I have very low tolerance for people telling me about their pets or experiences with wild animals. The only thing I hate more is kids giving me a glowing blow-by-blow description of a video game or a scene in a sit-com. It isn’t that I don’t love animals. I do. I mean I REALLY do. It’s just that any animal story loses something in the telling. It can regain much of what was lost if you have video (a very short clip), but in most other cases, pet stories fall totally flat. More than falling flat, they extract a small stream of the listener’s life essence during the telling. The clock of life starts ticking loud and fast.
So please don’t mistake me for someone who begins an animal story without knowing the dread readers begin to feel as the suspicion that they are about to be told a story about an animal dawns on them. I know. I do know how you feel. At least I think I do.
Although based on the lengthy research I have been doing lately on wild birds in trouble, there must be some population out there who really thrives on baby-bird rescue stories. I’m guessing you, dear readers, are not that population or I probably would have lost you by now.
I also know that there are a few gems out there. Entire books written about the time some gentle soul spent nursing a small (the smaller the better) creature back to health. If the creature is a bird and it causes the writer’s soul to take wing during a long winter, so much the better. I haven’t read them, but I take on faith that they exist. This will not be one of those gems. I am not a gentle soul.
I also make an exception for children’s stories (as you may have guessed if you read the short story on this very blog about the hummingbird, Colibrí, or the epic poem Strawberry Raspberry Night). Anything, no matter how stupid is fair game for a children’s story if you can make it fun or keep a kid’s interest.
All that by way of preparing you emotionally for what is to come. I have to tell this story because it has consumed my life for a little over a week now.
Last Sunday my teenager brought home a baby robin. A healthy baby robin. Not clutched from the jaws of death only to linger at our house while it dies slowly and we wrestle with the various ethical dilemmas around the suffering of a small animal, and the rights and responsibilities of outdoor cat owners and how best to deal with a small, feathery corpse. An overheated, very healthy, very ugly, almost bald, but totally fine baby bird.
(If you feel the urge to tell me about the fact that the mother robin would have cared for her little jumper, or that it is, in fact, illegal to keep a wild bird, or that a wild bird should really only be handled by professionals, take that urge and direct it towards something worthwhile, like feeding the poor, OK? I know. The fact is, he’s here. He’s been here a week, and what’s done is done. )
I forgot to tell you two other small details. First is that we have a breeding pair of cockatiels at our house. They belong to my husband, in theory. They have a brood of four, hideously ugly offspring. The look a lot like tiny caricatures of little old men. Really ugly little old men. Except that little old men use a toilet or diapers. Birds use shredded paper or whatever they land above. And little old men talk or mumble. Our birds shriek.
They shriek when the doorbell rings or someone knocks at the door. They scream when someone steps onto our porch, or when they hear people coming down the stairs. They pierce my eardrums when they’re hungry or when they’re lonely or when they want to get out of the cage so they can fly around the house and poop.
The second thing you need to know is that I hate birds in general. The only birds I remotely like are Crows, and they belong outside. I know I should like birds, lots of people do. They are have wings and they can fly. They are the symbol of freedom . Some sing songs in the evening.
But just as many squawk early in the morning. Birds are flying salmonella factories with creepy, scaly feet and snappy, pointy beaks. They have noisy wings and seem like they are just as likely to get caught in one’s hair as a bat. Personally, I prefer the bats. Also, the feathers are not that great of a cover for the icky pink skin under there. But that’s just me.
I try hard never to take out my bird bigotry on the actual animals. It isn’t their fault they’re birds. They didn’t ask to be in my home. So while I do tell them I hate them on a daily basis, I always refill the food and water and escort them back to the cage after they’ve flown into the window and slid down the wall to the floor.
The bottom line here is that somehow I‘ve ended up being the primary caregiver for these animals I don’t really like very much. And the baby Robin (aka Christopher ) happens to have been a really intense experience. Should have brought him to the wildlife rehab place. I know that now. But the wild bird websites all said they fledge in about two weeks. We could do that.
Baby robins need to eat about every 30 minutes. They like worms the best. And our little friend made it clear after about 4 days that the baby bird formula we happened to have around because of the baby cockatiels was not going to cut it anymore. I needed to hunt for worms. Worms are hard to find this year because we’re having somewhat of a drought. Plus, after the third day of harvesting worms from the spots you’ve watered, the worms figure you out. We have no more worms. I had to start begging for worms from the neighbors.
Today I broke down and went to the pet store and bought mealworms. You know what? Mealworms are a lot grosser than either worms or birds. They have shiny segmented bodies and lots of little legs at the very front and the very back of their bodies. They are yellow. I have 500 of them in my refrigerator. I cannot bear to touch them. This is a very bad situation since I have been unable to convince the baby robin to either hunt on his own outside or pluck the mealworms from the little tub.
But feeding this little bird who was bald when he came to us and now has quite nice feathers and watching him learn to fly has softened me just a little. He cocks his head to the side to watch things in a way that is almost cute. And whenever I walk into the room he opens his mouth wide and hunches down. I can tell he’s trying to convince he he’s still young enough that I should feed him, because I’ve watched when I leave. He stretches his legs out and his neck out and grows by about 3 inches. He’s a scammer. But he doesn’t make loud noises. Hardly any noises at all. Baby robins sleep through the night, so he doesn’t wake me up to get fed.
He isn’t so bad. But today as I was digging in my front yard yet again, I realized that my life had been totally usurped by this little creature who I don’t hate, but I don’t like very much. I’ve been digging worms, wiping up poop spots, bleaching my countertops, shredding paper, picking up worms and feeding them into the bird’s little beak all damn day. And lo and behold, as cute as he is, I’ve started to hate him again. I actually pictured his little legs as drumsticks. Just like in the cartoons.
Here’s my crisis. And I know it’s sort of a self-inflicted crisis, many of mine are, but it’s still a crisis and it’s stressing me out. One reason the rehab people tell you not to raise a wild bird, is because it will become tame and then be unsuitable for life in the wild (the wild of St. Paul). Well this bird is a little tame now. A little, like in that he opens his mouth anytime a human walks up to the cage.
I have conflicting information about whether or not they can learn on their own how to hunt for insects, but so far our little friend Christopher is a dismal failure. He does peck at the ground and I saw him eat grass from the ground yesterday, but worms and grubs can crawl right over his scaly little feet and he doesn’t notice.
But all of these problems are of my own doing. And I can’t bear to take him to the wild animal place and face the upbraiding I know I deserve. I wasn’t ignorant, I was just defiant and stupid. I SO don’t want to have to be lectured to about wild animals and why one should leave them on the sidewalk to fry (they say the mom birds will take care of them, but COME ON! They can’t carry them back to the nest or defend them from predators). I can’t handle the stern looks I am going to get from the 23 year old in the lab coat.
I’ve made up lies in my head about this bird hopping onto my shoulder and my suspecting someone had tamed him, and how I knew the only right thing to do was bring him to the authorities. But I’m such a bad liar. And this little guy all but calls me mama. I’m afraid I’ll be on the wild animal sanctuary “watch list”.
I’m doomed. He’s a nice little bird. A friendly bird, a quiet bird. But I can’t teach him to hunt and I CANNOT feed him worms or grubs or anything else for the rest of his life. I can’t bring him to the wild bird people. I am so dumb. I hate this god damned bird.