Coming Home – An ABA Young Birder Essay

By ABA Young Birder,

Kaia Hansen is an avid birder who lives in Kansas. She enjoys spending her time reading, drawing, and observing nature. She is thirteen and has been birding for three years.  She has also participated in the American Birding Association Young Birder of the Year Program for the last two years. Two of her favorite birds are the Fox Sparrow and the Yellow-rumped Warbler.

Let me tell you a story that happened on a clear, warm April evening at a little pond that glimmered merrily in the soft pink light, its calm waters only wavering when a flustered Mallard paddled out of the lush green reeds lining the pond with a quiet quack! On one of the sides of the small lake, there was a much more muddy shore, perfect for hungry shorebirds. Long cattails bobbed gently in the soft breeze, making the tall grasses sway, almost dance. On the edge of the grass lay a humble nest lined with cattail fluff and downy feathers. In it rested three eggs; two were oval and smooth, tinted tawny olive with brown spots. The last one was different, with fine spackling sprinkled on the mud-colored shell. The little nest was peaceful, until one night when the first two eggs hatched. But the third one still lay on its side, calm as always. It didn’t hatch until the evening after that, but when it did, the bird that came out was just a little different…       


Dark green-brown walls with black speckling gave way to thick evening air. He looked up through wide eyes to see that he was in a large nest lined with fluffy feathers and grass. Outside the nest was sandy with reeds and other grass surrounding it, so it left only a small view of a little pond with many other birds on it. He glanced up and saw a tall bird with a snow white belly, jet-black wings and head, and long, pink legs looking down with loving eyes. “Why, you’re different, aren’t you?” the bird cooed. “Don’t be frightened little one, I’m your mother. Here, meet your nestmates.” She nudged him near the edge of the nest so he could see two other chicks with light brown-and-white down covering their bodies. “Meet Reed and Cloud.” Mother lightly patted each one with her long black bill as she said their names. 

Reed was the largest of the two with darker brown streaking on his fluffy wings and a smug smirk on his face. Cloud was smaller, and her wings and head had a light gray wash. Despite the mischievous glint in her eyes, Cloud would always nervously glance at the sky or give her wings a nervous little flap. 

His mother’s voice snapped him out of his thoughts. “What will you be called? How about Flame? Someday you will be big and strong just like a flame. But to grow big and strong, you need to eat.” The sibling-analyzing would have to wait, Flame decided.   

Mother led the chicks to the muddy shore, the squishy mud under their feet making strange sounds as they walked. Flame stumbled to catch up, and to his surprise, Reed and Cloud stood, bills open. “H-how did yew do dat? It took uz way long to walk!” Cloud squawked. 

“My legs are way strong, so I walk,” Flame replayed smugly. 

“Come, little ones, let me show you how to catch food- just be careful and remember to be respectful of other birds,” she called, flapping her wings. 

After learning how to grab bugs from the water, Flame thought that exploring the pond would be a wonderful way to spend the evening. Not wanting to disturb the other feeding birds, Flame trotted along the pond’s edge until the trees’ shadows were stretching over the calm waters. He found a sandy stretch of the bank under the shade of a small redbud tree with bright red and pink flowers to rest on as he watched birds lazily swimming toward the thick reeds to sleep. 

Now the pond was almost empty, with just several late sandpipers probing for a last bite. Earlier, the pond had been full with feeding shorebirds, dabbling ducks, and many young birds chattering with each other. This made Flame wonder what it was like to have friends. While his nestmates and Flame were learning how to catch food, Reed had told him that he had hatched just a day before Flame had, and he already had tons of friends.

Flame soon realized that night had fallen and the very first stars were shyly peeking out from the cover of an inky black sky, giving the water a silvery shimmer. He could hear Mother calling for him, and Flame quickly dashed to the grassy side of the pond. As Flame settled into the nest with his siblings, he fell asleep to one thought: Tomorrow, I’ll make some friends. 

The next morning the sun rose to greet the merry pond, the sunrise casting a pink hue to the water. The cattails glistened with dew in the crisp light and birds sleepily waded out to catch their next meal. At the farthest corner of the pond, two small birds strode out into the cool water and began to talk while eating.

Sunset snipped at a small shrimp in frustration as it wriggled out of her grasp. She grumbled, “Why can’t food be easier to catch?”

“It’s a little hard to talk to you when you’re swimming in circles,” commented Storm, who was a little sandpiper and Sunset’s best friend. Kind-hearted and understanding, Storm often hung out with Sunset when he wasn’t flying to nearby lakes and marshes with his siblings. 

Just as she was about to reply, a young shorebird that looked like he had hatched just a few days ago boldly strutted up to them. “Hello, I’m Flame and I’m making friends today!” he exclaimed excitedly, showing Sunset and Storm three objects in his thin bill. 

“Who are your friends, Flame?” Storm regarded the small bird kindly. 

“I’ve been asking everyone if they want to be friends, but most of them were too busy, they say,” Flame said. “These friends didn’t say they were way busy so we’re friends now! But they are all super shy, so don’t scare them, okay?” The young shorebird placed the objects on the muddy shore and pointed to a tiny rock, a stick, and a fluffy down feather with his beak. “This little guy is Pebble, because he looks like a rock, the skinny one is Skinny, and this is Flappy. She always tries to fly away, though. I think she’s afraid of the wind because she flies whenever the wind blows.” 

Andean Avocet

“It looks like you have some very nice friends, Flame,” Storm commented.  “If you want, we could be friends.” 

Flame looked up, excitement in his eyes. “Really?” he peeped. “What should we do first? We could play ‘hide the rock,’ or we could look for shells!” 

Sunset shot Storm a warning glance. She really didn’t want to spend the day listening to a young fledgling babble about his ‘friends’. She had grown up with three other siblings and had gotten her fair share of annoying. 

“I have an even better game,” declared Storm. “It’s called ‘Hawk-and-Mouse’. One person is the hawk. The hawk tries to catch the mice, who is everyone else, and if the hawk gets a mouse, then they become the hawk.”

Flame looked like he would die of joy. “Yes! Let’s do the Hawk-and-Mouse! You’re the hawk!” he slapped Sunset playfully with his tiny wing and started to clumsily run away, giggling happily. 

Sunset didn’t want to upset Flame. Maybe she could play just for a little while, until Flame got tired. She quickly ran up to tag Storm, but to her surprise he darted away. In just a few more minutes of sprinting and dodging, Sunset and Storm were laughing along, too.  They played for hours until the sun had set and night was quickly approaching. 

The next few weeks went by in a blur. Most of these days were spent with Sunset, Storm, and Reed, splashing in the water or playing Hawk-and-Mouse. They sat under the redbud tree in the evenings, talking about very serious topics, like how much food they caught for breakfast. As the days went by, Flame and Reed grew, but they looked very different from one another. Reed had mostly black feathers and some white on his underbelly. Flame was bigger, and while he had dark wings, he was lighter overall and had bright pink on his head. When Reed noticed, he told Flame his suspicion. “I think I know why you look so different,” Reed said casually “I think you might not be the same bird as me and Mother and Cloud.”     

In confusion, Flame observed the birds around him. Sunset was smaller than him now that he had grown. She had a stick-thin bill and a white throat. Her feathers on her face were mostly gray, her neck was a rusty red, and a thick black stripe ran from her eye to her  chocolate-brown back. 

Storm was even smaller, with brown streaks on his head and back with a chalk-white underbelly. His long black legs were hardly visible through the muddy water and his short bill seemed small in comparison to Sunset’s. “What do you mean?” he asked. 

Reed said, “I mean, I think you might be a different kind of bird than me, and your egg got into Mother’s nest somehow.” What was Reed saying? That he was different? That his egg was not supposed to have been in Mother’s nest?  

In fright, Flame looked at his reflection in the pond’s water. A bird with a long, slightly upturned bill and white-and-black wings looked back at him. But the most notable feature of Flame’s reflection was, instead of an inky black head with black eyes rimmed with red, he saw bright pink feathers all over his head. Two wide, shiny black eyes peered through the wavering waters.  

“No!” he whispered “No! This isn’t true! It can’t be true!” Flame stumbled backward in shock. His mind was whirling. So many little bits of thoughts scattered through Flame’s head that he couldn’t think straight. Could Reed be right? Was he a different kind of bird then Mother and his nestmates? Had his egg been smuggled into her nest? How had he not noticed! It was so obvious! “How long have you known?” Flame sobbed, looking at Reed, who seemed shocked. 

“I don’t know. A long time! I’m sorry! I didn’t think it would matter that much to you!”  

Flame turned and ran away, crying, “I’m not your brother! Leave me alone!” He fled to the grasses where he found a sandy patch nestled in the deep greenery. Flame dove into the little hollow and hid in the thick shadows.  

If Flame was being really honest with himself, he wasn’t mad, though he certainly portrayed an angry, fuming Flame, but more than anything, he was scared. What if Storm and Sunset didn’t want to be his friends anymore? Had they known all along, quietly snickering at Flame for his own obliviousness? Would he be known as ‘the Smuggled Bird’ for the rest of his life? Or worse, would Mother decide that he couldn’t stay with her and the others? After all, he wasn’t her chick. He didn’t belong here. 

Out of the corner of his eye, Flame could see Mother striding toward his grassy hideout.  He scooted to the far corner of the little hollow, where the darkening shadows would swallow him, making his pink markings nearly invisible. “Flame, I’m very sorry I didn’t tell you sooner,” she whispered, peeking her black-and-white head through the thick reeds. “I just didn’t want to make you feel like you didn’t belong.” Flame shrank father into the shadows, only his watery eyes visible. 

“But I don’t belong here! We are different kinds of birds! My egg was smuggled into your nest! I’m not supposed to be here at all!” he sobbed. 

Mother edged closer and sat near him. “Flame, I’m going to tell you something very important and I want you to pay attention, okay?” she said sweetly yet firmly. Flame numbly nodded, wondering how this could get any worse. “The fact that you are a different kind of bird than me and your siblings Does. Not. Matter. At. All. You are still my chick and will always be my chick, no matter what happens,” Mother got up and walked from the hideout and flew away, leaving Flame alone with his thoughts.

For hours his thoughts spun in circles until he got stuck on What do I do about this? He couldn’t just go on like nothing had happened. What else could he do, sit in this dark hollow forever? Or… could he leave? Maybe just for a little while? Flame hugged himself with his wings and let the dark feathers of sleep enfold him. 

The next morning, the thick blanket of clouds overhead matched Flame’s mood. Wind churned the reeds and glazed over the water like a hawk, its icy wings skimming the pond’s surface. The sky was leaking a cold, misty drizzle that made the world around him monochrome. It seemed like even the weather was against him today.

He spotted Reed and Mother huddling near the shelter of the redbud tree and Flame slowly crept toward them, supposing that they could use an apology. “Hey,” he peeped, “I just wanted to say that I’m sorry-” 

Flame was interrupted by a frightened cry coming from the pond behind him. “It’s a storm!”      

 Flame turned around to a thundering boom, seeing lightning illuminating the pond’s dark waters. Wind whipped the grass, making the whistling sound in their ears increase. There was no question about it: this storm was just getting started. “To the reeds! Quickly!” shouted Flame as he watched his friends struggle against the powerful gusts of wind.   

Dozens of waterbirds were frantically swimming or flying to shelter, and Flame noticed with relief that Mother, Reed, Sunset, and Storm were safely nestled in the dense reeds. Wait- Cloud! Where was she? Images flashed through his head of Cloud being swept away and swallowed by the dark sky above. 

Flame rapidly scanned the shore of the pond and spotted Cloud struggling, caught on a rogue fishing line. He raced to help her. Just as Flame neared Cloud, a mighty wall of wind smacked them, and everything went in slow motion. The fishing twine snapped, Flame crashed into Cloud, and the little gray bird was blown into the air, Flame tumbling after her. 

“NO!” Mother’s distant cry only sounded like whisper over the howling wind as Flame righted himself. But Flame didn’t hear her. He had to get Cloud back. 

Flying through the storm was like trying to swim through thick mud. Every flap was slowed by the gallons of rain pelting Flame’s wings. The wind maliciously threw him through the air as Flame frantically searched the gray sky for Cloud. 

He spotted Cloud frantically flapping just ahead of him. The wind was with him this time, and he sped across the waterlogged sky so quickly that he thought he would crash. Just as he neared Cloud, the sky cracked open. Lightning zig zagged down to ground with a thunderous crack! Bright white light flashed all around Flame, and he heard Cloud cry out in alarm. Flame fought to help her once the light faded, but the black at the corners of his vision threatened to swallow him. He rapidly spiraled downward as one last gust tossed him to the ground and darkness enveloped him.

Flame groggily opened his eyes. The dark veil of clouds was clearing, giving way to the sun shyly peeking down at him. The smell of wet vegetation still lingered in the air, and he could feel soft grass beneath him. Through the thick haze that clouded Flame’s head, he wondered how he had got here. 

With a start, Flame remembered. All of the mental fog had cleared from his head. The storm. Cloud being carried away by the wind’s deadly talons. The lightning. The horrible, bone-rattling crack of lightning that had knocked him out of the air. 

Flame shook his head, cold water spraying off his body in droplets. Shining wet trees surrounded him and loomed over him like mountains. He had seen trees before, like the redbud, but Flame was unfamiliar with these huge plants with trunks as thick as a boulder. As they towered over him, taunting him with waving boughs, crickets chirped and robins sang. He began to search for Cloud among the spiky brambles nearby rapidly, tripping over loose roots.  

“Cloud!” Flame called in dismay, “Cloud, where are you?” 

A faint rustling reached his ears. He followed it to a huge oak tree towering above the other nearby trees. Massive branches lay on the ground, presumably broken down by the storm’s mighty winds. Part of the oak was black and burnt, twisted and charred by the lightning. Squirrels scampered up and down the thick trunk, thoroughly searching for fallen acorns. At the bottom of the tree sat Cloud crying, with some of the fishing twine still caught on her foot. 

Flame rushed to her, almost running her over in his relief and joy. “Flame?” she whispered shakily. “W-where are we?” He tried to muster some courage and put on a brave face, even though Flame felt more like cowering in a bush. 

“I don’t know,” he replied, “but if we can fly above the treetops we could try to spot the pond.” Cloud didn’t have all of her feathers grown in yet, so flying long distances would be hard. Flame just hoped that the wind hadn’t blown them far. 

Cloud started to clumsily flap her way up through the canopy of leaves. Flame followed her higher and higher until he could see above the sea of green. A wide river ran by slowly, its muddy waters sluggishly flowing into a large lake. To the south, a small forest dotted the land with green. He turned around to see a perfect pond glimmering in the distance. Flame could tell it was the pond he lived at just by glancing at it “Over here! I see the pond!”  

Cloud flapped unevenly towered their destination, and Flame quickly followed her. After flying for a while, they landed on the familiar muddy shore of the pond. He was home! How had he ever wanted to leave? 

But then he looked closer at the pond. Cloud almost fell over as soon as she saw their home, and Flame stifled a gasp. The pond was almost unrecognizable. The once clear waters were deep brown and higher than usual. Lose reeds littered the shores, broken branches stuck out water like talons, and frightened birds cleared debris from their nests. 

Flame and Cloud rushed to their old nest and poked around to find that there was no one there. “Mama? Reed? Where are you?” Cloud called. Suddenly the pond didn’t feel so welcoming. He may technically be home, but If his family and friends weren’t here, was it really home? 

“Flame? Cloud?” A hose whisper came from behind them. It was Mother, tears of joy running down her ruffled feathers. She embraced them both, for what seemed like many wonderful hours.  

As his family and friends gathered around Flame and Cloud, he wondered why the pond had felt so unwelcoming when he had thought that nobody was there. Because home isn’t where you are, it’s who you’re with. 

Kaia Hansen is an avid birder who lives in Kansas. She enjoys spending her time reading, drawing, and observing nature. She is thirteen and has been birding for three years.  She has also participated in the American Birding Association Young Birder of the Year Program for the last two years. Two of her favorite birds are the Fox Sparrow and the Yellow-rumped Warbler.