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On Starlings, Compassion, and the Why of Wildlife Rehab

Sunday, May 31, 2015

17 comments

It's May 25 as I write, and this ought to be fledging day for the three baby starlings Cynthia and I saved from almost certain death on the black mulch of an Applebee's. 
Far as I know, they're plying the skies over Marietta now, voicing harsh churring calls, having soundly beaten the odds, with a lot of help from their friends.


On May 15, five days after we rigged up the makeshift nest box and installed the babies, brave, good Cynthia Starling went back to check on them. She found the parent starlings going in and out of the box, which had worked itself loose from where I'd wedged and taped it (no wonder, with three growing baby starlings bouncing around in it, and two chunky parents coming and going!). She messaged me to say it was "hanging by a thread" and she was going back that evening to reinforce it with bungee cords. I knew she was good as her word.

I marveled at the multiple small miracles here. 

First, that Cynthia had found a perfect stranger on Facebook through other friends, one who knew what to do (allow the birds' natural parents to raise them) and what not to do (drive the durn things 140 miles to Columbus to take up a wildlife rehabilitator's time). 

Second, that I'd happened by Applebee's just as Cynthia had arrived to look for the nest, only to find two more stranded baby starlings.

And at the precise moment  she was messaging me about it, I walked up and introduced myself.
 Poof! It's Zick! 

Third, that we'd come up with a solution that actually worked. And that the Applebee's manager had looked the other way, bless him, as we crawled around in the shrubbery tearing up nightcrawlers. feeding starlings and making a bird nest box, watched by dozens of curious patrons of that fine establishment. 

Miracle the Fourth: The starlings overcame their fear to visit my cobbled-together nestbox and raised the babies to fledging age.


The question remains, why would anyone do all this for three baby starlings?


Everybody knows starlings aren't worth saving. Starlings displace native cavity nesters; there are way too many of them, and they don't belong here anyway. Do we really need more starlings in the world? 
(Readers in the UK, where starlings are native and on a mysterious, precipitous longterm decline, are saying YES!)
But we emphatically don't need more starlings outcompeting native cavity nesters in the U.S.A. Ask any flicker, red-headed woodpecker,  purple martin or bluebird.

All true. But there are other forces at work here that strongly motivated me to intervene. And as I think about it, there are two forces that make me do this at all, for any bird, turtle, squirrel, what have you.

First is the inability to let a creature suffer without trying to help it. That's #1. Either you have that inability or you don't. I am richly endowed with that inability. Clearly, so is Cynthia.


Second, and probably more important in the big picture, is that wildlife rehabilitation is for the benefit of people, even more than it is for the wildlife being saved. 

A certain percentage of all wild creatures born is bound to die. The natural fecundity of starlings more than makes up for three left to writhe on the mulch under an awning at Applebee's, a drama played out probably thousands of times each spring under hundreds of restaurant awnings nationwide.  Even that bald eagle seen on the evening news, painstakingly brought back from being shot and released with great fanfare in a public ceremony, doesn't really "matter" in the grand scheme of things, if you ask a population biologist. There are more bald eagles hatched every year to take its place. I hate to say it, but on a wildlife population level, rehab is essentially meaningless, unless you're dealing with something critically endangered like whooping cranes, where an individual is a significant percentage of the population.

What is not meaningless is the people who care about wildlife. What is meaningful is that they cared enough to seek help for some hapless thing they've found. And to me, it doesn't matter if what they found is a house sparrow lying naked on a sidewalk, a starling found under an awning, or a peregrine falcon that has hit a window. What matters is honoring that they care. And in honoring them, carrying forward and spreading the compassion in ever-widening ripples on this big, often cruel, pond.

I stopped to help and build a nestbox and risk the wrath of a restaurant manager because I believe the world needs more people like Cynthia, and those two little girls who took pity and moved the starling babies under the shrubbery. We all start off caring deeply about the little things. I remember crying over each and every black molly that was born and died in the 5-gallon aquarium I kept as a kid. I remember the funeral I held for Sailor Bob, the tiny red-eared slider I kept in a plastic tank with a plastic palm tree, that I fed Hartz Mountain dried flies and kept in the back bathroom until he croaked from malnourishment. I remember the moment I realized my that my mother thought I was being overly sensitive about these minor stars in what would eventually be a firmament of pets. I was about eight, and I couldn't understand why she wasn't as upset as I about the fish, the turtle, the squashed mantis, the hurt baby bird. Well, when you're old enough to have an 8-year-old, and you've had five kids before she was born, and the eldest of them had to leave you when he was four, you've long since learned to ration your tears. You've seen real hardship and tragedy and you've known real sadness, and a floating fish doesn't qualify as tear material any more.  

I understand that now. I get it, Mom. I was a huge pain in the butt, and I thank you for putting up with me, for nurturing the passion for wild things that still knows no bounds. 

But knowing what's worth crying over doesn't mean the caring has to stop. Nor should it. 
I went by the Applebee's not because I love starlings.  (Even though I secretly do.) 

I did it because I love people like Cynthia Starling, people who care. She didn't know what it was, she just knew it would die without her help.


 And let's face it:  I never could resist a little bag of guts.


photo by Liam Thompson

Postscript: These photos taken May 27, 2015, three days after Cynthia reattached the dangling nest box full of about-to-fledge starling babies.

Two churring gray juveniles with both parents, just above the nestsite in the middle slot. I could hardly believe I saw this and got this bad iPhone shot.

This is their foraging habitat. Which is amazing in itself, that any bird can consider a restaurant, a parking lot and a tiny patch of grass like this "habitat."


 Not sure where the others were at the moment, but pretty sure none of them would have lived to fly and sort through beetle grubs without help. Thought you'd like to see the rest of the story.



South Africa Overdrive!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

2 comments
Under the heading of: It's All Good, there has been a lot of interest in my South Africa trip 

September 25-October 07, 2016 

with optional pre-extension Sept 17-26 to the fabulously diverse Cape Region.

Red-billed oxpecker on impala 

So much so, that we are considering adding another vehicle, which would open up another five spots, for a total of 12 participants on the trip.

Thing is, we don't want to add another vehicle unless we get at least two more people to sign up.

Once you start looking at African safaris, it's hard to beat the price of this one. And I can brag a little and say that between Leon Marais, our flint-eyed guide, and the ever-curious and always engaged Science Chimp, we won't miss much, from the python on the limb to the leopard in the grass to the kite circling high overhead.
Thick-billed weaver, making a masterpiece with nothing but his mouth and feet. You try doing that.



Click this link for the Holbrook page. There you can download a PDF of the itinerary, get all your questions answered, and most importantly, sign yourself up for the adventure of a lifetime.

 Respond at the Holbrook page by 


Monday, June 1, 2015

 to secure your place on this incredible journey with me.



Yellow-rumped tinkerbird (a kind of barbet, or small toucan), with spiderweb. I was whistling to him and he was talking back. We had a moment.


Giraffe and kudu. I would like to see this with you.
Thank you for your interest. 
All photos by Zick.

Promise this is the last teaser/torture I'll do.



Saving Starlings: Part 2


  • We're standing in a parking lot at the Applebee's in Marietta, Ohio, dithering, on a hot Saturday in May. 

    Two more baby starlings lay sprawled on the black mulch, under a shrub. Oh man. Cynthia's baby, which she'd stayed up all night to check on, was still at her house, about 10 minutes away. That makes three that had fallen from a single nest. At 8 days, the babies were old enough to be active and crawl around a bit, and had found their way to a gap and fallen through.

    What a mess. She told me that two little girls had seen these on the ground and been very concerned about them, and moved them under a bush. Well, sure. They're the definition of vulnerability. This explained the food-bearing starlings, sitting on the Dumpster fence, waiting for the coast to clear so they could feed their fallen children. I noted through binoculars that they were hauling cutworms. Good starlings. Not feeding your babies Freedom Fries. Hey, me neither.

    It was obvious to me and Cynthia that, between the Applebee's customers constantly walking by on dayshift,  taking pity on them and picking them up and (most importantly) keeping nervous parents away from them, and the rats and mice on night shift, these 8-9 day old babies weren't going to make it on the ground. Starlings stay in the nest a very long time--until about Day 24. They leave the nest flying strongly and are completely on their own only a few days later.  One of the great amazements and mysteries of starling nest life that I'm exploring in my upcoming book, Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into the Nest. 

    After speaking with Cynthia for a bit, we both withdrew to see if the parents were still attending a nest, and if so, where that might be. I could hear the low churr of a single baby starling from high up in the awning over the side windows facing the parking lot. 



    Sure enough, patient waiting was rewarded with the sight of a parent entering a slit on the metal awning, and the sound of a baby being stuffed with food.

    There's a house sparrow perched up where the nest zone is, and it also has a nest stuffed in the narrow triangle of space. The starling nest is farther down the awning, at the other end of the metal brace on which  the sparrow's perched. The starlings were entering that slit and tending a precarious nest within.


    It was far too high to reach, even with a stepladder. 
    We went inside to ask the manager permission to intervene, and ask if he had a cardboard box we could use.
    He returned after some time with a small three-sided box, and the warning that, for liability reasons, we would not be permitted to use a ladder around this establishment. Oh. Hmm. Crap.

    Being a Meyers Briggs ISTP (The Mechanic), my brain began churning around how to solve this problem without using a ladder. I took off for the Bird Watcher's Digest office, just a few blocks away, and rummaged through the warehouse until I had what seemed like a workable solution. It involved duct tape. You knew it had to. 


                                                       photo by Liam Thompson

    My thinking was that I'd securely tape the nestbox to a sort of extension that I could use to attain more height than I could otherwise. I'd load the nestbox up with clean straw off the bales I'd just bought, insert the three baby starlings, and push it up as high under the awning as I could get it, securing it with...you got it. Duct tape. 

    I brought a small stepstool from the BWD warehouse. The manager didn't like that, and told me not to use it. I told him I was going to anyway, and he could bring me something to sign that released his company from liability if I fell off the stepstool. I think it was clear at that point that I was gonna get those birds up under that awning if I had to grow wings and fly them up there. I climbed on the stepstool and he turned and went back inside. I felt sorry for him. He was doing his job, and he knew crazy bird ladies when he saw them. I'm grateful to him for even allowing us to mess around out there under the awning.

    While constructing the box at BWD, I messaged Cynthia. 


  • Julie Zickefoose I have the nest box made. You need to go get your baby bird and bring some food and water in a dropper to Applebee's.
    Like · Reply · 1 · May 9 at 2:21pm
  • Julie Zickefoose Wait for me I'm just seconds away. I'll tell you the plan and then you need to go get the bird, food and water.
    Like · Reply · 1 · May 9 at 2:22pm
  • Cynthia Starling OK I was thinking that I needed to get him.



She drove home and returned with the starling she'd so tenderly cared for the day and night before. She also brought the nightcrawlers she'd bought, and the all-important water dropper. It was a hot, hot day and we needed to get the birds well-hydrated and fed.


I was going to load those babies up as full as I could with nightcrawlers and water so they'd have fortification for the wait they'd have to endure. Fortunately the babies were With The Program. Being starlings, they were ridiculously easy to feed.  Those giant yellow clown lips are a snap to pry open, and once you get food in there, it goes down fast. 


photo by Liam Thompson

Opening the gape. Having a thumbnail helps. You go in from the side, run your nail along the gape opening, then hold the bill open with thumb and forefinger of  your left hand while you stuff food in with your right. It isn't easy, but you can do it.

The thing most people don't realize about baby birds is that they will refuse food from a person, but it's not because they aren't hungry.  They're hungry all the time. That's a given. The most common thing I get from callers is, "I offered him food but he won't eat." They've usually put a dish of birdseed in front of the baby. Or they've dangled a worm in front of its face. And the baby refuses to take either, because it can't. It doesn't have the neural connections to pick up its own food.

 At this point they've given up and are calling me for help, figuring this thing they're trying to save has a death wish. Well, you don't "offer" food to a frightened, debilitated bird. You pry his bill open and stuff it down him until he gets the idea that you're doing him a favor. Only when that light clicks on in his brain, sometimes a few hours to a day later, and he learns to associate you with food and comfort and good things, will he gape for you. It's got to be the right food, of course. No baby bird can eat birdseed or bread, nor can they pick it up themselves even if they could digest it. Scrambled egg. Soaked kibble. Mealworms, stuffed into its mouth. That kind of thing a baby bird will eat.

photo by Liam Thompson

I had to tear the nightcrawlers into pieces. Cynthia was amazed how much the babies could accept. Hey, they're starlings. A starling is a fat bag of guts and poop propelled by stubby wings.

photo by Liam Thompson

The two newly fallen babies were afraid, but the one she'd cared for overnight knew all about the kindness of people. He gaped until he could swallow no more.

photo by Liam Thompson

When I had them fed and quiet, I made them a nice straw nest and put them in the box. They were so happy to crawl down into their dark nest. It felt like home to them.

I climbed on the stepstool and pushed the box as high up under the awning as I could, directly beneath the starling's original nest, where one baby remained. I taped it as best I could to the metal struts under the awning. It wasn't very high--maybe 10' off the ground. But it was protected from the weather and people, and it was facing the same direction as the original nest opening, and I trusted that once those babies got hungry they'd begin churring in there. The parents, who had, after all, witnessed the entire procedure, would eventually figure out what had happened here, orient to the babies' hunger calls, conquer their fear and enter my makeshift starling nest box. At least that was my hope, informed by knowing a little bit about how birds think.

I got back in my car and watched with binoculars as the parent starlings came, bills laden with food, and looked worriedly down into the shrubs where they'd last seen their three babies. I never saw them orient to the box, but then the foundlings were probably sound asleep in there, resting and digesting. Their babies were gone. It would take awhile before they would find them again. It wasn't going to happen while I was there, and I had to drive Liam to Beverly for his play performance anyway.

Cynthia and I hugged, said our goodbyes and left the area, sure that we'd done the best possible thing short of getting the birds back to their original nest (which clearly wasn't a good option anyway, if three of them had fallen out already).

I went inside and thanked the manager and told him we were all set, that I hadn't fallen off the stepstool and cracked my head open, at least not any farther open than it already was, and that the box would be there for only about ten more days.

The starling parents would have to do the rest.

Next: Why do all this for three starlings? Aren't we supposed to hate starlings?


Saving Starlings

Monday, May 25, 2015

9 comments

A lot of people hate starlings. They're messy, sometimes obnoxious, and more than that they're nonnative, the ultimate condemnation if you're a birdwatcher or a natural history purist. 
Why would anyone help a starling?
It's complicated.

I got a comment in an unrelated Facebook thread from someone I didn't know. For those of you in FacebookLand, commenting on the Facebook wall of someone you don't know is the only way to get a message to them; any private message is going to their Other inbox, along with all the spammy proposals from impossibly handsome single men from the UK that all start: "Hello dearest I am captivated by your smile you seem to be a lovely lady..."

 Cynthia had found a baby bird on the ground at our local Applebee's, which, like most Applebee's, is ringed by parking lot. Ergo, there would be three choices as to species: Starling, house sparrow, and (long shot) American robin. 

Hi Julie my name is Cynthia and I was told you might be able to help me. Last night when leaving Applebee's we found I would guess a 8 day old baby blue jay. I run a rescue w 7 indoor cats at the moment 2 dogs and 3 goats. I am needing a rehome because I can not provide the safety for him/her. He is eating well and is uninjured. My number is xxxxxxxx if you could contact me I would greatly appreciate it.
photo by Cynthia Starling

My first response was nuh-uh.  

  • Julie Zickefoose Cynthia that is not a blue jay. It's a starling. Feed it dog or cat food soaked ground kibble. I can't take it. I can help you arrange transport to Columbus if you can't get there yourself. Ohio wildlife center 614 761 0134.
    Like · Reply · 1 · May 9 at 1:09pm

    Then I thought about it. I wanted to help this person who cared enough to hunt me down.

  • Julie Zickefoose Starlings tend to nest inside the signs at restaurants. Check the letters of Applebee's for straw sticking out from behind. If possible put it back In the nest.
    Like · Reply · 1 · May 9 at 1:11pm
  • Cynthia Starling Thank you. I bought night crawlers and broke them up and have been feeding him. I will contact Applebee's.


    Julie Zickefoose Good of you. Thank you for caring. They are such intelligent and lovable babies. Purina One kitten chow would offer more complete nutrition and is available in groceries. Best of course would be to try to poke him back up in the nest if it can be located.

I didn't hear any more. Now it gets interesting. I'm in town that same day, May 9, running a million Saturday errands, including getting Liam to the BMV for his learner's permit test, finding out we didn't have proper ID so would have to come back; buying him some summer shorts because he's run out of them, picking up plants and bales of potting soil and straw, banking, grocery shopping...the back of my car looks like this. The inside of my brain is considerably less attractive.


But as I'm driving by, I decide to go check out the situation at Applebee's, see if I can find where that nest might be, and see what the chances are, if any, that Cynthia might be able to reach it to dump the baby starling back in it. The first thing I see when I get there is a pair of starlings perched on the wooden fence around the Dumpster, holding food in their bills.  Well, there are the parents, and they're on the job. Good.

The next thing I see is a car in the parking lot with its driver's door open, and there is a woman in the front seat typing hurriedly on her phone. She happens to be posting this message. To me. 



  • Cynthia Starling OK I'm at Applebee's and there are so many more...I am afraid.

    I've never seen her before, but I know she has to be this mysterious savior named, ironically enough, Starling. I walk up, saying, "Hi Cynthia. Trying to find the starling nest?"
    I won't soon forget the relief and joy and momentary confusion that cross her face as she figures out that the cyber-world and the real world are in a delicious collision at this exact moment. 

    I'm not sure what little voice guided me to her car at 1:55 pm on a ridiculously busy Saturday, because I hadn't gotten the message she sent, but there we were, and we were going to solve this problem together.

    Next: Two more starlings fall out! Ack! Zick and Cynthia to the rescue!




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