APRIL (The First Brood)
Yellow Ribbon in AprilAt the nest Yellow Ribbon waits for three days but of course Soft Chirp doesn't return. During these days Yellow Ribbon's confusion is haunted by echoes. They are the echoes of Cat Chaser's nest-call.

Chirup chireep, chirup chireep chirup...

From beside his nest atop one of Aiken Elementary's entrance columns, across from the nest in which our bird awaits Soft Chirp, Cat Chaser calls and calls. Several females have dropped by to inspect his nest, but none have stayed. Maybe it's surprising that so far everyone has rejected Cat Chaser and his nest, for the nest seems to be a good one, and, at least to Yellow Ribbon, Cat Chaser himself is desirable...

On the morning of the fourth day of Soft Chirp's absence, Yellow Ribbon flies to be with Cat Chaser.

Upon alighting atop the column, Yellow Ribbon watches Cat Chaser predictably stand stiffly erect, puff out his black chest, fan his tail, and hop in and out of his nest. Our bird flies away, but then she soon returns, and the whole ceremony is repeated; this happens again and again, and finally they mate. By the end of Yellow Ribbon's second day with Cat Chaser she feels completely bonded to this new male and his nest.

*****

The next special event in Yellow Ribbon's life comes on an April morning when occasional brilliant sunlight floods from the sky onto streets, houses and lawns, but then the next moment a brief April shower drenches everything with soft rain. Patches of pale blue sky alternate with scattered, milky, dark- bottomed clouds, and warm breezes carry the mingled odors of green grass and blossoming bush-honeysuckle. On such a day Yellow Ribbon enters Cat Chaser's nest and lays a single egg.

The egg is glossy, drably colored, irregularly blotched, and spotted with shades of brown and purple; it's smaller around than the diameter of a dime. As soon as the egg plops into the depression beneath Yellow Ribbon she raises herself, pushes her body back so that her tail sticks straight up, and for a long time stares at the egg. Our bird had not known that such a thing might come from her!

The next morning she lays another egg. And the next morning there is another. After the third egg she begins staying on the nest full-time, day and night. On the fourth day she lays her fourth and final egg. Now her nest is complete. Now she will sit and wait and wait and wait, incubating the eggs with the motherly warmth of her body.

Though Yellow Ribbon does most of the setting, five or six times each day Cat Chaser visits to relieve her. Sometimes Yellow Ribbon resists leaving the nest, but then Cat Chaser utters a special churrrrrr call and quivers his wings. This always persuades his mate to leave the nest for fifteen or twenty minutes, and go forage for food while he keeps the eggs warm.

For twelve days Yellow Ribbon and Cat Chaser incubate the nest. Then they begin detecting -- ever so slightly -- the eggs beneath them shifting. On the twelfth day clicking sounds arise from inside each egg, for now inside each egg baby sparrows are breaking through their respective shells to the outside world.

Breaking from an eggshell is not an easy task for an unhatched bird. However, nature has provided each unhatched sparrow with a special tool just for this very moment in their lives. Atop each baby sparrow's beak grows a sharp bump or cusp called an egg tooth. It's not a real tooth -- just a sharp hump like a tiny knife, which the escaping bird presses against the eggshell's interior walls as if it were a tiny knife. The goal is to cut an escape hatch into the egg's larger end. Once the cutting is finished, each bird knows to push with its feet until the escape hatch comes loose.

Around 3 PM the first two eggs that were laid hatch at the same time. The third egg hatches at dusk. The last-laid egg begins hatching at dawn the following day. Unfortunately, with this hatching there's a problem; this young bird can't unstick itself from its shell's interior wall.

Seeing the problem, Yellow Ribbon instinctively takes into her beak the part of the eggshell sticking to the chick, and shakes it. Usually for other House Sparrow mothers with the same problem, this technique works. However, Yellow Ribbon shakes the shell again and again, but this young bird simply doesn't come unstuck.

After failing many times, Yellow Ribbon becomes confused. Therefore, without any particular plan, with her beak she lifts the part of the eggshell with the young bird still in it and hops from her nest. When she lands atop the column, the jolt knocks the young bird free. And then, so quickly that it's over before anything can be done, the nestling simply rolls across the column's flat top and tumbles into open space.

Yellow Ribbon doesn't see the tiny creature strike the cement floor twenty- five feet below. Nor does she see the young human who had been standing in the school's door approach the fallen nestling, pick it up by one of its toes, look at it with a sad face, and toss it into the grass.

Because Yellow Ribbon is only a House Sparrow, she cannot comprehend the fullness of her tragedy. She knows only that the stuck nestling no longer is a problem needing attention. Automatically she flies with this last empty eggshell in her beak and drops it with the others in the grassy outfield beside the baseball diamond.

*****

Changes... The three remaining nestlings change so impressively during their first few days.

In the beginning they're featherless and pink, and so helpless they can't open their eyes. Yellow Ribbon keeps them warm by spreading over them the soft feathers of her breast and wings. Though the nestlings can't see, they can hear, so when Cat Chaser alights next to the nest they hear him and poke their scrawny heads straight up, begging with their beaks gaped wide open. Then Cat Chaser bends forward and into their throats regurgitates partially digested, soup-like food from his own stomach.

On the fifth day of the nestlings' lives they open their eyes and begin eating solid food -- mostly caterpillars and other insects their parents bring them. Still they can't digest the hard seeds that will become their main food as adults. By the nestlings' eighth day so many feathers have grown on their bodies that they're no longer pink. By the tenth, the nestlings look like small, gray versions of Yellow Ribbon.

The nestlings always seem hungry -- even though Yellow Ribbon and Cat Chaser now become like food-gathering robots whose single function is to shuttle between the nest and insect-rich lawns, bushes, and trees, carrying beakfuls of grasshoppers, beetles, ants, wasps, and other unfortunate creatures. It's typical that during just one hour they visit the nest twenty times -- often with more than one insect in their beak!

About two weeks after the nestlings hatch they grow restless. As if they can't make up their minds where they want to be, hundreds of times they hop back and forth between the edge of their nest and the column's hard top. Sometimes they teeter at the column's edge watching humans pass into and out of the schoolhouse's big front doors. Other times, as if they were exercising or trying to learn to fly, they perch on their nest's edge, flutter their wings until exhausted, and then plop tail-first back into their nest.

On the sixteenth day of the nestlings' lives they become very quiet. Crouching low in their nests, they almost look as if they're afraid of something. It's as if they know that soon they must face something dreadful...

On this same day, Cat Chaser stops feeding them. Instead, he perches atop the column where Yellow Ribbon's first nest had been and calls chirup chireep. When Yellow Ribbon brings the nestlings food, Cat Chaser calls much more loudly and sometimes quivers his wings.

The next day, the seventeenth day, once again the nestlings cower in their nest. Furthermore, on this memorable day, neither parent feeds them. Once again Cat Chaser perches atop the opposite column calling. Sometimes he waves his head side to side as if to say that something momentous, difficult, and dangerous is about to happen.

The nestlings listen to Cat Chaser's special call and they watch both their parents behaving strangely. And on this last day of April, as their hunger becomes almost too painful to bear, they also feel that special command which nature has stored inside them just for this very moment in their lives...

It's the command that says, "Go ahead. Now is the time for you to leave your nest. Jump... Jump... Leap into the empty void... "

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