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A Cuckoo's Farewell

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

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.

 July 9, around noon. Looking good!

Feeding time. That's an EZ-Feeder syringe, meant for hand-feeding baby parrots, but it works great for everything else, too. It's full of Mazuri nestling formula, mixed up fresh twice a day. There's also my dentist's cotton pliers, a bent tweezers that's my best friend for hand-feeding insects to birds. 

July 10: I have her in a bander's grip, her head coming through my first two fingers. She was the calmest, most compliant bird I've ever handled. I was waiting for her to get obstreperous and feisty, because that's usually the sign that they're ready to go. She got stronger with every feeding, but she never got feisty, and she never once tried to bite me. Never seen a bird act like this one. Just nice, she was. Nice to the bone.

By July 11, there finally came that magic point where she began agitating to get out. She spent all morning at the side of the cage nearest the window, bouncing around, poking her bill through the bars. She struggled a bit when captured for feedings. It was time. I love it when I know beyond doubt that it's time to release a bird.

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.

 July 11. Time for release! Her keel (breastbone) was nicely rounded with muscle and fat; she'd been a bit thin when she came in. 

I gave my iPhone to my expert videographer, Liam, who did a marvelous job of capturing the action. I couldn't be happier with this video, for all kinds of reasons. Look what this bird does when she's released!

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.

Zick photos and videos by Liam Thompson



Just the coolest story ever! I so felt your awe as she sat there in your hand. Felt like I went to church. XO

Love this story. When she kept looking back at you, I could almost hear her saying "thank you."

Tearing up a little here. Tears of joy, though.

Wow. What a nature/nurture connection!
Wonderful outcome! Beautiful bird!
I have glass porch & after picking up a dozen dead cardinals one winter I put screening off roll @ hardware store over glass to cut the reflection. It works & doesn't impede view!

Glorious! Thank you!

Posted by Gail Spratley July 19, 2016 at 6:17 AM

How I love the visits to Indigo Hill via your blog! This entry was especially heart-warming. i could not believe that sweet cuckoo stayed for so long on your hand, and the way she kept her eye on you. Extra-ordinary. and thank you.

Sniffling, just a bit.
When she finally took off, I caught myself breathing a sigh of relief (totally unexpected).
Yes, a true gift to be so close to such a wondrous creature.

Cuckoo love, there's nothing like it on earth. Thanks for sharing it all with us.

Oh how wonderful!!!! You are an amazing steward!!! We use Window Alert window decals which are amazing!!! We've reduced bird strike from at least one a day to zero. We put the decals in the spots that were struck the most.

Wow, you must feel good about the BB cuckoo recovery and release. I had a similar experience with a YB cuckoo at my Mom's patio. A window/patio door strike and then I
picked up the bird and placed it in my garden Blackberry patch for recovery. The following week it called in the neighbor's tree.

Posted by John Baxter July 19, 2016 at 8:28 AM

Excellent. Happy endings never get old.

Excellent. Happy endings never get old.

It is indeed a 'benediction.' You are a God-send--to the birds and to the friends with whom you so generously share your life.

Posted by Kerry Reynard July 19, 2016 at 9:07 AM

Pooh-pooh the admiration that has come your way all you want, but you ARE a guardian angel to these creatures. Most people would have given the bird up for dead, the way she looked at first. Thank goodness you didn't. I'm sure this bird will be telling her friends all about what happened to her, and will soon get the reputation for being one of those "kooks" who believes that humans actually intercede in the affairs of bird, and that she has a "guardian human" who watches over her. She certainly looked back at you as if she were mulling over the experience and wondering what it all meant.

One of your best posts!

Posted by Anonymous July 19, 2016 at 10:03 AM

Such a wonderful story! Thank you for sharing your photos, thoughts, birds, plants, and science chimp wisdom!

A touch of grace. You and Miss BB are both blessed.

Goodness. I saw the Blog Title of "Cuckoo's Farewell" without having seen the Part 2 blog and video. So, I thought Farewell meant FAREWELL and that she didn't make it. Imagine my surprise when I watched Part 2 and saw how well this glorious bird was doing! I'm a new Blog reader, and what a joyful story this was. Thanks for your experiences and stories.

- Kathanne from Colorado

My goodness, i have a lump in my throat and a full heart just in the reading of your words and looking at the video!

Tears of joy. Very sweet.

What IS it about these feathered creatures that draws a bullseye on our hearts? I loved every second of this story. I would watch the video again, but I will have to find a kleenex first so I can see thru my tears. God bless you Julie.

Julie, your blog is one of my few sources of cheer in what are dark days both for the country and for me personally. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Incredible! Bliss.

Wow. Just wow. As another commenter wrote "I felt like I went to church." Your Indigo Sanctuary IS a church. Tears of joy, of relief, for the beauty of the moment. Loved it that Liam kissed her goodbye too! (Unless I'm really bad at math, and I could be, from the video timer, it seemed she was on your hand for a full minute. Am I adding it up wrong?) And I have a feeling you will see her again. Love to you and your family.

Thank you. This story is absolutely beautiful!

That's just awesome!!!! Thank you so much for sharing her story.

Posted by Bunnies July 29, 2016 at 5:12 PM
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