Empty Nest

By Julie Peyton

IT IS STILL THERE IN THE RECTANGULAR PLANTER on my 9th-floor balcony, the now-empty nest that today has no mother bird flitting about chittering at my presence, no babies trustingly opening those impossibly wide beaks at the approach of my camera. For about three weeks I had allowed myself one daily visit, just a few seconds to see what had changed, how many eggs or baby birds or fledglings were present, and to get a photograph. Now I can stand next to it as long as I want, marveling at the craftsbirdship of bits of twig woven into a near-perfect half sphere. I should probably remove the nest and put the planter back into service for vegetables or berries.

This opportunity to observe one tiny bit of the natural world up close and over several weeks prompted good questions, and I did some reading about juncos and their wingéd lives, their habitats and nesting behavior.

At the same time, my students were learning about DNA. Did you know the only information carried in DNA is the primary structure of proteins, including those proteins that are required to copy DNA? I used the question of “which came first, the chicken or the egg” to discuss this: DNA needs to be copied every time a new cell is needed, and it needs the proteins to copy it. But the proteins that duplicate DNA require the DNA “blueprints” and the cellular machinery (which includes other proteins that are also coded for in the DNA) to make those precise DNA-copying proteins. If you can’t make more DNA without proteins, but you need DNA to make those very proteins… It’s a conundrum.

Julie and the Nest

Observing the birds prompted larger-scale questions: how is behavior coded into DNA? The momma bird doesn’t learn from her parents how to build a nest, or that her babies must be fed insects (not seeds). The babies are not taught to open their mouths wide when something approaches. How does instinct arise from matter? How can all this happen, from eggs to flight, in less than one month?

I am left with an empty nest and unanswered questions. But what a rich experience it was! Some apt words include: delight, tenderness, caution, trepidation, gratitude, research, laughter, disappointment, richness, community (I shared my daily photographs on social media and with my neighbors in the condominium building). And one last question:

Am I really of more value than many juncos?