Cycle of Life
by Alice Lowe
It was a week since my last visit and a month, exactly—I’d marked my calendar—since I first saw the eggs. I made a dash when the gates opened this morning, froze when I saw the empty nest.
The flamingo lagoon is front and centre when you enter the San Diego Zoo. The stately, surreal-hued birds—iridescent coral like a shimmery summer sunset—enthrallvisitors of all ages. They browse and cluck, forage, meditate, do what it is they do, in companionable silence. Then suddenly, as if on cue, they squawk and bicker, flap and flit from one end of the enclosure to the other and back again. Just as abruptly they return to quiet repose. They nap with one spindly leg drawn up, their heads atop long sinuous necks extended back over their bodies.
The flamingos share their space with an assortment of ducks and a pair of rangy, spiky-feathered, marble-eyed, fierce-looking, steel grey creatures identified as Crested Screamers. Bigger than ducks, smaller than flamingos, they look like cartoon caricatures. I first noticed them last month when, passing the lagoon on my way to the monkey trail, I spotted an absurd-looking bird sitting on a grassy mound at the water’s edge. What on earth! I would have kept going, but at that moment she stood up and revealed four large white eggs. She dismounted and circled the nest a few times, scratched at the ground, then climbed back on. She nudged the eggs around with her long stem of a leg, pulling them closer together. She hovered, wiggling her hindquarters, before lowering herself down to cover her brood.
I was captivated and returned a few days later. She was on the nest, and a second bird moseyed nearby. Soon she, or he, got up and went through the same routine—orbiting the nest,
prodding and rotating the eggs, then shimmying back into place. I asked around but couldn’t find anyone who knew about them, so I went home and did some research. Chauna torquata, also called southern screamer, is a species of waterfowl from South America, related to ducks, geese and swans. They mate for life, and the shrill screeches of their courting calls can be heard up to two miles away. The female lays two to seven eggs that gestate for forty-some days, and couples share incubation duty. Chicks leave the nest as soon as they hatch, but the parents tend them for several weeks.
The zoo is the halfway point of my thrice-weekly five-mile walk from my house, around Balboa Park, and home again. Eager to welcome the anticipated fledglings and not knowing how long they’d been gestating when I discovered them, I started dropping by regularly.
Today both birds were standing near the empty nest, hollering at high volume in what appeared to be extreme distress. “Where are your babies?” I asked in dismay. Maybe they’d been removed; some newborns are placed in a nursery in the children’s zoo. I was ready to track them down when an attendant entered the lagoon. In an anxious burst I asked where are the chicks? when did they hatch? are they ok?
The eggs were fakes, she repeated. The zoo had trouble finding homes for last year’s chicks, so they didn’t want her to lay this year. “They put fake eggs in the nest to trick her into thinking she’d already laid them.”
I was stunned. Shattered. As if someone dear to me had suffered a miscarriage, a still birth, a phantom pregnancy. But if I was sad, what about the poor bereft birds, the grieving parents? In my mind I translate their indignant screeches:
“Where are they? What did you do with them?”
“Who, me? You were the last one sitting on them.”
“They were here last night—where could they be?”
“Let’s check the flamingo nests.”
“I want my babies!”
Nature offers consolation in the cycle of life. Ducklings by the dozen, no bigger than my fist, skitter around in and out of the lagoon, underfoot, fearless. At home a pair of finches readies the birdhouse on the canyon edge of our patio that they occupy each spring, darting back and forth with twigs and bits of fluff—soon I’ll hear the first faint “eeps” from within. I’ve been spying on a crow’s nest in our eucalyptus tree. This week there’s heightened activity and, yes, new life. It’s too high to see into, but I spot little dark heads—two, three?—bobbing up when the parents fly in with tender morsels.
I download pictures of crested screamer chicks, so ugly they’re adorable. “Next year,” I think.
The twosome at the zoo perseveres—what else can they do? “Next year,” they scream.
Alice Lowe writes about family, food and life in San Diego, California, and blogs at http://www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com. Her personal essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including The Millions, Permafrost, 1966, The Tishman Review, Crab Creek Review, Hippocampus and Lunch Ticket.