(Laura Erickson 7 June 2017)
One summer, when I was licensed to rehab wild birds, a woman brought me four tiny baby songbirds. Their nest branch had been knocked from a tree during a storm a week before. She thought her children would get a kick out of seeing and feeding nestling birds even though, as she told me, she knew that they’d eventually die.
She’d been feeding them nothing but canned dog food and didn’t know how to feed them properly, or keep them in a clean environment, so all four were caked in a disgusting mixture of dried up food and feces. I had to bathe them repeatedly over many hours to even be able to identify them. They were Red-eyed Vireos. Their little bodies, including their heads and, in one case, their eyes, had been so completely encased in crusted filth for so many days that they literally could not grow.
She brought them to me just before the Fourth of July weekend, because she was expecting company and also, she confided, because she did not want her children to experience the sadness of them dying. She drove off feeling virtuous for saving her children from that. I’m sure when she got home she told them that the birds were being taken care of and would all fly off happily.
Meanwhile, my children and I were the ones left to experience the sadness of death. The tiniest nestling lasted barely a day, but all of them were beyond the point of no return when I got them.
They’d not received vitamins or other essential elements of their diets to ensure proper bone development. The people must have been feeding the chicks chunks of dog food that were much too large to be swallowed. The poor things’ heads were so encrusted that their brains had not been allowed to grow properly. They were kept on flat paper towels that were not changed frequently enough.
In nature, their parents would have collected the fecal sacs the moment they were produced. Baby birds poop almost immediately after swallowing while the parent who fed it is sure to still be present. That makes that part of taking care of baby birds easy for people, too. The back end of two of these nestlings was so encrusted that their droppings couldn’t get out of their bodies. I still shudder remembering this, and have mercifully forgotten a lot of other details. In the end, none of them made it. My children were heartbroken.
A biblical maxim says that man cannot live by bread alone. The metaphor is not about the need for balanced nutrition—it’s about how human beings cannot thrive when only the needs of their stomachs are addressed. Keeping baby birds clean and comfortable is as essential as food. Also, from the moment baby birds hatch, they are learning about their world and interacting with it. Many baby birds of migratory species, days or a week before they even leave the nest, start to learn star patterns. They’ll use the one fixed star in the sky, Polaris, as a compass point when they take off for the tropics.