What it takes to save an early bird

By ERIN O'BRIEN
Posted 8/6/20

I set out early, 6:30 in the morning, armed with my straw hat, sunglasses, a bottle of water, and slathered in sunscreen. The day was going to be a scorcher and I planned to beat the heat. Deciding to stick to the shady streets, I zigged

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What it takes to save an early bird

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I set out early, 6:30 in the morning, armed with my straw hat, sunglasses, a bottle of water, and slathered in sunscreen. The day was going to be a scorcher and I planned to beat the heat. Deciding to stick to the shady streets, I zigged and zagged through the neighborhood on my morning walk.

Something small and white, resembling a misshapen ping-pong ball caught my attention: a tiny white egg rested among some tall blades of grass. As I bent to examine it, a few inches away sat a small black bird with a black beak, with white fuzz over not fully formed feathers. Pieces of dry grass from the nest it had fallen from rested beside it.

The little bird quivered, and attempted to get comfortable as it turned around in the grass. Both it and the cracked, yolk-stained egg were only a foot away from the street. Recalling the bird rescues of my youth-some unsuccessful-I sat on the grass beside the fragile bird and called Warwick Police Department's Animal Control. I felt a little like John-Boy Walton as the officer informed me the Animal Control Officer would be in the office shortly.

We sat together, the baby bird and I, as I looked up to discover its home from which it had fallen. A rustic nest of twigs was fashioned between some slender branches in a tree high over my head. Squirrels scurried and rabbits ran across the grass as I waited for Animal Control, or the mother bird, to arrive.

The summer I was nine years old, growing up in a Los Angeles suburb, my friends Elaine and Loraine lived three doors down. Part of our summer was spent on weekly walks to the library for the next volume in the Laura Ingalls Wilder series.

On our way home from the library one day, our arms laden with books, we discovered a baby bird in the middle of the sidewalk. Our immediate instinct was to rescue it from approaching foot traffic. Gingerly, Elaine scooped it up and placed it on my stack of three books. Beyond this we hadn't hatched a plan. The mother bird immediately appeared, squawking and dive-bombing as the three of us hurried down the sidewalk towards home.

Elaine and Loraine's mom, a quiet woman from England, swaddled the baby bird in a terrycloth washcloth and fed it breadcrumbs soaked in water from an eyedropper. I was devastated when Elaine told me the bird only lived a couple more days.

I had better luck as a teenager when I found an injured sparrow in our backyard. I named it Clarence and put it in the bathroom in an old hamster cage, with a water bottle dropper and a dish of birdseed. I recalled my dad teaching me that the saying "eats like a bird" is actually a misnomer. I kept the window open for ambience. My dad, a bird aficionado, announced it was a female but I explained I had already named her Clarence.

After three days I took the hamster cage outside to the backyard and gently cupped Clarence in my hands. She flew a few feet before landing on the grass, where unbeknown to me, our calico cat, Patches, had been watching the entire episode. I ended up prying open the cat's mouth and gently placing Clarence back inside the cage for a few more days to recuperate from the trauma.

The next release was more successful. That morning I lifted Clarence in my hands towards the eastern sun and watched as she miraculously flew over the wooden fence into a tall tree. After that I was sure I could always hear her distinct chirp from my bedroom window.

Then there was Scout, a baby mockingbird, too young to fly and unable to hop, that I found in our backyard when I was in my thirties. My husband had discouraged me from calling our veterinarian so I placed Scout in the empty bathtub on a bed of soft towels, and once again, with the window cracked open for ambience. I called my dad who suggested I get some grub worms from a fish and tackle shop on the pier.

Scout eagerly opened her mouth every few hours for a drop of water from a pet store syringe, or a refrigerated grub worm from a pair of tweezers, used to mimic the mother's beak (and to avoid touching the worm.)

Two days later I was devastated to discover Scout lying on her side, motionless.

Julia, a young girl I tutored, had become immediately infatuated with Scout when she arrived for her recent lesson, and heard chirping coming from the bathroom. Reluctantly, I now called her dad, the one who had suggested Scout's name, to break the sad news to her.

When he dropped Julia off for her next tutoring session, he whispered that his daughter wanted to have a little service for Scout. I had laid the petite bird to rest in a small square box at the foot of a mature tree in the corner of the yard. Julia arrived with a cross she had made of twigs and string. She said a few words as we bid farewell to Scout under the shade of the tree.

Since my bird rescue record wasn't stellar, this time I knew to call a professional. The Warwick Police dispatcher had noted my location, and I knew I wouldn't be hard to spot in my straw hat, sitting in the grass beside the street.

Animal Control Officer Eric Brewster pulled up in the black and white city vehicle. I introduced him to my small charge and pointed out the nest above us. Officer Brewster said when a nest was within reach the officers would return the bird to its nest, but he didn't have a ladder and it was a long way up, and for the tiny bird, I thought, a long way down.

I mused aloud the temptation of keeping it as a pet, when Officer Brewster gently reminded me that it was illegal to do so because it was wildlife. "The people at the wildlife rescue will know exactly what kind of bird it is, and what to do," he said confidently.

He was referring to the Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island. "They're not open yet," I told him, and they were located all the way in Saunderstown. He put on his gloves, which seemed large and clumsy, yet gently lifted the little bird and placed it in a prepared plastic box lined with dishtowels. I suggested he add the egg to aid in its identification, which he deftly picked up and tucked among the folds of the towels.

Officer Brewster assured me the lid had air holes, and placed the box beside him on the seat. He suggested later I call The Wildlife Clinic to learn what kind of bird it was and find out how it was doing. "I'll drive around with it for an hour until they open," he promised.

Later that morning I spoke over the phone with Samantha Ward at The Wildlife Clinic. It was created in 2000, under the umbrella of the Wildlife Rescue Association of Rhode Island, established in 1993.

When I introduced myself and described the bird, to my relief Samantha knew exactly which one I was referring to. "It's a mourning dove!" she told me. "It's only a couple of days old, and it's not too cold." She described the egg tooth remnants on its beak which enabled it to hatch from its egg. "Like pigeons, there are usually two baby doves to a nest," she said, which would explain the undeveloped egg I found beside it.

I recalled my dad's observation that doves build very flimsy nests.

The tiny mourning dove I had found would be in good company, I learned. Two volunteer rehabilitators were currently caring for other mourning doves. "The goal is to quickly place animals among their own species so they do not imprint," Samantha stated, and I suddenly thought of P. D. Eastman's children's book, Are You My Mother? "They are better together," she said. "The mourning dove will be paired with another one, just a couple of days older. They will be more comfortable and will help each other learn to eat."

Kristin Fletcher has served as the executive director of The Wildlife Clinic, a nonprofit organization, for 18 years. Her position is in a volunteer capacity, as are most of the positions, including those of the veterinarians.

"It's that time of year!" Kristin said, when I shared about discovering the baby bird. To be precise, she was referring to the months between March and October which she refers to as "baby season." "For the past two years, the center has taken in 5,500 animals. The Department of Environmental Management and the Audubon Society deliver animals to us. Many people have been at home gardening during COVID-19, and are more aware of their surroundings," she added, which she attributed to the increase in foundlings.

I confessed about the baby bird on the walk home from the library, and Clarence, along with my best intentions (omitting the story of Scout, the mockingbird) when Kristin emphasized only trained and licensed individuals are able to offer the proper care for wildlife.

Samantha described the "soft" release of young birds which, unlike adult birds, have no territory. Placed in an aviary when they are strong enough, the young birds are transitioned to the outside. The door of the aviary is later left open for their eventual departure.

That morning, little did that little mourning dove know it would be moving from Warwick to Saunderstown, and with a police escort.

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