David Attenborough for a Week

Two common sayings have been running through my mind for the past week. Necessity is the mother of invention. Survival of the fittest. Nature is brutal and amazing all at the same time, and taught my family a few things this week.

Last Friday, our family found 4 baby birds lying on the ground near a bush in our yard. These featherless chicks were strewn in the dirt from the storm the night before. While I know this is an exaggeration, it felt like an apocalyptic movie scene. They were about a foot apart from each other, some lying on their sides, others face down. The one closest as I approached simply opened its mouth over and over in hopes of food.  I stared at them feeling completely helpless. I was by myself and didn’t know what to do. So I googled it. It sounds as ridiculous typing that as it was when I did it. But you know what, Google and I saved a bird’s life.

Conventional wisdom told us not to pick the birds up, because the parents would then abandon it. Fortunately, google proved that wrong quickly. You can pick up baby birds and return them to their nest. Supposedly, a bird’s sense of smell is so bad it can’t tell. You should, however, use gloves as protection from disease. Stupid me didn’t scroll down far enough to notice that point.

Step 1) The website told me to return to the birds to their nest. So I ran outside, looking around but couldn’t find a nest. One of the parents was hopping around the babies and flew away when I came near. That was actually a good sign, because the parents were clearly still looking after the babies.

Step 2) The website told me to build a nest for the birds and put it as close to the original as I could. I scrambled to find a small container, stuffed it with tissues and grass clippings and found a spot in the tree to attach it. A clip helped secure it. With the softest secure grip I could ever attempt, I put the little birds in their new nest and backed away.

Two things I learned. One is that baby birds talons have a grip. They didn’t get me, but two were close to each other and clung to each other as I lifted them off the ground. To them it must have felt like they were hanging from a helicopter high in the sky. Crazy strength. Second, they have no control over their bodies. The one thing they do is open their beaks and arch their necks, which means they also slowly roll backwards onto each other. I attempted many times to help them each sit upright to no avail.

Step 3) Turn into David Attenborough; or something like the Planet Earth scientist/videographer, without a camera or protection from terrible weather (luckily it was a beautiful day). You just have to wait. The goal is to get the parents to come back and find them. These small naked and helpless birds are sitting there, and I just have to watch from the end of my driveway hoping another bird comes to help them. High freaking drama. I can’t imagine what the people driving by my house thought as I just stared at a bush.

Of course the parents didn’t return right away. Fortunately, after I left they did. I can’t imagine what those Planet Earth photographers would feel like if they missed a shot because they went inside to finish watching an episode of Veep.

The mother comes back for her babies.

Over the next couple days, things went well. My son and I would check on them constantly throughout the day. The mother (I’m assuming, since I have no idea how to distinguish bird gender) was in the nest and both parents seemed to be flying around finding food to feed them and from a distance we could see them feeding the babies.

Sadly, on Monday morning, when we checked, it was clear that a few of the babies were healthy and two were not. They must have died soon after returning to the nest, so we had to remove them from the nest. My son was crushed and in tears, mourning these little birds. We buried them near the tree, only for him to find the hole dug up a couple days later. Nature is not sympathetic.

We still had two alive and kept checking on them. We had to change the nest from the box for tea bags to a plastic container. The cardboard kept getting soaked in the rain and started to wilt. The plastic was much more sturdy, but the tissues/paper towels kept getting wet and needing replaced.

Every morning, I would wake up anxious to find out how they were doing, hoping to find the mother with them. Unfortunately, the third baby was motionless so we removed it from the nest, our hope clinging to this last bird. I knew from the beginning that our life saving attempts might fail, but it is difficult to watch nonetheless. When we got a flood and tornado warning last night, my heart sunk. I moved the nest to our porch, out of the rain, whistling and encouraging the mom, who stared at us from a nearby roof to come find her baby. Finally the sky cleared and I returned it to the bush, hoping the storm wouldn’t hit again over night.

The tornado watch nest with extra paper towels to keep it dry.

This morning when I walked outside, the container was sideways. I panicked and ran over, relieved to see the baby still inside. As I adjusted the ‘nest’, the little bird started to fly. Only an inch or two, but the wings flapped and she fell back in. I jumped. Like a small girl with pigtails skipping rope on a playground, I jumped and clapped my hands. It felt ridiculous and absurd and absolutely what every human would do if they were in the same position. I was so happy to go to work, thinking that this baby bird might survive.

Trying to fly!

And then tonight, as I was writing this blog post, I decided to check one more time to see how it was doing. AND SHE WAS SITTING ON A BRANCH! Once again, I did my skipping rope jump and ran inside to tell my wife. She joined me outside and we must have stared at it for 5 minutes. It didn’t move and neither did we. We were mesmerized by this tiny little thing, waiting for something to happen, and not needing anything to happen.

Taking flight!

I love this baby bird. Love. Really. We talk about watching our students take flight. In one week, I watched this baby bird actually take flight (at least to a branch 2 inches away). It was the most exciting part of my week. I’ll be outside again after I post this to see if it moved an inch or two. This is way better than Veep. And I like Veep. I am so jealous of those Planet Earth videographers (except for the terrible weather and dangerous insects they have to avoid).

My son is at my in-laws tonight, so my wife called to tell him. He let out an audible gasp so loud I could hear it 10 feet away. It’s the miracle of life. I’m like a walking cliché. This has been an awesome experience, despite the loss along the way. I think I might be investing in some birdhouses soon.


One thought on “David Attenborough for a Week

  1. When he turned 90, everyone assumed that Sir David Attenborough would slow down – everyone, that is,  except the presenter himself, who continues to chronicle the ever-changing natural world. As Planet Earth II,  his latest series for the BBC, is screened, Joe Shute meets the nation’s favourite naturalist


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