Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Speaking of Roots and Wings

We live on a parcel of land outside Portland with many species of birds. It's not uncommon to see a Redtail Hawk, Blue Heron, Redwing Blackbird, and the occasional Bald Eagle. We always have American Robins. We have so many robins that I sometimes cursed their pirating ways. Hardly a cherry would come ripe before one had thieved it from the trees.

I was walking between the fruit trees one summer day a dozen years ago, and there in the grass lay three small pink objects. For a moment I thought my daughter Alyssa had left one of her old Strawberry Shortcake dolls in the yard. But she was well past playing with Strawberry Shortcake, wasn't she?

I stepped over to peer at it, the brown doberman Sophie wagging her bobbed tail on my left, the shaggy tri-colored Australian Shephard Shadow on my right. ChaCha, the aging shephard mix, was wandering around somewhere. 

I recognized them as soon as I bent over. I'd raised parakeet babies when one recalcitrant parakeet mother lost interest in her cheeping hatchlings. It was grueling work to feed every two hours: mix the special bird baby formula, get it to the right temperature, feed it in a tiny syringe to one tiny open beak at a time. Ignore them, I thought.

When I stepped past, Sophie nosed them. Or maybe it was Shadow; it's hard to remember now. But the next thing you know, I was picking the three little sparsely feathered nestlings into the palm of my hand. They were cold. Their eyes didn't flutter and their little heads lay curled on limp necks. They'd been pushed or fallen from the nest in the apple tree. But they'd lain in the cool grass too long. They won't survive, I thought. 

I filled a hot water bottle, lay a pillow case inside a bowl over the water bottle but not touching, and laid them in it so the heat could radiate up to warm them. 

I covered the entire thing with with another pillow case to hold the heat in, as if waiting for yeast bread to double in size. Maybe we would have our own little version of Jesus rising.

When I lifted the top an hour later, they were wriggling around. It meant they needed food, and if parakeets were any indicator, it would be every hour and a half through the night for the first few days. 

 I looked online to see how long it takes a robin to feather up and leave the nest. The web site said it would be two to three weeks. Meanwhile, because they were so young, they probably needed specialized bacteria formation to aid in digestion. Ordinarily, the mother regurgitates food in the beginning and that slop contains the biological agents the babies need for their stomach and intestines to work properly. I went to a bird specialist in Portland for the feed and bio additive, went to the pharmacy for a couple tiny syringes, and started feeding them around the clock.

By the third day, they were holding their heads up well and almost standing on their feet again. That's when I went back online and found out that robin babies only eat sun up to sundown. That seemed like a radically long time, but hey, if it was good enough for mother nature, it was good enough for me. By then, the babies were eating a little thicker formula/bio mix, rolled into tiny 1/2 long vegan "worms" and tiny bits of cantaloupe. I knew it was easy for them to choke on liquids and figured the cantaloupe could provide the fluids since the little fake worms were drier than the formula in syringes. 

They waited patiently until a bite appeared above their head and then they opened wide. They pooped tiny fecal sacs that cleaned up easily, like little balloons of waste in tidy natural garbage bags. Online, they said the mothers ate or pushed these out of the nest. Once a hatchling began pooping without a fecal sac and soiling the next, the mother gave them a nudge out of the nest.

We also learned that the babies would learn to distinguish their mother's distinct chirp, and once they were fledglings, she would use this to call them for food. Robins continue feeding their young for a couple weeks after the young leave the nest.

Once the babies could eat solid food, I enlisted my daughter Alyssa to be the primary parent to the birds. Each time she came in the room to feed them--every couple hours during daylight--she would whistle the same sound. Within a couple days, the babies would come alive as soon as they heard her whistle. 

Here you can see they are all clamoring for the rolled formula worm Alyssa is feeding. 

After feeding, Alyssa would hold each bird a minute or two and stroke its feathers, much like a bird might preen itself. They always seemed content after their meals.

Then she loaded them back into the nest that we'd retrieved from the apple tree. 

Sometimes little brother Jon would have a go at holding them a minute before they and their nest went back into the cage that sat on the kitchen counter. 

This kept them safe from predators and family pets like the two dogs that had originally been curious about them.

They graduated to meal worms and earthworms. Alyssa and I would spend more than an hour digging and overturning rotting things to find worms and only find a couple. 

Within a week, the babies could stand on a perch. We left the nest in the bottom of the cage and they sometimes slept in it, but they were getting more adept at hopping and climbing around the cage.

It was time for a move.

I didn't want them to be indoors any longer than they needed to be. The nights were cool, but they'd been born outside and only indoors about a week. They were fully feathered out. We hung the cage under the branches of the apple tree where they were born. They still weren't independent feeders yet.

Alyssa whistled when she came out to feed. They chirped back at her.

They were a little wide-eyed about the outdoors at first. They'd become habituated to the indoors in that week. We hung cherrys, and left earthworms and a dish of shallow water. 

Their fecal matter was no longer in tidy sacs. We knew this meant it was time to push them out of the nest. But we couldn't really see ourselves pushing them from that high up. Instead, we build a mesh fence around the apple tree to keep the dogs and wild predators like racoons and skunks out. We put the cage on the ground and left the door open. We put a some small fruit shrubs in their pen area, with a flat tin of water. 

They began spending their time outside the nest and cage but confined within the pen. Alyssa still came to feed them and they still chirped to their "Mommy" but she stretched the feedings out longer to encourage them to explore and check out the fruit and grubs we left.

Guess what happened?

Alyssa came running inside to tell me that an adult robin was watching them. The adult bird walked around the cage. It flew up into the branches of the apple tree and chattered at them.

They didn't chirp back. The robin flew off, and within a minute came back with a worm. It poked a baby in the head, baby went "AACK" and it shoved the worm in its mouth.

Off it went, returning with another worm in a matter of minutes. How could it find them so fast?

The adult robin (Mother or father? We don't know.) flew back and forth bringing worms, grub, even picking cherries off of our tree and dropping them to the babies. 

We were never so happy to see a robin pick a cherry!

We took down the little fence now that the babies could hop around and fly short distances into the lower boughs of the apple and cedar trees. 

Alyssa still whistled and when they answered, she fed them. But mostly, the adult robin took care of them now that they were fledged. 

Sadly, one of the babies died, and another apparently succumbed to a predator as all we found was a fluff of feathers. But the last one continued to answer Alyssa's whistles for another week or so. 

And then, like all wild things, it was gone.


  1. Wonderful ! I really liked this one !

  2. What a terrific experience and adventure for you and Alyssa!

  3. What a great story! Thanks for sharing it. I can just picture you waking up four or five times during the night, cursing them, loving them, hoping they make it.

  4. wow. this is amazing. I have never known anyone who looked after wild birds so long and so well. Thanks for telling the story.


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