MY HOUSEHOLD is made up of a one-and-a-half-year-old black Labrador retriever, who at last is learning moderation in expressing her welcome to every visitor; one elegant and unflappable cat; his brother cat, fat and exceedingly flappable; and me, a widow in my midseventies. It is an orderly household, now that Annie, the black Lab, is learning some manners. We all know the rules and respect one another’s schedules. If truth be told, we are rather fixed in our ways. There are certain times to go out; certain times when the food bowls must be filled; certain times for walks; and certain times, inexplicable as it may be, for the human to quietly drink her coffee and listen to a bit of Mozart or the news.
And then came Bird.
One afternoon I heard the calls of birds in distress coming from somewhere just beyond the kitchen and went out to investigate. Murray, the elegant cat, had been a mighty hunter in his salad days and known to catch and kill the occasional bird. Now he was older and not as quick, his prey more likely a shrew or a mouse. But I still assumed that the birdcalls were directed at him; birds use that call whenever they see a potential predator. And when I got outdoors I did see Murray staring down at the grass, behaving not as a predator but as a very puzzled cat. Then I saw a yellow splotch in the grass that I quickly realized was the gaping mouth of a baby bird begging for food. Begging from a cat is a not a good choice for a bird, but what did this little guy know? Before Murray could make a move, I scooped the cat up and put him in the house. Fat cat Sam was somewhere out in the woods. Hunting seemed to be all theoretical with Sam; I’d never seen him catch anything. But he sometimes would sit on a sunny ledge inside, watching for hummingbirds at the feeder. When he saw one, he’d drool and chitter, jaw opening and closing rapidly in small biting motions. Still, should he have wandered by, he might have been capable of killing a stationary baby bird. I had a meeting in town, so to make sure the bird would be safe, I called Sam, enticing him into the house with the promise of a spoonful of tuna. Annie, fortunately, had been invited by a friend of mine a few miles away to play with her dog. Annie was a hunting dog and took an inordinate interest in small moving things on the ground: frogs, blowing leaves, grasshoppers — and, yes, birds.
The robins who I assumed were the baby’s parents were now hysterical in their distress calls. The baby bird’s mouth was still open. He was hungry. He was begging from me now. But I followed the advice wildlife experts always give when a baby animal is found, seemingly abandoned: if you get out of the way, the parents may take care of the situation. I drove off to my meeting.
It was late August: the season of goldenrod and purple asters. We’d already had that significant end-of-summer day, when the air is clear and you notice that the sunlight is at a slightly different angle. It was late for a fledgling in Maine. But even here, robins sometimes have as many as three broods a season. The babies fledge a week or so after hatching. The one in my yard still had fluff sticking out here and there between his new feathers, so he was probably about ten days old.
An hour later I drove back up the driveway and got out of the car. All was quiet; the parent robins were nowhere to be seen. The baby robin was still sitting exactly where I had left him, which did not surprise me. Wildlife experts’ advice notwithstanding, I knew that he was at or near the age when fledglings leave the nest, and that bird parents do not stay interested very long in a youngster who has tumbled out of the nest inadvertently or otherwise gotten himself into trouble. They have, after all, two or three others to take care of.
As soon as Bird saw my shadow he opened his mouth. Optimistic little guy.
MY BROTHER Bil is a man of many skills, bird rehabilitation among them. A few years back when I had visited him and his family, he had taken in a crippled baby robin. All of us who were visiting at the time were pressed into service as apprentice rehabilitators, so I now knew what to do with what had obviously become my bird. Birds of his age need to be fed hourly; if they are not, their feathers grow in with white, unpigmented stripes, indicating a lack of critical nutrition, and their bones don’t develop properly. My new baby had been a long time without food. I dug up a red worm from the compost pile and stuffed it in his yellow maw. Then his mouth opened again. I dug another worm. And another. And yet another before he was finally satisfied.
I had a flash of understanding of how hard it is to be a postmenopausal mother. But here he was; if his own kind wouldn’t care for him, I would have to. I dug some more worms and put them into a plastic container along with some compost for them to burrow in. For Bird I arranged a newspaper-lined box in the spare bedroom. I could close the door and keep him safe in there from Murray, Sam, and Annie. Then I picked up Bird, whose mouth was again open, and put him into his new and, I hoped, temporary home.
I fed him more worms: once again, four were enough. He looked healthy: his feathers were glossy; he wasn’t thin. The orangish red of his breast was spotted with black. His tail was stumpy, a mere gesture toward the full tail to come. I noticed that when I put him down into the box, he listed to one side and wasn’t stable on his feet. I picked him up again and examined him and discovered that one leg appeared shorter than the other. Lifting his wing on the short-leg side, I could see that a normal leg was there, but it was bent and trapped in an air-filled membrane of skin that looked like a balloon. The membrane was attached to his ankle and his side. Only his foot was free, extending from the balloon. If he was left like that, he would never walk properly. No wonder he had fallen out of the nest; when his brothers and sisters had started growing and moving around, they had probably jostled him out.
The sun was going down behind the trees, and I had to go pick up Annie. In addition, if Bird needed four worms at every feeding, I had a lot of digging to do to get him through the rest of the day and the next morning. I would figure out what to do about his leg tomorrow.
At nine o’clock I offered him some worms, but he acted sleepy and uninterested. I realized, with relief, that even the most devoted of bird parents would be unable to forage after dark; their youngsters’ metabolism must slow down at night. I didn’t have to play bird mother until dawn. I sat down in an unoccupied chair with several bird books of recent vintage, but also with one of the volumes of Life Histories of North American Birds, by early-twentieth-century ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent. I flipped it open to the chapter on Turdus migratorius migratorius, the Eastern American Robin. I read that a robin’s diet in the wild in late summer is made up of about 60 percent fruit, usually in the form of berries, and the rest of worms, yes, but many insects, too. They also eat red-cedar seeds. I thought of all the berries ripe at the moment: honeysuckle, blueberries, bunchberries, blackberries, huckleberries. The cedar trees were full of ripening seeds. I could go a little easier on the worms. My last thought before going to bed was that Bil had a special mash he fed young birds, and that I must call him in the morning.
As the sun rose, I quickly let Annie out and began feeding worms to Bird. He appeared to have grown during the night, but he still listed badly to the side of the trapped leg. I could hear Annie scratching at the front door to be let back in for her kibble. When I’d finished with Bird and opened the door, I found the cats crouching outside it, highly suspicious of what was going on inside and indignant that they had not yet been fed. Apparently I’d have no leisurely morning coffee listening to the BBC.
I fed Annie and the cats, went out to pick berries, and gave them to Bird, who seemed to like them very much indeed. I picked him up, carefully spread his wing, and examined the transparent membrane around his leg more thoroughly. There was no fluid inside it, just air distending it into that balloon shape. I got out my manicure scissors, sterilized them, swallowed hard, and began trimming the membrane away from his leg. There was no blood and apparently no pain, for he did not pull away from me. Once the job was done, he immediately extended his leg. Plucky bird. The leg was thin and lacked muscle. I put him down in his box, and he was no longer lopsided. The night before, I’d put a stick in his box to serve as a perch. After a few minutes Bird hopped up on it.
Later, when it was time for Bird to be fed again, he was walking quite ably around his box and opened his mouth the moment I bent over him. He ate three worms and six berries, twittering contentedly, then climbed his perch and sat down to rest. I tapped at the cat paws that were inquisitively thrust under the bottom of the door and let myself out of what had become Bird’s room.
Then I telephoned Bil and asked for his formula for bird mash. He gave it to me but said I might want to add beef heart so I wouldn’t have to dig so many worms. He said I could probably ease up on the feeding in another week, reducing it to every two hours. “The hardest thing,” he said, “will be teaching him to eat by himself.”
And how would I do that? I asked him.
“With difficulty,” he said. “Young birds learn to eat by imitation and accident. They follow their parents around, watching them peck at the ground.”
What would I do if I couldn’t teach him to eat, or if he was never able to fly?
Bil said, “You may have a very interesting pet for the winter.”
Next I phoned the butcher. He said he could order some beef heart for me, but that it wouldn’t come in until the following week. I resigned myself to lots of digging in the compost pile until then. No quiet afternoon hour with music for me for a while.
Bil’s recipe for mash included cooked oatmeal as a nutritious thickener. I made some up, enough for Bird and for me; by that time I was hungry, too. He welcomed the mash, twittering as he ate it. I ate mine silently, wondering how he could twitter and eat at the same time.
Annie was taking her postwalk nap, so I picked up Bird, brought him out behind the house, and put him down. He took a few tentative hops but simply sat down when I tried to encourage him to walk. He was more interested in looking up at the sky and trees. He cocked his head when he heard birds singing.
In the afternoon I once again brought Bird outside. This time he followed me partway along the path; by now he had begun to associate me with food and wanted to keep me in sight. Annie, inside and awake now, rushed from window to window as Bird and I walked slowly along the path. She was astounded; I was taking something edible for a walk.
For the rest of the day and the days to follow, I developed a routine of digging worms, feeding Bird, walking Bird, walking Annie, and soothing the outrage of the cats. It left little time for anything else.
The next morning I was pleased to find that the top of Bird’s leg had already grown some small feathers and that the naked skin on his side showed no sign of infection or soreness. That day he walked nearly all the way around the house before he sat down.
By day three after the surgery, Bird’s leg had not only feathers but muscles. It looked just like the other leg. He began using both legs to push himself up into the air in fluttery leaps, and he chirped whenever he heard me open the door to his room.
Outdoors he walked along with me as though I were his parent, so I picked up my trowel and started digging earthworms out of the garden and giving them to him directly, hoping he would get the idea. He loved the worms. He didn’t get the idea. But after several days of troweling with Bird looking on, I noticed that my garden was weed-free and looked better than it had all summer.
Late in the season adult robins do not vocalize much: their youngsters have pretty much grown; they don’t have territories to defend by song; and, pair bonds weakened, they begin to gather in quiet but large flocks in the woods. My woods begins just at the end of my garden, and when I brought Bird out there, I discovered that the trees were full of robins; I could hear them making uncharacteristic distress calls. I pointed out to them that if they didn’t like the way I was raising one of their babies, they should come down and take over. In fact, one day I left him out there alone for a while and watched out the window to see if any adult robin would step up to the responsibility. No. He was my baby. Nevertheless, they continued to mutter like disapproving in-laws whenever I brought him out. And he paid attention to them. Ornithologists tell us that birds are born with innate recognition of their own species’ basic song. It was interesting to see that Bird recognized his own kind, grumpy as they seemed.
ONE DAY I had to go to a long meeting. I put Bird in his box in the back seat of the car and packed a nice lunch of berries, mash, and red worms. An hour into the meeting I told the group that I had to go feed my bird. Everyone laughed, believing, I guess, that I was pulling a little-known parliamentary maneuver.
After the meeting I went back to the car and found Bird’s box empty. He was under one of the seats, having managed to fly. When we got home I found a bigger box, which I covered with a window screen. By the next day he not only chirped when I opened the door to his room but began twittering as soon as I removed the screen. I don’t know if all robins are as talkative as he was, but he began to seem very companionable to me.
Soon the news was around town, and people began coming to see Bird, bringing what I told them was the price of admission: a jar of worms. The children who came wanted to hold and pet him, but I explained that if he became too comfortable with human beings, it would be hard for him to live in the wild once I set him free. I was touching him as little as possible myself, feeding him his mash on the blunt end of a twig and giving him berries on the end of a toothpick so he would get used to pulling them off, not just expecting them to drop into his open mouth. In order to keep some distance, I had refused to name him, but he had become Bird nonetheless.
Bird was depleting my supply of the earthworms that he liked so well, and it was now taking a dozen or more of the skinny red worms to fill him up. I tried putting a tin of compost and worms in his box to encourage him to pick them out himself. He still didn’t get the idea. I was looking forward to Tuesday, when the butcher would have the beef heart for me.
But Bird was doing well at taking berries off toothpicks and the ends of the twigs, so one clear morning, after a night of rain, I put him on top of the honeysuckle bush to see if he’d pluck the berries from it himself. He seemed pleased to be outdoors but never noticed the berries. Instead he kept looking up at the sky. With premature self-assurance, he decided he could fly. He fluttered upward, but, lacking a proper tail rudder, he fell to the ground and sensibly walked under the bush. I got down on my stomach and dragged myself along the muddy ground under the branches to get near him. He hopped away. I slithered along some more. He hopped away. It was satisfying to realize that outside he viewed me as a threat, not as the friendly provider of food. But it was a small satisfaction, to be sure, for it took me a half-hour of wallowing in the mud before I captured the overconfident youngster and returned him to the safety of his box. I was, in fact, quite cross.
A few days later I was at a party telling a birding friend about my adventure under the honeysuckle bush when an archaeology professor standing beside her told me that people often brought him young wild birds in distress. He asked me what I was feeding Bird and nodded in approval until I told him about the honeysuckle berries.
“Be careful with those,” he said. “They ferment easily, even in a bird’s stomach, and birds can get drunk from them.” Considering how often I had to change the newspapers in the bottom of Bird’s box, I didn’t think anything stayed inside his body long enough to ferment. The professor then told us about a winter afternoon when he’d seen a group of cedar waxwings on the ground under a honeysuckle bush. He stopped to look at them because at first glance most of them appeared dead. Then he realized they were simply blind drunk. Afraid they would die of cold overnight before they slept it off, he gathered all twelve of them up and brought them home. By morning they were fine, and he opened the window to let them go. One refused to leave, and when spring came and the bird still hadn’t left, the professor realized he had a pet bird.
“What kind of a cage did you keep him in?” I asked.
“Cage?” he said. “What cage? That bird lived with us. We had plants and small trees in the apartment, and he usually stayed in one of them. He’d fly over to greet us when we came through the front door. We had that bird for three years.”
“Ah, but you didn’t have two cats and a bird dog, I bet,” I said.
He admitted he did not. Bird was an engaging little creature, but I didn’t fancy spending the next three years trying to keep my other animals from eating him. Besides, Bird deserved to live free in his own world.
I tried varying Bird’s diet with insects. I got out the books again and read that beetles were the insects most often found in robins’ stomachs, grasshoppers the least. I found no beetles, but grasshoppers were everywhere. I realized quickly why birds don’t often eat them: they are too hard to catch. Although Annie tried to catch every grasshopper she saw, she only occasionally managed to get one and eat it. To her surprise I started pouncing on grasshoppers, too. She seemed pleased that we now shared a hobby and watched with puzzled interest as I ran about trying to cup my hand over them. I finally caught a huge grasshopper, who promptly nipped my finger as my hand closed around him. I brought him into the house and stuffed him down Bird’s open mouth. Bird kept swallowing mightily at the head while I poked from the other end. By the time we got the grasshopper completely inside, Bird’s crop was bulging. He seemed a happy robin indeed.
It was also caterpillar season, and when I took Annie for her walk, I watched for caterpillars. Many of them were fuzzy, covered with fine hairs: a defense against predators because they are irritating. But the big green caterpillars — the larvae of cabbage butterflies — are perfect bird fare. As Annie and I walked down the road, I stuffed the pockets of my jeans full. Bird loved them. It wasn’t long before I could drop them on the floor of his box, and, attracted by their wriggling motion, he would eat them on his own. Once, when I jiggled his box, some berries on the newspaper began rolling around, and he started chasing them, even though he didn’t seem to know quite why he was doing so. He did know, I was pleased to see, exactly what to do with the two small, live grasshoppers I put in the bottom of his box: he darted after them, caught them, and ate them.
Bird was growing rapidly. New feathers made his back, head, and sides darker and glossier. His breast looked redder, although it still had some spots. He no longer crouched in infant fashion but stood upright and walked about on his sturdy legs. His tail was still not long enough to serve as a rudder when he tried to fly, but when I took the screen off the top of his box, he would chirp, flutter upward, and land awkwardly on my shoulder.
He was nearly ready to return to the wild, but I couldn’t release him until his tail grew and he could truly fly. He aspired, however. Oh, how he aspired. He no longer wanted to perch inside his box while I fed him. Instead he perched on the box’s edge, where he could look out the windows at the sky.
An afternoon came when I took off the screen and he pushed off, flew expertly around the room just below the ceiling, paused to perch on a lamp, then circled back to the box’s edge in front of the window, trilling all the while. He was ready to go, but the remnants of a Caribbean hurricane were beating up the coast with heavy wind and rain. I would wait until it had passed. In the meantime I took a heavy, dry piece of oak bark, drilled holes in its corners, and tied it up in a mountain-ash tree that was covered with bright red berries. As soon as the weather cleared, I would stock the bark platform with some food in case he had trouble foraging.
By the next morning the wind had died down, and the day was clear and sunny. Still in my nightgown, I offered Bird food in his box for the last time, which he scorned; he was already full and, actually, fat. I picked him up and brought him outside, two weeks to the day since I had first found him in the grass. He was chirping, fluttering, and struggling in my hand. I carried him over to the mountain ash and put him on the food-laden piece of bark. His feet touched it, and then he pushed off. He flew singing to a branch at the top of the highest spruce tree at the edge of the woods. Robins don’t sing like that in September. Nevertheless, he was singing. I don’t know what ornithologists would have to say about it, but to me it sounded like celebration. He was no longer my bird. He was wild and free.
I stood watching until I saw him fly, silent now, out of the spruce and toward the deep woods, flying into the life he would make for himself and the death that would someday be his in a world full of dangers.