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The Bittersweet Life of Birds: A backyard melodrama

Birding, Food & Drink, Memoirs & Miscellany Add comments

By Mary Ann Williams

The steam rose off the damp sidewalks. My house smelled like heat and books. And so, rather than toil on another well-intentioned act of journalism, I picked up a garden tool—the one that ends in a vicious-looking V—and went outside to murder some dandelions.

I was kneeling in the deep green grass when I heard shrieking. Further investigation revealed a bad business in progress. The corner of my front porch—home to two raspberry finches and their nestlings—was being sacked by a group of surly sparrows. By the time I arrived, nothing much was left but shreds of dried grass and feces. A week before the young finches were supposed to try their wings, they were learning to jog instead and scuttled for shelter in the yard.

Baby birds will break your heart. I knew this, but I couldn’t stop myself from tracking them down. When I’d discovered them a couple of weeks earlier it was like seeing popcorn for the first time. They were simple, natural and unexotic, a surprise and a delight.

I found one in a corner of the concrete steps. The other was crouched under the rotted wooden fence, trying to look like an oak leaf. When I picked it up, tiny claws wrapped around my finger like live dry twigs.

I put the birdies in a bucket and called Dave Willard, the bird man at the Field Museum.

“I know they’re going to die,” I told him.

“You’re probably right,” he said.

“Okay,” I said, switching tactics. “As long as I know that they’re doomed, could you please tell me what I could do—if anything—to give them a chance.” Maybe he’ll have mercy on me, I thought. My fingers were crossed.

“Their parents have been feeding them protein, so you might try something like ground dog food or cat food,” Dave said. “Don’t get your hopes up.”

The next call was to my tenant, Nancy. “I just found two baby birds in the yard,” I said. “I was wondering if you’d like to be their mother.”

“I think your cat Lula would like to be their mother,” she replied. It took a little arm-twisting, getting her to let me keep the birds in her apartment. But then again, she was at work, and I had keys to her apartment.

By the time Nancy got home, the bird bucket was in a corner of her kitchen, beneath the open window. When no one was around the birds called to each other like this: chirpchirp  chirpchirp  chirpchirp. Two notes, same pitch, one loud, one less loud. Over and over again. When we came close the birds fell silent and stared at us like prisoners of war. No chirp, no name, no rank, no serial number. Nothing but fierce defiance. Just try to tame us, they seemed to be saying. Just try to make us into your little pets.

I put watered-down cat food in a medicine dropper. The birdies refused to open their mouths. When the dropper came close, they clenched their beaks shut. I knocked gently on their beaks with the end of the dropper and fixed them with my best June Cleaver motherly gaze. “Wally, Beaver—I’ve got some chewed bugs I’d like for you to try…”

The birds weren’t buying it. I tried putting grains of cat food on the end of a paintbrush and rubbing it on their beaks. No dice. The stronger one appeared to be muttering to itself over and over again: “We…Are…Wild…Birds.” The smaller, sicklier birdling mustered a mean look.

It was cultural difference. My let’s-give-nature-a-helping-hand attitude obviously got on their nerves. Like Persephone in Hell, they knew that any morsel ingested would condemn them to time in my human world. Finally, I resorted to dirty tactics. I found that when I smeared food on their beaks they’d make a sideways chopping motion and some food would leak inside.

The second day—the day we discovered they had mites—Nancy decided that maybe the birds should go out on her porch. She admitted that smearing them with catfood then placing them outside might not be doing the nestlings a favor. But the hunger strike was going strong. It seemed their only hope was learning to fly while they still had the strength.

They’d kept up the chirpchirp chirpchirp chirpchirp call-and-response pattern all night, long past the apparent extent of their stamina. When we put them outside, they started up again, chirpchirping into the emptiness, while Nancy’s Tibetan prayer flags fluttered in the warm breeze above them.

When she looked out on the porch after half-an-hour a pair of adult raspberry finches were seated near the bird bucket. Chirpchirp went the little birds. Chirpchirp responded the adults. They threw chirps back and forth until their familiar pattern emerged. Another pair of adults came, and still another, until ten adults lined the porch railings.

The entire group of adults began to chirp in an emphatic way, with the stronger of two fledglings responding plaintively from its bucket prison. The adults moved down and surrounded the bucket on all sides. For a good five minutes they called and called. Finally, the stronger of the fledglings burst out of the bucket on its short new wings, almost as if levitated at a seance.

The weaker birdling was left behind, beak clenched, hunger strike intact. I put it in the juniper tree by the garage, in hopes that its adult relatives would feed it. But by then its eyes had a vague, ancient look. For the rest of the week I would wade through the grass barefooted at twilight to check on it. The bird continued to sit on the same branch, staring straight ahead into nothing, not blinking. It had a dreadful, stoic patience. By the third day it no longer saw me. On the fourth day, it was gone.

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