A many years ago – roughly 1991ish – when I lived in Thousand Oaks, I hopped into my blue VW Vanagon to dash to the store for some much needed groceries. As I approached the corner, I happened to see what appeared to be a fat really ugly baby bird in the gutter on the corner, looking up at me with bright eyes.
In retrospect, I have no idea how I could have possibly seen it so clearly as I was on the driver’s side (duh!) and the gutter was on the right, but something compelled me to stop. I pulled over, got out and discovered that I was not seeing things, there really was a fat REALLY ugly baby bird sitting unmoving in the gutter, many many yards from the nearest tree.
He was in that bizarre wrinkled pin-cushion only-a-mother-could-love-him stage of development. His oddly bright yellow beak barely protruded in a slightly rounded orangy pointed bump, and slashed halfway around his head underscoring two bright black bead eyes that regarded me with no fear. His little head cocked ever so slightly to look up at me. I ran back to the car to get something to put him in and came out with a towel.
Upon my second approach, he did not move, but continued to regard me with oddly peaceful wild indifference. I gingerly reached down to pick him up and he fluttered slightly, but settled into the towel with the air of the very young who can only weakly accept whatever happens. The towel formed a kind of nest in the front seat and this small critter just stared at me as I got in and started the car.
I turned around (illegal U-turn be damned, groceries forgotten) and drove the block back to my house. I wondered as I tried to keep my eyes on the road… had a cat caught him and let him go for some reason? Had he tumbled out of a tree and rolled across the lawn into the gutter?
Upon my arrival home, I shooed my kids back while placing the toweled nest on the kitchen counter and raced around, finally settling on a shoe box to keep him in temporarily. Hmm. He was pretty darn big – his little head could peek up over the side, especially with all the shredded paper towels I put in there, and searched for something more “permanent”. I finally came up with an old laundry basket – plenty of room, high sides and slits to observe his new home. He settled in, scrabbling slightly to find a purchase through all the paper towel shred, and looked up at me again. I put the basket on the raised hearth of the fireplace in the living room and blocked my two youngest (both under 2 years old) in the family room, just in case.
My oldest daughter Dawn was about 12 or so at the time and watched all my preparations with interest. She started making all kinds of cooing and “awwwwwwwww” noises at the little pin-cushion and eagerly asked if we could name him Jack, after a starling bird raised by a family in a book I had just read to her a few months before.
Soooo, shelter, check. Next step… what do you feed a baby bird??? Mommy birds eat bugs and then regurgitate them right into the little darling’s mouths, right? Hmm. I went out in the backyard scouring for little bugs for the better part of a half an hour… rolly pollies, gnats, ants, even worms, and mashed them all up into a paste since there was NO WAY I was gonna chew on bug guts and spit ‘em out, no matter how much I wanted to save the little birdy! I put a drop of the paste onto the tip of a spoon and offered it to the bird.
Now I HAD to save the little bird… my daughter was watching me, and expected miracles just like in the book!
His little/huge beak stayed closed and he regarded me implacably.
I tried watering down the paste, slurped it up in an eye dropper and dribbled it on his beak, but all that happened was that he got even more pathetic looking with bug gut soup dribbling all around his yellow beak/mouth and ugly little fuzzy bald head.
He kept right on looking at me, beak firmly shut.
I tried all kinds of variations (no rolly pollies, no ants – this was gonna take FOREVER if I had to go searching for bugs every hour!!!) but nothing I offered was the right choice, so eventually I gave up and went to bed. I figured if he was still alive in the morning I would try again.
With morning came frustration, because the little bird was still alive and still looking at me. Trust? Indifference? There was no crying or the little screechy noises and wide open FEED ME NOW beaks that you see on TV with baby birds. This little guy seemed to just be patiently waiting for me to figure it all out.
Now remember, this was BEFORE the internet, so I couldn’t just google Care and Feeding of Ugly Baby Birds You Find in the Gutter for 4,536,021 bird soup recipe suggestions.
Suddenly I remembered my neighbor across the street had a virtual menagerie of animals and kids and (well, that is another story) so I trotted across the street to ask for her advice.
Her suggestion: baby rice cereal in an eye dropper.
Hmm. Never would have thought of that one, but heck, what did I have to lose? I mixed up a little rice cereal, slupped some up in an eye dropper and offered it to little Jack.
Success!! His eyes got very bright and he immediately opened his mouth, taking in the dropper halfway down his throat with strange choking gulps and demanding more. It was all I could do to keep shoveling rice cereal in his little greedy gut. He got rice cereal all over his little face as his head wobbled a bit while choking it all down, but he didn’t care in the slightest.
Jack was saved!
The next few weeks were a routine of feeding, changing the paper towels and a mayo jar lid full of water in his cage and watching him hunker down for bird naps.
He slowly transformed… looking more and more like a bird and less like he had been shot with hundreds of tiny arrows: his feathers came in, his weird yellow slashed pointy mouth retreated to the front of his face and condensed into an actual beak, and he started hopping around and making little cheep-y noises when he was hungry. I added another laundry basket inverted on top of the original one so he couldn’t fly/hop out.
Jack was no Pavlov, but every time I brought that eye dropper out and said “Cheep Cheep!” his mouth opened and he eagerly ate until he was bursting, closing his mouth firmly when he had had enough.
He grew into an adolescent grey and black bird with white patches, long tail feathers, sleek wings with perfect feathers that stayed tucked. To this day I am not exactly sure what kind of bird he was. Even now I scour the internet, and have yet to find a photo that looks like him.
Eventually I realized this little guy needed to learn to fly. Since I had no personal experience in spreading my own wings, I took him outside in the back yard and let him hop around a little, hoping maybe he would have enough natural instinct to take wing with practice.
We repeated the “getting used to the outdoors” game a few times a day over a week, with Jack’s courage and hopping gaining strength every day. When he hopped up on the chain link fence through one of the openings close to the ground, teetering rather precariously while finding his balance on the wire for several seconds, I nearly applauded! My little baby Jack was growing up! What a proud moment…
After a few days he wanted to stay out all the time, but as I was a very busy mom with not only a growing bird with an eagerness to explore the wide outdoor environs of the backyard, but also had to deal with a near-teen, curious toddler and a cooing baby, I would have to lure him back to me with the eyedropper and “cheep cheep” call.
Every trip he ventured out a little farther; his hops became short flights. I could now see the bright white spot beneath each of his spread wings as he grew stronger. One day he flew to the top of the brick wall in the back and looked beyond his rather confined home… He took off for a short flight, but I was able to call him back immediately with the eye dropper.
This scenario was the beginning of the end. Each flight was a little longer and it took a little longer for him to fly home to the eyedropper and my out-stretched hand.
And finally, one day he did not come back.
I knew that it was bound to happen. Jack was a wild bird who needed to live his life in the fast lane of the sky, full of joyful flying and meeting girly birds in out of the way deeply foliaged trees for privacy (*wink wink*), eating gnats and bugs and perhaps even raising his own family.
I was very sad and a little nervous. What if he got a cramp? What if some cat jumped out of a tree and gobbled him up? What if some birdie-slut broke his little heart and left him crying into his bug-beer???
Trying to quell my natural protective mom-instincts, I nevertheless went out every hour and held my arm up until it ached and “Cheeped” until I was hoarse for several days, but Jack had found his freedom and didn’t need me anymore.
*sigh* Sometimes motherhood just really sucks.
Now, even years later, whenever I see one of those grey birds with the long tail and the white flashes beneath their wings, I remember Jack and how I had a most remarkable experience raising that trusting ugly little ball of fuzz and sticks into a creature of grace and lithe beauty and I can only smile.