I came upon the most unexpected of surprises yesterday on a trip to Philadelphia for a vintage flea market shopping spree. The flea market itself was not especially amazing, mostly because it had poured rain all morning, and was threatening to do it again. The flea market sellers covered their items with plastic or began loading them into vans as loud bursts of thunder rumbled through the sky. It was late afternoon and almost time for them to go home anyway. My friend came across some nice deals: six blue glass cups for five dollars and a large ceramic serving dish for another five. I came across a bird. It was a tiny bird, a baby so young it didn’t yet have feathers except for on the tips of its wings. It lay in a basket on the sidewalk. At first I thought it was dead. As my friend and I hovered over it, the man at the market saw our sad faces and heard our cries.
“It just fell out of the sky in the storm this morning,” he said, “It must have fallen out of its nest.” The tiny bird moved a little. “It’s alive?” I asked. The man nodded. The nest, wherever it was, was too high up to put it back. The bird was so small. Its eyes hadn’t even opened yet. “I don’t know what to do with it,” the man continued, “I called bird rescues but the closest one is in Wilmington. I’m not gonna be anywhere near Wilmington.”
That last sentence stopped me short. “I’m from Delaware,” I told the man. We were gonna drive right through Wilmington on our way home. “Will you take it?” the man pleaded.
I looked uncertainly at the bird. It was small, really, really small. It didn’t look like it would last another minute, never mind the rest of our day trip. But, despite myself, and sensing the man hovering desperately with his concern for the young bird uncomfortably shifting in the paper towel-lined basket, I found myself leaning over and picking the it up. The man looked relieved, “They said if you keep it in a dark box, it should be okay for 24 hours.” “Okay,” I nodded. Was I really taking this bird? “Keep it warm,” the man said. “Okay,” I agreed. Thank goodness it was a hot day, and the humidity felt like a blanket of warmth.
“This is the phone number,” the man handed me a piece of paper with several phone numbers, revealing how much effort he had put into the search. “It’s that one- Tri-State Bird Rescue.” He pointed to the one with the 302 area code. “Okay,” I said, recognizing it as a Delaware number. “Thank you,” he said as I pulled the paper towel down over the baby, and made my way through the flea market. My friend shook her head. “It’s really little. It’s not even a bird yet.” But it did look like a bird to me, a bird stripped of all its protection and left vulnerable to the world: literally, a bare naked one. And somehow the universe had entrusted me to take care of it. I seemed to be working on instinct, some kind of motherly solidarity, a connection that went beyond simple borders like species or biological connection. This baby bird’s mother must have been caring for it with all her might before it fell out of that nest. And now it was out of her hands. If she could not get back to her baby to help, I would do it for her.
I called Kevin. “I rescued a baby bird,” I told him, “I’m bringing it home. It’s really little.” “Good for you,” he said, “We’ll take it over to the Tri-State Bird Rescue. They’re right here in Newark, on the way to Hockessin.”
“Tri-State Bird Rescue is in Newark?” I said in surprise. Wilmington had been close, but Newark was where we lived. What were the odds of me going to Philadelphia and stumbling upon a fallen baby bird who needed a ride back to my own town?
Over lunch and on the way home I researched baby bird care on my cellphone. The dark box was necessary to protect the bird’s eyes- too much light too early and it could go blind. The bird rescue site said not to feed it. They also said that the sooner the bird got to the rescue center the better its chance of survival. That was the problem. The bird had fallen out of the nest in the morning. The bird rescue wouldn’t be open by the time we got back, and so I wouldn’t be able to bring her in until tomorrow morning. That was really pushing it further into the 24 hour time period than I would like.
On the car ride home she began to cheep as she sat in the basket on my lap. The baby bird had already become a sweet “she” in my mind. I would lift the paper towel to peek. When she saw me, even though it looked as if her head was too heavy to be held up by her tender neck, her mouth would open wide, cheeping, “Feed me. Feed me.” “It’s hungry. Baby birds eat every twenty minutes,” my friend informed me. I agreed; I had read that on several bird care websites. One of the sites had explained how to make baby bird food by soaking dry dog food for an hour, then when it’s sponge-like, ever so carefully giving them a pea-sized drop. But that was only for certain types of birds. If it was a dove or a pigeon, they eat some kind of seed mush. Giving them the wrong kind of food can kill them. They are supposed to be identifiable by some sort of pouch on their beak, but I was clueless. Was she a pigeon or a dove? I didn’t think so; she seemed so small to me. I thought she might be one of those small bouncy birds that flutter everywhere- like a starling or a sparrow. But was that just bias and wishful thinking on my part? I had always loved watching those particular birds. And we were in Philadelphia. The chances of it being a pigeon were pretty high. “I don’t think it’s a pigeon,” my friend said. But still, we weren’t sure. I made up my mind. I wouldn’t feed it.
I knew that statistically speaking, the odds for the bird’s survival weren’t high, being unintentionally abandoned this young. Many baby birds don’t survive in the wild anyway; the chances are much worse being raised in captivity. And from a website with pictures of baby birds at different stages of their life, I was guessing this little baby was 3 to 5 days old.
When the bird and I got to Newark, I punched holes in the top of a box and lined it with a piece of sheepskin (for warmth) and a t-shirt and paper-towels. Kevin and I drove over to the bird rescue. They were closed. I had guessed that would be; their website and phone both said so, but figured it was worth a try. I dropped Kevin off at dinner, and wondered what to do with the bird. I had planned to do some shopping. I didn’t want to leave her in my apartment, with my bird-loving cats (not in the bird friendly way) and an extremely curious dog. And the car was so nice and warm, the one advantage to a broken air conditioner. With the bird in the passenger seat, I drove up to the store, the bird chirping all the while. My heart was touched that this sweet little baby was talking to me. But it was tinged with sadness that “Feed me. Feed me…” was her desperate cry. I started to worry the odds were this bird was not gonna make it through the night. She was small, starving, hadn’t been fed for hours now. If I did nothing she might die. If I fed her the wrong food she might die.
“One day you are going to grow up and sing the most beautiful songs,” I told her, deciding suddenly I should sing for her in my softest voice, “Rise up this morning. Smiled with the rising sun… three little birds on my doorstep. Singing sweet songs… a melody pure and true… this is my message to you…u…u. Don’t worry, about a thing. Cause every little thing’s gonna be alright. Singing don’t worry…”
The bird must have liked Bob Marley, because my singing actually quieted her for a while. When I stopped she would chirp again. “I read somewhere little birdie, that the birds’ songs help the trees grow. They did some kind of scientific study. One day you are going to sing for the trees.”
On the way home, though, she was quiet even without my singing. I peeked into the box at a red light, seeing her lying motionless with her head down. My heart sunk. When she moved her body slightly a second later, I could have cried in relief. Though I knew it was probably just because it was darker out, and she was sleeping, part of me started to worry she was really dying now. Her chirping before might have been out of hunger, but at least I knew she had the pluck and spark of life. Now, in the silence, I wasn’t so sure. As the ride went on I began to rethink my whole strategy. The way it was looking now, she was gonna die. That was insane. I couldn’t watch this bird die right in front of me when I had the food that could save her life (very expensive, high quality dog food, I might add). I couldn’t let her starve when she was surrounded by nourishment. The risk of killing her by feeding her wrong seemed much less extreme when she was so close to death already.
“It’s a nice life being a bird. You get to soar through the sky, and live in the trees. One day you are going to fly.”
When we got home I heated a rice pack. Then I soaked some dog food in water- hot water to speed up the hour. I made sure it was like a sponge. I made sure it was not too wet or too dry. Even a drop of water can get into a small bird’s lungs and kill them. I picked up a piece half the size of a pea on my tweezers. She was after all, a very small bird. I tapped her beak. She opened her mouth, and in dropped the dog food. She shut her mouth. She didn’t open it again. I started to panic. What if she couldn’t swallow, was choking to death right in front of me? I tapped her beak. I tapped it again. She opened her mouth. Empty. “Good girl! Good girl!” I fed her till she didn’t seem very interested in more. Then I checked her rice pack and kept it by her in case it got cooler at night. She wouldn’t be able to regulate her own body temperature for days, and her momma and siblings weren’t around to snuggle with. I put her to sleep outside on our deck where it was warm, humid, covered, and quiet. I had fantasies of keeping her, raising her myself till she was grown and ready to fly away. Keeping a wild bird is illegal; but really, it just seemed insane for me to try to do it when I lived so close to one of the best bird rescue centers in the country. Many people don’t even have a bird rescue center around. How could I not utilize this resource?
It was quite a night. Thunderstorms banged noisily in the sky, pouring out rain, and breaking the heat I had been relying on. I went out to heat up her rice-pack again, and as I opened the box there was a flash of thunder and all the lights/power went out. So much for microwaving the rice pack. I wrapped a wool blanket around the box and prayed it would be enough. In the middle of the night the fire alarm went off on the building next to us, something to do with the power outage I’m sure. It took hours by the time the firemen came, inspected, switched it off, and everyone left. So much for her warm, peaceful night.
Just after dawn, I awoke, hopping out of bed, and holding my breath as I opened the box and took a look inside. There was a slight bit of motion.
“You’re alive!” I cried. By the time I got back with the food she was ready. “Cheep. Cheep.” I fed her every twenty minutes until the sanctuary opened and we could take a ride. Sometimes the food would seem to get stuck. It was a heartwarming and scary undertaking, all at the same time. I really wanted to get her to the professionals. I didn’t know if they could give her the individualized care I could, but they, unlike me, knew what they were doing. I would really miss her.
When I reached the center, another women walked up with a baby bird she had found, maybe a week older than mine. We compared birds before I dropped Isabel (okay, I named the bird) off with the kind lady at reception. “It’s an English Sparrow,” she told me. I sighed in relief. But I knew that although my part of the journey had ended, the sparrow’s had just begun. She is still fighting for her life. I wish her the best, that sweet baby bird. I hope she lives to sing.
Note: The best place for a baby bird to be is back in the nest. From what I’ve read, the old wives tale that the momma bird will smell humans and not return is wrong.