The Mockingbird Chronicles (Part II)
Day Fourteen (Birdie’s approximate age: 4 weeks)
I removed the screen from the window at 7:00 this morning. By then, Birdie had started engaging in that behavior you often see in captive animals — pacing back and forth, flying from one window to another and pressing to get out of this giant human cage. Odd, she’d never done this before.
She had no frame of reference whatsoever for knowing what to do with an open window screen. I gave her about 15 minutes to discover it, then finally picked her up and set her on the chair inside the window. She flew back into the room. It took several tries — one of which involved my bending a gardenia branch into the open window — but she finally found her way out. She promptly hopped onto the ground and scurried behind the liriope grass bordering the house foundation. This grass forms a corridor of sorts — not unlike the alleyway behind the lumber on the sun porch. She then seemingly disappeared into thin air for 2 hours.
During this time, I went outside a few times and whistled to see if she’d answer back. Silence. It was a thin line to walk — trying to confirm her safety without intruding on her freedom to be a bird. I wanted to keep a healthy distance, but the longer her absence grew, the tighter the fist-hold grew around my heart. At one point, I even went down to the road (the traffic unusually busy for an early Sunday morning), to see if that had been her fate. Finally, I got on hands and knees and dug through the bushes to scrutinize the entire passageway behind the liriope. She wasn’t there. Here I should mention that there are two cats that occasionally visit our yard at sunrise and sunset. Domestics or strays? I don’t know.
By 9:00 a.m., I felt gravely, physically sick. Had I not gone about this the right way? Should I have let her discover the window on her own, rather than assisting her? Did she just take flight into that sky and, not knowing better, just keep flying until she’d flown so far she’d never find her way back?
Of course, the latter possibility would have fine, had she the resources to be completely self-sufficient, but she didn’t. Not yet. It had been a full two hours when I decided I’d just park myself in the yard and whistle until she came. Fifteen minutes and a half-dozen mosquito bites later, I heard her in the yard next door, to the right. Then I heard her overhead, high up in the trees. Then I heard her to the neighbor’s yard to the left. At last, she came sailing down and landed on the fence rail a short distance away.
At this point, the dam broke loose. From some wellspring deep inside — the existence of which was unknown to me until that very moment — I began crying, and I kept crying. Whatever is the human equivalent of a taproot, Birdie had somehow stumbled onto it and, despite her smallness, ripped it up screaming from the deepest reaches of the earth. I cried and I cried. I cried for every joy I’d ever known and for every loss I’d ever grieved. I cried for every soul under the sun that ever lived. I have no explanation for this. I only know that, for the rest of the day, the tears kept resurfacing without notice.
Despite her obvious hunger, it took Birdie a few moments to muster the courage to come down to my hand. She ate several crickets and meal worms, during which time I spilled the meal worms for the millionth time this week. She pecked about this for a few moments, procured and ate a meal worm, then hurried over to a patch of sun and began hunting.
Too wrung out to stand, just yet, I watched. After a while, she hopped back over to me, considered my knee for a moment, the hopped up. I was still too awash in relief to remove her. She then hopped back to the ground and looked straight up at my face. To look at the photo, you’d think she was pleading for food, but she wasn’t. It was like she was talking, making this tiny, but intensely sincere twittering sound from deep in the throat. I don’t know what this meant, but I’m here to tell you, she was saying something important.
After this, she abruptly flew off, landing on the nearby fence, where she perched for a good while before returning to the trees. Being in unknown territory, myself, I didn’t know if I’d ever see her again.
A while later, she called out, so I returned to the back porch. It took me some time, but I finally spotted her high in one of the oak trees. Usually, mockingbirds don’t perch quite so high, but there she was. She didn’t want to come down but, rather, seemed to just want to hear me whistle back, which I did. We whistled back and forth a few times until she stopped.
About an hour later, she whistled out for me again. I spotted her at the base of the wooden fence. A few more whistles and it became clear she was famished.
After eating, she lingered for a moment, then wandered over to the nearby gardenias and spent about 15 minutes pecking through the leaf litter before taking flight again for parts unknown. If I were to ascribe human emotions to her, it would be a mix of caution, curiosity, contentment and pure exuberance. A half-hour later, she called me back. By then, I’d remembered to put out one of her water dishes.
It took a few minutes of encouragement, flicking my fingers loudly through the water before it drew her attention. Silly me, it didn’t occur that she might also like a bath. She made do, getting little more than a spit bath.
About a half-hour later — after flights all over the yard, from tree to roof to tree and back — she returned. By then, I’d made better accommodations with a pie pan full of water. Again, it took some encouragement — much flickering of the water with my fingers — but she caught on and right into the spirit of bathing al fresco. I didn’t have my camera on hand to record this, but I did get a photo of her sunning on the fence afterward, looking quite pleased.
From this point onward, she continued to call for food about twice per hour. She visited the water dish unassisted. At around 3:00, it occurred to me that Birdie should learn about the “real” bird baths, where the wild birds gather, so I met her here for the next feeding.
She took a little sip, but was more interested in the tiny bugs crawing about the base of the bird bath, several of which she ate for dessert. This is something she’d been doing after each feeding — spending 10 or 15 minutes pecking around at this and that, occasionally catching a few small ants, and other times eating bits of leaf debris and dirt.
Watching her peck at the bugs around the bird bath, I felt good about her prospects for being a self-sufficient wild bird. At that moment — circa 3:00 in the afternoon — all was right with the world. But, of course, it couldn’t be that simple. From this point forward, she seemed to regress. No longer the fancy-free wild bird, sailing from tree to roof to fence and back, she suddenly became very needy and dependent, calling out for me every 10 or 15 minutes.
Here, I should mention that the entire day up until that point had been more exhausting than I can possibly begin to describe. Between the constant watching and listening for every little sound — not knowing from one feeding to the next if, for better or worse, it would be the last time I saw her. Too, there were those tears that kept arriving out of the blue.
When she suddenly began calling me more often, I didn’t know what to make of it. Had I only managed to teach her to be dependent on me, by arriving at her every beck and call? Should I have just stayed the hell away? I didn’t understand what was going on. And, by that point, I was so exhausted, I could barely think straight.
Finally, I figured it out. All she wanted was the assurance of my nearby presence while she pecked about on the ground. She didn’t need me close by, just in whistling distance. The minute I went inside the house, she flew back up to the fence and would resume calling until I returned and she could see me and hear me whistling back.
My brothers and I used to do something similar when we explored woods, fields and other unknown territories looking for old dumps and bottle-digging sites — an activity that necessitated splitting up and going in different directions. Our system was whistling bob-white back and forth, just to make sure we hadn’t lost each other. Maybe this is bird parents do with their fledglings.
All of this is to say that I spent the balance of the afternoon outside, either sitting on the back porch, occasionally whistling, or answering her hunger calls — which, I learned, were more urgent than her “are you here?” calls. While I initially deliberated over the wisdom of allowing this bob-white system, I decided that, ultimately, she was teaching herself an important skill, and if my presence helped, it was the right thing to do for her. Earlier in the week, she’d summoned me to watch as she took her first sip of water on the sun porch. This was really no different.
Things quieted down around 6:00. Birdie spent the next hour sitting on the fence, gazing into the woodland. I watched from inside the house to see where she would roost for the night. I was torn. On one hand, I didn’t want to interfere. On the other hand, she didn’t have a wise mockingbird parent to guide her to a safe roosting spot, wherever that might be.
Finally, she hopped down onto the ground and disappeared from sight. I waited until near twilight to check on her. Turns out, she was roosting on the ground at the base of a half-dead lantana, which was little more than a spray of bare twigs (visible in the photo, above, just to the right of the metal fence post). Call me an interventionist, but I can only tell you that between the possums, raccoon and cats, no way was I going to let her roost on the ground. I picked her up and took her back to the sun porch, feeling like I’d not only delivered her a grave injustice, but had utterly betrayed her trust.
I spent the next few hours before bedtime feeling just plain horrible. Problem was, I would have just as horrible if I’d left her under the lantana, only it would have been a thousand times worse if I’d woken to find she’d been hurt or killed — all for the sake of some arbitrary human decision based on insufficient information. Being in unknown territory, I erred on the side of keeping her safe.
Truth is, I don’t think a mockingbird mother would let her baby sleep on the ground. I think she’d urge her up into a shrub or small tree. But I don’t know. I’m only human. The best I could do was abduct Birdie from the wild, re-imprison her, then spend the next 10 hours feeling haunted by the look she gave me last thing before I went inside.
To my relief, all was forgiven by morning. She ate a generous breakfast of crickets, then flew over to her cage and gazed out the open window. I decided to not meddle, but to let her find her own way out. Problem was, the concept of the open window was still foreign to her. I gave it 30 minutes, then went outside and meddled away.
First I whistled and called, then I sat on the ground under the window and encouraged her. It was the crickets that finally did the trick, easing her step by step back into the wilds.
One thing I gave only brief mention to yesterday were the mosquito bites. Dozens of them. These new tiger mosquitoes, imported from Asia, don’t pay much attention to repellent, particularly the herbal, non-toxic stuff I use. I was covered daylong in miserable itching, burning welts.
This factored greatly into my decision to begin drawing Birdie to the porch, rather than meeting her in the yard. I began by staging the next two feedings on the ground outside the window. Then I moved operations to inside the porch. She caught onto this system quite easily, and began arriving at the open window whenever she got hungry — not unlike a drive-in window at a fast food joint.
Interestingly I think this system gave her a bit more independence, as the line between our two worlds was now more clearly drawn. She continued summoning me from time to time for our bob-white-style call and response, but not nearly as often as the day before.
The big fun arrived around noon. Earlier in the morning, a family of titmice had flurried around Birdie, the curiosity mutual between the fledglings. But around noon, when a family of brown thrashers descended into Birdie’s territory, the response was quite different. Just like an adult mockingbird, Birdie chased them away one by one, despite that they were easily twice her size. And for good measure, she also chased off a robin who got caught up in the fracas.The pictures are of especially poor quality, but you get the idea.
I kept tabs on Birdie throughout the day, to gauge how well she was faring on feeding herself and staying out of blatant danger (e.g. the road). I was dismayed at one point to find her gleefully eating perlite from a pile of old potting soil. I said out loud, “Aw, Birdie, don’t do that.” But like so many other things, I had to err on the side of self-discovery, hoping the experience wouldn’t kill her.
Mid-afternoon, I went out to do a head-count on the plate of meal worms I’d left for her on the sun porch. I’d been doing this since morning, only to find the original 12 just as I’d left them. But during my mid-afternoon check, I found the plate empty. This seemed another important milestone and also explained why I hadn’t heard from her in a while. When I checked a while later, I found the new batch of meal worms uneaten, but was surprised to look up and see Birdie nestled down on the windowsill — just resting and quietly watching me.
She stood up and began toying with the string I’d used to tether the gardenia branch inside the window. After a minute or two of this, she flew back out to the yard.
All-in-all, she seemed to be enjoying her second day of freedom. As for me, I began growing antsy as evening approached. What to do this time around? My plan was this: check on her last thing before dark and do my level best to leave her where I found her, hoping to God she’d pick a small tree.
Like most of my plans thus far, nothing went according to plan. I kept an ear out for her while I cooked dinner — an inedible mess that, because of my distraction, was missing two key ingredients. That, I could live with. But right before twilight, I heard her calling out near the sun porch. I went out and saw her clinging to the sill of the side wall, around the corner from the open window. She was crying pathetically. I called her over to the open window, but in the dim light, she was lost.
Time for an executive decision. I left her there for a few more minutes, to force her to be resourceful and find her own way in. It wasn’t happening. So I went out and, like the night before, brought her in for the night. She was very upset and panting open-beaked. It was clear she wanted me to stay with her, so I did. She began “talking” to me, just as she’d done the day before — looking intensely at my face and making that tiny twittering sound from deep in her throat. She was in such distress, and I was at a loss over what to do. The next thing I knew, she’d flown up onto my head.
I called my brother (the wisest armchair ornithologist I know) out to the porch for counsel. He, too, was at a loss to understand the state she was in, but agreed that she was clearly in distress. Just then, he looked up and said, “Holy shit!”
There — right below the windowsill where Birdie had just been desperately calling out to me only moments earlier — was a cat.
It was really just dumb luck that I brought her in when I did, instead of tough-loving her for a few more minutes, so that she could learn the hard way how to be a resourceful, self-sufficient bird. I slept better that night, grateful for this small gift from the gods of chance.
Birdie skipped breakfast and went straight out into the day. An hour later, she returned for a feeding, strictly business, and was then off again. I took her cue and made my presence as invisible as possible. Mid-morning, I went to the mailbox and, seeing me, she began calling. She was on the fence sunning herself. We whistled back and forth a few times, and that was that.
A while later I was out on the back porch talking on the phone. I happened to glance over and see the cat stalking something from across the lawn. I hissed it away and called out for Birdie. No response. I kept calling and, finally, she answered. She’d been preoccupied with the perlite and was happily pecking away it, oblivious to the cat that had just been stalking her from about 20 feet away. I had no choice but to go back inside and hope for some more dumb luck.
The good news is that, every time I did a head count on the meal worms, I’d find that she’d helped herself, emptying the dish without fanfare. Sometimes, however, nothing but a hand-feeding would do. On these occasions, I didn’t respond immediately to her calls, but waited her out to see if she’d feed herself. Apparently, she still needs to be hand-fed, which comes as no surprise. I see birds her age — and older — in the wild still being fed by their parents. But at least the number of hand-feedings was cut in half today, down to about 10 from 20-plus on all previous days.
Only once did she insist that I physically come outside, and this was to report that her water dish had gone dry. I suspect the thrashers had something to do with this. After I filled it, she stared suspiciously at the water for a few moments, then flew off without taking a drink.
During the hottest part of the day, she came inside to the porch for a brief siesta on top of her cage.
From this vantage point, she watched me as I left for the store to buy a 12-foot curtain rod plus some sheers to hang across the window-wall where she’d nearly met her fate with the cat the night before. My idea was to lessen the confusion, in dim light, as to the location of that open window.
It apparently worked, because she had no difficulty finding her way to the window shortly before twilight, when she called me out to the porch another feeding. Afterward, she settled down on top of her cage. I replaced the window screen and thought that was that.
A few minutes later, she flew to the dining room window and clung to screen, frantically calling out to me. When I opened the door, she flew over the ledge beside the door, putting her at face level with me. Oddly, she was longer frantic but, instead, began “talking” just like the night before, making that small twittering sound, while gazing intently at my face. Again, she hopped up onto my head. I bowed over and put her back, but stayed with her a bit longer, because it seemed important to her.
Before I left, I “talked” back, imitating her voice by making tiny, barely perceptible little kissing sounds. This seemed to be what she wanted because, upon hearing this, she settled down to roost on the ledge, which is where she slept for the night.
I suspect that, were we humans made privy to the secret lives of mockingbird parents and their young, we’d learn that, right at twilight, they talk — not unlike human parents reading bedtime stories to their children.
This was my first day in over a month that I could entertain the idea of resuming my old schedule — visiting my grandchildren every morning. The day seemed perfect for it. Birdie had been particularly aloof that morning, only calling out for one hand-feeding during the first 4 hours of the day. The rest of the time, she pecked about the lawn and made occasional trips to the porch to clean out the meal worm dish.
Before I left, I filled Birdie’s dish with 2 dozen meal worms. Two hours later — my heart pounding during the entire trip home — I was so relieved to hear her calling out to me as soon as I drove up. However, all was not well. She was very distressed. She met me on the porch, insistent on a hand-feeding. But, clearly, there was more going on than my protracted absence.
She was panting open-beaked, obviously frightened by something. I suspected it was the cat, so I went out in the yard and made the loud hissing sounds I use to frighten the cat away. Birdie followed me out, and it was then I saw the source of her distress. It was an adult mockingbird, who immediately swooped down and began scolding her, chikk-chikk.
I slipped back into the house and watched from the window, knowing that — barring an all-out bloody war — this was a life skill Birdie had to learn on her own. The adult mockingbird was an utter prince, his stature and feathering so perfect, that he looked like he was made from finely-carved marble. It struck me how small Birdie is, compared to a full grown mockingbird.
He lorded over Birdie from a dogwood branch. Birdie sat on the ground below, perched on the log pile. I suspect the prince knew I was watching (if there’s one thing Birdie’s taught me, it’s that mockingbirds have a remarkably keen sense of perception, owing to their finely tuned hearing and vision), because he left shortly thereafter.
Watching this broke my heart. And it didn’t seem to do much for her heart, either, as she spent the next hour quietly roosting in a white pine tree, her face cast downward in what looked like an awfully sad pose.
Later, Birdie called me out to the porch, and we had a stand-off, of sorts. For whatever reason, she wanted me to come outside to feed her. I refused. She plead with me, and I with her. She finally compromised by flying up onto the chair seat outside the window. I was game to reciprocate, but couldn’t quite reach her. She refused to budge one inch closer. And that was the end of that.
A later meal worm count told me that she’d eventually come in but, on principle I suspect, it was only for a small snack. Birds must not hold grudges for very long, because an hour later, she called me back and, this time, she flew to the chair top, as always.
Later that afternoon, she called me out into the yard, her cries persistent. I went out onto the back porch, wondering if the cat or mockingbird prince had returned. Once I arrived, she swooped from a tree and landed onto one of the bird baths. I suspect this was her first trip to that particular bird bath, and she just wanted the security of my presence.
That evening, she again returned to the porch shortly before twilight. A little while later, at dusk, she called me out for evening vespers. I took a few photographs of this. The image on the left has been lightened to show the expression on her face when she does her “talking.”
Looking at her the night before, she seemed awfully skinny, and I began to worry she wasn’t getting enough to eat or, specifically, enough fat. Perhaps I didn’t mention it earlier, but Birdie began refusing dog food, egg yolks, etc. a few days before her release. This was fine with me, since I’d already decided to put her on a live-bugs-only diet upon her release.
For the past several days, Birdie’s diet and feeding schedule have been about the same: 2 to 7 crickets or 5 to 10 mealworms per meal, plus an occasional berry. Sometimes a mix of the two. She feeds herself half of the time; I feed her the rest. Between snacks and full meals, she eats approximately 15 times per day, half of these being trips to the meal worm dish. In dollars and cents, her meals average 55-cents each, for a total of just over $8 per day.
Most people, if they knew my income or lack thereof, would call me a fool, and I wouldn’t blame them. In my current straits, it’s just as well that money’s never meant much to me, so long as the lack of it doesn’t make life too difficult. On the reality front, however, I don’t have the money to keep doing this. But every time I acknowledge this to myself, I feel like I’m daring fate to intervene too soon. No, I don’t want that. My family has pitched in toward Birdie’s feeding expenses, which is a huge help.
My hope and belief has been that her wild diet would gradually take over. And I suppose it is, just not quite as quickly as I’d thought. Aside from perlite, leaves and dirt, I’ve witnessed her eating ants, beetles, flies and other little bugs in the grass. Looking at her skinniness last night, I cursed the lack of wax worms and decided I’d have to break my “bugs-only” rule and concoct something to fatten her up. After brainstorming the better part of the day, my daughter offered a genius idea in late afternoon: cook up the suet recipe I make for the wild birds in winter (coconut oil, peanut butter, corn meal and seeds), only make hers without the seeds and perhaps mix in some vitamins.
But first, I needed to make a run for more crickets and meal worms. Like manna from heaven, the pet store had gotten in a shipment of wax worms. Problem solved, and a day of worrying for naught. Funny, you couldn’t have convinced me a month ago that buying wax worms would soon vie with seeing my grandchildren as being one of the highlights of my day.
When she brought herself in for the night, I put up the screen. Unlike the previous nights, however, she protested and began flying at the windows in panic. I decided then and there that this would be the last night I’d close the screen until utter dark.
Again, right at twilight, she called me out for evening vespers. I couldn’t help feeling sad that this might be our last. Here, I should admit that I’ve felt an immense wash of relief at closing that screen every night, knowing she’s safe. But I’ve not been 100% convinced that she really intended to stay. I’m not at all looking forward to tomorrow night.
During the first 4 hours of the day, Birdie called me out only once for a feeding. The rest of the time, she helped herself. This seemed promising. I left her a dozen wax worms before leaving to visit my grandchildren at 10:30. When I returned two hours later, she’d eaten all of the wax worms and wanted only a snack from me. So far, so so good. But then she disappeared for 5 hours. For the first two hours, I embraced the time span. After this, I began to worry.
To anyone unfamiliar with the give-and-take of our routines, my concern might seem a thinly veiled resistance to cutting the bonds. Nothing could be further from the truth. Five hours was too long without so much as a meal worm or a chikk-chikk. And the more time passed, the more I knew something was wrong. At three hours, I went out and called for her. Silence. At four hours, I searched for her, looking for the telltale signs of scattered mockingbird feathers. Nothing. For the next hour, I began the nauseating process of accepting that I might never know what happened to her.
But then, just like that, she called to me from the porch.
The fact remains that I’ll never know what happened to her, but my best guess is that she got lost. There had been some noxious yard machinery roaring and buzzing in the yard next door on and off throughout the day — leaf blowers, weed whackers and such. Maybe this frightened her away and/or disoriented her. But there was no doubt, from her behavior, that she was immensely relieved to be back and equally hesitant to leave again.
She spent the next hour on the porch, calling me back out — not to eat, but to be in the proximity as she explored the porch. This was out of character for her. Since her release, she’d had almost zero interest in the various fixtures, junk and debris on the porch. The porch was for feeding, roosting and an occasional siesta, period. But now, she was studying each speck and object as if she were seeing them for the first time. In-between, she scrutinized me and kept edging over to get closer to my feet.
After an hour of this, she flew up onto the red chair and began “talking.” I got several good photos of this, but the one below is my favorite.
I answered back for a few moments but then — out of concern for too much “humanizing” — I went back inside the house. She returned to the yard, but only briefly. She spent the balance of the day, until bedtime, lingering close to the house — back and forth from the porch to yard. This, too, was out of character. She ordinarily flits from tree to tree, mostly in neighboring yards, spending much of her time a good football-field length away.
She came in for good at little after 7:30, the same as she’s been doing. Our evening vespers were particularly lengthy. Every time I went inside, thinking we were done, she called me back out for an encore. Turns out, it really didn’t matter whether I put the screen on or not. She was there, by choice, for the night.
For the first half of the day, she stayed very close to the house — never leaving the yard. The latter half of the day, she resumed her far-flung journeys, happily flying from yard to yard, despite that it was 100-degrees outside. She returned for the night at 7:30, flying straight through the open window — without pausing at the chair as she usually did — and landed right on my shoulder, something she never does. Time for another executive decision.
When this whole endeavor began, I assumed the steadfast position that I would not handicap her by selfishly allow her to bond too closely. Over time, I’ve been compelled to moderate a bit on this stance. Regarding affection, while I think it’s important to avoid any more human dependence than is necessary in the give and take of rearing a wild bird, I’ve also come to see that, in the bird kingdom, there are transactions — community, affection, love, call it what you will — that are integral to their well-being.
Had I to do it all over again, I wouldn’t do things any differently. I would maintain a certain detachment, just as I’ve done. It would have been all too easy to cultivate a physical affection from the start. At this age, however — and based on her behavior and level of independence, plus my own intuition — I’ve chosen to presume that, for whatever reasons, she needs a certain level of camaraderie with her parent figure.
So I allowed her to stay on my shoulder. And, for several minutes, we “talked.” Whatever it is she needs, I am the only one she has who can provide it, inferior as it may be, coming from a human. Afterward, she flew over to her roost and settled down for the night, seemingly content.
Day Twenty-One (Birdie’s approximate age: 5 weeks old)
I spent the first half of the day wondering if my big theory about mockingbird community was nothing fancier than a bad idea. Birdie spent the first 6 hours of the day being exceedingly dependent, calling me out to be hand-fed every half-hour. Her appetite was voracious. The food supply quickly dwindled to nothing and, by mid-day, I was out to buy another $16 in crickets and meal worms to hopefully carry us over for the next two days.
In-between eating non-stop, she hung around the back porch — something she never does — dawdling about and exploring. Watching her assess the bird houses, she reminded me of a wren going house-hunting. By this point, I was certain I’d screwed everything up, my doting only managing to dissolve her spirit for independence.
But then, out of the blue, she surprised me and went 4 hours without a single request and, in fact, only visited the sun porch once, and that was to feed herself, then quickly depart.
From inside, I watched her flit from tree to tree; I watched her hunt through the leaf litter and procure a generous supply of bugs; I saw her visit the bird bath several times, even taking a few baths; I laughed as she chased off another brown thrasher. It was a grand afternoon, despite that our backyard thermometers registered a scorching 101-degrees.
I was surprised when she didn’t return to the sun porch at 7:30. She arrived fashionably late at 8:00 and ate a huge dinner of crickets. Then she did something she’s not done before. She flew onto the chair outside the window and perched for a few minutes, gazing out into the yard. Sensing that she was deliberating, I went inside and watched from the window. At one point, she turned back around, facing inside the porch. A minute or so later, she turned back and faced the outdoors. Finally she flew off, just like that, to join the rest of the bird kingdom roosting in the wild.
I had a 6:00 a.m. appointment and was unable to be home when the bird world awoke. When I returned at 7:00, Birdie did not greet me as she usually does on my arrival home, but the meal worm dish was empty, which told me she’d made it safely through the night. I refilled it, then went outside to hang clothes.
I heard her call me from quite a distance — perhaps as far as a block away. Again, that amazing mockingbird perception. How did she know I was outside? We called back and forth a few times, until she stopped.
When I left to visit my grandchildren at 10:00, the meal worm plate was still full. When I returned at 12:30, she was waiting for me in the bushes outside the sun porch, and had already polished off the dozen meal worms I’d left for her. She ate a large meal of crickets, then lingered about the porch, wanting my company. Much as I wanted hers, too, I went back inside the house. An hour later, she was ready for another huge meal.
I think that the heat today (103 degrees in the shade, according to our thermometers) was stressful on all the birds, most of whom spent the hottest part of the day panting open beaked as they traveled from bush to bird bath. I set up an extra bird bath and turned on the sprinkler, which drew the frolic of birds and squirrels alike. I could be wrong, but I think Birdie would have been more inclined to distance herself from me, if not for the disorienting discomfort of the heat.
She continued to return every hour or two until near 7:30, when she flew in for her last meal of the day. Afterward, she departed to roost in the wilds. I was so happy for her. Then I made a mistake. I went out into the yard with my brother, which must have stirred something, because she returned to the sun porch and called for me. And kept calling. I stayed inside the house, hoping she’d fly back outside. We heard a loud disturbance on the living room door and looked up. She was clinging to one of the windows at the top of the door, calling for me, so I went out for evening vespers.
From here on out, I will stay indoors during that precarious hour leading to dusk.
The responses to the Birdie endeavor have been mixed. Just last night, one well-intentioned person served me a compliment, seeded with the suggestion that there is an obsessive component to my caretaking. On one hand, I can see how a person on the outside, who hasn’t been listening to a word I’ve said, might wonder, “Heckfire, why not just turn the bird loose and be done with it?”
On the other hand, it’s not like I haven’t explained my dilemma in excruciating detail (e.g. my frustration over the lack of practical information — a blueprint, of sorts, to guide me step-by-step through this process; my concern over the lack of money to continue this endeavor indefinitely; and — above all — my commitment to preserving her wildness while also caring for her and protecting her until she’s able to take full care of herself).
It miffs me that my work, concern and conscientiousness to take proper care of Birdie — not to mention the built-in stresses attending this work — would be reduced to an endearing pathology.
For the record, in case anyone’s wondering, young mockingbirds in the wild reportedly become independent from their parents at about 5 weeks of age, which was Birdie’s estimated age when she spent her first night in the wild on her own. If Birdie and I somehow miss the mark by a week or two, and this causes the earth to fall off its axis, you’ll know who to blame.
Also, mockingbird parents reportedly feed a fledgling an average of 5 times her hour. I suppose you could call it “obsessive,” the parents’ fixation on feeding a hungry baby. The fact that I’ve been feeding Birdie “only” once or twice per hour is due to the fact that, unlike a mockingbird parent, I’ve had containers full of meal worms, wax worms and crickets at my fingertips, allowing me to consolidate several feedings into one.
I could almost understand a person interpreting this blog as an act of obsessiveness. However, I don’t believe that the person who diagnosed my obsessive behavior has even read the blog. For the record, I’m not holding a gun to anyone’s head to read this blog. In the same spirit as last summer’s obsessive praying mantis blog, I offer this mockingbird blog for anyone who might be interested in reading the day-by-day minutiae involved in raising a young mockingbird to self-sufficiency. But I also write it for myself because I imagine that one of these days, after the dust has settled, I’ll want to revisit this endeavor, which has thus far been been — despite whatever difficulties and challenges — one of the more enchanting experiences of my life.
Now that I’ve properly explained myself, I suppose I will be accused of being touchy or of being the sort of person who feels compelled to have the last word.
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Something I’ve noticed about Birdie’s behavior at sunrise (6:00-ish in the morning) is her utter silence during feeding. The rest of the day, she cries with with reckless abandon both before and during feedings, but at sunrise it’s like watching a silent movie — the open beak and twittering wings accompanied by complete silence. I imagine this to be a built-in survival instinct, as birds are more vulnerable at this time of day due to their diminished vision in low light.
Birdie left the porch just before 6:30 a.m. and returned only once before I left at 10:00. When I returned a few hours later, she met me on the porch and was less concerned about eating than about an anole lizard that was busy feasting on her meal worms. After much wing-fanning, she managed to drive it off into a corner. She was up for a visit, but I thought it better to go inside. After a while, she flew off for parts unknown for another 4 hours.
I was dismayed to discover, upon her return, that she’d been injured. I thought it looked like a bird peck, but my brother diagnosed it as a scrape, perhaps from flying into a branch. Whatever the cause, it pained me to see her hurt in any way. It must have had some effect on her, too, because she returned to the interior of her cage (which, to my memory, she hasn’t visited in over a week) and spent a long spell perched on her old crape myrtle branch.
This seems like a good time to recount my earliest experience with a human-raised wild bird. When I was 4 or 5 years old, my older brothers raised an English sparrow fledgling. Having a natural affinity for birds, I was fascinated by the experience and, of course, fell deeply in love with the bird. I don’t know what criteria were used for timing the release, but I suspect it was probably based on the bird’s ability to fly. Within 20 minutes of releasing the bird, we heard a raucous mob of blue jays gathered outside, their jeers interspersed with the cries of the sparrow fledgling. By the time we arrived, the sparrow was clingling lifeless to the same branch where they’d left the bird, its head pecked to a bloody stump. This left a real impression on me. I wouldn’t realize for years that this wasn’t necessarily an indictment on blue jays — even as they are the biggest bullies in the bird world — but was more of an indictment on my brothers’ lack of knowledge, albeit kindly.
Seeing the peck-mark on Birdie’s head conjured this memory in vivid detail. Hopefully, Birdie’s injury resulted from a simple scrape with a branch. After all, she has become quite the accomplished flyer. Just within the past 24 hours, I can see a marked improvement in her speed and agility. No longer flutter-flying short distances from tree to tree (her aim more or less accurate) she has become a master at navigating — gliding at full speed through the landscape, making sharp, last-second turns.
In early evening, I heard her calling from a far, far distance. At least two football fields, I’d estimate. This was to be her 5th feeding of the day — down from 15 or so just a few days ago. She kept calling, so I called back and listened as she grew closer and closer. She glided down the porch floor, ate a dozen or so meal worms, then immediately zipped back out the window. I watched her as she flew away, zigzagging through the trees until she reached a clearing, then receded back into that far, far distance.
She arrived early, at 7:00, for her last feeding of the day then darted back out the window, without comment, to return to what I feel quite sure has become home to her. My dream is that she’s found a nice yard with lots of holly trees and bushes to lord over, come winter.
COMING SOON: Mockingbird Chronicles (Part III) >>>