I’m one of those lucky people who won the parent-lottery. I know a close bond with your parents isn’t a given and I am so grateful to have a mom and dad with whom I have experienced nothing but stability, warmth and love.

As a kid, I probably didn’t fully appreciate that unconditional parental love is a great gift. Since I’ve ‘flown the coop’ about 13 years ago I have become increasingly aware of how fortunate I am, as I meet children and adults alike who may not have the privilege of having such a bond with their parents. At the same time, I’ve grown into an independent adult and the days of them caring for my every comfort are long gone, so it’s easy to forget my luck. Imagine my delight when I was reminded yesterday of my parents’ great capacity to love and care for others, even in the most unusual of circumstances.

As with humans, all of nature’s bounty relies on a never-ending cycle of parents and children, mothers and cubs, plants and seeds, pollen and bees. Most of the time, these natural processes fare well, but sometimes fate comes out to play and disrupts nature’s rhythm. This was the case when my parents, Henk and Bianca, who manage an estate in the sloping hills of the Provence in France, were doing the rounds on the property yesterday. For weeks, they had seen two woodpeckers flying to and fro’ their little nest in an old hollow tree, in expectation of the birth of their chicks. Last year, a different woodpecker couple successfully raised a family of woodpeckers in the same tree. This year, within hours of two baby woodpeckers finally picking their way through the shells of their first homes, a strong wind passed the hilltop and the tree that housed their nest was felled. As Henk and Bianca were clearing the tree, they found the little siblings fighting for their lives, with their parents nowhere to be seen. Alas, nature is as beautiful as it is brutal.

Photo: Henk and Bianca Bank

After making sure the parent woodpeckers really, really, really weren’t coming back, my own parents were faced with a choice: give up on them, or help them as well as they could in hopes of giving them a fighting chance at life. “The internet” was quite pessimistic at their odds of survival, but one thing they knew for sure: if they didn’t at least try, they would surely die. So why not give it a shot?

My parents made the commitment to do what they could to help the birds survive their harsh lot. Piet and Sietse, the owners of the property and devoted animal lovers, agreed and jumped in to help out too. They quickly gathered all the necessary information and supplies – this was all new to them. They created a nest in a cut up old bottle-insulator to keep them as warm as possible, and filled the insulator with cosy and clean cotton. They moved them into their bathroom where the temperatures are stable and it is calm and safe. From a local vet, they learned that the birds would thrive best on insects and raw beef tartar. Mom went off to the butcher, while dad stayed on the property. My father: retired Royal Dutch Air Force Colonel, top strategist, bug catcher extraordinaire. I wish I was there to see it!

The vet was unsure the woodpeckers would even make it through the night, but Henk and Bianca weren’t willing to give up so easily. Every 45 minutes, they hand-fed the birds, cleaned out their little nest (‘Every bite that goes in means a poop is coming out!’) and whispered words of encouragement. Even baby birds sleep, so when it was time for lights out, my mom and dad tucked a hot water bottle up to the nest and wrapped them in more towels to mimic a parents’ warmth.

Photo: Henk and Bianca Bank

The next morning, the alarm was set at 6 AM. Anxious to see if the little ones made it through the night, my parents listened at the bathroom door…’peep, peep, peep’! The unmistakable sound of very hungry, but very alive baby woodpeckers waiting for ‘their’ mom and dad to come feed them. They survived the night! Only a day or 2 old and these chicks have already had to become warriors.

Now, the situation is looking much better than it did when they were helpless on the ground. The 45-minute feeding schedule is working: they are stronger than they’ve ever been and seem to be responding well to their new home. I can’t blame them: as a lifelong recipient of my parents’ care, I know they are in the best possible hands. My heart is warmed and I am so proud that my parents are taking the time out of their busy days to nurture and respect these fragile lives. And so, as mothers and fathers take care of the young, the rhythm of nature beats on, as if it was never disturbed in the first place.

Of course, we have to be realistic. Yes, getting through last night is a huge milestone and a very promising start. But in a week or 2, the babies will need to learn to fly. Career Air Force Officer or not, my father does not possess the gift of flight, let alone the skills to teach it to birds. And although my mom is less antsy around bugs than dad, transferring bug hunting skills to woodpecker chicks is a whole other can of worms. And in three weeks, the woodpeckers would have otherwise been strong enough to hunt for themselves and prepare for flying the coop. My parents can warm them and feed them and protect them, but cannot give them the tools to thrive at life.

So now what? Things are precarious and the odds are against them. Hopefully, my parents will find the baby woodpeckers a secure new home, where other birds can teach them to fly and gather food. Until then, Henk, Bianca, Piet and Sietse are going to continue to hunt for bugs and warm the nest to nurture the chicks, while they look for a local bird sanctuary to take them in. There is good reason to hope for a happy ending against the odds.

Meanwhile, please excuse me as I revel in the gratitude for these folks I get to call mom & dad.

Photo by Henk and Bianca Bank

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