On Tuesday, August 13, Joe put a ladder to south wall of the house and climbed to the third story to clean out a furnace vent. I had not used the wall furnace for six years, partly because of a gas leak, but mostly because birds had gotten in and built a nest and there was too great a risk of fire. Now, finally, I saw the chance to be able to go through a winter without the clumsiness of space heaters.
When Joe got to the vent, he found a missing baffle, six years of impacted nesting, and a recently-hatched living chirping English house sparrow. Fearful that its mother would suddenly appear and cause him to fall from the ladder, he quickly pulled it out and tried to give it to Taku. Taku had left his perch in the third-story window, however, and Joe had to let go. Down the bird came with a thud and a whimper. One dead bird. We thought.
Minutes later, however, Taku noticed that it had started to move again. Apparently it was only stunned. We picked it up, made a nest for it in a plastic container and put it in a box. Nobody gave any thought to what to do with it, and we went back to work. Once work was over and the bird’s chirping brought us to the reality of this new life in our midst, we wrapped the box up in a blanket, but left a space big enough for the heat of a light bulb to keep the bird warm, and left it overnight. I assumed we would put it outside in the morning and leave things to nature. Either the mother would find it or somebody else would. I wasn’t terribly interested in its fate.
The next morning, Taku phoned home from work at about 9:30. He had gotten on the computer and dug out information about the Wildlife Hospital in Walnut Creek, a 30 to 45-minute drive from here. “I want you to take it to them,” he said. “Are you kidding?” I asked. “We’ve got work to do.” “We can’t just abandon it!” he said, his voice full of pleading. All his office colleagues had also gotten in on the act.
The sound of his concern spoke to me and the three of us, Karen, Joe and I piled in the car, the box and the bird now wrapped in a blanket to keep it warm. It was at the hospital we first learned that the bird was a house sparrow—none of us had been able to identify it. The hospital, however, wouldn’t take it in. “It’s an invader species,” the girl told me. “If you want to save it, take it back and let its mother take care of it. Otherwise, it probably won’t survive. “ “Why won’t you take it in?” I asked. “We are committed to keeping native species alive, and the sparrow steals the nests of native California bluejays and other birds.”
Something misfired in my brain at that. “You’d let a sparrow die to save a bluejay?” I asked. “We will euthanize it for you if you like.” “Not on your life,” I said, remembering Taku’s plaintive appeal that it be turned over to folk that would see it prosper. Back we went with the bird, now chirping with full lungpower.
That evening I put my foot down. “Taku,” I said. “The bird is your responsibility. Whether it lives or dies depends on you. We can’t take care of it.”
That wasn’t quite true, of course. The hospital did give us an information sheet with advice on feeding. Combine some dogfood with a boiled egg and a strained banana and some vitamins, it suggested, and feed it to the fledgling with an eye-dropper. I went out and got the eyedropper, but refused to buy a bag of dogfood. Besides, we had some meatloaf in the refrigerator that looked like dogfood, and an overripe banana, so Karen boiled an egg, we mixed everything up in the Cuisineart, and poked a bit of mush down its beak. It was clearly desperately hungry and the food went quickly. We were calling it Edith now, after Edith Piaf.
That evening Amy came over. She had worked at a wildlife center and warned us that it was easy to overfeed a baby bird. Apparently their instincts were to accept everything given to it, regardless of whether there was room in the stomach, and bird mothers apparently know when enough is enough. Amy, too, warned us that birds seldom survive human nurturing. The bird was not very active, and it looked like its days were numbered. The next morning, after some agonizing decision-making, and realizing we might be torturing it to no good end, Taku took it outside and set it in the bushes. We would be done with this responsibility before it became a burden. It was up to nature now.
Edith lay in the bushes less than ten minutes when Joe brought her back in. “She’ll be eaten by a cat!” he said. “And did you ever see a cat go at a bird? It tortures it and plays forever with it before it finishes it off.” It didn’t take much convincing. We shredded some newspaper. Apparently we were in for the duration.
The next day I went to the birdstore and got some serious baby bird food. “Never feed the bird at room temperature,” the caretaker told me with horror. “It must be about 100 degrees!” And keep that light on it or it will freeze to death!
And be careful of bacteria. Make sure the bird is cleaned up after every feeding, and keep careful track of how much you feed it. Gradually increase the food as the bird grows.
Others gathered and gave us advice. “You’ll have to teach it to fly,” somebody told us. “Put it on the coffee table once its wings are fully formed and push it off onto a pillow. Otherwise you’ll never catch it at the right time.”
Over the weekend and through this week Edith continued to grow. We were not good about regular feeding, occasionally going several hours when we were out. But she was clearly healthy and full of life most of the time. After each feeding, she would immediately poop and we would feel a great sense of accomplishment. I began to notice her feathers filling out and in the last couple of days she would almost rise off the ground when I approached with food.
Every morning I got up and fed her before doing anything else. Taku’s responsibility had become a household responsibility. Actually my responsibility, since Taku was at work during the day when I kept up the two-hourly feedings. The house began to smell of bird, even though we were religious about changing the newspaper after every feeding. I began to wonder how it would feed itself once we let it go, so I put some cracker crumbs in the box, along with a little bit of water. Edith pooped in the cracker crumbs, then pooped in the water. I kept changing them. She kept pooping in them. I put off the concern about how and what she would eat once we let her go.
Yesterday we considered the real possibility that the day was coming when she would fly and we agreed that whatever happened to her after that we had to let that mark the moment of separation. We would care for her till then, but if she starved to death, if a cat ate her, if she died of loneliness, we would have to let go. Secretly, I found myself fantasizing that she would fly back and sit outside the window and I would feed her like some Snow White figure and we would be a happy family of three. Karen and Joe had gone back East, or it would be five.
Last night, however, I noticed she was listing. She would lean to one side. At one point, she actually fell forward. I pretended she slipped, since she was standing in the water dish at the time, and shortly thereafter she was back to her old self, flapping away and crying out for more food. She got quiet, though, at times, and I began to suspect I had over fed her. She had become quite at ease with my handling her, and I could even take her into the sink to wash off the caked on food that would spill after each feeding. But at night she got quiet for a long time, and I saw something was wrong.
This morning, I woke as Taku was heading out to work. “Is Edith OK?” I asked him. “She’s fine,” he said. “I just fed her, and she’s jumping around as normal.” I went back to sleep. An hour later I got up, prepared a new batch of food (we did this every day) and prepared to feed her. She wouldn’t take it. She was breathing quietly, but she wouldn’t open her beak. I put the eyedropper down and watched her for a while. Her eyes were clear, and there was slow breathing, but there was no sense of health. I put the towel around the box, put the light bulb a little closer, and left her for about an hour. When I came back she was totally still.
I can’t understand the depth of this sadness. I know it is possible to get attached and it shouldn’t surprise me that a little creature dependent on me entirely for life would grab me by the heartstrings, but I am quite broken-hearted. I don’t feel like doing a thing but sit here and let the tears pour out. I haven’t felt this empty in a very long time.
There is guilt. I’m sure I overfed her. I left her too long between feedings. I didn’t get the caked-on food off soon enough and the bacteria got to her. I held her too tight and too often. I scared her with the vacuum cleaner. I did something, I didn’t do something, I just know it, that did her in.
There is sadness and a sense of loss. Someday I’m going to see a bluejay and I’m going to feel this resentment that I didn’t try harder to save this little California invader. Edith is going to be with me for a long time, I suspect.
Nobody knows yet. I’m writing this waiting for Taku to call back so I can give him the news. Tonight we’ll bury her in the back yard.
Edith the Sparrow
Born in a furnace vent a few days before August 13
Died in an Amazon.com box August 23, 2002