Posts Tagged ‘feeding

The Mockingbird Chronicles (Part I)

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UPDATE (Added 5/30/2011)

What to do if you find a baby bird?

Do nothing. Nearly 100% of the time, that is the answer. Do nothing, except maybe enjoy the privilege of seeing a fledgling in action. Watch from a far distance and resist the urge to “help” the bird in any way.

Nearly 100% of the time, the parents are nearby and are rushing around like mad to keep the food supply going. If the fledgling is in imminent danger — say, from a cat, dog, child, fire ants or autos — either remove the danger or remove the bird to a safer place, preferably as high as possible in a dense shrub. The parents will not “smell the human scent” and abandon their young. But they will stay away if you hover about. So, once you’ve secured the bird’s safety, go inside and don’t hover about. The parents instinctively stay away from their young when there is danger about, and humans = danger. Despite that you may have just saved their baby from a cat, the parent does not see you as anything but danger. So keep away.

Keep children away, too. And if there are cats or dogs about, put them indoors or in a pen. It is a kindness to the native animal kingdom, anyway, to keep cats indoors during baby bird season (which is also baby rabbit season), which runs from late March through late July. Once you’ve secured the bird’s safety, leave it alone.

This time of year, it’s not uncommon to see baby birds hopping and fluttering about. They’re not helpless. They’ve left the nest right on schedule and are hard at work, taking accelerated courses — under their parents’ expert tutelage — in learning to fly, learning to find food and learning to avoid enemies. Skills that are essential to their survival. Too often, well-meaning people intervene in the process and “rescue” these birds when, in fact, they are only kidnapping them from their parents.

If you suspect that you’ve found an orphaned or injured bird, don’t capture it. Instead, keep an eye on it while you place a call to a wildlife rehabilitator. These people are trained and uniquely qualified to advise you in these situations.  Here are two websites where you can find the phone numbers of a wildlife rehabilitator in your area:

The story below is from last year and is not the norm. Most times when the people attempt to raise a wild bird, there is no happy ending. Either the bird dies from improper care, or grows into a handicapped adult, incapable of being a free, independent, self-sufficient bird. Were last year’s situation to repeat itself, I would be on the phone, post haste, dialing a wildlife rehabilitator.  I would never, ever again do this and don’t recommend that anyone else do it, either. Matter of fact, I feel so strongly about this, that I’m thinking about deleting the whole thing and very well may before long.

Day One

The first news arrived by phone shortly after noon. A baby bird was found in the middle of the road and had since been moved to safety just a short distance off the road. From the description, it sounded like a two-week old fledgling: partially feathered out, but still fuzzy here and there, with a noggin full of fuzz. What to do next? was the question posed to me. The answer: Leave it alone.

When I was young, I left home every summer morning and didn’t come home until dinner time. There was a world to explore — woods, fields, streams and neighborhood yards, where most anything was possible: box turtles, quicksand, fox squirrels, caterpillar nests, blackberry thickets, leopard frogs, black racers, red foxes, Tarzan vines, tiger swallowtails, arrowheads, crayfish, nursery web spiders…. Along the way, I found and raised my share of baby birds. I didn’t learn until much later that, in most cases, this is the stupid and wrong thing to do.

Just leave it alone, I explained to the voice on the other end of the phone. The parents are nearby and they’ll be back. They always come back. Give it a while, and you’ll see.

But, of course, it couldn’t be that simple. The field beside the road was filled with fire ant mounds. It would take only a minute for fire ants to swarm and sting a baby bird to death. While one person combed the area for mockingbird activity — nest, parents, siblings, anything — the other person moved the fledgling to a nearby crepe myrtle, but the bird was unable to hold on. Next, it was moved to a flat fence rail at the back edge of the yard, where the bird waited for three hours before falling to the ground. And so it went until late afternoon. Even in the shade, it was a hot afternoon, winding toward a hot dusk. By this time, the bird’s beak was splayed open toward the sky. Soon, it would be night.

Another phone call. What to do?

Although this parcel of land is only a few miles from town, it is a wild place. Just during the past year, and from the vantage point of that same living room window, they’ve seen coyotes, wild boars, wild turkeys and even a black bear — not to mention the myriad common species one sees in the country. The sun was growing low in the sky. Even under the best circumstances, the likelihood of that bird surviving the night was slim. Give it a little longer, I answered.

Then the rains came. The rest of the county, parched for water, didn’t see a drop of rain. But, of course, it couldn’t be that simple. The section of the county where the bird was situated got deluged, complete with winds high enough to swing the porch door open. By the time the rains arrived, it had been over six hours, if not longer, since the bird had seen its parents. The decision was made at the very last minute to bring the bird in before the rain hit. Within 20 minutes, the bird was delivered to my doorstep inside a US Priority Mail box. This is illegal. Using US Priority Mail box for anything but official postal mail can get you slapped with a fine. It is also illegal to keep wild birds unless you’re a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, which I’m not.

Long before the bird arrived, I knew that death was a distinct possibility. Three hours is a long time for a fledgling to go without food during daylight hours. Six hours is really pushing it. Over the years, I’ve undergone what you might call reverse-mellowing; I’ve grown brittle, rather than soft at the edges. I call it pragmatism, this business of respecting life and death and the natural order of things. My aversion to orchestrating or intervening in the fate of others has grown strong over the years. On top of this, when I received the phone calls about the fledgling, I was in the second week of a shingles outbreak and doing good to weather my own misery.

Problem was, I was the only knowledgeable person they knew, who had an unlimited number of hours to devote to caring for the bird. This is, I suppose, one perk to our flailing economy. The contraband arrived on my doorstep at dusk. Inside the telltale white, red & blue box was a beautifully fashioned nest, made of raffia. In the middle of the nest was a frail little bird. When I offered her food, she opened her eyes and looked weakly at the tiny bolus of baby food poised before her, then closed her eyes back.

I had already decided to handle her as little as possible, to avoid “humanizing” her. Rather than pick her up, I kept rousing her by gently tapping the edge of the box and doing my best baby-bird imitation, a kissing sound.  She would wake up, then doze back off, her beak clamped tight. It took a few more tries and lots of kissing — plus a drop of worm juice trickling down her beak — but finally she ate. Mind you, there were no cries, no adorable, open-beaked pleas. There was no eager gobbling of food. She merely accepted it.

With just a little time left before dark, I fed her as much as she would eat: about 1/2 tsp. pureed baby food, one tiny worm, plus several pinched-off pieces of a larger worm, rinsed in water. Five feedings, in all. Still, she was so weak, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find her dead in the nest, come morning.

The last thing before I left her for the night, I warmed a small flax seed pillow in the microwave and put it beside her nest, for warmth. From here, her fate was out of my hands. You’ll notice, tho, that shortly into dusk, the bird was transformed from an it to she — proof positive that Emily Dickinson was right:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all…

Day Two

My grandfather, the eternal optimist, used to say “There’s nothing a good night’s sleep can’t fix,” and I’ve found this to be true more often than not.

I awoke, as always, before dawn. I peeked into the box and found her still sleeping. I had already decided the night before that, if she lived, I’d call a wildlife rehabilitator mid-morning.

In the meantime, I got right to work, hard-boiling, then pureeing an egg yolk, which I mixed with the baby food. She was eager to eat when she awoke, and we spent the next few hours following the Dr. Spock method: feed when hungry. I offered her food 2 to 3 times per hour. Sometimes she summoned me with the classic baby bird squeak, but more often she used a series of chikk-chikks, that resembles the sound of two rocks being struck together. As anyone who knows mockingbirds or brown thrashers could tell you, this is the sound adult birds make right at sunrise and sunset.  The rest of day, depending on the season, they sing their hearts out.

The nearest wildlife rehabilitator was an hour away, with no contingencies for meeting halfway. While I considered this distance, I scanned the internet for the latest info on baby bird care. It’d been a good many years since I’d taken in a baby bird, and I was looking forward to learning the latest, best science available on the dietary needs of fledgling mockingbirds. Like most topics on the internet, there was a preponderance of misinformation to navigate around. What little I learned had to be gathered piecemeal from various sites.

Along the way, I learned that most people still believe that parents will reject their babies if they detect a human scent. False. The fact is, if a baby bird is in imminent danger, you should move it to a safe place nearby, then leave it alone. The parents will return within an hour or two and be oblivious to the human scent, since they cannot smell it. However, they can be scared away by human presence, which is why it’s important to not hover about.

I also read the many advisories against rescuing “abandoned” baby birds. All true. Baby birds are rarely abandoned, and judgment calls about this are best left to those qualified to make such decisions. Most often, when well-intentioned people think they’re rescuing a baby bird, they are, in reality, only kidnapping the bird from its parents, who are every bit in attendance, racing around like mad to care for this baby and its siblings, which are likely scattered about the near vicinity.

Of personal importance to me were the warnings about how it’s illegal to be in possession of native birds. One should always call a wildlife rehabilitator. And to make sure no one attempts to take care of a fledling, these rehabilitator websites divulge little to nothing in the way of practical  information on the care of these birds. Problem was, neither I nor my car were physically up to driving two hours. Plus, I was still being under doctor’s orders to stay away from children, pregnant women, the elderly and anyone with a compromised immune system. So I decided to stay home.

Home sweet temporary home

Again, I’d hoped to find cutting edge news on baby mockingbird care, but found mostly old news, beginning with the advice to feed the bird dog food.

Problem is, today’s dog food is not your grandmother’s dog food. Feeding your pet 21st century dog food — including the “top” brands often sold in vet offices — is little more than a game of Russian roulette. Will it make your dog just a little sick or really sick? Will your dog suffer from chronic health problems or rashes & allergies that can’t quite be traced to any one source? Will it one day get cancer? Or will that bag of food just kill your pet outright? It’s a game of chance.

Sure, I fed the stuff to birds 30 or 40 years ago, back before the days of China recalls and intense factory farming. The average bag of 21st century dog food contains mostly corn filler (denuded of any nutrition and which is, by the way, undigestible by fledgling songbirds) plus some sort of animal “meal” — a mystery ingredient variously made from processed feathers, hair, skin, bones, hooves, claws, animal excrement, tumors and whatever other “not fit for human consumption” by-products can be salvaged from the carcasses of chickens, cows, pigs, horses and shelter animals. Unless otherwise specified, these various “meal” ingredients can also be expected to contain the residues of the pesticides, vaccines and hormones used on factory-farmed animals — not to mention the residues of whatever drugs were used to euthanize the horses and shelter animals that are added to the mix of the meals and rendered fats used to make pet food. To make this garbage nutritious, the manufacturers throw in some vitamins and minerals. I wouldn’t feed that stuff to a dog, much less a fledgling mockingbird.

For the time being — until I had the green light to be out in public again and go on a label-reading tour in the pet food aisle — I drafted a temporary menu of pureed, hard-boiled egg yolk and chicken baby food, plus earthworms and whatever flies, lacewings, moths (wings removed) and crickets I could find.

*     *     *     *     *

We are fortunate to have a sun porch with three walls of windows. The windows are not glass, but some sort of thin acrylic. Until this week, I bemoaned the fake glass, but it turns out to be perfect for Birdie. Should she fly into them, they’d merely bend out. This stuff is so flexible, in fact, that I could probably push one of the panels out with my index finger if I really put my mind to it. This room is the next-closest thing to being outdoors. I leave a window on one side cracked or half-open, depending on time of day, so that she can have fresh air and hear the birds outside. When the time comes, this window will be her portal to home. She can come and go as she pleases until she longer pleases to come back.

By late afternoon on Day Two, the inside of her US Priority Mail box ws a poopy mess. For the first time since her arrival, I picked her up, so that I could move her to the bird cage, which I’d prepared the night before.

She was terrified of the sudden wide open space and looked lost inside that big cage. But terror didn’t explain why she had such difficulty standing up, and kept falling to her side when she tried to hop. It was then that I noticed her bum leg (visible in the photo), over which she had little control. It was limp, as if paralyzed all the way to the ends of her toes. I’d noticed the night before, and thought it odd, the way she kept throwing her right wing out to steady herself in the nest.

I called the people who’d found her, and they reported that, yes, she’d seemed to have trouble moving around — flailing off-kilter and using her wing like a third leg as she tried to get away from them when they first found her. Perhaps this is why she had trouble holding onto the tree branch. They also wondered if her wing might be hurt. I was beginning to wonder the same thing, because she sometimes held her wing at at a different angle. Plus, the feathers looked ratty on both her wing tip and tail.

I removed the raffia nest and replaced it with a nest of organic fabric trimmings that I’d been saving for the compost heap. Before bed that night, I partially covered her with a downy soft scrap of sherpa. I was pretty sure that, come morning, I would hear that familiar sound that mockingbirds make to greet a new day. I was right.

Day Three

I never sleep past 5:00 a.m., except when I do. The day started off fast at 6:30. Quick, take the worms out the refrigerator, warm the baby food in the microwave, then cool it back to room temperature. Frantic gobbling. Brush teeth, start the coffee, warm the cold worms in my bare hands. Chikk chikk. Take shingles medicine, pour coffee, get my bearings. Chikk chikk. Turn on the computer, check email. Chikk chikk. Poopy box, time to do Birdie laundry. Chikk chikk. And so the morning went. Chikk chickk. Tiny wet rags spread over the porch railing to dry. Chikk chikk… chikk chikk… chikk chikk.

It was mid-morning by the time I did her laundry, which necessitated another move from her cozy box into the big scary cage. Only, this time her countenance brightened up the instant I set her down. She stood inside the new nest for a while, watching me work (cleaning and baby-proofing the sun porch), then settled down for a nap.

When I checked back awhile later, she’d left the cage and was busy flapping around the porch, giving her wings and bum leg a good exercising. The next time I looked, in, she was back in the cage. The next time, she was out again. By mid-afternoon, I could see a difference in her leg. It was stronger, with a noticeable improvement in coordination. By this time, I’d added a perch to her doorway, which became her favorite roost for the rest of the afternoon.

What really struck me, aside from her determination to get in and out of the cage (no easy task), so that she could flap around the porch, was her recognition of the cage as home base. When I checked on her near dusk, she was back in the doorway. Looking at her, I could envision her all grown up, perched on the highest post in the landscape, and just singing her heart out.

Day Four

I was faced with two conundrums today, which I have to preface with a few things. First, this: The laws against taking in wild animals, including genuinely abandoned fledglings, are there for good reasons — not the least of which is that baby birds need qualified care and proper nutrition — specifically, a well-balanced diet appropriate to their species. It’s a huge responsibility that requires your constant presence from sunrise to sunset.

But beyond this, there’s a bigger picture. Baby birds are not cute little pets, free for the taking. They’re wild animals, and their wildness needs to be honored, respected and preserved.

On this note, I know all too well the heart-rending, gut-nauseating pain of walking into a pet store and seeing cages and aquarium tanks filled with garter snakes, corn snakes, black racers, snapping turtles, box turtles, yellow sliders and red-bellies, barking tree frogs, bullfrogs, leopard frogs and other native species.  There’d be mockingbirds, bluebirds, goldfinches, owls and vultures in those cages, too, if it weren’t illegal.

Native species have become a special niche in the exotic pet trade — a market that caters to people inflicted with a sickness that compels them to collect animals the way some people collect shoes and jewelry, hot rods, sports cars, baseball cards and Beanie Babies. Even more sickening is that many of these native species are also being collected by the millions and sold to exotic food markets in Asia.

One country’s native is another country’s exotic. And vice-versa. While it’s nothing new — this business of sporting exotic pets, both native and foreign — it’s become a cult fever in recent years, a sickness fed by our country’s obsession with celebrity culture. It’s no longer enough to merely emulate the fashions, fads and hair styles of the stars; nowadays, we must also emulate their pet-of-the-month purchases. This year’s avant garde sugar glider will be passe come next year, replaced by a kinkjou or, perhaps, a Patagonian cavy.

It all depends on which animal Paris, Brittney and the gang are wearing to the latest photo ops. And because you can’t make a proper fashion statement without the proper accessories, these animals are dressed to the nines in cute little outfits, accented with ribbons and baubles to match their owners’ wardrobes. It’s all the better if the animal’s fur can be color-coordinated to compliment the owner’s pocketbook, which will then be carried about to display the creature for admiring fans, who will no doubt want one of their own.

Beyond their role as fashion accents, there’s also the matter of what an animal can convey about the owner’s personality and style, not to mention their mood of the day. Which pet will best express your fun spirit? Your geeky side? Your dangerous side? Your sexiness? Your very, very unique uniqueness?

What animal best reflects the largesse of your very special presence? A lion? A tiger? A 20-foot python? Or perhaps your bag is smaller game — prairie dogs, ferrets, coatimundi, armadillos and ring-tailed lemurs? Are you a Scarlet Macaw person or a Gray Amazon person? Or maybe you need a portable pet — something you can toss into your handbag or drape across your shoulder before you head out for the day. Chihuahua’s are so yesterday. How about a baby micro-pig, a sugar glider or a hedgehog?

I get it. I understand and utterly respect the laws and the reasons behind them. I only wish the laws were stronger. Now that I’ve properly explained myself, I can tell you this. I’ve decided to raise Birdie until she’s ready to be re-introduced to the wild. It’s going to be a few days yet until I’m no longer contagious, and I don’t know anyone who can take time off work to ferry her to the nearest wildlife rehabilitator. This decision may change once I’m no longer contagious. I’ll just see how it goes. That was my first conundrum.

My second conundrum was over this business of preserving her wildness while she’s under my care. It’s very difficult to take care of an animal and cultivate the healthy detachment necessary to maintaining the animal’s innate identity. This is particularly hard when it’s a young animal that is dependent on you and, in its naivete, views you as its parent. Too, there’s something built into the human DNA that wants to nurture and love small, cute, needy beings. Here, Birdie caught me off guard on Day Four.

On Day Four, chikk chikk began to also mean, I’m not hungry right now, but I want you to come in here and be with me. I struggled with this several times, going out and pretending to clean up this or that. Birdie would hop over and stand at my feet, staring up at me, wanting…. something. Not food. 

Forty years ago, I raised a baby cardinal. In the beginning, I fully intended to return Beatrice to the wild — just as I’d always done with the wild animals in my care — but something happened along the way. She bonded with me, and I with her, and I kept her longer than I should have. She was, through her young adulthood, a house bird, living indoors with free run of the house. My mother patiently endured the bird poop and the surprise of a cardinal landing on top of her head whenever she came home. While she generally left me to my own devices while I cared for the animals, both domestic and wild (e.g. a broken-winged pigeon, a box turtle with a broken shell, a black racer that had been hoed half to death by an ignorant groundskeeper, plus myriad baby birds and so on) that were brought to my doorstep, my mother finally drew the line over the utter wrongness of keeping this cardinal from the wild.

I still feel pangs of guilt whenever I think about Beatrice. I absolutely loved her. For her part, Beatrice was, by all appearances, quite happy to go on playing the role of bird daughter, living cooped up in this giant human cage called a house. Unweaving this bond and weaning her back into the wild was a sad process, but the wound I gave Beatrice went far deeper than mere human sadness. There’s no telling how she fared in the wild. I can only hope that she lived a reasonably normal life, even as I know that — by essentially holding her hostage — I only gifted her with a terrible handicap to becoming what she was born to be: a songbird with the wherewithal to take care of herself and, one day, her young.

One could argue: What’s the harm? It’s just one bird, there are plenty of cardinals in the world and, besides, she probably would have died if I hadn’t taken her in. Either you get it, or you don’t. I get it. I got it 40 years ago, and I’ll remember it until the day I die.

But this didn’t make it any easier when Birdie hopped up onto my foot midway through Day Four and promptly snuggled down to take a nap. I carefully lifted her off, put her onto a branch of the ligustrum shrub I’d “planted” beside her cage that morning, and left the room. For the rest of the day, I ignored the persistent chikk-chikks and timed her meals — every 20 to 30 minutes — by the clock. It wasn’t easy, I tell you. But then again, it was.

Watching her from the interior window that overlooks the sun porch, I watched her hop and hobble about the porch, tossing herself up onto chairs and tables to get a closer look outside. I watched as she grandly preened herself in the sun. I saw her flutter onto the crepe myrtle branch beside her nest, where she sat for the longest time, just staring into the outdoors.

I’m glad I had my camera with me, because this grainy photograph recorded a moment that I may need to refer to in the coming days. There she was, just quietly gazing up into the sky and trees. But then she opened her beak partway, and her throat vibrated slightly, as if she could feel the sensation of that song rising up into her throat and, though utterly silent, she sang her evening vespers. She knows the way home, and my job — my only job — is to feed her and keep her safe so that she’ll be ready when the time comes. And not one minute later.

Day Five

It’s important to offer a varied diet, but I’m no mockingbird. I catch what flies, lacewings, moths and other soft-bodied insects I can, but the sheer volume needed is mind-boggling. Setting aside my discomfort with feeding chicken meat to a bird, I alternate earthworms with organic pureed chicken, brown rice and carrot baby food. The last two days, I’ve given her a few tiny bites of mulberry, to see how well she can tolerate them. Her poop is a little runnier after a mulberry, but otherwise seems fine.

Compared to the day before, Birdie was downright sedate on Day Five. She spent the entire day inside her cage, which started to worry me. I kept reminding myself of the advice I’ve often given to my daughter, when her children’s behavior changes out of the blue. It’s been my observation that longer naps and bigger appetites often accompany growth spurts — mental, physical and cognitive alike. In-between growth spurts, it’s all a happy, exhausting, confusing, maddening and, ultimately, soul-fulfilling whirlwind of busy-ness and mayhem that passes all too soon.

Still, I worried daylong about Birdie: Did I do something wrong? Was I feeding her the wrong things? Was there something else physically wrong with her, besides the bum leg? And how did she get the bum leg in the first place? Had she been injured internally, in the same accident that hurt her leg? Had a crow snatched her from the nest and then — with mockingbird father in hot pursuit — dropped Birdie from the sky into the middle of the road? Or was she born with something wrong? Was this the reason her parents never came back — because they sensed that there was something wrong from birth? Had I second-guessed nature when I shouldn’t have?

Day 5: If you look closely, you can see that she's lost much of the fuzz on her noggin. All that remain are two Einstein-like brows, one over each eye.

She spent most of day snuggled down in her nest, making only a few brief trips to the crepe myrtle branch beside her nest. At one point I meddled, taking her out of the cage and putting her on the ligustrum shrub. The next time I looked, she was back inside her nest.

Right before dusk, she came out of her cage and called chikk-chikk. I sat on the floor and began feeding her. In between bites, she stared intently toward my arm. I could feel it coming. Sure enough, she fluttered up onto my wrist. I let her stay there for a moment, then put her back down. She flew right back up. After being so worried during the day, I couldn’t bring myself to set her down. Not just yet. About 10 seconds into this, she began staring up at my face. I could see her wings quivering ever so slightly. I could feel it coming. This is how it started with Beatrice. And that’s all it would take, too. Just let her fly up and perch on top of my head one time, and there would be another bond — another terrible handicap for her to overcome. I set her back onto the floor and went inside, ignoring her persistent chikk-chikks.

When I returned for her last feeding, she was back inside her cage. Only, this time she wasn’t in the nest, but was roosting on the highest possible perch — her first trip to the upper territories of the cage.

Day Six

I overslept again this morning (I’m blaming this on the shingles medicine) and had to hit the ground running. By 6:30 a.m., Birdie’s clock has already been chikk-chikk chikk-chikk chikking for a good 15 minutes. The fastest, easiest breakfast I could offer this very, very hungry baby bird was baby food. Now seems like a good time to talk about food.

Mockingbirds primarily eat bugs and berries. If you watch an adult mockingbird foraging for bugs on the lawn, you’ll see it run over to a particular spot, then fan out its wings out before pausing momentarily, as if listening for something. Occasionally, this is followed by a pounce of the beak as it procures a worm, a beetle, a grub. I’ve puzzled over this behavior and can only surmise that there’s something about the intermittent flash of light and shade that flushes the bugs out of hiding. Alternately, you’ll see a mockingbird take lordship over a holly tree or pyracantha, pokeberry, blueberry or mulberry, fending off any other bird that deigns to approach. Mockingbirds love a good berry.

Birdie eats, on average, 2 times per hour — sometimes more, sometimes less — beginning shortly after 6:00 a.m. and continuing until after 8:00 p.m. That’s about 20 to 30 meals per day. Sometimes she’ll eat 5 or 6 bites, sometimes just 1 or 2. I use the end of a wooden artist’s paintbrush to feed her the wet foods. The end has a nicely-rounded tip that’s safe for her delicate mouth. I use my fingers for everything else, occasionally using the paintbrush handle to poke a flailing bug deeper into her throat. Here’s a line-up of what I’ve fed her throughout the week, which alternates from meal to meal:

  • Pureed chicken baby food + pureed hard-boiled egg yolk + a variable mix of brown rice, peas and applesauce. To some batches, I’ve added finely ground egg shell.
  • Earthworms. Here, maybe you can learn from my mistake. I only learned last night that bait worms (night crawlers), which someone was kind enough to bring me, contain parasites, which are dangerous to most birds, except for robins. This holds true for the garden-variety earthworms I’ve also been feeding her this week. The latter come from our organic compost heaps, which are often visited by other birds. Out of sheer need and until I can get to the store, I will continue using these, only to a much lesser degree. I dig these in small batches and keep them in a tupperware container in the refrigerator.
  • The various flies, lacewings, tiny wasps, spittle bugs, crickets (dismantled) and moths I snare and stun throughout the day, most of which are immediately hand-delivered to Birdie while they’re still alive.
  • A few bites of mulberries and blackberries, which are at peak ripeness right now

Again, this may not be the ideal, but is very close to what the parents would be feeding a fledgling in terms of variety and protein content. Hopefully, I will be non-contagious tomorrow and can go to the store and fine-tune this menu.

To procure live food, I dig through the compost pile, leaf mold and under bricks and fallen branches looking for worms, crickets, ants and spiders. Slim pickings, few and far-between, due to the dry earth from this prolonged drought. So it takes a lot of hunting. I find flying insects flapping at the windows inside the sun porch, plus outside, fluttering and buzzing about compost heap or back porch. Mostly flies. For the record, I keep my hands scrupulously clean — both before and after feedings, for her sake as well as mine.

*     *     *     *     *

Birdie was more mobile today, hopping out of her cage first thing after breakfast. From here, she spent the entirety of her day outside the cage, never once returning. She was also more reserved, keeping a certain distance from me. Only once did I see the trembling wings, the urge to perch somewhere on my body. For the most part, tho, it was strictly business. I watched her from a distance, gauging her health and mood and felt much better about the prospects for her outcome. She’s grown so much since her arrival.

The fuzz on her head is almost entirely absent. Her leg is markedly improved. She can now clasp her toes around the various perches she commands on the porch, and has little difficulty navigating from post to post. In certain poses, she looks more like a sleek young mockingbird than a chubby fledgling. I’m fairly convinced that, whatever injured her leg also injured her right wing, as she’s tended to hold it lower than the other wing, and the feathers are a bit ratty looking on the ends. There may even be a few less feathers on that wing. Also, she tends to hold her right leg up much of the time, occasionally drawing it up sharply, as if in pain. On a brighter note, she made a new sound today, two notes that would be familiar to anyone who’s ever listened to a mockingbird song.

If I were to ascribe any mood to her day, it would be sadness or wistfulness. Who knows what’s going through her mind? I only know that she spent most of her hours gazing outside the window, and her overall demeanor was not chipper, as it’s been most of the week, but seemed rather subdued. I wish it were time now to take the screen off the window, because it’s obvious that’s where she wants to be.

Notice how her leg is drawn up in this photo, a pose she often holds. Birdie returned to perch on the vacuum cleaner hose several times throughout the day. This is really the highest post on the porch which would, of course, be the first choice for a mockingbird. When I looked back in on her after dark, she hadn’t returned to her cage, but intended to spend the night roosting on the vacuum hose. For her own safety (e.g. doors opening and closing during the night; big human feet plodding across the dark porch floor) I had to put her back in the cage. Tomorrow, I’ll try to make better arrangements.

Day Seven (Birdie’s approximate age: 3 weeks old)

I opened her cage door shortly after 6:00 a.m. and, after a quick breakfast, she was out in a flash. Just like that. I was immediately struck by just how much she’s grown in less than a week. No longer hopping and heavily fluttering from post to post, she’s taken flight. Shortly thereafter, she discovered the upper sill on the windows, which are about 5 ft from the floor — even higher than the vacuum cleaner hose, to my surprise. This was her favorite post for the morning. She spent much of the morning gazing from that height, occasionally flying to a different post, then returning. From time to time she stretched her legs and wings. Does she remind you of a teenage child — all legs, growing like a weed?

She was on the sill when I left for the pet store late morning, and she was there when I returned. The waxworms and tiny crickets were a huge hit. The mealworms took a few tries for both of us. This was my first time handling live mealworms. I now have a much better understanding on the origin of the phrase, “He looked at me as if I’d handed him a plate of mealworms.”

It took a few minutes of comparing labels, but I found a dog food with a quality ingredient list. The Iams and Hill’s P/D — two brands that are often recommended for fledglings — both contain cornmeal among their first two ingredients, so I rejected these and opted for the Castor & Pollux Organix line of puppy food, which lists chicken and chicken meal as the first two ingredients, with the latter ingredient claiming to be free of meat-by-products (e.g. tumors and such). Much better.

As a bonus, the Organix puppy food contains no pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics,  growth hormones or bioengineered ingredients; no corn, wheat, feathers, ground-up claws or chicken doo, either. It is also made in the USA and is USDA certified organic. Having said that, I don’t trust any manufacturer’s word anymore — natural schmatural, organic schmorganic or not — most manufacturers eventually get caught lying about something. But the Castor & Pollux seems like the safest bet until Birdie’s just a little older, at which point, I’ll put her on an entirely live diet.

Anyway, as of noon today, Birdie was officially on a proper diet of quality dog food + a wax worms, mealworms and crickets + vitamins. I’ll continue to supplement this with snared flies, de-winged moths, pureed egg yolk, powdered egg shells and the occasional piece of mulberry. And, to be safe, no more earthworms.

I also added several shallow dishes of water, plus several mirrors to keep her company. In between feedings, I kept my distance — closing the door to the house, to lessen my presence. I limit my gawking to surreptitious peeks outside the dining room window that overlooks the porch. Of course, I flatter myself that I’m being surreptitious. Her sense of hearing is incredibly sensitive. No matter how slowly, carefully I tiptoe to the window, she hears me. By the time I look out, she’s already looking up toward the window, even tho she can’t physically see me behind the screen. Sometimes, I find her gazing upward with her beak wide open, ready to be fed.

But if I sit quietly for a moment, she resumes the business of being a bird — taking sun baths and leisurely stretches, preening her feathers and occasionally taking flight to a different post. The screened window overlooking the backyard became her favorite post for the afternoon, where she was treated to the sounds of occasional rain showers and a chorus of birdsong.

At dusk, she returned to the vacuum cleaner hose, which is where she roosted for the night, as the porch is now officially off-limits to human beings after dark.

Day Eight

Birdie had breakfast on the vacuum cleaner hose, then called me back a few minutes later for an encore. I found her waiting for me on the step right outside the door to the house. I sat down to feed her and there it was again — that intense gaze toward my face. She moved closer and oddly sort of picked at the hem of my shirt. I scooted over, and she followed. She was just about to hop onto my arm. I stood up to finish feeding her, then left her alone to get started on her day. When she summoned me back 30 minutes later, she was perched on the sill of the screened window. Next time, she was back in the door of her cage and, at that moment, it struck me just how much she’s actually grown. I had to crank up Photoshop to put together a comparison photo, the one on the left being taken just 5 days ago in that very same spot.

Which makes perfect sense. In 24 hours, she’d already eaten roughly 25 each of the wax worms, meal worms and crickets. But what also struck me was that her pecking at my hem might be an indication that she’s getting closer to being ready to feed herself. Over the past day or so, I’ve been placing wounded bugs on the floor before her. With one exception, they may as well have been invisible. That one time, however, she did take notice — cocking her head momentarily to consider the wriggling cricket.  But that was it.

Day Nine

I spent the better part of the day worrying. Worrying about mites and lice after seeing her scratch several times in the morning. As could be predicted, there was a perfusion of disinformation on the internet. I’d believed all my life that bird lice are particular to birds and do not feed on humans, the same way that human lice do not feed on birds. And, despite the many horror stories on the internet, I still believe this. But I was worried about her well-being. So I decided right before dusk to pick her up — something I’d not done for three days — and examine her under a magnifier. I also ruffled her feathers over a piece of white paper to check for evidence of lice. None. But she was indignant at being picked up and let out a surprising series of angry squawks and scoldings that at least assured me I’m doing something right. She wants no part of close human contact beyond the feedings.

I put out some sand on the floor on a spread of newspapers in case she gets an inkling to take a dust bath, which is one way wild birds keep mites and lice in check.  So far, I haven’t seen any Birdie footprints left in the sand. I also decided to start signaling the feedings with a whistle — something I should have been doing all along. This way, when she begins spending time outdoors, she’ll know to come to me for food, rather than expect me to climb trees to reach her for feedings. These efforts were an absolute failure, but it’s a start.

I also began posing the mirror in front of her before and during feedings. She absolutely noticed her image right away and, between bites, considered this new presence, cocking her head to the side and turning one beady eye toward the mirror. Quite an endearing sight.

Day Ten

My worries about her wing, leg, lice and mites have disappeared. She is so robust and healthy — her flight beautiful and becoming better and better calibrated for precision landings. The whistling continued to mean nothing to her throughout the day, but I kept doing it in the belief that the Pavlovian response would kick in.

The stores are out of wax worms, dammit all, which is her favorite food. I’ve researched prices on the internet and cannot afford the overnight shipping. This means I’ll need to do a wider sweep of of local bait stores in the next day or so.

Mid-afternoon, I looked out and saw her standing on the floor fanning her wings– just like adult mockingbirds do when searching for bugs on the lawn. It’s such an odd, robotic movement — the wings opening click-by-click to a full spread, then abruptly closing as she hops to another spot, then re-opens her wings. She repeated this for a few minutes, staring intently toward the floor, as if scanning it for bugs. This seems like a very promising development. Anymore, she moves and looks every bit like a full-grown mockingbird. The only time she looks like a baby is when she’s feeding and assumes the pose of a chubby fledgling, twittering her wings and crying for food.

Near day’s end, we had a minor breakthrough on the whistling. As luck would have it, I’d taken my camera to get a picture of her and ended up documenting what happened next. Rather than staying put on the chair for her feeding, she jumped to the arm when I whistled. So I stayed put and continued whistling while holding the food out to her.

It took her about 5 minutes, but she made the trip, taking a circuitous route down a dark corridor behind some lumber stacked against the wall. She frequently explores this little alleyway, which seems an odd thing for a bird to do.

But she found her way to the food and, after she ate, she turned tail and returned down the dark alley.

Day Eleven

I’ve gained a brand new respect for the work a mother and father mockingbird do to bring their fledglings to adulthood. Along the way, I’ve been forced to shed a few layers of human dignity. I probably didn’t need them anyway. This afternoon, I felt something crawling in my shirt. Yep, a tiny cricket. Yesterday, it was cricket guts on my cheek and meal worm goo on my knee. Yuck. It’s not that I’m a slob. I’m fastidious about washing my hands and practically hosing down after the messier feedings. But this business of feeding a baby bird is not for sissies.

She eats upwards of 10 mealworms per feeding or 20 small crickets or a mix of the two. Add to this the occasional mayfly, housefly, moth or wasp. Most have to be maimed and/or partially dismantled. The sheer volume of bugs spent over the period of an hour is mind-boggling. Tidiness goes right out the window. My initial primness with handling crickets has turned into a gutfest. I maim them with my bare fingers, and then there’s always one or two escapees, which can’t be neatly caught, but must  be slapped with the bare hand.

How do mockingbirds find so many bugs? And for 2 or 3 babies, at that? Multiply this times several bird families nesting on a 1 acre lot. In our own yard, we’ve had families of cardinals, wrens, red-bellied woodpeckers, titmice and chickadees, plus occasional visits from a bluebird who grabs a bug, then flies off for parts unknown. Utterly amazing.

A major development today: Birdie fed herself for the first time. It happened right near dusk. I put down a meal worm so that it could wriggle about her feet momentarily before being maimed and put into her mouth. Only, this time, she took acute notice and flickered her wings. Then she started doing the robotic wing fanning. I had a feeling something amazing was about to happen. I stayed utterly still and just watched. After about a minute of wing-fanning and circling the worm, she took her first peck. Then another, and another. It took perhaps three dozen tries — picking the worm up and dropping it — but she finally managed.

I had my camera with me, but didn’t dare disturb her concentration. By the second worm, her focus was consumed and she didn’t notice me at all, so I took a few photos. As with most of my photos, the quality is lousy, due in great part to the dim light in the room and the fact that I wouldn’t dream of using a flash. 

The next photos are of her fanning her wings as she approaches another worm. Very grainy and blurred, but worth the view anyway.

Mimus polyglottos raptor

After eating her fill, she had another burst of bravado and hopped onto the water dish, which up until that moment had also been invisible to her. She almost pecked at the water, but couldn’t quite bring herself to do it. But it’s a start.

From here, she returned to one of the mirrors, which she’s spent a good part of the day peering into. I gave her a little platform for easier viewing, but she prefers to stand at floor level and crane her neck, getting a little peek, then ducking back down. From this angle, it seems impossible that she could see into the mirror,  but she can.

Afterward, she’ll often gingerly tap at the mirror frame with her beak. It seems like an act of affection, reminding me of the gentlest billing and cooing of courtship. Perhaps this is how mockingbird siblings greet one another.

Other times, after peering into the mirror, she’ll wave her wing at the image. I’m can’t guess what this gesture means but, like the gentle billing on the mirror frame, it leaves me feeling deeply sad that she’s living inside this human contraption and not in her true home, with her real family.

Day Twelve

An ordinary day, with much gobbling of meal worms, until late afternoon  when Birdie mysteriously stopped eating. She remained nestled in the corner on the floor and would have no part of food, period. I was sick with worry, certain that she’d eaten too many meal worms and that her crop was blocked. It was after-hours for the vet, and I was at a loss over what to do. Then, right before dark, she called out for me. I arrived with crickets and, on a lark, put one on the floor before her. She fanned her wings and pounced, just like a mockingbird. Then another and another. I must remember that advice I keep giving my daughter about how changes in behavior and appetite often precede a growth spurt.

Day Thirteen

Aside from the omnipresent vacuum cleaner, you wouldn’t know from looking at the photos on this page that, before Birdie’s arrival, I was in the process of spring cleaning — a house-wide project that encompassed the sun porch, which was slated to soon have blinds, curtains, an area rug and new furniture. My vision was to have a restful Florida room, complete with a breakfast nook, filtered light, palms and a comfy chaise lounge for dozing off while doing the Sunday crossword puzzle.

By Day 13, the porch was still frozen in time to the moment that Priority Post box arrived on the doorstep, only the piles of building supplies and household stuff — formerly enroute to the storage shed — were now splattered with bird doo, along with the floors, walls and windowsills, the latter of which were scheduled for a serious  cleaning anyway. The floor was scattered with oatmeal flakes from the many spills of the meal worm containers, plus an assortment of bug appendages. As much as the sight of it made my skin crawl, I could live with it temporarily until Birdie’s release, however, it couldn’t be that simple.

Early this morning, for the first time, Birdie fed herself in my absence. I’d been leaving out a plate of meal worms for her, taking a head count before I leave, to see if she’s eaten any. Until this morning, we were batting zero. But when I peeked out shortly after breakfast, there were 8 less meal worms than when I’d left. She was also pecking at her plate of scrambled egg yolk. Wonderful. What a giant step toward self-sufficiency.

But there’s a downside. Now that Birdie has mastered the art of feeding herself, she views every little particle on the floor as potential food. Twice, I’ve gone out and found her with a piece of I-don’t-know-what in her beak. So Birdie & cage spent about 20 minutes indoors this morning while I quickly vacuumed and mucked-up some of the bird doo. Nothing fancy. But she was quite pleased with her new environs, her cage now elevated to a much more sensible spot for a bird.

It occurs to me that I may be painting too rosy a picture of the Birdie experience. Just in case, let me set the record straight on a few things. Since Birdie’s arrival, the inside of the house has undergone a transformation similar to the one on the sun porch.

Part of this is due to the fact that I fell into the rare 7% of the people who take  shingles medicine (Valtrex) and suffer depression as a side-effect. I was initially relieved when I reached the end of my 7-day course of Valtrex without experiencing a single one of the mean side-effects (headaches, abdominal pain, bloating, racing heart, death, etc.). But on the eighth day (that was Day 6 for Birdie), I was suddenly besieged with overwhelming feelings of worthlessness. The tiniest effort was too much, too exhausting to contemplate. I couldn’t rub two thoughts together, and kept forgetting what I was doing from one moment to the next. It was all I could do to take care of Birdie, and I felt like a colossal failure.

Indeed, it became utterly clear to me that my whole life had been one long failure. I endured this for 5 days and was midway through asking myself one morning, “What the hell is going on with me?” when a little light bulb went *ding* inside my head. I suddenly remembered having read that depression could be a side effect of Valtrex. It helped a bit, knowing my mind wasn’t galloping out of control, but it made for a very difficult week. The depression receded after another day or so, however I got very little done during those 6 or 7 days, beyond Birdie chores.

Now, about those chores. If I decide to, say, start washing dishes, Birdie calls. If I want to take a shower, watch TV, read a book, sew, blog, take a nap, have a conversation, cook dinner or even eat dinner, Birdie calls. Some hours, she calls every 20 minutes — particularly during the evening. You’d be amazed at how fast 20 minutes passes. Also, consider this: I have been essentially chained to the house, my trips limited to 30 minute jaunts. And when I get back, she’s likely to be frantic for food. I’ve seen my grandchildren only once over the past month, between the shingles and the Birdie schedule. I used to see them almost daily. My life entirely revolves around caring for Birdie. Which is fine. I made this choice. But make no mistake, it’s an intense schedule to maintain.

But that’s not all. There’s also the matter of the food. So far, I’ve spent over $50 on Birdie food over the past week. Yes, it sounds impossible. And, had I known beforehand, I could have stocked up on bulk quantities of mail-order wax worms, meal worms and crickets. As-is, I buy them from the pet store every few days. With tax, the cost of meal worms is 7-cents each. The cost of crickets and the (no-longer-available) wax worms are a dime each. Depending on how much she eats, her meals range in price from 20-cents to $2 each. Multiply that times 20 to 30 feedings, and you get an idea of how this might add up to $8 per day.

Now, if I were a mockingbird parent, it’d be dirt cheap. I’d intuitively know where to find bugs, and my hearing would be so finely tuned, I could hear them burrowing and rustling in the sod. The grubs, flies and moths would be free for the taking, and I could produce a bounty for Birdie.

But wait, there’s more. I’ve mentioned the gutfests. But I haven’t mentioned the details on how the guts get there. Before Birdie, I had a deep and abiding respect for all creatures. Whenever I found a spider in the house, I didn’t squish it. I gently picked it with a tissue and carried it outside. Nowadays, my eyes are finely tuned to bugs. I see a spider in the house and, without mercy, I grab it and lightly squish it to maim it — pulling off a few legs if necessary before feeding it to Birdie.

When I’m outside, I’m constantly focused on the little things — a carpenter ant climbing a tree trunk, an errant lightning bug crawling across the porch rail. The slightest movement of a leaf on the ground — which would have gone unnoticed just a few weeks ago — is quickly noted, as it likely betrays the presence of beetle, whose exoskeleton I’ll have to crush before delivering it to Birdie. Store-bought bugs are no tidier. I’ve already described the crickets. The larger meal worms, I cut into pieces, saving the upper third of the body (the legged end) to crawl on the floor for Birdie’s edification.

Sure, I could go on feeding her dog food, baby food and scrambled eggs, but then what would she do once she’s on her own?

And while this bug business has been great for Birdie’s appetite, it’s completely ruined mine. Everything reminds me of squished bugs, and I constantly feel like I’m covered with squished bugs. And, as it turns out, sometimes I am.

Throughout all of this, the interior of the house has, as I already mentioned, undergone a transformation. There’s the table full of Birdie accoutrements — the little tubs of mealworms, the bag of crickets, the nauseating admixtures of dog food, egg and baby food, the rubber-tipped tweezers, the paint brush handle and the dedicated pair of scissors smeared with bug guts. I’ve had very little time, much less energy left over for cleaning, what with all the interruptions. And cooking dinner (something I do in-between Birdie-feedings) revolts me. The idea of eating it revolts me even more.

I’m not complaining. I’m just saying…. Just so you know.


Something I find odd is Birdie’s hesitancy to try anything new, except in my presence. She’s had water dishes set about her room for days and could have tried them anytime, but she didn’t. She waited until conditions were perfect. This is, until (a) she was ready and, (b) I was right there beside her. She’d just had a particularly fine meal of meal worms and crickets — the act of chasing crickets making her somehow more spirited and bold — and, just like that, she hopped onto the edge of her water dish. It took several tries to muster the courage to touch her beak to the water, but she finally did and then took several cool drinks. From here, she tried to take a bath, stepping into dish and lowering herself into the water. Problem was, it was too shallow and I know she was disappointed to do little more than wet a few feathers.

I brought out another dish, but by then the moment has passed. It wasn’t until mid-afternoon, after another spell of chasing crickets, that she finally took her first real bath. This deserves a page all its own, which you can see here. But you can see a preview, below.

I think she relished drying off as much as she did getting wet. After this, she apparently felt confident enough to go solo and took several more baths by day’s end, as evidenced by the newspaper splashes. She had also, by day’s end, graduated to larger crickets and taken her first lesson in scratching through leaves to find food.

(1) Fanning her wings, (2) honing in on the sound, and then (3) aha! she finds the hidden meal worm.

As for myself…. It dawned on me by day’s end that this “happy, exhausting, confusing, maddening and, ultimately, soul-fulfilling whirlwind of busy-ness and mayhem that passes all too soon” was about to end. Birdie is now ready to be released, but the truth is… Well, I’ll just say that the suddenness somehow caught me off guard. Come tomorrow, if all goes well, I will be very busy outside. No matter what the outcome, I will post more when I can, but it will likely be a few days.

Mockingbird Chronicles (Part II) >>>>


Written by canarypapers

May 29, 2010 at 10:32 am