Every bird in Ashby during the late 60s should have been far more concerned about a pixie-haired philanthropist than any number of stealthy predators on the prowl. Back then, I could have taken you down any street or alley and pointed out every bird’s nest in town. No tree was too daunting—tall spiky evergreens, spreading oaks, and spindly poplars—so great was my zeal to keep track of the local bird population. My studies were not without hazards. I fell out of trees, was pecked, dive-bombed, and pooped on more times that I can count. Bird watching, Dawn-style, was not for the faint of heart. Yet, this was not a school assignment. No one paid me for my efforts or seemed remotely interested in my findings. This I did for myself: I loved birds and wanted one for a pet.
I spent hours watching the birds in our yard. I noticed that robins hopped with both feet together but blackbirds alternated steps like a person walking. I learned the calls of mourning doves and chickadees and tried to imitate them. I admired the oil-spill sheen on a starling’s neck and the sneaky way that nuthatches managed to hide just out of reach around the trunks of trees, hanging upside down as they went. I tore apart endless loaves of stale (or fresh if need be) bread and scattered it on the lawn to see who would show up for lunch. Then I observed where the sated birds flew to nest. For my real fascination was with eggs—that was where the fun began.
Naïve sparrows returned year after year to make a nest in the eaves of our neighbor’s garage. If I leaned my bike against the outside wall of the garage and stood on my tippy-toes on the banana seat, I could reach up under the edge of the roof and feel around in the dark, spongy dampness of a row of nests. I would grope blindly until I located the warm smooth eggs. Sparrow eggs are tiny, light brown and speckled, smaller than a jellybean. Robin eggs were a bit larger and were my personal favorite with their brilliant turquoise hue. One time, just once, I couldn’t resist and took a single robin’s egg for myself. I knew I had to keep it warm if I wanted it to hatch, so I carefully wrapped it in a Kleenex and placed it in the breast pocket of my jean jacket, determined to be a good little bird mommy/incubator. Bird mommies, however, do not climb around on baseball grandstands. Later that day, having forgotten my surrogate responsibilities, I was swinging around the wooden bleachers like a chimpanzee, hoisting myself up to the highest row of seats when…squish! I felt something hot and wet against my chest. I put my hand into my pocket with a sinking feeling…egg yolk.
I thought I’d have better luck with hatched baby birds. One day I was sitting on my grandparents' back step and I noticed a pair of sparrows slyly smuggling beakfuls of bugs into the garage through a ditch they had worn in the dirt floor. I sneaked inside to see who they were feeding and spied a nest up near the ceiling rafters. I pushed a spare tire against the wall and climbed up for a closer look. From the tire, if I put the bare toes of my right foot against the dirty windowsill, I could just reach the nest with the tips of my fingers. Then, if I tilted my head sharply to the left and ignored the shingling nails that were gouging my head, I had a decent view of four baby sparrows. They didn’t seem the least bit afraid of me and I stroked their wispy heads with a careful finger, brushing the lice off my hand onto my shorts. I worried that my grandpa didn’t leave the garage door open enough for the parents to come and go as they pleased and, because of this, the babies weren’t getting enough to eat. I saw how they fought whenever the adult birds came to feed them and realized they needed my help. Without me, they faced sure and certain starvation. So…what to feed baby birds? Worms! I dug around the moss roses in the side garden and found a few fat night crawlers. They were covered in dirt, so I washed them with the hose. The dousing rendered the worms a bit listless which was to my advantage as I only had one hand to hold them as I re-scaled the inside of the garage wall. I dangled one hapless victim over the baby birds’ hopeful mouths and gasped when one eager little fellow nearly choked to death on its wiggly, unwilling dinner. I quickly reeled in the worm from the bird’s throat and climbed back down to reconsider my options.
What does the mother bird do in situations like this? She chews the worm. There were some things I was just unwilling to do and I had to draw the line here. I went into the house and asked my Gram for a knife. She didn’t even ask what I wanted it for. She handed me a butter knife, for safety reasons. I plopped down on the sidewalk outside and set to my grim task. It is no small feat to chop a squirming earthworm into baby bird, bite-sized pieces with a dull knife, but I did it—brushing beads of sweat from my brow as I worked. This was a necessary evil, a labor of love. The baby birds gobbled up my latest offering with relish and, though I was pleased, I was unwilling to repeat the gruesome process. I tossed the leftover [relieved] worms back into the garden and wiped my sticky hands on my T-shirt. What else? What else could I feed them that would taste as good?
I returned to the house and asked my Gram for stale bread. “Just help yourself,” she said, pointing to the fresh loaf of Wonder Bread on the counter. I took out two slices and then checked the fridge. Protein, I needed protein to go with the bread for a balanced diet. Peanut butter? Nope, too sticky. “Gram, can I have some bologna?” I asked. “All you want, dear,” she called without coming out to see what I was up to. I made a sandwich with the bread and meat, carefully removed the crusts, and cut it into teeny-tiny, mini-sandwiches. The baby birds’ black eyes twinkled when they saw my dirty face appear above their nest. They dutifully opened their yellow mouths, sticking out their pointy tongues, eagerly anticipating the next course. Unfortunately, the first bird in line gagged on the parched entrée, so back to the ground (and drawing board) I went. Apparently birds lack sufficient spit for conventional sandwiches.
“Gram? Can I take a bowl outside?” I yelled from the kitchen. “Sure, honey,” she replied, engrossed in her game show. I filled one of her good bowls with water and carried it to the garage. I carefully dipped each tiny sandwich in water and climbed back up to the nest again, teetering on the wobbly tire, nicking my scalp on a nail, and holding my breath in the effort of the ascent. The babies loved their soggy sandwiches and kept asking for more. When I finally ran out and left for the day, I’m sure the mother bird was surprised that no one bothered to fight over the bugs she offered. All she saw was her fuzzy-headed infants asleep with tummies so distended they looked like they would burst.
Another way that I helped the local bird population was to teach new fledglings to fly. How they ever managed before I came along was certainly a mystery! Didn’t the mother bird realize what she was setting her babies up for when she allowed them to leave the nest before they were ready? I made it my mission to save the adolescents from hungry cats and untimely death against the windshields of mindless cars. I would make a pet for myself, teach it to eat from my hand and, in exchange, it would become tame flying back year after year to my bedroom window to thank me—maybe even sit on my shoulder and people would be so amazed: “There goes the girl that tames birds and has them eating out of her hands,” they would say. If only it worked out that way.
I guess I tried taming at least two dozen birds in various stages of independence. And without exception, with the best care a 9 year-old could provide, they died. My parents tried to warn me: “Once you touch a baby bird, the mother will not come back to it.” Naturally, I didn’t believe them for, to do so, would be to acknowledge that I had sentenced to death many, many baby birds with fickle parents. My intentions were noble—I fed each charge my special Oscar Mayer sandwiches dipped in water. I provided a nice cozy box lined in cloth rags for sleeping. But the next morning? I found the bird dead—cold and stiff, feet to the sky, just like in the cartoons. I cried genuine tears of loss and disappointment. I gave each a proper burial complete with eulogy, Scripture reading, and a bouquet of wilting dandelions.
As an adult, I am content to watch birds in my yard flitting from tree to bush singing their little hearts out. I no longer lust after one for a pet or wish to hold it in my hand. I am glad that God, in his infinite wisdom, saw fit to make birds so hardy and prolific—relieved that one young girl was unable to single-handedly wipe out an entire species with her good intentions.
Wait...is that a nest up in that tree?