The window-hit black-billed cuckoo and I got into a routine. She'd spend quiet days in the glassed-in aviary off my studio, and I'd peek in on her, change her papers several times a day so she wouldn't get too dirty, and take her out to the kitchen for her feedings every couple of hours. I was sure she was self-feeding when she collided with the window; she was traveling with a sibling, not a parent, and she is fully grown. I guess she just didn't like the food I was offering enough to try eating it out of a dish.
Before I continue, a couple of clarifications. I've gathered from a couple of comments that some might have a vision of me wiping bleary eyes as I get up to nurse this cuckoo all night long. Uhhh, nope. Birds sleep at night, even baby birds. You want a saint? That would be a wildlife rehabilitator who works with baby mammals, who DO need to be fed all night long, and all day, too. Homey don't do mammals, nuhhh nuh nuh. Love my sleep too much. Second, let's all remember why this cuckoo's in a bad way. Because of the big glass window in my big cool house, that's why. I am not a hero here. I'm the problem. All I'm trying to do is right a wrong that's been wrong for way too long. More on that below.
Cuckoos are incredibly cool birds. But they also have a very high weird quotient. Quirky. I've only had one in rehab before, an egg-bound adult female yellow-billed, and luckily she fed herself from a dish. When I figured out what was wrong with her, I oiled her vent and that same afternoon out came the biggest dang blue egg I'd ever seen come out of a bird that size. In fact, these two cuckoos (black-billed and yellow-billed) lay the biggest eggs relative to their body size of any North American bird. There's a whole chapter of my book devoted to the strangeness of cuckoos. I highly recommend reading it! because cuckoos are too weird and too cool to begin to capture in a post like this.
I thought long and hard about whether to flight-test her. The only place I could think of to do it was our windowless upstairs hallway, but the more I pondered it, the less I liked the idea of a cuckoo, whose long tapered wings give it a lightning fast, arrowlike, swooping flight style, trying to maneuver in that cramped space. What if she crashed into a wall and concussed herself again!? Nooo!! I definitely didn't want to set up the nylon flight tent (a good hour's work) just to ascertain that yep, she could fly! I knew she would be able to fly. I felt she was ready. So I took the risk of simply taking her outside and opening my hands. (The risk being that she wouldn't be strong enough to survive, but that she'd fly well enough to get away from me, oops!) Nah, she was ready. I washed her soiled tail with Baby Magic and warm water and patted it dry. I keep my rehab birds, be they babies or adults, strictly clean, for soiled feathers don't insulate or function well in flight.
I cannot begin to describe the thrill of having that cuckoo just hang out with me, ON me, of her own free will, for a golden 32 seconds. Aw, you can see it on my face, hear it in my voice. It was incredible. It was a benediction. It lit me through and through with joy, and some of that is still lingering. I think about it, about the feel of her long soft toes on my hand, the slight weight of her, not even two ounces, but packed with pounds of sweetness and light and forgiveness for all I'd put her through.
And then to see her fly, that lightning fast low swoop, to stick a perfect landing in the dead pine. So glad I didn't try to flight test her in the hall. I was so glad I'd listened to that little voice, that one that makes itself heard over all the self-doubt and second-guessing.
In the video, you see me going into action, capturing our last looks at the bird with my 70-300 telephoto lens.
It was uncanny how she kept looking back at me.
Even after she bounced into the woods, she kept her eye on me.
I will remember you.
To keep birds from hitting your window ever again, see my Ultimate Solution to Window Strikes at this link. Well worth reading, for finding out what doesn't work, as well as what absolutely does. Which is crop netting, stretched over your window. In 2008, I had screens made for my big, deadly north-facing studio windows, and in the eight years since then, I've lost only one mourning dove, the only bird big and fast enough to deform the crop netting and bonk itself dead.
Through the magic of Facebook, I was alerted to conservation biologist Andrew Mack's 2012 blog, The View from Love Hollow, in which he came up with the same solution, with easier and cheaper installation.
Cheaper and easier yet: National Aviary ornithologist Bob Mulvihill's idea of tacking white string at 4" intervals, vertically across the offending window.
To get this window treated toot sweet, Bill (who climbed the big shaky ladder) and I (who fearlessly handed him the tape before he went up) used American Bird Conservancy tape designed for windows. We have solid reports that it works. It's a comfort to know the birds are duly alerted, but we're still trying to get used to the new look. Ultimately, crop netting, which truly disappears, will likely be the best fit for us, who, when we're indoors, are always, always looking out.
I hope you've enjoyed this bird's journey as much as I enjoyed having her with me. I miss having bird energy in the house, and she brought a very, very special sweetness to my life for the few days she was recuperating. She was released on July 11, Phoebe's 20th birthday, and something about that rings a bell, too. On July 13th, a mysterious brown bird launched out of one of the birches and flew right at the (crop-netted) studio window toward my preoccupied face, veering at the last moment and heading into the backyard. It wasn't a dove, and it wasn't a flicker. It might have been a black-billed cuckoo, saying thank you once again.