The Science Behind: leaving the nest

Graphic courtesy of Dori Witherspoon

Talia Zitner

As our seniors prepare to leave Wilson for their next steps, many of their guardians will begin to suffer what we affectionately dub “empty nest syndrome.” Empty nest syndrome is a feeling of loneliness or sadness that occurs among parents after children grow up and leave home. The term is derived from the idea of birds (and other animals) leaving their parents’ nests when they learn to fly or fend for themselves. Animals and humans often display similar patterns, and the concept of ‘leaving the nest’ is just one of them.

Animals leave their parents at varying times and stages of development, depending on what type of animal they are. Like people, each animal species has its own way of parenting and preparing their children for the real world. Some young animals never leave their parents (orca whales), or even live in multi-generational family communities (elephants). Other animals may never even meet their young, or remain unaware that they have even reproduced (western fence lizards).

However they raise their young, animals (including people) have to grow up eventually. Sometimes, we might even need a bit of a push. While birds, and hopefully people, have not been observed physically pushing their young out of the nest, they will, “call to their young in the nest to coax them into leaving when it’s time to do so,” explained Daniel Roby, an ornithologist at Oregon State University, in an interview with National Geographic. Some birds may even help their parents forage for food only hours after hatching, but others stay very close to their parents even after they’ve left the nest on their own. Some birds might stay with their parents for about a year (gap year?) or they might wait a few days while they learn to fend for themselves.

Human parents and guardians also go through a similar process when sending their kids off into the ‘real world.’ Guardians must teach their children problem solving skills (much like teaching young how to hunt or forage for food), manage stressful situations (play fighting), or simply boosting their confidence (showing parental affection).

The impacts of this separation have different ramifications for different species. Many animals might sense relief when they no longer have to care for their young, as might some human guardians. Others, often mammals, have a much deeper reaction. Humans that experience empty nest syndrome might feel sadness and loss, or miss the companionship.  

They could also feel a sense of loneliness in their absence. Like humans, some animals can experience grief after a loss, and exhibit a large range of behaviors that indicate a feeling of intense separation. For example, if you have a dog, you might notice that your dog stands at the door dejectedly when you leave. This feeling of exclusion can also be applied broadly to parents and guardians separating from their students.

No matter where you’re headed after high school, it’s important to acknowledge those who have helped along the way. Whether that be a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, sibling, best friend, or teacher, we owe it to them for helping us “leave the nest.” Make sure you hug your loved ones (and maybe your pets) goodbye before you leave. After all, their nest will be a little bit emptier without you in it.