Mommy!” Anna shouted. “There was a big boom and now the birdie’s not moving.”
When I got to the kitchen, Anna’s and Oliver’s faces were plastered to the glass watching a swallow lying on his side on the stone tiles. “Oh, guys.” I groaned and couldn’t stop myself from turning away. “What happened?”
“We didn’t do anything, Mommy.” Anna insisted. “Is the birdie going to be okay?”
I didn’t know what to say, but I decided to tell the truth. “Sweetie, I guess he’s probably not okay. I think he flew into the glass and hurt his head. Now he may be dying.” I almost didn’t add the last part, but the bird wasn’t moving, and I didn’t want to build up false hope.
“Why’s he going to be dying, Mommy? I see his eyes moving.” Anna bent closer and moved to open the door.
“No, don’t go out please.” I wracked my brain thinking of what I could do to help the bird. There was nothing clever to do or say, so I just sat down next to the children to wait.
We watched the bird, trying to decide if its eyes and feathers were really moving. Surprisingly, after several minutes the little bird flipped himself to his feet and his puffed up body slowing started to return to its normal shape. His eyes were still fluttering, but when I moved to open the door to give him water, he hopped a few paces away.
Despite being late for Anna’s ballet class, the kids and I couldn’t draw ourselves away from the scene. Anna kept asking me questions (Why didn’t the bird see the glass? Why was he pooping on the terrace? Where was his mommy? Was he really going to die?), while Oliver made sympathetic cooing noises. Finally, after seeing the bird back on his feet, we reluctantly left him on the terrace, promising to check up on him when we returned.
On the drive to town, I couldn’t stop thinking about the bird. It was the first time Anna had asked me questions about death (apart from asking what it meant for a mobile phone to be “dead”), and I wasn’t sure if I’d done a very good job answering her. Lukily it seemed as if this particular bird was going to survive.
Until the day the swallow flew into the window, all of our bird encounters had been about observing the joy of a bird’s life, not watching its death or struggle against injury. Although I felt as if our conversation about death hadn’t been as well-thought out as I would have liked, I was glad I had tried to answer Anna’s questions honestly. I guessed that for better or worse, it would have an impact on both of us.
The week after the window crashing swallow incident we were in Prague when Anna shouted for me to look at something. It was the body of a dead pigeon on the sidewalk. Another girl, even smaller than Anna, joined us on the sidewalk. The girls and Oliver stared at the bird while the girl’s father and I exchanged a sympathetic glance.
After a few minutes of silence, Anna asked me if the bird had hit its head like the one at our house, and I said it might have. She stared at the bird for a few minutes longer and then said, “It’s dead Mommy. Do you think someone is going to come and pick it up?” I said I hoped so. The answer seemed to satisfy her and we moved on.
We didn’t talk any more about the bird that day, but the next time we were passing the same street, she remembered the pigeon and seemed pleased that his body wasn’t on the sidewalk anymore.
I was surprised how our family’s pastime of watching and talking about birds had allowed us to broach some of life’s difficult questions. How learning about nature was in some ways parallel to learning about ourselves.