Dear Readers , it seems impossible that I was writing about the new cohort of fledgling starlings a whole year ago, but here we are again. A couple of weekends ago we were woken at stupid o’clock by the insistent, wheezy calls of young starlings, fresh out of the nest and eager to be fed. The sky was alive with parent birds flying fast and low, hotly pursued by their ravenous offspring. I have noted before how the parents ‘park’ their freshly emerged youngsters in a tree, or on the ground, and then fly off to gather food for them. Left to their own devices, even briefly, the youngsters get into all kinds of mischief, and every year there’s something new. For example, I had never seen a starling sunning itself before. This one looked as if s/he was enjoying being able to stretch her wings. Maybe it was a very cramped nest.
I expected the kerfuffle to attract some predators – in the past I’ve seen fledglings killed by jays, cats and a sparrowhawk. But the afternoon went on, and the parents flew back and forth with mouthfuls of tasty caterpillars and suet pellets. It interests me that the babies will beg from any adult, but the adults are most particular about who they feed. They aren’t going to let all that work of incubating the eggs and feeding the nestlings go to waste now.
The period when the parents look after their offspring is vanishingly short, however. In the course of a few hours, the parents seem to move from feeding their fledglings every ten minutes to returning about once every half hour. I would almost swear that by the end of the day, the youngsters are left largely to their own devices. They certainly seem to pick up this pecking thing pretty quickly. By the end of the week, there were ‘gangs’ of adolescent starlings, but scarcely an adult to be seen. I’m wondering if the adults are just desperate for a break, and to get on with moulting. Nature is nothing if not pragmatic.
How vulnerable the fledglings look, though. I wonder if they feel at all nervous, out in the big wild world? What they seem to resemble most is some Dickensian ingenue, fresh to the Big City and ready to be fleeced by any passing rascal. Let’s hope they’ve learnt at least the minimal street smarts from their parents.
I was extremely surprised by the suddenness of the ‘switch’ in maternal behaviour when I was fostering cats for Cats Protection. We only had one mother cat who gave birth in the house, and this was Rosa.
She was the most diligent mother to her four kittens: they were born on the 4th November and on the 5th November there was a massive firework display outside, complete with house-shaking explosions. I was afraid that Rosa would desert the babies in order to find safety for herself (she was nursing right under the window) but not a bit of it. The kittens were the centre of her life for ten weeks, during which time she fed them, cleaned them, protected them and taught them how to behave.
And then, one morning, one of the kittens tried to suckle and she walloped him with a paw, sending him rolling across the floor. She had been moving away and allowing them to suckle less, plus they were all eating solid food by then, but had allowed them to ‘comfort-feed’. From then on, she was grumpy with the kittens, getting away from them whenever she could. She was extremely affectionate with us, though, and it became clear that she was coming back into heat. It was as if she’d decided that her work on this bunch of kittens was done, and she was getting ready to make some more. The kittens were rehomed soon after this, in pairs so that they wouldn’t be lonely, and once Rosa had been through her heat she was spayed and a new home was found for her too. It was a sharp lesson for me in how unsentimental nature is, and how quickly young animals can be ‘cast out’ to fend for themselves.
Incidentally, it also made me think that most kittens are rehomed much too young – 8 weeks feels too early for me, with ten weeks being the ideal. Mothers still have a lot to teach their kittens before they get fed up with them!
And although this isn’t a cat blog, here are the kittens. We gave them descriptive names so that we ‘wouldn’t get too attached to them’. That went well, as you can imagine.
And, of course, all this makes me think about human mothers and their children. I remember how desperately I wanted to be independent when I was in my teens, how hard I fought to break away from what felt like suffocation to me, though my mother saw it as love and protection.I am sure it’s a battle that is repeated in some form or another in most households, with a greater or lesser degree of heartbreak. And yet, when I did remake my relationship with my Mum when I was in my forties, it was all the stronger because of the previous fracture, because the lines had been largely redrawn. We came back together, tentatively at first, as adults meeting and appreciating one another as if for the first time. Of course Mum was always my mother, and she always told me to put a coat on when she felt cold, but we had a new and enduring respect for one another. She encouraged me to be a writer, and when I was clearing through her things last week, I discovered a plastic file full of the stories that I’d sent to her, pieces that I don’t even remember writing, and yet here they are.She believed in me long before I believed in myself, and it is probably the greatest gift that she gave me.
When animals insist that their youngsters move on, it’s usually permanent – there frequently aren’t the resources to enable two generations to share the same territory. How lucky we are, as humans, to be able to make those decisions for ourselves, and to have the choice to have a new kind of relationship with our parents once we are no longer dependent upon them. The redrawing of boundaries and the conversations that need to be had can be excruciating, but they do open up new possibilities, if (and only if) both parties are willing to try. This is not to say that some relationships between parents and children are not too toxic, too damaging, to be redeemed. But we often seem so lonely and exposed, so unprepared for what’s to come. As I have learned, there will be a time when there are no ears to hear the things that we meant to say, and the stories of our parents will go with them into the dust.
As the Buddha said, ‘the problem is, you think you have time’.