Chapter 4: Why You Should Never Pick Up a Baby Bird

One morning, after a violent windstorm, we found a robin’s nest on the ground under the apple tree. There were two dead baby birds still in it and one survivor hopping around, squawking pathetically.

I had always heard that you should never touch a baby bird, even if it’s fallen from the nest, because your scent would discourage the parents from taking it back. But how would the flightless baby get back into the nest without help? The baby bird’s parents flew around in a panic, but they would never be able to rescue this baby or put the demolished nest back together.

So I picked up the bird, who seemed almost full grown, but lacked its full compliment of feathers. I brought him into the house. I set him in a cardboard box and we all proceeded to stare at him.

The family dog, a big black lab, stuck his nose in the box and huffed. The bird, beak up, ready to be fed, showed no fear of the 80-pound canine. I put my own face into the box and talked soothingly to it. It opened its beak and pumped its legs like it was doing deep knee bends. It “cheeped” loudly – the universal language for, “Feed me.”

I drove to the local convenience store and bought a small tub of night crawlers. It said on the side of the tub that they were size “large” for catching big fish. Back in the kitchen I fished a worm out of the brown peat. It wasn’t large – it was huge, fat and eight inches long. I rinsed it under the tap. I looked at the bird, who was only about as long as the worm from beak to tail.
In the mean time, bird was bobbing up and down, mouth open, cheeping like a brass band. So I lifted the worm by one end and dropped it into bird’s mouth. It swallowed vigorously, but could only get about a third of the worm down its throat, the rest dangled pathetically out of its mouth. I swallowed hard.

I pulled the worm out of bird’s mouth and laid it on my cutting board. Quickly before I could think about it, I cut off a one-inch section. The worm writhed and I felt a bit queasy, but I picked up the worm section and dropped it into bird’s mouth. He stopped cheeping and bobbing for an instant, closed his black beady eyes and swallowed. Then the mouth popped opened again and the dance started all over. I cut off another worm section. It still felt odd, but I was on a roll. Bird ate all ten sections I got from that first worm and another eight from the next worm before it stopped the commotion. Then it settled down on the bed of paper towels, fluffed out its feathers and seemed to zone out. I exhaled loudly. The dog, who had been watching the whole process as if expecting to get a worm too, sat down and huffed. I cleaned up the whole mess, put the worms in the fridge and went to get some work done in the next room.

About an hour later the cheeping started again. The dog came in and stood next to me whining. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to make sure I knew bird was hungry again or if he was complaining about the racket.

I sighed, went into the kitchen and looked in the box. Sure enough bird was bobbing with its mouth open and cheeping with gusto. Plus there were now bird droppings all over the paper towels. I put in new clean paper towels, took out the worms and started chopping and feeding. It’s amazing how you lose your squeamish sense so quickly. I realized I could probably do open heart surgery after all.

I fed bird every hour for the entire day until I ran out of worms. Then I went back into town and every last tub of worms they had. When the kids got home from school, I showed them the process and made chopping look really fun in case they wanted to take over. They were happy to hand the worm sections into bird’s mouth, but they refused to do the chopping. Couldn’t blame them there.

They were fascinated by bird’s antics and giggled hysterically when he would stop all action for an instant while savoring the worm, just to start up again like a manic wind up toy. It continued on that way all afternoon and into the evening. At bedtime I closed bird in his box and he seemed to settle down, mostly.

For the next few days we fed bird all day, tried to ignore his peeping at night, and waited for a sign that he was old enough to fly away.

The kids carried him around and gently set him on a wooden bear sculpture we had in the yard when they went off to play. Bird sat contentedly, feathers fluffed until it got hungry at which time the cheeping started.

After a week, I called my brother, Scott.

“How long will this go on?” I asked.

“Until his primary feathers grow in and he can fly away,” he assured me.

Two days and many chopped worms later, bird started flying. It flew all around the yard. It came back and landed on the wooden bear. Then without looking back, it joined a flock of robins on the lawn. We could not tell it apart from the others. We stood in the yard and watched them all hunting worms. I was relieved that our part was over.

A few minutes later, one of the robins flew right at us and landed on my son’s head. It started cheeping. We all looked at each other.

“We have to feed it,” my son begged.

So I cut up more worms and fed bird again. It flew off. Then two hours later it came back for more worms. Then again at sunset. Then again in the morning after it had slept all night out on the front porch perched on the bear’s head.

I called Scott back.

“Stop feeding it,” he said.

We threw away the worm tubs and crossed our arms in determination. Every time we left the house bird flew right at us begging to be fed. My chest hurt, like I was a bad mother.
When we pulled into the driveway after a trip to town, bird flew right over and greeted us with loud hungry cheeps. The boys couldn’t play in the yard without bird landing on their heads and begging them for food. We hid in the house. It was beginning to feel uncomfortably like an Alfred Hitchcock movie at our house.

I called the Scott again.

“Go away for the weekend,” he suggested.

“You know how ridiculous it is that we have to leave town because a robin is stalking us?” my husband pointed out.

We packed our bags and went away to the lake for the weekend. We worried about bird while we were away.

“Will bird think we had abandoned him?” one of my sons asked.

“Will the other birds let him join them?” the other asked.

“Will he forget us?” They wanted to know.

I certainly hoped so.

We came home Sunday night with trepidation. We got out of the car. No flapping wings assaulted us. There were robins out on the lawn quieting hopping around. None of them turned to look at us. There was a definite mix of relief and regret hanging on the air.

That night, after I tucked my two crestfallen boys into bed, I realized why you should never touch a baby bird. It wasn’t to protect the birds from being rejected by their parents. It was to protect the humans from getting emotionally attached.

I called Scott again.

“ I am not cut out for rescuing wildlife,” I said, dejected.

“No? Why?”

“They never call,” I complained.

“Well, there’s one big advantage to raising wildlife, as opposed to children,” he said.

“What?” I asked, hopefully.

“They never write home for money either.”

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About Sheri Amsel

Sheri Amsel has degrees in Botany and Zoology from the University of Montana 1980, a Master's Degree in Anatomy, Physiology and Biomedical Illustration from Colorado State University 1987. Ms. Amsel interned at the Smithsonian Institute in 1983 in Scientific Illustration, taught anatomy and biology at three colleges from 1990 - 1997. In addition, Ms. Amsel has published more than 15 nonfiction children's books, two field guides for adults, and illustrated a myriad of books and interpretive displays on nature and science topics. Ms. Amsel has done science programming at more than 300 schools nationally, developed more than 20 educational nature trails in New York State, and coordinates school visits to local nature trails for environmental education programs for the Eddy Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation and habitat preservation. Ms. Amsel created the Exploring Nature Educational Resource website with the hopes of sharing her science and environmental education knowledge and experience with science educators and students worldwide.