How to be a mother bird

When the baby robin fell out of the nest, the humans stepped in.

Gary Braasch /ZUMA Press/Newscom/File
Rescued robin, Portland, Oregon.

David was just 3 months old when Bird fell out of his nest.

I was busy in the kitchen when I heard a penetrating, persistent squawk. Finally I went outside to find out what was going on.

My husband, Gene, and I lived in a rented Cape Cod-style house while he was on temporary duty at the Pentagon. This little house was on a large piece of property in Virginia. The year was 1953.

I followed the unrelenting noise to the beginning of what would scarcely be called a yard. Then I saw a robin crying in despair, swooping down to the ground, and then soaring to the top of a very tall tree, only to swoop down again. Her focus was a baby robin who had apparently fallen out of his nest. One little wing was held close to his body and the other flapped as he desperately tried to reach his mother.

What to do? We were living in the country, and there were many small wild animals who would look with great interest on this little creature. The answer, of course, was to stay close by, guarding him, and wait for my husband to come home. He was very good with animals.

Quickly I ran back into the house; grabbed a small chair; placed David in a baby basket; put a leash on Punky, our cocker spaniel; picked up a book, and then hurried back to our new small-bird assignment. The mother bird soon stopped swooping down from the nest, and there was quiet. I have since wondered if she knew, in some capacity, that her baby bird was now safe.

Some hours later Gene came home, looked at the situation, and took over general management of the small bird.

After Gene called the Animal Rescue League and was told how to care for our new household member, we set about our duties. He was to be fed every two hours (he beat David on that one). He was to live in a cardboard box with wire netting over it, and inside he was to have the accommodations of a nest.

We named him Bird. And he was now the fifth member of our family.

It wasn't easy: Between feeding both David and Bird, it seemed as if we were up all night long. For about a week it was exhausting. Then we took turns. One would feed David and the other would feed Bird. We fell into an easy family routine. Bird was fed with an eyedropper for the first few weeks. Eventually he learned to let us know when he wanted to be fed – with loud squawks and later, chirping.

He lived with us all summer long. His wing healed, and he grew larger until he was a full-size robin. He needed a larger carton for a home, and was content to go into it every night, but during the day he had full range of the house. Bird rarely let us out of his sight and spent a lot of his time perched on one of our heads or a shoulder or a finger that we would hold out for him to come to. The kitchen was out of bounds. I cleaned up daily, but it was worth it.

Then Gene got the news that he had fulfilled his temporary assignment at the Pentagon, and we could leave for our new home in Cincinnati.

What to do about Bird? We had a long drive and Bird could not live in a car. So now we had to introduce Bird to the outdoors.

First step: Teach him to live in a tree.

That very night, after dark, each of us carrying a flashlight, Bird in hand, we made the hard move. There was a large tree that had a limb reaching out over the screened porch that could be a new home for Bird at night. We felt he would feel fairly at home because he spent a lot of time on the porch during the day with David and Punky close by.

Gene put Bird on the strong, long limb and left him there. That first night we were both out with our flashlights checking on him, but he stayed put. From then on he slept at night on his limb. He was a bird after all and he must have felt instinctively at home. Soon he figured out that if he flapped his wings on the porch door, we would hear him and come to get him, and then he would stay inside for the day.

Second step: Teach him to find food for himself. This was Gene's job and he was up to it.

So one Saturday morning Gene took Bird on his finger to the yard. Previously Gene had planted in the ground food that Bird liked to eat. He had placed little flags in the ground next to the food so he would know where it was. The food was about an inch under the ground. Gene spread himself on his stomach with Bird on his finger, and then would inch forward until he would come to a flag. Then Gene would scratch the ground, wait until Bird would smell the food, and Bird would gobble the food up. Gene repeated this exercise at every flag until Bird learned to scavenge for himself. We would later put him on the lawn alone and Bird would scratch the ground and then finally and gloriously find some food and eat it.

Now that Bird could pretty well take care of himself, it was time to leave. This was hard. We were leaving a member of our family behind. However, it helped to know he was well equipped.

There was one other factor that helped. My father lived close by, and he told us that he would drive out to the house every evening, sit on the steps to the porch, and wait for Bird to see him. He always had some of Bird's favorite food with him. The very first night he came, Bird flew down, landed on my dad's finger, ate the food he had, and then flew away, only to come back a few minutes later for a visit on his shoulder.

These visits went on for a while. It was fall and getting cold. One night my father waited for Bird but he didn't come. He went the next night – but no Bird. We hoped he had found some birds flying south and had joined them for the winter. And just maybe he found some friendly person who might not have been too startled when Bird landed on his shoulder expecting to be loved and cared for.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.