By Keith Michael


Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop,

When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,

When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,

And down will come baby, cradle and all.

This Mother Goose rhyme’s sentiments never lulled me to sweet-dreams. (I wonder if I ever mentioned that to my mother.) As if on cue, Millie “I spys” a days-old, fallen from the cradle nestling, dead on the sidewalk (there should be a little crime-scene chalk outline around the body) which Millie so wants to corgi-forward-roll in and spread its pungent aromas around her white fur-ruff to take along home. Much to Millie’s dissatisfaction, I don’t let her indulge.

This is not the only barely-out-of-the-egg baby bird on the sidewalk that I’ve pulled Millie away from. Paraphrasing Haley Joel Osment telling Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense: “I see dead birds.” I also constantly see how hazardous it is for a bird just to be a bird.

Ah, the utopian life of a bird: you’re carefree, you’re pretty, you get to sing from the highest branch of a tree, your food is all provided for you (well, it might be worms and bugs and dry seeds, but you like that), and, best of all, you can fly (killer views, and just that adrenaline rush of flying—swooping, soaring, diving.)

However, I can’t be a Pollyanna about watching birds. It’s September, and fall migration is already in full swing for warblers and shorebirds (those little sandpipers that you see running along the beach), then come the hawks and everyone else. I’ve written many times about the gauntlet of migration. Think about it. You’re the size of a computer mouse, and probably weigh even less, and yet you fly, sometimes hundreds of miles non-stop at a sprint, from as far north as the Arctic Circle to your winter vacation in South America. No tour guide, no Google maps satellite view, no ten-day weather forecasts, no in-flight movies. (True, birds do have internal hard-wired, probably better, versions of all of these things!) There’s a new generation every year, and not only do you need to make the trip, but so do your kids. Most birds don’t even travel with their kids: “Bye, see ya, have a nice flight!” Then, along the way: Thunderstorms. A housing development was built in that lovely marsh we stopped at last year. It’s so hot. Where’s that all-you-can-eat buffet that used to be on the corner? Hawk!

Of course, there are the glass windows that you can run into and the ultimate, “I just can’t flap my wings one more time.” If you’re a bird whose forebears have stuck it out through the winters rather than migrating south, you have to endure the cold (without sweaters and radiators) and snow (without boots and shovels) and frozen food (without a microwave). Think about it.

Then, let’s say that you made it through all of that (“Round trip, please”) and survived all of your health issues without doctors or hospitals. Hurray! Now it’s time to raise a family.

Just a few weeks ago there was a well-hidden Robins’ nest that I came upon in Hudson River Park, complete with nesting Robin. (Millie was at home that day finishing the Sunday Times crossword puzzle.) Robins sit on their nest for two weeks, leaving the nest for only minutes at a time. The mother Robin does most of the sitting, and this was probably her second brood of the summer. Oh, and after she built her own house! Think about it. Two weeks on a really lumpy mattress. No TV, no music, no lengthy 19th century novels, no cell phones, no child-rearing aps. The man-of-the-nest does bring you take-out, but what if he doesn’t come back? Then what?

I watched the nest over the next week. The four eggs hatched. Then the marathon began—keeping those mouths fed—a full-time job with overtime. Mommy and Daddy were back every several minutes after running to the store, not buying, but catching each meal or pulling it out of the ground. Back and forth, and forth and back, grabbing a bite for themselves on the fly.

A few days later I went back with Millie to check on them. Everyone was gone—Mom and Dad and the kids. An empty nest. It was too soon. I doubt that someone got a better job offer and moved to the west coast, or that they won the lottery and suddenly set out on a vacation to the Galapagos (okay, that’s my fantasy). They were just gone. No clues. What happened? None of the potential plot twists are rosy: bad weather, accident, pestilence, negligence, vandalism, kidnapping, murder.

Each Robin that I see now, I wonder if they know what happened.

Free as a bird. Think about it.

Keith Michael’s NEW book Let’s Go Out! will be available this fall! For more information about books, nature walks, and photographs, visit


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