There was a commotion in the nest outside the kitchen window facing the barn and a great deal of attention inside the kitchen. My resident art and writing students had interrupted their breakfast and flocked to the window to watch our resident swallow feed her young. It was a tender moment, worthy of violins, and hearts were touched by the mother bird's solicitude for each open-mouthed nestling.
Those gaping little beaks filled me with sympathy -- for the mother -- because I remembered being there myself. While she had a trio to feed, I'd had only one, but what a one! Young Eve had brought the nestling to me two years ago in a bucket. She was my red-headed little neighbor who had already presented me with a procession of stray dogs, injured frogs, and anything in nature that needed putting right. This time her faith was misplaced.
She'd tried feeding the nestling bread crumbs and birdseed, but the beak was clamped shut. I'd never fed a nestling and had to resort to the local Audubon Society. The voice on the phone said, if we were absolutely sure the bird had been abandoned by its parents (Eve vigorously assured me it had), I could try feeding it chopped beef or cat food of the beefy variety or puppy food. No birdseed, bread crumbs or water, since nestlings could choke on these. The meat with some cooked egg yolk all dipped in milk, I was told, would approximate the young bird's usual fare of insects and worms (unless I chose to supply the latter, which I did not). Then the voice on the phone dropped the bomb. The nestling had to be fed every daylight hour.
I was catapulted into bird motherhood, and my professional life took second place to a youngster who was all mouth. We called him Big Mouth, and I marveled at a small creature being able to gape so wide, revealing a startling red throat. No more do I talk about people who eat like a bird, unless they are carnivorous gourmands. Big Mouth consumed his chopped beef at a rate that startled my dog, who watched this prime fare going into a creature no bigger than his nose. Amazement turned to admiration, and Big Mouth soon had a shaggy protector who, wagging his tail, provided a breeze and flagged away our family of cats.
The slightest chirp would send the dog running to Big Mouth's cage on the floor, his nose pressed against the grillwork, while I ran to the refrigerator. I'd cooked several eggs at a time and kept the yolks ready to mix with meat and milk. One time I had the misfortune to run out of eggs and so dipped just the meat into the milk and offered this hopefully. Big Mouth clamped his beak shut and turned his back on me. This is known as the cut direct in social circles. Shattered, I drove to the market and back in record time, and when the proper fare was presented the beak opened wide.
Big Mouth not only had me hopping, and my dog, but the neighbors as well. The first Sunday morning I was away at church my return home was greeted with such an angry bird tirade for having been late with a meal that I never again left Big Mouth alone for more than an hour. Whenever I had an appointment I would take him in a cardboard box to my kind neighbor Joan. The mother of four hungry boys, she was used to stuffing young mouths.
Big Mouth got so used to commuting to Joan's house that I grew concerned he might think all birds traveled by car instead of winging it. I thought this was why he didn't make any real effort to fly. He'd been with me for several weeks and showed no signs of wanting to leave the nest. Perhaps he realized chopped beef didn't grow on trees. I'd been told it was a good idea to catch mosquitoes for him so he could get accustomed to normal insect fare, but the few I offered didn't meet with approval.
In the meantime I'd also discovered to my surprise that there is a federal law making it illegal to feed wild birds in one's home. This was apparently intended to keep people from raising wild animals in their homes or capturing birds for sale. It means that, technically, one must not take home a nestling without informing the local authorities, who may come and pick up the bird or, more likely, suggest where it can be sheltered if it cannot be returned to the nest. In some cases I am told they may give permission to continue feeding the bird if there is assurance it will eventually be released.
Fortunately I found there was a nearby bird sanctuary where Big Mouth could be cared for until he was ready to fly. I put him into the car for his last ride and handed him over to a kind young woman who assured me he would be carefully looked after. She didn't even laugh when I said he insisted on his egg yolks cooked. I left him perched in a huge cage with other young birds, feeling much like a mother at the first day of kindergarten.
Our home met the problems of most empty nests. For weeks my dog kept running to the vacant cage when he heard a bird chirp outside. If a naturalist show on television included the song of a swallow he would run to the set and inspect it front and back, tail wagging fervently. My problem was unlearning the hourly urge to run to the refrigerator. Finally, things settled down to our pre-swallow days, and I was able to go out on long drives without arranging for a bird sitter.
But one habit remains from motherhood. I never run out of eggs.