An adolescent squirrel chattered and chittered far too loudly on the nearby tree trunk. I pointed it out to my sons, both of whom had been wondering what that loud sound was. I dropped down to my knees so they could follow my finger, pointing up-up-up the trunk until they could see where it stood. Its legs were splayed as it held on, sideways in space, its tail moving right and left like a pendulum as it cried out.
“Why is it crying like that?” My 7 year old, J, seemed concerned.
I shrugged. “I don’t know, maybe he’s lonely.”
“Yeah, that’s probably it.”
A, my 5 year old, had already turned away, looking back to our favorite birds at the Aviary, the hornbills. Those small strange creatures, their brilliant plumage, their long eyelashes, their haunting calls, they seemed wise and misunderstood to me.
“Dad! J! Look!” A called out in alarm, and we turned quickly, just in time to see one of the small hornbills flap its wings and ascend several feet into the air to a branch halfway up one of the trees in its enclosure. “I didn’t know hornbills could fly!”
I stayed there kneeling on the ground, an arm around each of my boys, as we watched the hornbills for several seconds. We had been to the Aviary dozens of times in the past several years, season pass holders. It’s a perfect way to spend a fall afternoon on a warm day, watching the birds. But every time we come, there is always some sort of first.
The feature exhibit at the Aviary is an enormous enclosure for their decades-old Andean condor, Andy. We have seen Andy many times, and he is generally up in a tree or down on the ground, resting peacefully or basking in the sun. He’s a beautiful bird. But today, while we watched, Andy jumped up on to an enclosure and spread his wings wide, holding them there for several minutes as we watched, amazed. The wingspan must have been 11 or 12 feet, and he just sat there, stretching or drying his feathers or showing off. It was a beautiful sight to witness.
“Dad, look at that bird! What is it!” I turned to see both of my sons pointing across the field, and it was my turn to follow their fingers. It took me a moment to realize I was looking at a very tall bird out of its pen. I immediately thought perhaps it had escaped, but then I noticed a second bird, and two handlers nearby, coaxing the birds across the grass. While the Aviary has peacocks roaming freely, I had never seen a sight like this.
“What are those?” A asked in wonder.
I thought for a moment, surprised. “Well, son. I think those are cranes.”
The boys knew what cranes were already. They are relatively smart kids with good vocabularies and a decent awareness of the world around them. Not only is there a crane exhibit here at the Aviary, but we read books and watch shows that are all about wildlife.
I stood up and grabbed their hands and we walked several feet closer to the cranes, I overheard one of the handlers talking to a few patrons, explaining that the cranes had been born in California at a wildlife enclosure about six weeks prior, and how they were socializing them as they grew to be comfortable with humans, and they planned to eventually make them part of the Aviary’s bird show. They named the cranes, two females, after Disney princesses, Tiana and Jasmine. They explained how the cranes were in their curious phase, exploring everything with their beaks much like human toddlers try to put everything in their mouths.
I watched the birds more closely, grey and white and brown and black feathers, striated, all mixed together with a spread of color worked in; long elegant legs; downy feather patches along their plumage; fluffy, almost curly crowns; deep black eyes and pointed beaks. They were incredible creatures. I explained to the boys how old they were, and they marveled that the birds were as tall as they were.
We walked along behind the handlers as the cranes walked behind us, keeping pace, sometimes passing within a few inches of us. The handlers called the cranes’ names, encouraging them to keep close, being patient as they seemed to take their time exploring the area around them.
My sons bragged to the handlers as they walked, telling them their names and ages, what grade they were in in school, and offering smart observations about the cranes. The handlers, both beautiful women, listened to every word, engaged in conversation, asked questions, and charmed my sons. When A bent to pick up a small feather, they looked at it and told him it was a peacock feather from an adolescent male, then Jasmine the crane took it out of his hand with her beak, initially scaring him but then making him laugh.
A few minutes later, as we walked back to the car, I asked the boys what their favorite memory of the Aviary was this time. They brought up Andy, with his wings spread wide. They brought up the chittering squirrel. Then they talked non-stop about the cute baby cranes the rest of the ride home.
Hours later, I checked on them, my own baby cranes snug in their beds, early in their development and turning into powerful little men. The house was quiet around me and I could only hear their breathing (my very favorite sound in the world), and I thought of how at this point in my life, I had assumed I would have a partner to raise them with, and how even though that hasn’t turned out for me, how I have been so honored to create memories and to watch them grow.
I smiled, stroked each of their cheeks once, and wondered if perhaps they were dreaming of cranes.