Monday, July 16, 2012

Eye on the Sparrow

It was one day early in summer, before the hot haze had settled into the peaks and valleys of the concrete landscape, before we planned our days around the bearable early hours and the windows were still open to breezes that refreshed rather than choked. I approached the back doorstep of our ancient brick-walk-up, and stared at the rubber welcome mat. There was something on the mat. Besides "Welcome".

There was a piece of brown fluff. A murmur of pity came to my lips. Another one of those baby birds that had fallen from the perilous nests that clung desperate to the side of the building, most likely. It had stormed a few days previous, and we'd found a pathetic skeleton or two. His eye is on the sparrow, nonetheless.

When I crouched down to try and figure out what to do with the poor little thing, I found to my shock that he was still alive. Very, very still - but still tremblingly alive. One of his minuscule eyes blinked at me. Could he still move? I poked him gently with my house key, and he tried to inch forward, but tumbled onto his side. Injured. He wouldn't last a few short hours in the cruel city - between car, bold squirrels, and stray cats. Should I let nature take its course, or-?

I glanced around, looking for other birds. They say that they'll take care of an orphan, and that old story about the "human smell" apparently does not hold true. So I kept an eye on him from the nearby window, and scrolled through articles about care for baby birds on my phone. No rescuers came by. I waited. After a time, an orange tabby that I'd  never seen started slinking against the back wall of the garden. He would make quick work of my little friend. I just couldn't watch it happen. Against all I've been told about the survival rate of wild animals babies in well-intentioned but bumbling human hands, the cosy shoebox being the last thing they experience of this wide wide world, I took him in.

And put him in a shoebox.

He was so frightened by whatever total nightmare he had already lived through (also fallen from a  nest during the stormy winds, I figured) and was continuing to live through, that he was completely silent. Not a peep. I read up quickly on food, since he was obviously very weak. Hardboiled eggs, dog food, mealworms - these sufficed. How to get him to take food from me, though? "Tap the beak with tweezers," one site claimed. "The beak will open instinctively, since it mimics the mother." Really. I was a little skeptical, but I gave it a try, and-

Whoosh! His beak flew so wide that the rest of his head disappeared. Everything about his little body was screaming "Feed me!" though he was still mysteriously silent. He gulped down the wet kibble I had hurriedly purchased in a dusty can at the corner grocery. When I paid for it, I eyed the large, mustached proprietor and wondered if he ever imagined why he had stocked that can of dog food, where it was end up.

Well, over the course of about a week, in the stomach of a very hungry baby house sparrow.

A few days later, he began to peep, first a little. Then a lot. Early in the morning, he knew when the sun came up before we humans noticed, and reminded us from the shoebox next to the bed that it was feeding time. Cheeeep. Cheeeep. Cheeeep. We grew fond of his insistence. You would think it would be irritating, but somehow it wasn't. It was just fun. We learned about the crop, the first stomach where they store food, because we noticed a swelling and became worried at first. He was so pre-feather at that point, you could see the color and texture of whatever he ate right through the thin, tightened skin on his neck.

We fed him, on the hour in the daytime. And he grew, in stature and feather. And out of his shoebox into a large shipping box. We called him Oliver. (Please sir, may I have some more?) We brought him to the green grass so he could learn to hop. And eventually, flap his wings. No two parents could be prouder than we to see him flutter for the first time. He came eventually to the habit of perching on our shoulders (or heads), and I think he saw us as some kind of magical combination of his flock and his favorite tree. He did, as they say, imprint on us. Or what it the other way around? We were both, somewhat inexplicably, devoted to this little creature. As I have said, it was downright fun.

A week or two later, we could release him to hop and fly a bit and then he would come back to be fed. We had a special call that he probably thought was hilarious (the other birds surely did), a kissing-sort of sound into the air that he always responded to, cheeped right back. Even in the woods of Wisconsin (we figured we couldn't leave him alone yet, when a family cabin trip came around), he would come back to us after an hour or so of exploring. We bought him his first seeds there, taught him as best as we could to crack them open, the awkward human parents that we were. Our niece christened him "Olive-bird" in lieu of Oliver. It seemed to fit.

One night at the cabin, Olive-bird did not come back before dark. And a storm rolled in. We both paced up and down the wet deck under the eaves, calling for him long after it was clearly futile. I tried not to worry myself sick. We eventually went to bed. In the morning, he appeared on the patio, bedraggled and drenched, but nevertheless alive. And very pushy about his breakfast. Cheeeep! Maybe, we reasoned, if he could learn to feed himself, he would make it as a wild sparrow after all, having weathered such a storm. Goodness knows he probably had all kinds of baby birdie trauma from that fated night he first fell from the nest. 

Here is Oliver, as he rode to and from the cabin on the headrest by Karl. 

A week back in our familiar backyard, and he finally began to make good friends with the other birds. We fed them all seeds, filled a glass pie pan as a makeshift bird bath, and hoped that he would be popular because of his human connections who seemed to make food and water appear out of no where. It seemed to have worked, because one day, about a week ago now, he was no where to be found. This bird had flown.

We're still a little wistful about the fact that he hasn't come back to visit. We wonder if he's okay, or if something in the course of cruel nature eventually got him in the end. But rather than dwell on these things too much, it is good to thank the One who has His eye on the sparrow. All of them, all of us. What a gift to see one of His creatures - the lowly house sparrow, usually reviled for their commonness - up close and so dear.

And sometimes I just pretend that he's away at college, and he'll inevitably show up for handouts every once in a while when he runs out of other options.