Friday, June 8, 2007

A Bad Year For Baby Birds

The baby birds in our yard have been having a tough time surviving all around. Observing them, I wonder if it has just been an unusual year, or if nature is just this harsh all the time. There were three eggs in the robins' nest early in the spring; only two hatched. We saw the two leave the nest -- but found one dead a couple of weeks later under the pine trees on the north side of our house.

At the same time, a European starling had a nest in a hole in the sinnets of our house; to enter her home, she would perch on the electric wire running to the house, then dive down and maneuver straight up into the hole. Starlings are a nuisance bird, non-native invaders, unprotected by the law. This one had raised one brood early in the spring at the same time as the robins. I don't think any survived, since we found two near-fledglings dead on the ground under her hole, and never saw any others leave the nest. She is raising a second brood now. Two days ago, the children came running in from the back yard in a panic, shouting, "Mom! Mom! A baby bird has fallen out of the nest!" Dubious after the last batch of baby starlings, already dead when we found them on the ground, I went to have a look.

This was no near fledgling like the last ones. A tiny naked nestling with a wobbly head and a great yellow beak, lay curled on the ground, large read ants crawling on his pink skin. It seemed impossible that he had survived the fall of nearly nine feet. I picked him up. He fit neatly in the cup of my hand. I had never held a bird so small.

We carried him inside, brushed the ants off with a makeup brush, and wrapped him in a wash cloth. An internet search produced instructions on what to do. Put him back in the nest? I went back outside and studied the hole. I couldn't reach it, not even standing on the air-conditioning unit, and even if I could have, looking inside I could see that I would have to reach quite a ways into the hole up and over the joists...I couldn't even see where the nest was.

The little starling struggled in my hand. With immense effort, he hoisted his tiny naked chicken body up on his little feet, raised his huge, wobbly head...and then his yellow mouth bloomed open, and everything that is mommy within me melted into a mush of pity and admiration.

No, returning him to the nest was quite impossible, so we did the next best thing: put him in a cottage cheese container, lined with his washcloth, high up on top of the electric meter (the nearest the hole we could get him). I lashed it to the meter with yarn...the wind here blows ferociously most of the time.

We watched throught the day to see if the mother would find the makeshift nest and feed him. She came and went a few times. We saw the baby's little head peep up out of the container a few times, yellow mouth open wide, then flop back down. But she never went to him.

Evening came, and I considered taking him inside for the night. I was worried that he would get too cold. No, I thought. If we keep messing with him, that lessens his chances of being fed by his mother. He's survived longer than he would have had we left him to the ants. He has a chance. Leave him be.

But in the morning he was dead, motionless in the washcloth.

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