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.


Please let us know how they fare! They look healthy and full of cheech!

Posted by mimimanderly January 24, 2022 at 3:54 AM

Thank you! LOVE these stories!

Thanks for putting all the events into one posting. It is nice to read uplifting stories in these times (although that slice of white bread had me shuddering!). I had no knowledge of how young birds were saved before reading your posts.

Posted by Martha Child January 24, 2022 at 7:08 AM

You are an absolute heroine. They are amazing. So glad you saved them!

I saved this post to read after a long day and night of remote teaching and grading assignments. I knew it would feel like a reward - a perfect bedtime story. Thank you so much for sharing it and adding those splendid little videos!

With such success it's a shame the 4th one didn't get to you soon enough! But YAY for these three!! You are the BEST Julie!

[Back to Top]