When I returned to teach at my alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, I was thrilled to have an office in the Cathedral of Learning with a breathtaking view of Heinz Chapel, St. Paul Cathedral and the eastern hills.
I have a bird's-eye view of the wedding photo sessions outside the chapel and of the soccer, Ultimate and fall football games played on the lawn (followed by the annual re-seeding in the spring). But the best thing about my office has been that it has allowed me to observe the lives of the resident peregrine falcons, Dorothy and her mate, E2.
It is an amazing experience to be so close to wildlife while working in a 36-plus story building in the middle of a city. For instance, there is nothing quite like conducting a conference call while a falcon eats a pigeon on your air-conditioner (the "thud-thud" is memorable and a little distracting).
However, the best time to be a resident of the Cathedral is in the spring and early summer because the Cathedral has a nest. Each spring Dorothy and E2 brood a group of eyases and the entire falcon-watching community monitors the family on the National Aviary falconcam or by looking at the photos on the Pittsburgh Falconuts Facebook page.
Indeed, the "falconuts" is one of my frequent stops on Facebook. Although I have never met them in person, I feel as though I know Donna, Kate, John, Anthony and all the other falconuts who have educated me about these splendid birds.
Probably the highlight of the year is when the young falcons "fledge." In the days leading up to when they first take flight, the young juveniles flap their wings and walk along the ledge outside of the nest box. There is usually a group of people who gather at the plaza across the street from the Cathedral and train their binoculars on its upper floors, hoping to catch the first flight of a young falcon into the big, wide world.
This year we observed the typical pattern of courtship rituals between Dorothy and E2, and subsequently Dorothy laid a clutch of five eggs in the scrape in the box. As is usual, Dorothy and E2 shared the duties of incubating the eggs. All seemed to be going according to schedule.
On April 25, the first egg hatched, shortly followed by a second. Dorothy was brooding the eyasses and the eggs. However, things took a different and unexpected turn.
The second eyas seemed to be behaving oddly, as if handicapped, and then died. The rest of the eggs failed to hatch. What was happening? Was the late, cold spring to blame?
Kate St. John, in her blog Outside my Window explained that no, what we were witnessing was the normal course of events.
Dorothy is estimated to be 14 years of age. She is a falcon matriarch, but her fertility is waning. Some spring soon, Dorothy will lay no viable eggs.
I cried reading Kate's blog post. Actually, I spent most of that day crying while sitting at my desk. I felt a strong bond to Dorothy. Both of us are aging with "old eggs" and one chick in the nest. It hit awfully close to home.
When my now-17-year-old daughter Olivia was a baby, she was not happy about being separated from me. When I left her at day-care the first day, the teacher observed that she had "never seen a 12-week-old with such a worried look on her face."
I didn't believe in the distract-and-sneak-out approach in dealing with separation anxiety, so I always tried to keep my exit-taking brief. However, the sound of your child wailing as you walk out the door is not how you want to begin your work day.
Thankfully, a wise preschool teacher told me about the book "Owl Babies" written by Martin Waddell and magnificently illustrated by Patrick Benson. In simple but beautiful prose, the book tells the story of three baby owls, Sarah, Percy and Bill, who wake up one night and discover that their Owl Mother was gone. Where could she be? Was she hunting for food? Did a fox get her? Would she return? Bill repeatedly says, "I want my mommy."
The little owls sit on a branch and close their eyes and wish fervently that their Owl Mother would come. Then, in a wonderfully drawn illustration, their mother swoops down through the trees with the words "AND SHE CAME."
I would read this book over and over to my daughter and the words "and she came" became our code words for my exits. Yes, I was leaving, but like Owl Mother, I would return to the nest. She could count on it.
These days are less about me returning to the nest and more about her leaving it. The foreshadowing signs are all there and each one takes her closer to her solo first flight. Getting a driver's license, looking at colleges, researching medical schools, working at her first job, taking the SAT, ACT, senior photos -- all are signs that she is getting ready to fly.
Sometimes when we listen to an enthusiastic student tour guide on a college visit, I have to swallow past the lump in my throat. It's not the cost of tuition that causes it, but the dawning realization Olivia too is ledge-walking.
Although I know that it is wrong to attribute human characteristics and feelings to an animal, when I saw the photos of Dorothy touching beaks with her cheeky little baby, sheltering him during a storm or watching over him sleeping, I wanted to believe that Dorothy, like me, was cherishing the random quiet moments with her child before he flapped his wings and stepped off the ledge.
Postscript: After fledging in early June, Dorothy and E2's lone chick Silver Boy was found last week in the middle of Forbes Avenue. He had been hit by a car.
Mary Elizabeth Rauktis is an assistant professor for child welfare education and research programs at the University of Pittsburgh (email@example.com).