Imprinting



Who is my mother? Who is my family?” And looking around at everyone there, Jesus said, “This is my family! Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my sister, my brother, my mother.” ~Mark 3:33-35

If you are familiar with the classic children’s book, “Are You My Mother?” then you might have the wrong idea about nestling birds. Yes, they do immediately look for their parents when they hatch (well more like “sense” for those birds born blind). But they don’t search until they find them, rather, they imprint on the first creature they find. That is why rehabilitators have to be careful with orphaned young birds, lest they mistake them for featherless parents. The goal of successful rehabilitation is a bird that is fit to survive in the wild. That is hampered significantly if they look to humans for assistance, because, sadly, too many humans won’t help. That means that rehabbers will be careful to avoid being associated with feeding and other care. This often entails placing food through openings so the birds don’t see the humans. In the case of the endangered California Condor, the humans hand feeding the young do so with Condor puppets on their hands. On the other end of the spectrum, recovery of the Whooping Crane population has involved intentional imprinting followed by that person piloting a powered glider from the breeding grounds to the wintering grounds with the young birds following.

A simple “trick” rehabbers use often is to have other birds of the same (or sometimes even a different) species foster the orphans. That is something we can relate to as humans. When families of origin are incapable of providing healthy upbringing, extended, foster, and adoptive families can and do often pick up the slack. Unlike birds, humans are able to mature and form an identity beyond the original imprinting. That is not to say that it is easy, but we certainly are capable of creating families of choice. We do that regularly in marriage, but we also do it through any number of arrangements creating families of the heart. While part of Jesus’ question about who his true family is feels like an insult to his family of origin, it seems more likely that he wasn’t rejecting what must have been loving, supportive relationships, but expanding that expectation to a larger group. Perhaps the gift he is offering is the invitation to absolutely everyone to be part of his family, the family of God.

Prayer: Holy Mother Bird, it is easy to be grateful for you love, but bearing your imprint, that means we also have to do the hard work of being good siblings to all. We could use some help. Amen.

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