Upon my return, 90 minutes later, Byrd hadn’t moved from his original position.
Another Mouth to Feed
As much as I doubted myself and my abilities, I couldn’t fail the little
bird—that would lead to his death. Somehow, he knew my determination,
and trusted me.
Taken at my kitchen table, this is one of only two baby pictures—a bad exposure on a film camera.
As I pushed open my warped, wooden apartment door, I knew that
the little bird’s hungry squeaks would have to be answered. After setting the
racquet on my kitchen table, I cupped the robin in my hands and lowered
his papier-mache body to the table’s smooth surface. His infant legs slipped
a few times in an effort to hold himself upright. With a round body, thin legs
and no tail growth, he looked like a lollipop standing there. The surroundings
may have scared him. He remained still as I watched him with one eye while
searching my cupboards with the other. My choice of soft food, or any food
for that matter, was limited. I settled upon a can of chicken. I poked small
chicken chunks into his gaping beak, but he coughed them up. Apparently,
immature neck muscles prevented beak-level swallowing. The chicken had
to be poked down his throat in order for him to swallow. A pair of tweezers
facilitated the task. His chest expanded with each swallow. I also dipped my
finger into a glass of water and let two to three drops fall from my fingertip
into his beak.
When his chest stuck out like a soldier’s, the bird closed his beak,
stopped chirping and shut his pea-sized, brown eyes. His feet dangled as I
picked him up. Apparently, he was too tired to resist. The bird was hardly the
size of a teacup and fit neatly into the palm of my hand. As he slumbered, I
held him to my chest, stroking the pillow-soft feathers of his wings with my
forefinger. I found myself brushing the delicate, brown feathers of his back
with my cheek, and then, with my nose. His feathers smelled like honey. As
darkness descended, I lined a box with newspaper, set it on a front room
chair and placed him inside. Throughout the entire process, he didn’t even
wake up.
When I rolled into bed that evening, self-doubt began to unsettle any
sense of accomplishment, meaningfulness or joy. Should I have taken him
from his immediate surroundings? How could I provide some type of cage?
The price of a big parrot cage was far beyond my means. Since I fed him,
would returning him to the wild be impossible? Would I have to keep him
for the rest of his life? How could I afford to keep him when I couldn’t feed
myself? What if I moved or had to leave him for an extended time period?
Worrisome thoughts of this nature revisited frequently. I planned to let him go
as soon as he could fly and hunt.
At dawn, my weary eyes opened to sharp, demanding squeaks. When
the squeaks were loud enough, I forced myself out of bed. I peeked from the
bedroom doorway to find that the little bird must have jumped out of the box.
He stood on the rug below the chair, crying for food. I felt sympathy and
gathered him into my hands. His beak opened intermittently as he stared into
my eyes. He knew that I would feed him.
When we entered the kitchen, I lowered him onto one of my ugly, green
and blue, garage-sale dinner plates. Again, I poked more chicken into his
craw and added a few drops of water until his chest bulged and he stopped
opening his beak. And again, I picked him up, placing his delicate body in
the palm of my hand. His pink claws tickled slightly. I instinctively sung him
a lullaby. His big eyes lazily closed within seconds. Like the previous day, I
lifted his body to my face, smelled his fresh feathers and stroked his stubby
wings with my cheek. I took the time to observe everything about his new
body from inches away. Even his beak was interesting. A waviness at the
corners near his face showed that his beak was going to grow longer. Since
I never owned a bird, my knowledge of their care was very restricted. I went
to the local Ravenna library, only a minute walk from my apartment.
I stumbled upon the best book that fortune could have allowed,
Stroud’s Digest on the Diseases of Birds. That old, rural library, housed in
a building with great columns on its front steps, had the book written by
Robert Stroud, the real Birdman of Alcatraz. Although the title implies only a
book on avian medicinal needs, Stroud gave me knowledge about trimming
toenails and beaks, dietary needs of small wild birds, first aid information
and preventive medicine. Most of what I needed to know was in the pages
of that classic book, written from Leavenworth prison in 1939. I wrote to the
publisher, scraped together $40, and still treasure my copy of the best book
ever written on overall bird care.
Although financial times were difficult as ever, money was always
available for live food, such as earthworms and maggots. A handmade yard
sign that I noticed on one of my many walks led me to a neighborhood
entrepreneur who sold fishing bait at reasonable prices out of his garage.
After rainstorms, I gathered worms from the pavement. Passersby looked
at me strangely, but it didn’t matter. The baby bird was more important than
any reputation that I had or thought that I had. Other soft foods helped me
to fill the gaps when I didn’t have live food. The bird liked canned corn, lunch
meat, soaked raisins, thinly sliced grapes, watermelon, orange, fried eggs,
wet dog food. If there were only enough food for one of us in those times of
want, I would not only have had the bird eat before I did, but I would have
been thankful to be able to feed him. And while I was feeding his body, he
was feeding my heart.
I began to understand poverty. Many years prior, my brother expressed
his belief that people receiving public assistance shouldn’t have pets. If poor
people had pets, they must be using some of their aid money to purchase
pet food and pet supplies. The poor were granted low levels of aid in order
to live at a complete subsistence level. The company of another species is
a luxury. I recall the faces of those unfortunates standing beside me in the
welfare line. They looked like any group of typical Americans; husky men
stared at the floor; women calmed anxious children at their side; an Asian
family sat in a waiting room as their toddler played with used toys from the
office toy box; an older man wearing a crisp shirt and tie held a leather
briefcase. I wonder if any of them felt the greeting of a cat rubbing against
them as they entered their door or the encouragement of a dog as it licked
their face without regard to the direst of financial straits.
But now, I knew differently. Now, I knew that with life so damn difficult,
a winged or a four-legged companion lights a dark life, provides a reason to
rise in the morning and sparks the energy to accomplish a task. I began to
feel the vitality that I had lost—all because a life depended upon me. When
I woke, I didn’t wake to depression and unemployment. I woke to the bird’s
morning song practice. When I returned after a day of minimum-wage work
or no work at all, I no longer dreaded a decrepit, lonely apartment. A little
bird was there, hopping up and down in his box as if his twig legs were pogo
sticks. Now, I rushed into the apartment, and without even taking the time to
remove my jacket, proceeded to the front room to gather him into my hands,
to nuzzle and kiss him repeatedly, to quickly present him with life-supporting
food. The self-worth gleaned from the dependency of a child must be so
much greater.
Days later, I walked beneath the tree from which I had picked up
the baby robin. Perhaps, natural order dictated that he should be placed
back in his nest. I looked for a squawking mother bird or a nest, but found
none. Another baby robin was on the sidewalk a block away. That one was
sprawled on the hard concrete, chest torn open. I knew that I had done the
right thing for me and for Byrd.
I stuck my hand into his cage and repeatedly nudged his toes with the side of my hand, but he
wouldn’t step up.
My Byrd
Every time I thought that I could no longer keep Byrd, the obstacles kept
falling down. Our spirits were meant to be together.
Byrd, at two weeks, perched on the back of my kitchen chair. August 1991.
I named him Byrd because he was small and cute, reminiscent of my
former girlfriend. He helped not only to fill my broken heart, but to wrest my
mind from the self-destructive feelings that accompany broken dreams. I
never intended to keep Byrd. My worries were many, and since I had never
kept a bird, the full extent of the obstacles was unknown.
At first, I feared that I could not adequately feed him. Byrd needed
a better diet than my soft table scraps and the limited variety of live food
that I could afford. After checking pet shops, I found a reasonably priced,
small-pellet, mynah bird food that could be soaked in water. Byrd liked it,
particularly when mixed with human food. I continued to dribble a few drops
of fresh water into Byrd’s beak with each meal.
Afterward, I feared that Byrd would never be able to feed himself. I fed
him for weeks with tweezers, poking food down his throat as he opened his
demanding beak. Byrd would not eat from the table top nor from my open
hand. He had no inclination of taking food in any manner other than from me
poking it down his throat from directly above his head. I worried as the weeks
passed. How could I be there, multiple times per day, to feed him for what
may be years? If Byrd had no desire to feed himself, he could slowly die of
starvation, or at least, not ever reach a healthy weight. Then, it occurred to
me—parent birds train their young.
Since I was Byrd’s mama and daddy, the training task had to fall to
me. Since I worked out with weights for decades, I figured that the eating
muscles of Byrd’s throat and neck had to be trained and strengthened.