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Post-Fledging Update

Friday, June 30, 2006

Luther sits on a poke leaf. I love the perches baby birds choose.

Luther's first flight and taste of the outdoors.

If I were you, I'd be absolutely dying for an update on the twin phoebes. How did the release go? Well, I've been a bit too busy living it to write about it. But the morning of June 28 did bring a pair of phoebes, chipping and talking to us as we groggily emerged from the house just after dawn. They were as glad to see us as we were to see them. Luther landed on my hand and gobbled down a good breakfast. Avis was happy to fly close and chat but wouldn't eat. And therein began a big problem.
A newly released bird should be ravenous and screaming for food, as was Luther. Birds I've raised and released go through a period of regression when they figure out that they aren't on Easy Street anymore. From being aloof and flighty in the tent, refusing to be hand-fed, they turn back into begging juveniles. Just the sound of my voice brings them swooping in. They shadow me around the yard, just as they would shadow their parents. Needless to say, this is my favorite part of raising birds--having these free-living birds hanging out, playing, foraging, learning fancy flying techniques, yet still coming for regular visits with me. I watch for them to catch their own food (Phoebe saw Luther smashing a beetle, then eating it yesterday). As they get better at it, I cut back on the mealworms, and there comes a day when the bird comes in to chat but won't take any food. That's a beautiful thing, and it's what I work toward. But it should not happen the morning after release.
I watched Avis closely that morning, and was disturbed to see her looking increasingly lethargic. No amount of tickling her rictal bristles would induce her to snap at a mealworm. Uh-oh. Along about noon, I found her back inside the tent, whose flaps I'd left open in case the phoebes felt a need to return. Smart move, Avis. Maybe you came in by accident, and maybe you knew you were in trouble. I zipped it closed and watched her closely. Luther sat just outside in a birch, separated by thin netting, as close as he could get to Avis. They were both obviously upset to be separated, so I brought Luther in to keep Avis company.
I mixed up some fresh baby formula and began to force-feed Avis. It was no fun having to capture this dear little bird, pry her bill open, and feed her the messy, loose formula, but I felt I had no choice. She continued to weaken, trembling as she tried to perch. Double uh-oh. How could we come this far--30 days old, apparently in the pink of health when she was released--only to fail?
All I knew was that I was not going to let her die. In mid-afternoon, I caught her for the last time, and put her in a pet carrier. I'd feed her formula every hour and see if I could turn her decline around. Poor Avis. She hated being force-fed (who wouldn't?); I hated having to do it. She would try to shake her head and get rid of the food. Her feathers got messy, I washed her and kept her as clean as I could. This was awful. I emailed my friend Astrid McCloud, who has raised just about everything, and is my first resort when I'm stumped. Astrid suggested that Avis might have eaten a lightning bug, which could have made her sick. I had seen her catch one in the tent a couple of days before her release, but she took it back to the perch and released it, doubtless because it tasted bad. Maybe she ate one. Maybe not. As she continued to decline I decided to start her on an antibiotic, just in case she had something infectious that might be addressed. I figured it was better than standing around watching her go downhill.
Meanwhile, Luther was blazing new trails outside. The morning of June 29, I awakened to the sound of a phoebe, singing in the lilac (yes, that lilac) just outside our bedroom window. Three times, Luther sang, a hurried, high-pitched, imperfect baby song. I didn't want to wake Bill, who was breathing deeply beside me, but I lay there listening, grinning from ear to ear. Phoebe Linnea had guessed Luther's sex right!
In the next three days, Luther would do all the things a phoebe should do. He investigated the eaves and awnings, instinctively drawn to their cavelike structures.
He ranged farther and farther afield, hanging out in the thick pokeweeds for a siesta.
Perhaps most intriguingly, he figured out how to come back into the open tent for food and water. The titmice quickly robbed all the mealworms from his dish on the joint compound bucket outside the tent, and I figure it won't be long before they learn to come in the tent, too. But for now, it's working well. I smile every time I see Luther in there, reminiscing about his pre-fledging days.


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