Sitting on my deck one late afternoon overlooking the gently flowing Buffalo River, I settled into the calm of nature listening to the many birds whose voices filled the air.
One particular bird, a cardinal, was acting in an unusual manner, hopping from branch to branch, about eye level. His sharp high-pitched chirp seemed to be directed at me.
I looked around and realized what he was upset about. There on my deck, not 5 feet from me, was a baby bird. Not quite a fledgling, obviously out of the nest too early. Instantly I understood her behavior: a dad concerned for his baby.
After moving out of the way so the mom could guide her chick to safety, progress was seriously slow. The chick was so young, so weak, not capable of the feat required of her.
After urgent encouragement from mom, the chick flew a couple of feet. Just when I was sure she would plummet into the river below, she reached out her spindly leg and grabbed a twig and righted herself but could not be urged to make another attempt at flight.
All the while her father darted to her, then flew off again to a branch not too far away, calling in that high-pitched plea. But the chick was done for the day; she would not move.
Dad flew off and there was only silence. I was saddened to think that the mother had abandoned his chick. I rationalized that he probably realized the chick would not survive the night. But to my surprise Dad returned minutes later, and several more times over the next 15 minutes, bringing his baby food, which the chick ate ravenously.
The sun set, the birds quieted and I went to bed sad, convinced the baby bird would die overnight.
When I woke to that familiar high-pitched chirp, I assumed it was another fearless father caring for another chick in peril. But my heart nearly burst and tears streamed down my face when I saw the same little chick hanging on for dear life in the exact same place as last night.
Dad was darting back and forth trying to get the chick to follow him to a safer place, away from the water. The chick made two gallant attempts at flight, managing to put a few feet between her and the river below.
Dad rewarded her with another feeding frenzy. I was encouraged and amazed by their tenacity, determination and grit.
Throughout the day, the silence would be broken by Dad calling his baby closer and closer to safety. I tracked them, staying my distance so as not to interfere. The chick spent another night away from her nest, but by day three she was back under the safe wing of her mother.
By now she is probably fully fledged and gone from the nest, soaring and learning the lessons she will need next year when she raises her own chicks.
I felt honored to be witness to the scene as it unfolded. This mother bird did everything possible to ensure the safety and survival of her chick. You can call it maternal instinct, survival instinct or just natural behavior, but I call it love.