If you’ve been following these blog posts, you know that I spent the last two days playing mother to a tiny baby swallow who fell out of its nest early Tuesday morning. I thought I knew quite a bit about barn swallows, but this week has been an education in caring for baby birds.
The primary thing I learned is that being a mommy bird is harder work than being a tech writer, a college instructor or even a police officer. It’s one of the most challenging things I’ve done in my life, right up there with being a midwife’s assistant and taking care of my dying mother.
Of course, I thought in the beginning that I was standing a deathwatch again. When I brought him in, I was sure he was going to die within a few hours or maybe minutes. But he had other plans. He took to the cat food eagerly, and soon he was cheeping for it every ten minutes or so.
I put him in a tissued-lined bowl to serve as a nest and put him on my desk, along with the plate of cat food and a chopstick I used to put the food in the back of his mouth (his "crop") so he could swallow it. I got good at that after a while, or he did. Let’s just say we both learned to work together. I learned exactly what size bite of cat food a swallow likes, and how to twist the chopstick slightly to make it drop off more easily into his mouth. I learned to wipe his little beak off with water so the food wouldn’t dry on it and stick it together. I learned how long he wanted to wait between the two or three bites that made up a feeding session, and how long I had between sessions in case I needed to go to the bathroom or grab something to eat myself.
I also learned that raising a swallow is a great diet technique. I was too busy to snack, and I couldn’t finish my usual weight watcher’s TV dinner. I felt funny about eating chicken after what I’d been doing all day.
In the evening, when Tom and I watched TV, every fifteen minutes or so we’d have to pause the program so I could answer the call of my "baby." Tom was amazed that I could tell the difference in his cheeps – the one that signals hunger is different from the one that says "I’m about to poop." I also learned that if I didn’t want to wait for him to start gaping (opening his mouth for food) on his own, I could make him do it just by passing my hand over his head to create a shadow. I think that reminded him of the mommy bird flying in.
At sunset I put his little tissue lined bowl "nest" into a box and put him in the big master closet where it was dark and warm (I shut off the a/c vent). I half expected he wouldn’t be with us in the morning, but felt at least I’d given him an extra day of life.
He surprised me again. When I got up at 5:30, he was already coming awake and ready to start once again on his mission in life: eating and getting stronger. By mid morning, he was standing up on both feet (something he hadn’t been able to do the day before). And I had to face the fact that maybe nursing him back to health was the easy part. What was I going to do when it came time for him to fly? I didn’t know if the mom bird would take over again but I did know that I couldn’t climb up on the roof and feed him after he started flying and before he learned to hunt on his own, like she does.
I went back to my web research, and found numerous recommendations that someone who finds themselves with a wild bird call a wildlife rehabilitator. I hadn’t even known such a thing existed, but I found a phone number for one south of Dallas. I called her and she gave me the number of another place a little closer (about 45 minutes away). I called them, told them what I had, and they convinced me to bring him to them. They said they had special food to meet his nutritional needs and staff working in shifts to feed the babies when they need it. They also said they know how to release them back into the wild with the best chance for survival.
It was a hard decision. I had grown extremely attached to the little thing in two days. But I wanted to do what was best for him and leave my ego out of it. So Wednesday afternoon, I drove him out there and left him with them. I took his can of cat food along just in case, and sure enough, I had to pull off the freeway and find a parking place three times along the way when he insisted on being fed. He has me well trained.
I was amazed when I walked into the place. There were birds everywhere. Some of the medium sized, non aggressive ones were just walking around free – cranes and a beautiful big white bird I couldn’t identify. Then there were many more in cages.
The lady there took my little one and put him in a cloth donut lined with tissues that’s about the size of a nest, then put that into a little plastic cage and sat that on a heating pad to keep him warm. First, though, she fed him a yellowish colored pellet and after a little initial reluctance, he gobbled it up. I wonder if he misses the cat food. I wonder if he misses me.
I certainly miss him and his little "cheep, cheep, cheep" telling me that it’s time to eat.
Taking it further
I gave them a $50 donation but I want to do more. This morning I emailed them about volunteering, directly taking care of the birds and/or using my writing skills. I got back a very nice message saying they were planning a quarterly newsletter and would be thrilled for me to help out in that way. I also told them I was interested in spending one day a month helping feed and care for the birds.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about needing something "outside" to do – considered getting more involved in local politics but reluctant because I know what a thankless job that can be and how, no matter how hard you try to help, you just end up making enemies.
Birds, and people who care about them – that’s a whole different environment. I think I’ve finally found a worthwhile cause. Of course, I have an "ulterior motive" too. If I learn how to care for these babies, then if this happens to one of ours again, I’ll be prepared – either to do it myself, or to have an "in" for him there.
If you’re interested in donating, volunteering or just want to know more about the place where my baby now lives, see www.rogerswildlife.org.
Back on the home front
The two remaining babies are still in the nest – no more falling/jumping/whatever was happening so far. Just in case, we’ve put a layer of blankets under the nest so that if it does happen again, there’s less chance of injury.
I’ll be thinking of their little brother (or sister) every time I look at them, and especially when they fledge and fly. I hope he finds his way down to South America and somehow hooks up with the rest of his family, and makes it back to our house next spring.
What an experience this has been.