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A Bird in Need

Sunday, July 29, 2018

I was taking a run down Dean’s Fork, with the ulterior motive of checking a bluebird box at my friend Harvey’s man-cabin. In the spring of 2017, they’d put up a decorative box on a little post, never thinking anything might use it, when a bluebird pair decided it was just the thing and started hauling grass into it. That would have been OK, but the box was only about two feet off the ground, and the design of the box couldn't be worse.

Cute, yes, but there's nothing right about this box where bluebirds are concerned, except that the entry hole is 1 1/2". The A-frame roofline is nothing but wasted space; it's longer than it is tall; the hole's too close to the floor; there are no ventilation holes, and worst of all it can't be opened for checking or cleaning. I do love the hand-painted propane tank. But the box has got to go.

Last year, when Harvey told me he had bluebirds in the box, I scrambled to get him a pole and predator baffle setup so the decorative box wouldn’t become a coon and snake feeder. I mounted the box with nest on the baffled pole. The bluebirds weren’t happy about the change in height, and there were some worrisome hours while they scolded and refused to approach the box, but they eventually went back to finish incubating, and three healthy bluebirds fledged last summer.

I had meant to replace the decorative box with a real one over the winter, but time got away from me, as it loves to do. Here it was mid- July, a whole year later, and I knew I needed to check that box. And sure enough, I peeked in the box that July 17 morning and saw that it was occupied. Not only that, but there was a young bluebird chick visible through the entry hole, right up next to the entrance. How weird! I could hear the peeping of multiple chicks, but here was this one, right up by the hole. 
Using my iPhone, I shone a light in and gradually grasped what had happened. Way in the back of the box, which is barn shaped and longer than it is tall, was a grass bluebird nest with high walls. Three nestlings were snuggled in the cup. Somehow, this little one had gotten out of the nest cup, and was lying on excess nesting material, all by itself in the front of the box. I poked my finger in and touched the baby, which was begging weakly. It was cool to the touch. Uh-oh. Being out of the nest cup means the baby wasn't being brooded by the female. It could well have been out of the nest all night.  This baby was in trouble, and fading fast away from the warmth of its siblings.

I went and fetched a long stick, blunted the end of it, and tried to push the baby farther back into the box, and up over the high rim of the nest to join its siblings. No dice. I couldn’t push the little blob with one stick. It was like pushing soup with a fork. I fetched another and tried to use the two sticks as a sort of tongs, but that didn’t work either. It was like trying to do laparoscopic surgery with sticks. The more I struggled to move it, the more I realized that this baby couldn't have gotten out of the nest cup under its own steam. It was only five days old. It looked to me as though the female bluebird had thrown the baby out of the nest, but it was a little too big for her to get it out of the hole. 

Lest you be shocked, I have come to believe this culling behavior goes on in lots of bird nests. A bird decides that one of its offspring ain't right, and they just get rid of it, carry it out like so much garbage. People are always talking about mother birds "kicking a baby out of the nest." I never used to believe that would happen, but the baby birds that wind up on the ground are so often seriously compromised that I've revised my thinking.  I have come to believe that part of what makes avian rehab such a challenge is that in many cases we are dealing with birds that haven't fallen to the ground--they've been tossed. For a reason. And sometimes we find out what it is after we've taken them in. Or we never figure it out, because they up and die on us. We blame ourselves, but maybe the cards were stacked from the start. Geesh. Songbird rehab is hard enough without blaming ourselves for something that isn't our fault. Rehabbers take note.

In the end,  I couldn't get the baby back in its nest, and I had a strong feeling the female would just boot it out again if I did.

Nor could I leave the baby there, cold, not getting brooded and probably not getting fed, either. I decided to take it home with me, see what was going on with it, feed it and warm it, and try to foster it into another brood in one of my "real" bluebird boxes. One that can be opened by the well-meaning, meddlesome landlord. The one whose heart gets in the way of what Nature intends.

 Lord, it was skinny and starved and cold. I put it in my decolletage, such as it is, for the ride home, and amused myself by walking up to Phoebe, and letting her figure out where the incessant peeping was coming from. There is a video, but I'm not posting it. Ha!

While I was mixing up some Mazuri Nestling Formula, we got out our primary Baby Bird reference, to see how old it was. Yep. Five days. But so much skinnier than the bluebird I'd painted in 2002. Food. Warmth. Stat!

our foundling, on Page 27 of Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into the Nest.

We rigged up a little cooler with a bottle of hot water and a strawberry box lined with tissues. I fed that nestling until it stopped begging, and then it begged some more. Poor wee thing.  

Phoebe has inherited my keen sense for when a wild thing just ain't right. As glad as she was to have a wee thing to care for, she looked at me solemnly. This baby was jittery, restless, hyperactive; it begged even when it was full. I wondered if there was something more wrong with it than just starvation. But we knew we had to give it the best chance possible.

That best chance would be to slip it into one of our boxes with young nearly the same age. That's the beauty of having 25 boxes up and running, most of them occupied. If something goes awry, or you get an orphan, there's usually a host family you can press into service to care for it. 

First, though, we had to feed that child UP. We fed it every 20 minutes or so, all day long, until it was as strong and well-hydrated as it was going to get. By evening, we figured it was as ready as it was going to get. It was time to put it in the far more expert care of bluebirds.

As we walked out to the far meadow box, Phoebe, who'd been checking boxes with me, warned, "Those babies are going to be so much bigger than this one. They're way too old." 

I answered, "By the calendar, they're six days old. This one's five. That's an acceptable span. And besides, it's our only option, short of prying the roof off that decorative box and dropping the baby back in the same nest. Only to have the female kick it out again."

When I pulled out the nest, and Phoebe carefully placed the jittery little thing in with its new foster siblings, something magical happened. It stopped trembling, fidgeting, moving. It lay down as quiet as a mouse, basking in the warmth and scent and feel of other hot-skinned babies pressed up against it. It was a beautiful thing to see. 

"Imagine going through all that without being able to see a thing," Phoebs observed. For its eyes were still sealed shut, though its foster siblings were beginning to peek through slowly-opening slits.

                 It can't see, but it can hear and feel, and if it knows nothing else, it knows it's home now.

As we turned to head back to the house, I was struck by the beauty of my daughter, in the cobbled-together outfit she'd chosen for the expotition: sports bra, skirt, and Hunter boots. She looked to me like a fairy warrior from Narnia, and the sky played along.

A half-moon sailed serenely over the fiesta of colors.

We scurried up the tower stairs to watch a sky gone wild.
And to think about the perfect twist of fate that had sent me down Dean's Fork and peeking in a nestbox, just when a baby bluebird needed help most.

We'll leave it here, safe in a nestbox on Indigo Hill on the night of July 17. Of course, the story continues...



Every living thing has a moment of great luck to cross paths with you and your family. Another story unfolds under your watchful and compassionate eyes. Thank you for all you do.

your life is so open to all the magical, that it allows the room for miracles. fingers crossed the wee being gets along and makes it. xo

What a magical ending to an otherwise sad story. You and your family are such wonderful caretakers for Mother Natures creatures. Thank you for just being and caring.


I wish we could give back to you that which you give to us. Reading your stories transports us to another place and time, where our own struggles to make sense of the world are resolved in ways that allow us to think yes, that is it, just so. Egads, I can’t express it clearly enough, but thank you.

I am awed by what you do and who you are, Julie! And Phoebe DOES look like a Narna warrior princess!
Thank you,
Irene and Saul


You not only tell us a beautiful story, but you fill it with wonderful pictures...some you take with your camera and others you paint with your words...more please

Thank you. Just beautiful to share your stories.

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