There is a strange bird called cuckoo; at least in the minds of others. This is because it doesn’t build nests. A bird that doesn’t build a nest can hardly be thought to be a bird at all. That is why they call him cuckoo. That cuckoo bird doesn’t build; instead he flies above the tree tops by himself.
Really, his name was Henry.
Henry had never learned what a nest consisted of. Abandoned as a chick at the base of a large sycamore, Henry had scrabbled at the roots, searching for a way up to where he could hear the cheerful piping of the recently hatched. He tried once to use his beak for leverage, but in the struggle his beak scraped against the rough bark until it chipped and cracked. That plan was abandoned pretty quickly.
The memory of this failure wasn’t a big help to Henry when it came time to build. So he flew up high. Perhaps if he could just get a different view of the nests he could see what they were made of. But it wasn’t going very well.
“SNEAK!” they shrieked derisively at Henry
Other birds with similar sentiments even went so far as to gather in a flock and flap at him in a frenzy of aggression every time he got close to seeing the inside of a nest. They would slap him with their sharp pinion feathers and in the confusion talons and beaks would pick at him so that it seemed he was molting.
One bird had taken him in once.
Expecting that someone would hear his desperate chirping, baby Henry huddled in the roots of the large tree that had defeated him. Throughout the day his chirps had become weaker and weaker, not that Henry could be heard above the other fledglings as they screamed their own demands for food and warmth.
Eventually a young mother dropped down and began digging her beak into the soft mud for insects and bugs at the base of the tree. There were better places to search, but those spots were crowded by the more experienced mothers. So she dug in wider circles to gather as much food as possible for her complaining brood.
As she got closer to the tree’s roots Henry saw another bird for the first time. He chirped feebly to her.
Up she jumped, frightened at the sudden sound.
But, seeing the small little thing, no bigger than her own children, she hopped closer. Her nest was just up above, and she wondered if maybe one had fallen in her short absence. She didn’t know that her chicks had not yet reached that cruel adolescent season when they vie for superiority by kicking the others out before they even had a chance to learn to fly. Being a first timer, she wasn’t very experienced at this motherhood thing. So she mushed up some of her insects for baby Henry and fed him up until he fell asleep. Then she took him back to her nest.
Next to her other chicks he did look a bit different and the others seemed to look at him askance, but she accounted for it with his having been so soon extradited from the nest. Having brought the lost chick back, she went down again to gather more for the rest of the hungry.
The instant she was gone the little ones began to poke and prod at Henry. They didn’t know why he was there, or why he got fed first, but they didn’t like it. It took very little time for the little chicks to take action by tossing him, unceremoniously, back down to where he had come.
When the mother bird returned she never noticed Henry’s absence in all the needy commotion over food.
Afterwards, Henry wandered around the roots for several days, hoping to find that mama bird, but she never reappeared.
The fledglings grew above and eventually they ventured away from the nest, even going down to the ground. And there was Henry.
Henry tried to follow the other young birds at first. He was capable of feeding himself already, but it was lonely down on the ground and he was so bored he had practically cleared the area of eatables.
Maybe once they get to know me, he thought, they would be willing to share a nest. But they seemed to go out of their way to avoid him. He thought them secretive and exclusive as if they were hiding something. None knew who this stranger was except, they guessed, he must have gathered all the insects in the area already. So they wandered away from him, assuming his self-sufficiency on sight. Still, Henry would follow them around as if trying to catch something.
Where did they go? And how did they get there? he wondered.
That was the real difficulty. Having never had the advantage of height, flying seemed both dangerous and impossible. The other birds were used to being up in the air. The thinness of what supported them never seemed to cross their mind.
Come that winter, having learned flight, the others soared off. The little birds his age were off following the routes their elders knew. As Henry saw them go, he struggled to hop up to where they gathered. He should go with them. That he knew, but not how.
So he watched them gracefully glide away on a wind that grew colder and colder.
Henry spent the winter hobbling about on the ground, jumping madly from here to there, trying to get just enough air beneath him to lift off from the ground. Finally one morning he found a sparse bush and, hopping up to the top of its branches, Henry gathered his strength and with one long intake of breath, he jumped. Flapping fiercely he finally caught the wind beneath him and wobbling side to side he was suddenly up in the air.
I can fly! I can fly! he shouted in his head.
It was the first time since the mama bird had taken him in that he had ever felt hopeful. He felt he could really do something, anything, the other birds could do. It invigorated him. He thought, maybe, just maybe the other birds will be okay with me now. They’ll come back and see that I am one of them. A real bird.
But when they came back he felt no change. Except that they were a little darker from the warm southern sun and he was still pretty pale.
He even tried to ask them about their vacation.
“How is it down south?” he asked.
“Warm,” they answered coldly.
Then they would fly to the next tree over and chatter loudly, reminiscing about the weather and the fat insects and their beautiful winter nests.
Nests. These became the new thing to have. All the young birds Henry’s age began to flutter about gathering supplies to create elaborate homes and woo the girls into coming over.
“You should see what I’ve done on the interior!” one bird loudly proclaimed to his friends, one eye over his friend’s shoulder at the girls a few branches over.
What idiots, Henry thought. But it seemed to make them happy. So that’s what he was doing up above the tree line, looking down. Maybe if he could see these nest things more clearly he could figure it out. They certainly weren’t going to explain it to him.
Today, he decided, I’m going to risk it. Just one good look will do it, I think. So he rose up, higher than ever. Perhaps if I dive straight down fast enough, Henry thought, they won’t notice me until I’m right on top of them, and then I can see everything without them getting upset. So, flying upwards, he took a deep breath and then swooped down. As he did, however, one of the other birds happened to look over and saw him diving down.
“That bird!” someone exclaimed “what does he think he’s doing? Just look at his reckless flying! He’ll destroy the nests!”
In alarm the other birds rushed forward to stop the madness.
As Henry plummeted downward, the mass of birds flew out suddenly and directly in his path. Was it the sun in their eyes or was there a glint of malice in their faces? He stopped short, practically dislocating his wing.
“Wait. Wait.” Henry cried, “I just wanted to see.”
“Evil”, “Crazy”, “Lunatic” they all cried at him, surrounding him with fury. Then they started to attack.
“How dare you?” they said unanimously.
“No!” Henry gasped feebly at them.
But they wouldn’t listen.
“You don’t understand!” Henry yelled, “you don’t understand. You don’t understand. You don’t…don’t….understand.”
He dived down under the tree branches, but they wouldn’t leave him alone. They kept flapping around him ceaselessly pecking and grasping with their talons and flapping and flapping. Their pinions slapped his face. Their beaks scraped at his feathers.
“Stop!” Henry pleaded. “Please stop…”.
But they wouldn’t. They just kept going.
Trying to dart away from them, Henry launched himself forward and accidentally knocked his head on the tree branches above, shaking one of the delicately woven nests at its tip.
The frenzy of birds stopped, staring at him with such fear and hatred, before calling out to him.
“Freak!” they shouted in fright.
Henry hovered there in front of them. A twig dropped from the still trembling nest beside him.
It was as if that twig were the last bit of his hope.
“Aahhh!” he screeched in pain. “Aaaahhhhh! Who cares about stupid nests?”
And with that outburst he rushed to the fragile nest beside him and began to tear. He pulled apart the pieces, scrabbling with the fluff and bits of cloth, ripping the woven bits. Shards of twig fell in a flurry of anger. And when he was done tearing up that nest he moved to another and another until the tree tops where showering down pieces of broken nests.
The other birds gazed at the rain of twigs in panic as he continued to destroy all of their hard work. Pieces of their homes tumbled down, tapping the tops of their heads before falling to the ground.
Henry kept tearing and shredding until there was not one nest left beneath the surrounding tree roofs. Once the nests were gone, he flitted back and forth between the trees, hopping from branch to branch, tearing at the leaves and the thin offshoots of new branches, determined to wreck it all.
But as he ripped at the base of a fresh tree limb he caught the tip of his beak and with a twinge of pain he stopped. Remembering his failure to climb the tree trunk as a chick, Henry looked out to the other birds, still gathered together. Heaving slightly, Henry stared at them all. Henry’s tight throat throbbed and finally let out a sweet stuttered cry.