Background Switcher (Hidden)

A Tale of Three Song Sparrows

Sunday, January 23, 2022


 From left, Bob, Baby, and Ball. 

I doubt that the person who found four baby song sparrows, one already dying, in her yard, had the slightest idea what she was getting me into when she called Bird Watcher’s Digest for help. BWD is, or was, a great birdwatching magazine. It was housed in an office, and was never a bird rehabilitation center, yet it was the closest anyone could come to anything having to do with birds in our rehabber-impoverished part of Appalachia. So they'd call with their bird problems. I was the magazine's go-to for local wildlife emergencies, and I never did figure out how to divert tiny songbirds in immediate need of food and care. With the closest rehab center more than two hours away in Columbus, I'm stuck with their care. 

 Too young to be out of the nest, the eight-day-old birds were scattered across the caller’s lawn. She thought they’d fallen from a nest she could see “about 25’ up in a big tree.” Now, that doesn’t fit for song sparrows. It’s not even close. Weren’t there any shrubs nearby? No, just the woods across the road. Well, song sparrows don’t nest high in trees, and tiny immobile song sparrows don’t just fall from the sky. Where they'd come from was moot, anyway. One was dying and the other three were cheeping shrilly. I could hear them over the phone! They’d be dead soon, if I didn’t do something. I asked the caller to scramble an egg, and try to push it into their mouths. Immediate food was what they needed. I asked for photos. Their hungry calls over the phone had triggered something in my memory, and I was not surprised to see four nestling song sparrows in the photos and videos that followed. Oh boy. I had raised a song sparrow named Dustin just last summer. Raising Dustin was no cakewalk. Was I really going to do this again, times three?


Sometimes I wonder if people think I am sitting by the phone,  waiting and ready to deal with these situations. That I’m going to swoop down and take care of it for them. That that is all I do: sit by the phone, hoping to get the next call for help. I suppose, in real life, that I do little to dispel that assumption. I do swoop in and take care of it for them, so the calls keep coming, because word of mouth travels fast and far in a small town.


I'm writing this up because I want to remember the experience, which was wonderful. I'm also  doing it because I want people to understand what unfolds when a bird rehabber swoops in to take care of their situation. The caller, a young mother, asked a friend’s mom to take the birds and meet me at the midpoint I’d suggested—a drive of perhaps seven miles for her, and 14 for me. The black Dodge Charger rolled up; its darkened window rolled down and a woman wordlessly handed me an open-topped cardboard box. Inside were three live song sparrows and one dead one; several handfuls of cold, damp green grass, and a whole slice of white bread, which, the caller had informed me, the birds wouldn’t eat.

 I thanked the intermediary for bringing the birds. She didn’t reply—she just rolled up her window and pulled out of the lot. It was an odd handoff. I watched her car pull away. She was headed back to her life, and I was off to mine, which, thanks to the box contents, was going to look a lot different from that moment on.


Aug. 30, 2021. Day 8. As presented, on white bread: an open-faced sparrow sandwich. Sadly, one has already succumbed to the fall, or starvation. You've got to move fast with baby songbirds.

I filled them with warm insectivore formula and mealworms. Ordered 15,000 more mealworms from . And I settled into the routine: half-hourly feedings, dawn to dark, that tiny birds require. Thank goodness they sleep through the night. 

It wasn't long before they fledged from their strawberry box nest. Bob was first; he fledged on Day 9.

            Bob, just fledged, Day 9, Aug. 31, 2021. He wanted to be with me, and not with his siblings. He cheeped incessantly until I went to get him and bring him into the studio with me. Baby birds want what they want, and you have to listen to them.

He spent most of his time in the cage once he started flying a lot. Baby birds ricocheting around the studio: No good. It's little wonder Bob wanted out of that cage, though. Look how Ball (far left) treats him. Bob's in the middle, and Baby's to the right. Ball always wanted the highest perch, and he thought nothing of just jumping atop whatever hapless sibling held the position he wanted.



Ball the Intimidator

Bob, looking very round. 

Sept. 7, 2021--the three in a rare bunch. Ball in front, Baby behind, and Bob, facing away as usual. 

Ball was a bully, but he was also a teacher. By comparison to my experience raising Dustin in the spring of 2020, this trio was a cinch. With bold and curious Ball at the lead, they fledged on Day 10, hopping all over the studio. I had to place a large cage atop my flatfile in the studio to keep them confined, as baby birds have a talent for flying into walls and dropping behind furniture. They come out covered in dust bunnies.

The sparrows' primary diet was soft, white, freshly molted mealworms, and Mazuri Insectivore Nestling Diet, which I fed them from a syringe. It comes powdered and you mix it with warm water. They were great gapers and eaters, and they also enjoyed pecking through the dishes of food I kept in the cage.


                        Ball's First Worm Pickup: Inspiring the Rest. Day 17! 


To my amazement, they began picking up their own mealworms on Day 17! Ball would initiate the activity; the other two would watch closely, then copy whatever he did.  All three birds went from gaping for the syringe in the morning to feeding themselves in the evening. I couldn't believe it. I felt like I should be paying Ball, so much work did he save me. I placed large flat jar lids full of ground sunflower hearts, dried flies and larvae, millet, dove seed and ground chick starter in the cage. They were interested, pecking and even swallowing at this tender age. Their transition to self-feeding was smooth as satin, a stark difference to 2020 sparrow Dustin’s bizarre refusal to take in any nourishment on his own.  That little devil still wasn't cracking seeds or swallowing anything but the occasional mealworm on Day 33, when I finally released him in desperation. I realized that continuing captivity wasn't getting that bird anywhere. That afternoon, he cracked and swallowed his first millet seed, and he was off to the races. 

Ball, very round, resting in the studio cage. He could be a jerk, but he was my hero. Still is.

This is Baby. Baby did a lot of crouching, and she squalled every time her brothers shouldered her out of the way. Might be a female thing. How did I know the sexes of the birds? I guessed, based on behavior. 

By Day 19, they were feeding themselves reliably, and refusing to gape for the syringe, though they’d peck and eat the formula that came out of it as I pushed the plunger. They discovered water on Day 19, and spent much of the day bathing, flinging water and seed, and making a mess of everything through the bars of their cage. It was time to get them out of the cage, out of the house, and into the soft-sided fledging tent. What a relief to know they’d have ample room for exercise, and could bathe and fling seed to their hearts’ content, without leaving waterspots on furniture. 

I was never so happy to set up the fledging tent. Those birds were a mess! And I knew they'd love the safe, comparatively vast spaces they'd have to fly and skitter and bathe and peck, out in the tent.

See You Soon at For the Love of Birds!

Friday, January 14, 2022


I'm here to highlight and celebrate an online event that exceeded all my expectations when I presented there in 2021.  It's a virtual festival called 

For the Love of Birds.

One of the things that's cool about this festival is the lineup--a very fresh take on the world of bird appreciation. FTLOB takes a wider look, with a collection of personalities that you probably haven't seen in other festival rosters. Here's this year's lineup: 

       Dr. Pepper Trail, Senior Forensic Ornithologist & creator of The Feather Atlas

  • John Muir Laws, artist and author of Laws Guide to Drawing Birds
  • Kenn Kaufman, author of the Kaufman field guide series
  • ​Eliana Ardila, Birdguide, Photographer, Biologist & Founder of Birding By Bus
  • ​Jose Martinez Amoedo,survivalist and star of the History Channel's Alone Show
  • ​Marshall Johnson, acting Chief Conservation Officer for the National Audubon Society
  • George Bumann, Yellowstone's master artist & animal language expert
  • Amy Wallace, falconer and founder of Falconry and Me on YouTube
  • ​Freya McGregor, Coordinator at Birdability
  • ​Elle Kaye, professional bird taxidermist & host of Specimens podcast
  • ​Purbita Saha, Senior Editor at Popular Science
From these folks, you'll hear stories like: 

  • The Ancient Art of Hunting With A Trained Raptor: A female falconer from the UK unpacks what it takes to work with these independently-minded animals.
    What To Do When You Can’t Identify A Bird?: World-renown birder, author and artist, Kenn Kaufman, shares his Top 4 recommendations. 
    Survival Expert & Star Of The History Channel’s “Alone Show”: reveals how a nightjar once saved his life. 
    ​Twitch Sketching Warblers: Tips for sketching quickly in the field, with renown nature artist John Muir Laws.
    ​The Secret to Telling The Difference Between A Male & Female Sandhill Crane: without using field marks as a clue. 
    The Unexpected Favorite Prey of The Swainson’s Hawk: during spring migration. Large groups will gather to eat this unusual menu item.
    ​A Self-proclaimed "Grassland Evangelist" Is Changing The Culture Of Food: and reviving ancient practices of raising cattle.
    ​The Elusive Hummingbird Love-Charm Trade: How America's Senior Forensic Ornithologist helped to crack this case.
    ​Tips & Tools For Birding With Hearing Loss: Birdability’s Coordinator shares the most helpful resources.. PLUS..her absolute favorite accessible trail in the US.
    ​3 Expert Tips To Distinguish Hawk Feathers: from the commonly confused turkey feathers. 
    ​How To Feel The Approach of A Peregrine Falcon: before you ever see it.

    What’s unique about this festival is that you aren’t just going to hear from ornithologists and bird nerds (although, they’ll be there too). 
    You’ll get to learn from masters with diverse backgrounds, innovative perspectives… those who have been willing to MAKE THEMSELVES REALLY UNCOMFORTABLE and endure extreme environments in order to push the limits to experience all life has to offer.

    This is an event you're not going to want to miss! 

    Afraid you can't "be there"? Don't worry! 

    The For The Love of Birds Festival is a, VIRTUAL online festival! You don't have to travel - the interviews are coming to you! They'll be broadcast over the web, so you can watch from the comfort of home. 
    So what are you waiting for? Join me at the For The Love of Birds Festival. Grab your ticket today!

     It’s only $12.

And I'm lucky to have been invited back in 2022! I'll be one of the people interviewed by Kristi Dranginis, founder and innovator of this unique online event. She's the raven-haired beauty in the montage below. Such a star she is!! We talk about bird rehabiliation, about the beautiful trio of song sparrows that I raised last fall, and we laugh! 

This festival is an absolute banquet of information and entertainment--I really enjoyed last year's and am looking forward to this year's festival. I rarely take in online content, but I couldn't tear myself away from last year's speakers. A couple of them became instant friends. This is a potent way to get to know some fascinating people. Kristi brings a warm, personal touch to an online event better than anyone I've witnessed.

 For the base fee of only $12, you'll get video interviews with all these fascinating characters listed above. If you decide to step up to a VIP pass, you'll get so much more. For instance, the VIP bonuses I'm offering include a brand spankin' new bird gardening talk, which is a time-travel through the innovations and changes I've made to Indigo Hill to make it better for birds, butterflies, wildlife and me. The other is a live Q & A over Zoom, where you can ask me (almost) anything! Ha ha! Leaving myself a little loophole there...

Please click this link to access the festival.  I really can't believe what you get for only $12 here. And if you step up to a VIP pass ($47), I get a kickback. This is where having good outreach and loyal readers comes in. I really hope to see you at the For the Love of Birds Festival, which happens Jan. 26-30, 2022. 

Here's the festival link:

    Painting the Prairie

    Sunday, January 9, 2022


     I always figured I'd be a career illustrator. And I was, for a long time. I did my first illustration for pay as a freshman in college, and slowly built a clientele from 1976 onward. By around 1988, I was chugging along doing commissioned watercolors at (gulp) $50 to $75 apiece. I wonder where some of those are now. Lots of book and magazine illustration; some packaging art; even got some drawings into The New Yorker.  I enjoyed it all. 

    Around 2004, I decided that it was time to write and illustrate my own books. If I kept taking illustration jobs, I'd never be able to create a book of my own. Bill helped me with that, so much. "Just do a compilation of stuff you've already written! Your columns would make a great book!" Well, I had years of columns from the Backyard Bird Newsletter, which was sent out to a smattering of Bird Watcher's Digest's subscribers in the off months when the magazine wasn't coming out (it was a bimonthly, six issues a year). And they were pretty good--I was writing with a lot of heart and fire at that point. So they'd been published, but not to a wide audience, and they needed to be put together in a book. Bill was so right: it was a good, accessible, nonthreatening way to put my first book together. And I had the best little partner helping me along then. That boy could sell books.

    Chet Baker, May 2006, age 3, with Mether's First Book.

    Letters from Eden came out in 2006, with a truly ridiculous number of paintings and sketches inside. I really loved illustrating my own writing, and decided to do that from then on. There followed The Bluebird Effect in 2012, and Baby Birds in 2016. Saving Jemima came in 2019. After saying yes to almost every job that had come down the pike since 1976, it felt weird to turn down jobs, but I had to if I was going to finish my books. It was while I was writing The Bluebird Effect that I also realized that daily blogging was a huge block to my productivity, so I cooled it a bit on the frequency of my posts. Every day? Really? What was I thinking??

    As I think about it, painting commissioned watercolors is in many ways a return to my old illustration days, when I enjoyed the challenge of creating a work of art with specific elements requested by the client. Some are very loose (perhaps just giving me the species of bird and leaving the setting up to my discretion), but most are pretty exacting and specific. People want a bird in a specific place, and sometimes it goes farther than that. The painting I'll show you now is one of the most exacting I've done, but I loved every minute of creating it. It presented more than an ordinary challenge.

    This client is an ornithologist who has studied phoebes for much of his career. He wanted a painting of a Say's phoebe in the Smoky Hills of Kansas. This is a region known for distinctive chalk bluffs which rise up out of the ancient prairie like buildings. It's also known for its limestone fenceposts (lacking trees, I suppose, they made them out of the material at hand). My client wanted those in the painting. And native sunflowers, and yucca (!). He wanted the phoebe to be large in the frame. That would be the biggest challenge of all--to convincingly place a very small bird in a limitless landscape. 

      That is, in fact, the challenge that I face over and over as a bird painter. If someone likes a bird enough to request a painting of it in a specific place, they want to see the bird in detail. But how do I convey the vastness of the Kansas prairie, while placing a 7" bird in it right up close? Much to think about.

    I don't have photos of my compositional phase, which is a lot of scribbles in soft pencil on large paper.
    I shot some drafts to the client and got approval and tweaks, too. One of the things that became abundantly clear was that I couldn't use a limestone fencepost as a perch, because the post was too huge in relation to the bird. To be true, the post would have to be maybe twice the size it is in this draft composition, which was unacceptable to my eye. So I decided to put the bird on Maximilian sunflowers, which are in much better scale to its size.

    The post is probably 1/4 the size it needs to be here in relation to the bird, and even that is getting a bit too big for the composition. Let's go to Plan B, push the posts into the middle distance, and put flowers up front instead.

    Then I painted the most important thing: a half-sized study of the painting which would be my guide for executing the real thing. I just Xeroxed my sketch onto some watercolor paper, stretched the paper and painted it as quickly and messily as I could. In the process, I figured out what to do and what not to do; what to paint first and how to handle a very complex and (to be honest) rather vexing foregound.

    I traced the composition onto a large sheet of watercolor paper (Winsor & Newton), then stretched the wet paper on a board using packing tape on the edges.

    When it dried, I applied masking film and masking fluid around its edges to the parts I wanted to paint last. Then I could paint the landscape freely over those masked parts, knowing I could peel the mask off and have nice white paper to work on when the landscape was done. You can see here that the sunflowers and bird are masked off as a chunk. Same for the chalk bluff in the middle distance, and the white limestone fenceposts staggered across the prairie.

    I learn a lot by looking at my colleagues' work, and I decided to try a technique the Barry Van Dusen explains in his magnificent book, Finding Sanctuary, which was published by the Massachusetts Audubon Society and Puritan Press.
    If you're curious, here's my post about Barry's work, and a guest post from Barry himself.

    If you click that link you probably won't come back to see my stuff! But I hope you do.

    Anyway, Barry mixes a neutral tint (I think it's ultramarine, burnt sienna and ultramarine violet) and paints the shadows in his paintings before adding any color. This is completely different from the way I usually work, but I wanted to try it here. I'm self-taught, and never learned the proper way to paint.

    Here I go, tickling in those shadows.

    So far, so good. I marched the shadows up to the middle ground. I was so excited to see how it would look with the prairie greens over the tinted shadows!

    Well, that's cool! Here's a little close-up of the far-out ridges. I love those shadow colors of distant hills.

    Something about having the shadows already in made it less scary to handle these wide-open spaces.

    My work always gets harder, the closer to the foreground I get. 

    Grasses are my nemesis. Making them look realistic without getting too regular and fussy always stretches me to the limit. I look at Cindy House's pastel paintings and just cannot believe how well she handles grass. She ENJOYS painting grass. There's So Much Grass here. I knew, because its leaves were so delicate and thin, that I would be unable to mask out the yucca plant in the right foregound, so I painstakingly painted it in opaque gouache over the grassy foreground.

    Only when I had the foreground grasses under control would I allow myself to start on the Maximilian sunflowers and chalk bluff. I peeled off the masking film and rubbed the dried masking fluid away with my fingers and a soft white eraser.

    Because it was September, I could go out and cut Maximilian sunflowers on my very own prairie patch and paint it from life! That was awesome.

    Oh look! A song sparrow. I think I know him...

    The sunflowers brought a needed touch of green to a rather sere landscape. I did not want to do a big green painting. Greens can get away from you. So I kept them very dialed back.

    Here come the sunflowers!  I still have the limestone fenceposts masked out here. 

    I got absorbed in the fenceposts and painted the chalk bluff, too, before I remembered to take another shot.
    One of the ways you say, "It's sunny" is to paint deep sharp shadows on things like bluffs and fenceposts. I could feel the light pouring through, and the sky wasn't even in yet. 

    I couldn't wait to paint the sky! All the shadows were in--now I need a sky that will convince you it's sunny out!

    But first the Say's phoebe--such a subtly beautiful bird it is. I painted a fresh immature with cinnamon wingbars and a strong cinnamon wash below.

    All in but its black tail!

    It's sky time, y'all. No progress photos on the sky--that happens too fast to take pictures, and all wet on wet! I am particularly pleased with the perspective of the clouds going off in the distance, and the sunny space they create in the landscape beneath. They're blurry, which for me evokes the prairie wind, which never stops. The sunflowers are tossing in that wind.

    I didn't want to pack this one up to send. Sometimes I wish I could keep my paintings. But off it went, to Kansas, where it truly belongs.

    Say's Phoebe in the Smoky Hills, Kansas.  Private Commission, October 2021 Watercolor, 14" x 18"

    [Back to Top]