A brilliant shaft of light flashed through the trees and announced the long-awaited appearance of the sun.
The birds sang out in celebration.
The early birds had been singing for almost an hour with the first hint of the brightening horizon. As the stars faded one by one and the sky transformed from velvety blackness to pale blue, more birds awakened and joined their voices to the chorus.
But as the golden rays multiplied, the melodic phrases and twinkling trills took on a real urgency. Birds sang out from every direction and increased their volume ten-fold when the blinding orb of the sun revealed itself at last through the leafy canopy.
A new day began exactly as every other day -- and yet as unique as an individual snowflake.
The sun’s golden light gleamed across a street named Willow Hollow and into the yard behind the house located at number 3477. A particularly bright beam pierced through the leafy canopy of a dogwood tree and lit up a single branch like a spotlight. Two Mockingbirds sat on the branch and waited expectantly as three eggs shuddered with life.
And in that very moment, the miracle of birth occurred.
Small chunks of eggshell cracked and fell away from one egg as it rocked excitedly. A tiny voice called out with heartwarming urgency as the outside world became visible for the very first time.
Sunshine’s heart quivered with excitement.
The female Mockingbird cocked her head to one side and peered intently. She flicked her long, graceful tail as her excitement reached a fever pitch. She then hopped from side to side and opened her beak in a smile.
Sunshine couldn’t contain her emotions any longer. She stretched out her wings and held them out wide. With her face toward the sky, she sang her happiness for the entire world to hear.
Suddenly, the egg rocked side to side as more eggshell crumbled away. Seconds later, a tiny beak and face peeped out.
The first baby emerged from the shell.
The two lifelong mates stared with open beaks as the tiny form pushed the remaining section of eggshell back and wriggled itself free.
The fragile creature shuddered with the first brush of air across its wet body. Its head seemed far too large compared to its tiny body in that first minute of life outside the egg. Struggling to lift its head and discover its new surroundings, the baby moved with jerky, unwieldy motions as it used its muscles for the first time.
Both parents leaned closer with eager expectation.
Lifting its head up, the baby cried out its first, precious words.
"I’m cold, and I’m hungry!"
Sunshine turned to her mate and laughed out loud.
Treetop smiled as he flicked his long tail proudly.
"Feed me! Feed me! Feed me!" the baby Mockingbird peeped urgently.
"Oh, Treetop. It’s a little male. And he looks just like you," Sunshine trilled happily.
Treetop sang out joyfully as he leapt into the air and flew far above the trees, his song filling the air.
The birds in the nearby trees stopped their own singing to listen with awe and respect, realizing that a proud new parent was singing about the birth of his babies. Treetop’s vibrant voice echoed throughout trees.
As the golden sun rose steadily into the clear blue sky, the other two babies slowly worked their way free.
Three newborn babies now cried out to their parents with constant calls for attention.
Sunshine and Treetop got to work.
First, Treetop reached into the nest and picked up the largest empty eggshell with his beak. He leapt into the air with it and then flew far away from the nest before he dropped the eggshell into the middle of a large bush.
He quickly flew back to the nest to remove more egg debris.
While he and Sunshine flew back and forth and carefully cleaned the nest, they recalled the two oldest sayings of nest-wisdom that all families of bird held dear.
The first: ’A clean nest means a clean bird.’
This oldest bit of wisdom applied first for the parents as they sat long hours warming the eggs before the young hatch. But its primary meaning applied to the parents after the young hatched -- keeping the young clean and quickly disposing of all waste, external and internal.
Of course, caring parents by and large kept the nest and the babies clean; it was simply a part of being a good parent. But keeping a nest clean was not just important for appearances; it was an essential part of protecting the babies from potential predators. Snakes, possums, raccoons, and other birds would relish a meal of tender babies if they could find the nest hidden among the leaves.
If parents allowed waste to fall to the ground directly underneath the nest, they might return to the chilling sight of an empty nest and a few scattered feathers -- and no babies.
The second proverb had a similar meaning, but it applied more broadly to the everyday life of all birds. On any given day and in any given tree, a bird would likely hear this bit of wisdom chirped and chided by a parent to its offspring ...
’A stupid bird fouls its own nest.’
Treetop and Sunshine had been mates four seasons now. Together, they had successfully raised six sets of young. Their first nestlings usually hatched in early spring. After these babies were taught how to fly and how to feed using their own skills, Treetop and Sunshine would build another nest and raise another set of young, these usually being born during the heart of the summer.
The babies born in the nest this bright, wonderful day were their second set of hatchlings this season.
Sunshine flew back to the dogwood tree to feed her babies for the first time. Their cries for food touched her heart and urged her to fly faster.
But as she approached, Treetop glanced up at her with a strange expression, and she felt her heart seize with dread.
"There’s a problem," he said simply.
"What’s the matter?" she asked with a frantic tone.
"What? What is it?" Sunshine gripped the branch tightly.
"It’s ... it’s one of the babies."
"What is it? Tell me!"
But Treetop turned away and shook his head.
"Tell me!" she pleaded urgently.
Treetop sighed heavily. He spoke with his back still turned. "He’s deformed."
Those two, heart-rending words started ringing inside her head in a nightmarish chant -- over and over again. The chant quickly drained all her energy and then all her joy. Her legs grew weak while the world around her spun out of control.
’He’s deformed ... ’
She had never considered this possibility.
Somewhere deep inside her breast, where her heart had beat so happily a moment before, a dark and terrible emptiness began to blossom like a cancer.
Sunshine looked away as fearful panic seized her.
She was afraid to look.
But she was afraid not to look.
Sunshine took a deep, shaky breath.
And turned around.
Three baby Mockingbirds lay sprawled in the bottom of the nest seemingly naked with their fine down clinging to their fragile bodies in wet, dark streaks. The wet down would soon dry and give their tiny bodies some protection from the air.
Sunshine leaned forward, carefully looking over each baby in turn and trying to determine what was wrong, but all she could see were three tiny babies who shuddered with new life.
She turned to her mate.
"They look fine to me," Sunshine said with a rush of hope.
"He’s deformed." Treetop groaned. He nodded at the nest. "The little one -- the last one born. Look closely."
Sunshine’s head spun as she realized the littlest baby was moving oddly. And the more she looked, the odder his struggles seemed.
"Look at him closely," her mate added with anguish.
Hot tears clouded her vision as she tried to focus.
Without intending to, she looked at the first-born male instead. The baby noticed his mother’s glance and cried out once again, his message direct and to the point.
"Feed me! Feed me!"
Sunshine ignored the cry even though it tugged at her heart and triggered something deep inside. She looked him over carefully, blinking back her tears.
Next, she looked at the second born, a female. The baby recognized her mother and cried out with the same, urgent message. Sunshine smiled down at her daughter a moment.
Finally, after a long and fearful hesitation, she turned to the last born, another male.
The baby struggled to raise himself up with open beak in expectation of his first meal.
But this baby had more trouble than the others and could not balance himself enough to lift his head upright. The other two had successfully raised their heads with beaks open as they pleaded urgently to be fed.
The last baby struggled awkwardly...
He wobbled unsteadily a moment and fell backward with a plop.
Sunshine couldn’t understand why he couldn’t raise himself up like the others. She looked closer and gasped.
"He only has one leg!"
Treetop and Sunshine looked at each other with great sadness in their eyes.
The terrible emptiness inside her breast smothered Sunshine. She felt like she was suffocating from the overwhelming sadness. It felt as if her world were crumbling around her.
"It can’t be ..." she whispered.
"He’s ... he’s deformed" Treetop collapsed on the branch and sat there shaking his head.
Sunshine felt the world spinning out of control.
"He’s only got one leg," Treetop repeated in a whisper. He began to sob silently.
Sunshine peered down at the struggling baby, who’d finally managed to raise his body partway up on his one leg. She looked closer and saw only a tiny stump where the second leg should have been.
She stared at the baby a long time in stunned silence.
She felt helpless. She felt powerless. And she didn’t know what to do.
Treetop hopped up beside Sunshine as all three babies suddenly cried in unison and begged to be fed.
"He’ll never live," Treetop said sadly. "He’ll never live long enough to leave the nest."
"What? How can you say such a thing?" Sunshine asked haltingly. Her mind was in so much turmoil, it seemed everything was confusion.
"Have you ever seen a one-legged Mockingbird?" Treetop asked.
"I don’t know ..." Sunshine whispered with doubt. "I’m not sure ..."
"I mean, have you ever met a one-legged Mockingbird? Have you even heard of one?" Treetop asked more forcefully.
Sunshine quickly looked away as more hot tears streamed down her cheeks. After a moment, she looked back at her babies. She focused on the poor one-legged baby while her heart broke in two.
"No, I’ve never heard of a one-legged bird before ..."