smart birdie

wednesday 1 june 2011

Smart Birdie was a female house sparrow, but I did not know that on the day she came to us in spring of 1989. I might add that she did not come to our family voluntarily. It’s a long time ago now, but this is what my memory still has: I went out to our back porch for some reason or other on a nice sunny day, and across the back yard, at the edge of a parking lot bordered by a small woods, I saw my cat Mindy carrying something rather large in her mouth. Mindy wasn’t quite a year old at the time, and hadn’t yet figured out that some things are just too big for a cat’s mouth. Actually she was a long time figuring that out. In 1992, when she was four, she was still experimenting with oversized items, carrying from the canal all the way to our yard a half-grown cottontail rabbit. If I hadn’t been so nervous to get her to drop it so I could see if it was okay, I would have laughed out loud at the funny way she had to run and the stiff way she had to hold her head to carry that large specimen.

Anyway, what she had in her mouth in May of 1989 was a bird about the size of a large robin, but it wasn’t a robin. To this day I haven’t figured out what it was, but it was good sized. And this bird had inside its own mouth a nestling baby bird. Having successfully gotten Mindy to give up her treasures, both birds were taken inside, and the nursing began. The large bird didn’t last the night. So there I was with this baby I-didn’t-know-what who could neither fly nor eat on its own. And oh, silly me, I made the lunatic assumption that the bird who’d been carrying the baby in its mouth was its mother. Me with this baby who needed lots of help, and it wasn’t as though I had nothing to do. I was in grad school full-time and teaching part-time and the single parent of a ten-year-old and the mommy of a number of other animals.

This wasn’t the first nestling I’d tried to raise since coming to Turners trolls four years earlier, but it was the first one brought to me by one of my cats. None of the others had survived, and I blame that largely on milk. But other people I’d asked had said to feed them this-with-milk or that-with-milk, and I’d thought they’d known what they were talking about.  By the time Smart Birdie arrived, I had read somewhere that you mustn’t give a baby bird milk, as they are not mammals and have a hard time digesting milk, filling up with gas, dying. Duh, I’d said when I’d read that. I should have been able to figure that one out for myself. The Asperger’s lack of common sense had struck again.

After experimenting with I no longer remember what — and the baby’s surviving these experiments — I settled finally on bread wet with water, and baby food jars of meat and fruit. Little one seemed a lot happier and to progress faster on this menu, so I stuck with it. A year later I would raise a nestling robin on the same things (robin also courtesy of Mindy).

And of course I was scrutinizing every bird I saw, trying to see another one like the “mother” of my bird. Also, I was waiting for a great increase in size, which did not occur. Little bird reached a certain size — house sparrow size — and stubbornly refused to grow anymore. And as it grew in its adult feathers after the first molt, low and behold, there was a bird that looked familiar. I double-checked outdoors. A sparrow all right. So what was the bird that had carried it? And why was this large bird carrying off this infant sparrow? Nest-robbing? Don’t know.

Having a bird in the place was a great novelty to my cats back in 1989, and there were a number of what I’ll call adventures for Smart Birdie vis á vis cats during the first year of her life. She always took these encounters with surprising equanimity (for a bird dealing with a cat), and for her whole life she would sound the “sparrow alarm” whenever a cat was getting ready to be naughty at someone’s cage, even if it wasn’t her cage. The sparrow alarm (which sparrows use on each other too) is a rapid-fire string of one single note and sounds like the firing of a teeny machine gun.

She would even machine-gun me if I walked by her cage eating something and didn’t give her a piece. I’ve just yesterday read in Chris Chester’s book Providence of a Sparrow that chocolate is toxic to birds, as it is to many other animals. But please don’t wake my sparrow up in her grave and tell her that, because what she and I didn’t know didn’t seem to hurt her in this case. For the last four or five years of her life, she ate a piece of chocolate bar or peanut butter cup at least once a week. She was the only one of my many birds to whom I ever in my life gave this deadly treat, because she would machine-gun me so badly if  I didn’t. She loved it, and never showed even a whisper of ill effect from it. And she lived the same ten years that Chris Chester’s sparrow did, who never, ever had chocolate pass his beak.

Her name came about casually. When she was still very young and just learning to fly, she would do little hopping tricks when I went to see her at her cage, and I’d say “That was very pretty. You’re a smart birdie.” She took a shine to the words smart birdie, looking very pleased with herself every time I gave her this compliment, and so it became her name. She was the matriarch of my bird family, having been the first, and definitely the boss. Much bigger birds than herself would land on her cage when they were having their fly time, and every single one would beat a hasty retreat on hearing that sparrow machine gun. They knew when mama was scolding them.

It’s hard for me to fathom that today she has been gone all of a dozen years, two more than she lived. How can I have been without her for so long — it seems impossible.

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read…   All my stars…   Stolen stars…   Mugsy’s book

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