The Bird You Cannot Change

Some of you may already know this. I work part-time as a mother bird now. I got the job about a week ago, although I wasn’t given the choice. I suppose one could say I was assigned to the job. Appointed, even. It’s a little weird because the job is illegal in the state of Alabama. I probably shouldn’t even be writing about all this, but if anybody reading this honestly feels the need to turn me in for respecting life and attempting to do so as legally as possible while still technically breaking the law, then they’ll be too late anyway because tomorrow the birds will no longer be in my care. Come at me.

It all started when a chipper little brown bird chose to build a nest and lay her four tiny eggs on my doorstep. I don’t mean in a tree in my front yard or in my shrub beds. I mean she literally built her nest on the wreath that was hanging on my front door. The first bird hatched on or around April 23rd and the last one hatched about a week later. Three little birds to make Bob Marley proud and one more to grow on. Fresh out of the nest, they looked like miserable fleshy insects. Baby birds, much like newborn humans, are positively hideous but in an adorable way that you can’t help but croon over. Their eyes are dark bulbous tumors that grow awkwardly on the sides of their tiny faces. They’re wrinkled and veiny. Their heads are too heavy for their wormy necks. They writhe around the nest like something that should have died weeks ago. Damn, they’re cute.

Momma bird was a good, loving bird. She kept the nest always neat and tidy. I barely got to see a bird hatch before she showed up to clean up the shells. She was always there at night to tuck them in and keep them warm. Best of all, she never dive-bombed me or tried to peck my eyes out when I would pay the little hatchlings a visit. I had faith in momma bird. She sat in a tree and called at me until I eventually learned what her particular call sounded like. A bit of light research and few Youtube videos of various bird calls would eventually reveal that momma bird was a common house finch. I thought she would always be there for them. Hell, even poppa bird stuck around for a while, which is unusual in the animal kingdom. I was witnessing the miracle of a loving family fit for a Disney movie. Then, tragedy struck.

May 5th (Cinco de Mayo, yo) was a cold and rainy day unfit for the season. It had been raining all evening. The air was chilly. I didn’t bother the birds all morning because the last thing I wanted was to spook momma bird away from the nest on a day like this. I was always diligent about making sure they were left alone when they needed to stay warm. Around 3:00 pm, the rain stopped and I opened the door to receive a package. There were no hungry cheep cheep cheeps coming from the nest, which was unusual as the birds had all developed noisy chirps and could be heard from my bedroom by then. I peeked in on the nest and found four wet, struggling little birds. One of them, the biggest one, was entirely too still. I had never touched them before, so I thought long and hard about what I would do next. I looked over at the tree. Momma bird never called. Apprehensively, I stuck a finger into the nest and stroked their heads. The oldest was dead. Rigor mortis had already set in. He was long gone and there was nothing I could do to help. The other three were icy cold and struggling to take breaths. It took me about thirty seconds to shut the door and say “she’ll be back soon, I shouldn’t intervene” before I realized a bird as tidy as the bird I knew would never leave a dead baby in the nest for so long. Momma bird wasn’t coming back.

It’s time for a pop quiz! What would you do in my situation?

A) Nature is brutal. Leave them to die in peace.

B) Spring into action and try to save the remaining birds with what little time and few resources you have available.

C) Call an animal rehabilitation center and hope that they’ll be there in time.

If you know me at all, you know very well that I went with option B. Those birds were fighters. They were still alive with a dead brother in the nest, wet, and frozen. They deserved a better chance. I don’t even want to talk about option A. Option A is for idle bystanders who can sleep at night knowing they could have done something to help and didn’t. I admire that quality, but I don’t have it. Why didn’t I go with option C? Well, it seems like a sensible option if you have any faith in the promptness of animal rescue services. It’s not their fault they’re underfunded and understaffed. I don’t blame them at all. But I’ve called Madison Animal Control more times than I can remember. Not only are they not prompt when you need them, but half the time the phone will go unanswered. This was not the time to be a law-abiding citizen. The law sucks.

I plucked the nest from the wreath, which was a surprisingly laborious task seeing as momma bird was an expert weaver and had done everything short of cement it to the door. I carefully removed each live, floundering little chick from the nest, but left the dead baby inside. That nest would be his grave. The rest went into a fleece lined shoebox under which I had finagled a space-heater. It was not easy and I hadn’t even the most basic supplies to make this rescue possible, but I was determined. Maybe I’m a little batshit crazy, but you can’t say I’m not resourceful or resolute. I watched them curl up in a desperate attempt to get warm. They were pathetic, scrawny little things and severely dehydrated. I googled about 400 different things about caring for infant birds, all of which insisted the first step was “Don’t do it, it’s illegal.” Eventually, I found some genuinely helpful forums frequented by licensed breeders and was able to come to a conclusion. Pedialyte and Gatorade are both perfectly safe to administer to hatchlings in an emergency. So I warmed up a couple of ounces of blue Gatorade, filled an eyedropper, and dripped some into each bird’s wrinkled beak. Drop. By. Painstaking. Drop. It took forever, but soon the birds were beginning to actively lap at the drops of Gatorade. It was a goddamn miracle. They began to move and chirp again. Whatever I was doing, it was actually working. What now!?

I made for the nearest PetSmart in a terrible hurry. I hadn’t showered and my clothes were unfit for being seen in public. I was stressed and desperate. Is this what motherhood is like? Inside PetSmart, I perused the bird aisle, hoping it had all the answers. I wondered if it would be wise to ask for help, seeing as I was already midway through committing a rather ridiculous crime. I found a large jar of what looked like protein smoothie powder but was labeled “baby bird food formula.” Bingo. I read the label. In bright red letters, I was greeted with a most disheartening message. [DO NOT FEED TO WILD BIRDS.] Well, shit. I looked at the associate. I looked at all the bird seed packages labeled “For Finches and Canaries.” How bad can this formula be if the bird seed packages are perfectly safe for caged birds that would otherwise be wild? I took the leap and asked her if this formula was fit for finches. Affirmative. I asked her if all I need to do is mix it with water. Also affirmative. That was all the information I needed. Wild or not, a bird with some form of nutritional sustenance is better than a bird starving to death. I bought the formula and a syringe and headed home in hopes that the chicks were still alive. They were.

Over the next several days, I fed those birds every three hours religiously. I made sure their shoebox was warm and toasty. I cleaned their poop and gave them Q-tip baths when their faces got dirty. I even went out and bought a dedicated carrying box and a heating pad as an upgrade from their living conditions. They began to sprout feathers and wings. Overall, their condition was improving. I was doing a pretty good job. I could tell them apart now, and even gave them silly little names. I went with Atticus, Scout, and Boo Radley. They’re finches, you see. You understand the reference. (I know Boo Radley is not officially a Finch, but that’s the name that stuck. For some reason, Jem didn’t occur to me.) These birds were my pride and joy. Then, more tragedy struck.

I lost one. Atticus. The oldest of the three remaining. How fitting for the character. Did I curse him with a bad name? Did I set him up for failure? He died so quickly and so randomly. It’s absurd. I was just feeding him one day. He was a brawny bird. Eager and motivated. He was already beginning to fledge. His wings were coming in strong. I don’t know how it happened. He thrashed about for several seconds, keeled over, and died. Just like that. He fell limp. His eyes closed. For the rest of the day, I felt as if the loss of one bird represented my utter failure in everything. Incidentally, it was my graduation day. I should have felt proud, but I felt downtrodden. I should have been celebrating, but I wasn’t. I wept all day. Like a big, blubbering idiot. An idiot who cared. A lot.

I decided to pour all my energy into saving the little ones. I called every animal rehabilitation center in north Alabama, hoping to give them a chance at a normal life. They were full. They didn’t take birds. They didn’t take songbirds, only raptor species. Failed attempt, after failed attempt I began to think I would raise these birds to adulthood. What would I do with a week-long beach trip coming up? Would I take them with me? Would I have to feed them in the sun and sand, every two hours? Would I even be able to enjoy my trip? It didn’t matter to me. This was my responsibility now. I made that choice days ago. Then it hit me. We’re driving across the entire state of Alabama. Surely there must be a wildlife center somewhere between Huntsville and Orange Beach with room enough for two barely-fledged finches. I made a list and began making phone calls once again. Sure enough and to my utter relief, Oak Mountain State Park called me back. They would take the babies and raise them. They would be happy there. It’s a state park. The land is protected. They’re located far from the city, where the birds could live and thrive just as nature intended. Without missing a beat, I told them I would be there on Saturday.

So here I am today. Still caring for the same little birds that appeared on my doorstep, singing sweet songs of melodies pure and true. Their wings have come in beautifully. They flap instinctively when they get excited. Soon, they’ll want to fly. It’s Friday, and tomorrow I’ll be packing up all my things and leaving them with the people who were made to do this. I don’t want to give them up anymore. I’ve grown attached, but it would be even more selfish of me to keep them. They’re wild. As wild as the warning on the baby bird food formula. If my goal when I rescued them was to give them the opportunity to live their lives, then keeping them in a cage would be hypocrisy. It’s time for the birds to be birds.

The caged bird sings   
with a fearful trill   
of things unknown   
but longed for still   
and his tune is heard   
on the distant hill   
for the caged bird   
sings of freedom.
— Maya Angelou

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