Happy April! Can you believe we are already four months into 2021? Time flies! And that is the perfect segue to this darling short story. The once upon a time of this story started in January, so this tale has been several months in the making. And, like all the best stories, it started out not as a story at all but as everyday events that led to something special, something incredibly special…
Scientists say that human beings are made of atoms, but a little bird told me that we are also made of stories. – Eduardo Galeano
You probably all know that I follow the Manu o Ku, the fairy white tern, Honolulu’s official city bird. Well, my enthusiasm and adoration for these winged wonders rubbed off on my mother-in-law, Florence. She’s worked in the downtown area for as long as I’ve known her. Downtown is a very active area for terns, but she never really noticed them until I couldn’t stop talking about them. (Don’t worry. She’s quite used to my talking by now!)
My many stories about my tern Hunakai and the terns at Stadium Park captured her imagination. Last Fall, she started watching the terns around her office building at Bishop Square. Soon she was sending me photos of her new feathered friends. We both enjoyed tracking the growth of a chick Florence noticed in a tree near her office. Florence named the fluff ball Bishop. Like Hunakai, she soon lost her brown fluff and gained the alabaster feathers that would grant her flight. While we both had the privilege of spotting a chick and watching it grow to maturity, neither of us were fortunate enough to watch a chick grow from delicate egg to full-fledged tern. Until…
On January 8, Florence spots an adult tern sitting in a tree. It’s a modest shower tree, barely two stories tall, planted to provide a pleasing aesthetic to Pauahi Tower. It is a piece of nature thriving in the middle of a concrete jungle. Thousands of people pass by it without ever knowing its true beauty and wonder. But Florence finds the treasure it holds in its branches.
May my heart always be open to little birds who are the secrets of living. –e. e. cummings
She sends me a photo of a Manu o Ku sitting, patiently on the tree, still and determined. We both hope that the tern is sitting on an egg. We know it’s NOT a nest because the Manu o Ku don’t build nests. If there is an egg under that tern, it is only balancing on the branch.
January 15: Florence has been checking every weekday and the tern is in the same spot. The tern has been sitting for a week with its partner bringing fresh fish from its daily catch. We can’t see an egg but decide to notify the Hui Manu o Ku of a possible natal tree at Bishop Square. I send a message via their Facebook group. That same afternoon, one of its most active and dedicated volunteers, Melody Bentz, tags the tree with the official blue ribbon. This signifies that it is a natal tree with a white tern chick. Then we wait…
February 11: A small ball of fluff peeks his beak out from under the sitting tern. The egg has hatched! Florence names him Charley since his natal tree is on Bishop Street.
I'm youth, I'm joy, I'm a little bird that has broken out of the egg. --James M. Barrie
The next two months are filled with almost daily updates of Charley’s progress. I enjoy getting the photos from Florence and over the weekends we both wonder anxiously about his wellbeing. He quickly grows from a fluff ball to feathered ball thriving on his daily feedings of fresh fish and squid that is flown in daily by his doting parents.
The windy and rainy weather in February and March heightens our concern for Charley. With no nest, he has no protection from the elements. Like Hunakai and Bishop, he just needs to hang on until the day his wings are strong enough to carry him to the heavens and over the seas. One day, he will belong to the skies but until then his safety is always in jeopardy. One wrong move could send him plummeting to the crowded sidewalk or worse yet to the busy street below. He was close to being able to spread his wings and only had a couple weeks to go when disaster strikes.
April 5: Florence’s morning text report about Charley is distressing! When I finally get a chance to check the text, I screech, “Oh no!!” My hands are shaking as I look at the photos. I can’t believe what I am seeing.
Charley is NOT in his natal tree. He is two trees down on Bishop’s tree. He is clinging for dear life to the side of the tree. He looks scared and disheveled. One of his parents is perched on his tree with a beak full of fish. (For purposes of this story, let’s say its Mama.) Mama stays for a couple hours, holding the fish, waiting for Charley to return. Charley is too afraid to move. He should be! Dozens of speeding cars and hundreds of pedestrians are passing by within feet of him. One more wrong move could be catastrophic!
At 10:40 am, I send a Facebook message to Melody. I also call the Manu o Ku hotline. Oh yes, these special birds have their own hotline. They even have their Hui that flew (pun totally intended) into action the moment they got our S.O.S. The phone rings two times before I hear, “Hello.” I try to contain my panic and say, “Hi! Is this Rich at the Manu o Ku hotline?” With a comforting voice he responds, “Yes, how can I help you?”
“Rich, my name is Dawn Kim. My mother-in-law and I have been monitoring a chick in the downtown area. He either fell or flew out of his natal tree and can’t get back. We don’t think he is fully fledged. I already sent Melody a message. Can someone help? ” Rich, who is in Maryland at the time, tells me to send him the photos I sent to Melody and to hang tight. Help is on the way!
I text Florence to report the Hui is in action. She is clearly concerned as she continues to watch Charley with one of her coworkers. He is an animal lover and is very sympathetic to Charley’s crisis. Rich responds that Charley looks big enough to fly but probably didn’t have a flight plan when he took off adding, “They never do with their first flight.”
Rich is an expert on the Manu o Ku and a lover of all feathered and flighted creatures. He thinks Charley might just be disoriented or scared but it’s best for him to find his parents again. He adds that the biggest concern now is that Charley might end up in the street when he attempts to leave his current resting spot. What?!? I’m trying to not move into full panic, crazy bird lady mode but it’s getting harder by the second.
At 12 pm I receive a message from Melody she’s heading to visit the Iolani Palace terns so will plan to stop by and check on Charley. She’s already been in contact with Rich and has his full assessment. Two hours later, Melody reports that the parents left an hour ago and that Charley keeps walking up the wrong tree.
At 3 pm Melody reports that she doesn’t think Charley is fully flighted yet or he’s just very apprehensive. Who can blame the little guy! She adds that Rich is optimistic that parents and chick will find each other. However, if they don’t, Charley can’t last long without food so it’s important for us to know that parents have found chick and are tending to him. She says she’ll stay for another half hour and asks if Florence can monitor him after that. Ok, sounds like a plan, right. Let nature takes it course.
It’s now 3:40 pm and Melody sends me another message saying they have decided to move Charley back to his natal tree. An hour later, she reports that Charley is back in his tree, but we are not out of the woods yet (again, pun totally intended!). Now, we wait to see if his parents will reunite with him and continue to feed him. It is best that he remains with them until he can fledge so they can teach him how to fish. Humans can care for him in rehab but teaching him to dive to the surface of the ocean and fish for small fish and squid is NOT something we can replicate. Apparently, we can put on a man on the moon, but we can’t teach a bird how to fish!
The bird thinks it a favor to give the fish a lift in the air. –Rabindranath Tagore
What we can do is return misplaced Manu o Ku to their natal tree. Lake Gibby, another dedicated member of the Hui and tree climber and inventor extraordinaire, has created a trapeze for just such an emergency. It is simply a perch connected to a long rope on a pulley. He has mastered his invention and is responsible for returning many fallen terns to their natal trees.
How does it work? The tern is carefully placed on the perch. Then using the pulley and rope, the perch is hoisted to the tree branch where the baby tern fell from. Maneuvering the perch near their natal spot allows the terns to step off the perch and back to the place where their parents can locate them again.
Throughout the rest of the work week, it is a coordinated tag team effort of almost constant monitoring and reporting. Florence, her coworkers, Melody, Nate, me, and now the security at the Pauahi Tower are all on the lookout for parents and feedings. We send updates to Rich who continues to give his expert guidance. Since feedings happen rather quickly, none of us can confirm an actual feeding so we need to check for poop. What goes in comes out. Since they clean the sidewalks regularly downtown, it is easy to determine that Charley is getting fed because white droppings sprinkle the sidewalk under his perch.
Wherever there are birds, there is hope. –Mehmet Murat Ildan
He is no longer in eminent danger and is being fed but his future remains uncertain. Charley needs to spread his wings and fly. His survival depends on it. The trauma of his first flight might have left him tentative and timid. But, since parents continue to tend to him, we don’t intervene. Nature knows best…
There is freedom waiting for you, on the breezes of the sky,
and you ask, “What if I fall?”
Oh but my darling, What if you fly?
April 11, Melody who also happens to be an amazing photographer and videographer, captures Charley as he preens. Preening is an important step in flight prep. Consider it a tern’s instrument check—tail, check; wing, check. After spending hours observing his behavior, she witnesses lots of flapping and preening but no flight. Her video is as breathtaking as Charley’s spirit and beauty.
April 14, Melody captures Charley in flight on video. It’s a small flight from one branch to the next on his natal tree but it is progress.
The bird that dares to fall, is the bird that learns to fly.
April 15, Melody messages that she went to visit Charley. but he wasn’t in his tree or any nearby trees. Five minutes later, guess who comes swooping in and lands in the tree Mauka of his natal tree. She heads to the second floor of Pauahi Tower to get a better look. Just as she looks out the window, she sees Charley flap his wings and take off, gliding against the gusting Makai trade winds. He is flying like a champ! She removes the blue ribbon that signified his natal tree since the State expects its removal once a chick has fledged. It is Charley’s official graduation.
I caught a glimpse of happiness, and saw it was a bird on a branch, fixing to take wing. --Richard Peck
I hope you enjoyed this story half as much as I enjoyed writing it and living it. It was an amazing and memorable experience for me and my mother-in-law to share. Charley certainly made a lasting impression. Melody describes him as a special guy who had quite a journey but made his own way. We are fortunate and grateful we were able to share in his journey. Now I share it with all of you.
Faith is the bird that sings while it is yet dark. –Max Lucado