For the birds

I took part in a wonderful celebration of birds tonight—five writers sharing their poems and prose about birds. Called “For the Birds: A Flock of Writers Read about All Things Avian,” the reading was organized by Ellen Orleans as part of “Bird Shift,” an exhibit on birds commissioned by the EcoArts Connections and held at the CU Museum of Natural History. We gathered in a large circle at the museum, munched cookies and sipped tea, and were inspired by other bird-watchers and bird lovers. Here is the piece I read.


August 2011

I caught sight of it before my dog did—a fledgling robin struggling in the grass. As we approached, the robin shuffled hastily across the sidewalk, dragging a wing. Uh-oh, I thought. Not good.

I dropped Bodhi’s leash and bent over the robin. My hands remembered how to pluck a bird gently from the ground, palms firm but loose around the middle to calm and protect fragile wings.

The robin stretched out its beak and clamped down on my finger. Its best effort barely hurt. I extracted my finger and hugged the fluffy body carefully to my chest, then tucked my open shirt around its head to dampen sights and sounds. With my other hand I picked up the leash and headed home.

After packing the robin in a shoebox, I drove to Greenwood Wildlife Center, where the young woman behind the desk took a brief look inside the box then handed it off to someone from the back. “Intensive care,” she called after the retreating box.

Hummingbird nest soft with down on the inside and woven with paint chip decorations on the outside, all held together with spiderweb threads.

The bustle at Greenwood was familiar from the several years I spent volunteering at a wildlife clinic in the Bay Area. The faces were familiar too. Wildlife rehabbers have calm, matter-of-fact faces. Like the farmers of my childhood, these faces have watched birth—and death—many times over.

I remembered my first visit to a wildlife hospital twenty years ago, a different shoebox in my hands. That time it held a hooded oriole only a few days old who had tumbled onto merciless cement from his woven basket hanging impossibly high in a palm tree. The tiny, inch-and-a-half-long pink and naked baby had survived the fall, then survived three months at the center to be released as an adult. It qualified as a miracle: orioles have notoriously low success rates—near zero. (In wildlife rehab, the best rates hover at only 50 percent.)

Soon after the oriole success story, I’d signed up as a rehabber. I was in my midthirties, a grad student going through a difficult time—a string of losses not long before, including both parents and a divorce. I lived alone, isolated in my grief. I needed company—the company of other orphans.

I walked into the clinic for my first shift and was instantly overwhelmed by smells: faintly acrid disinfectant over a musky something—like the back rooms of a vet’s office yet different. The cages of all the animals were clean, the hospital spotless, but the smell alerted me from the start: the company I was about to keep was unfamiliar, wild.

I fed baby birds sheltered in white plastic incubators, tricking them into gaping by blowing gentle puffs of air across their heads, like the soft whoosh of parent wings arriving at a nest. I marveled at the tiniest baby hummingbirds brought in with their nest, cut down accidentally by someone pruning a hedge. Hummer babies always come in twos, squeezed into a nest the width of a quarter; the interior is soft with down and the exterior often decorated. Around this one tiny green paint chips had been woven in with spiderweb threads.

I stuffed soaked-kibble-and-egg mash down the gullet of juvie ravens and was gratified by the gobbling gurgle that finished each swallow. I learned to force-feed astonished young mourning doves, threading the tube feeder down their throats with one hand while calming them with a gentle, steady pressure from the other hand around their wings.

Young doves have to be force-fed because they eat just the opposite of other birds. The parent doves, instead of dropping food inside the beaks of babies, secrete a sort of milk from the lining of their crops, which they are stimulated to produce after a baby sticks its beak inside theirs. A young dove will not gape until its beak is enclosed by the parent’s—and good luck to a rehabber trying to replicate that. Doves are unusually upset in captivity and always too frightened to eat willingly. Their cages are draped at all times and the room darkened when the cage door is opened to prevent the young from flying frantically about. I learned to catch them too when they did fly wildly, clambering up on chairs and counters to grasp them lightly out of midair.

Feeding the birds calmed me, at least for the half day a week I was there. I took refuge in the busyness. Stove timers dinged every fifteen minutes (to feed the hummingbirds) or thirty minutes (for the baby songbirds) or on the hour (for the juvenile jays and robins), and even before one round of feeding was done it was time to begin the next. I didn’t have time to dwell on my own sadness, and while it didn’t exactly lift, it did recede, if only for a few hours.

I did always try to give the birds a bit of the hope I was having trouble grasping for myself. Each time I restrained a dove to feed it, I telegraphed pictures of oak and bay trees and clear blue sky and a feeling I could only imagine—of using wings to flutter from the ground to branches high above. I knew these doves’ captivity would end: soon they would learn to feed themselves with seed, and then, shortly after, they would be released back to trees and sky. Don’t give up, I tried to convey; this darkened room is not the end of your story. Soon you will be flying free.

* * *

But not all stories end in flying. This afternoon I call Greenwood to check up on the fledgling robin. The young woman at the counter spends a long time explaining. “I remember this bird,” she says. “A spinal injury. Probably a dog,” she adds. “Puncture wounds are usually cats, head injuries are windows, and spinal injuries tend to be dogs.” The robin had been listless, throwing up every bite of food, looking miserable even while packed with painkillers. “He was euthanized after two days. I’m sorry,” she says.

I am disappointed about the robin, of course, but glad to hear about the painkillers; twenty years ago wildlife clinics, like human hospitals, were stingy with painkillers. Perhaps we helped this robin a little after all.

I go sit outside on my deck to think about the robin, and me. So much has changed in twenty years! I am now rich in human companionship, but I still enjoy the company of birds. Here in my yard a seed feeder hosts its daily dinner party of finches, nuthatches, chickadees, and flickers. Today the birds scatter when I appear, but after I have sat quietly for a few minutes they are again glomming onto the feeder, arguing with each other, scrabbling over the best perch.

The house finches approach closer than usual, balancing on the ends of branches overhead, staring down at me. The mourning dove who scavenges under the feeder today hops up on the deck and works its way closer until it is pecking only a foot or two away from my chair. If I reached out my hand, I could touch it. I stop writing to admire what I have never seen before, even after holding dozens of doves between my palms: a throat of iridescent sky, glowing blue, then lavender, then soft pink, as if the dove wears a necklace of dawn.

I listen in vain for the raucous squawks of the Bullock’s orioles. All summer a male and a female darted into and out of our yard, scarfing up grape jelly from the oriole feeder, then taking off in a flash of yellow-orange. Suddenly last week a third oriole appeared, a grown-up-looking olive-colored adolescent. All three feasted wildly for two days—and then they were gone, the grape jelly abandoned. The yard seems so quiet now.

Over my head a house wren pauses. For three months I have wakened every morning to the trilling of a wren, who opened at dawn with a few phrases in one tree, then hopped to another, around and around in a circle of trees, warbling nonstop until twilight. Nesting season is over and his trilling has fallen silent, but now, over my head, a chorus of chirps and chatters erupts. Not one, but two, three, four wrens gather on a low branch near my chair. For a moment they all sit in a row, looking my way, then they scatter to nearby bushes, chattering. It has to be the wren family whose progress report I listened to every morning.

But on the branchlet closest to my face a single wren remains. Suddenly a tiny feather floats downward. I watch its flickering path. In the still air it takes forever to reach my hand. For a moment a tiny fluff of gray down tipped in beige pauses on my fingers. Then it continues its slow drift to earth.

I look up. The wren is little more than an arm’s length away, eyeing me closely.

“Thank you,” I smile.


One Response to For the birds

  1. Kathy Kaiser says:September 25, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    Beautiful post, Priscilla. I remembering volunteering at Greenwood and holding the baby birds in my hand while feeding them. You could feel the fragility of life, and it felt like a great honor to be so close to baby birds.