Dandelions in a meadow outside Thunder Bay, ON

Dandelions in a meadow outside Thunder Bay, ON

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Son of a Bird

A baby bird sat on the lawn of the Saanich farm where I stay during my locums in Sidney, BC. He’d turned his head to look at me without fear or alarm, a gray and confident creature in plain sight of any cat who might wander across the lawn. I saw him seconds after wondering why I’d walked to that particular corner of the ten-acre property with sheep pens and vegetable garden and fruit orchard and berry patch. He showed no surprise when I picked him up and wasted no time in opening his lemon-yellow beak to ask for food. He fit in the palm of my hand, being about the size of a large mouse. He was not a particularly good-looking animal, kind of like a small plucked hen with pink skin showing through his very sparse feathers and white fluff on his head and back; but his wings and tail already had the straw-like beginnings of flight feathers. I had no idea how deeply I’d fall in love with him in the weeks to come. From the speckles on his chest I saw he was a thrush, and overnight (or so it seemed) the cream of his chest turned to the pale orange of a robin: American robin, or Turdus migratorius. Little Turdus was to be one of his names, the others being Birdy, Birdity (because if humanity, why not birdity?) Sir Robin, and Mr Plitch (although he did his business noiselessly). He was a perfectly healthy and normal bird who’d fledged his nest at about ten days of age and would have been fed by his parents by day while taking shelter in the bushes by night. Would have, except that the lawn was patrolled by too many cats for a happy ending. I took his little life in my hands with the intent to finding the nearest wildlife rehab centre and taking him there in the morning. My husband, who grew up with birds, persuaded me to keep and raise him, but in truth I didn’t need much persuading: it was more like receiving permission to do what I already wanted to do. I had never kept birds before, caged or wild ones, and neither disliked nor actively liked them. As a veterinarian I am wary of their fragility and heightened vulnerability to harm. But here I had a healthy animal who wanted to eat—and eat, and eat. On the first evening I dug up earthworms and some kind of grubs from the compost of the vegetable garden and fed these to him with the aid of tweezers. This was not ideal as the edges of the tweezers were sharp and apt to injure his mouth. In the morning, having fed him in response to loud and insistent squaking, I took him to work in a blue recycling hamper and used a hemostat as an artificial beak to deposit food in his gaping maw. For the next couple of weeks the hemostat was his wet-nurse.

I am aware that it’s illegal to take and raise a wild baby bird. The spirit of this largely non-enforceable law is to protect wildlife from well-meaning but often ignorant and misguided intervention of humans. In this video a wildlife veterinarian explains the difference between a healthy bird who should be left alone and one who might need our help: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6APirR4dpyU  Mother Nature really does know best. The trouble is, a cat is not part of Mother Nature here in North America; it is a beloved but invasive species living under the protection of the mother of invasive species. Since taking this robin into my life, the problem has become a very personal one for me and had torn me apart. I continue to love cats and to go gaga over their antics and their amazing nature. And I continue to be puzzled and saddened by the completely unnecessary standoff I witness over and over. It is believed by too many people that if you love cats, you will deny that they kill birds in any significant number, or you will shrug this off as unfortunate but acceptable consequences of the cat’s roaming. Conversely, if you insist on protecting birds and keeping cats indoors, then you must be a cat-hater. But there is no need to be on either side of this barbed-wire fence that should be torn down. I have met many people in my line of work who love both cats and birds and who strive for fairness in their own and their pets’ interaction with nature. Fairness means minimizing the unfair disadvantages that a wild animal faces. A hawk or an owl is a fair disadvantage for a robin, fair evolutionary pressure that has been “agreed upon” over millennia. A cat is not. There are simply no two ways about this. Outdoor cats cannot peacefully coexist with birds any more than the lion can lie with the lamb; not in this world. Imagine that a race of aliens has descended on Earth, aliens about the size of elephants. Imagine them falling in love with lions and deciding to keep these animals as pets. Now imagine them letting the lions out of their dwellings to walk about our streets and gardens. The lions are well fed by their alien owners and do not need to hunt for that reason. The aliens have nothing against us and many feel sad that their pet lions eat a human here and there; but that’s just how it is. So, would you feel safe leaving your home? Exactly. The other day I met Bertie, a fine specimen of a cat who brought his owner a bird he’d caught. What’s remarkable about that? This: Bertie had both his eyes removed due to untreatable glaucoma. Even in the strange surroundings of the exam room this eyeless wonder moved around with the grace and confidence of a small lion. And if blind Bertie can do it...  Cats will kill, they are born to do so, and not because of hunger or because they are naughty or evil, but because it is their nature to hunt. Many formerly outdoor cats have been successfully converted (http://catsandbirds.ca/research/tips-for-transitioning/), and many more have not been accustomed to going outside in the first place. Keeping a cat busy at home, with toys and plenty of interaction, is the recipe to its happiness: https://indoorpet.osu.edu/cats   But if you strongly believe that your cat cannot be happy without going outdoors, I will not try to talk you out of it. Logic rarely works if you have no deep and personal reason to change your mind. I too used to own a cat who I believed was much happier outside and who was a competent hunter, and this did not bother me nearly enough, not until my relationship with birds became personal. My cat paid for her freedom, and for my decision, by dying in the jaws of a coyote. Here is an article that comes from the mind and heart of a cat owner and bird lover:
So instead of presenting more facts and figures, I am making an unashamed appeal to the emotions. I personally do not believe in karma, but it appears to be an immensely popular concept, so I will invoke it as well. I am asking for fairness toward birds and wildlife as well as to cats, for an effort to strike a balance between the interests of both. For this to happen, I invite you to make it personal, to raise a young bird if you have not done so before. What for? For the simple reason that the more creatures we can learn to love, the more worlds we can live in during our short time on this earth. Do it for your sake if not for the birds’. Raising this robin has added a new life to the one I have known, a new pair of eyes and ears, maybe even a new brain, more patient and calm and focused on what’s before me. 
Birdy was born fully competent at living and every day he discovered in himself a new skill. When it seemed that he would never eat except if fed with the hemostat, on the next morning he started picking up worms put before him on the floor, then to hunt out his own. When it seemed that he was capable only of baby chirps, suddenly and without rehearsal he sang a quiet little song in response to a robin recording I played for him. He was at once innocent and mischievous, helpless and cunning.  Although not a religious person, I was reminded of Matthew 6:26: "Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them." This passage is not about birds’ laziness or lack of planning skills—although given the chance, the robin would work as little as possible for his food, for animals are hard-wired to save energy. It is about their primal confidence in their place here, their trust in the world’s cooperation. In this they resemble their close yet such distant relatives the reptilians. I was permitted to observe the life of a tiny dinosaur with wings for arms and soft feathers for scales, to watch him grow and come into his own. (I am fairly certain that it was a male from the indignant chatter and beak-clacking he would raise at his reflection in the mirror.) Yet in contrast to their evolutionary ancestors, everything in a bird’s body and its entire life is quickened instead of slowed down. Metabolism is fast, and their bodies are warm like little furnaces. Life is fast and often all too short. 

I will never be where he was able to go as soon as he could fly, high up into the trees and the sky beyond. He must have wondered why I didn’t just take flight and meet him on his chosen branch: it was so easy! I hope he understood that his adoptive mother was monstrously misshapen, disabled, and spoke with a hideous accent; I hope he did not mistake me for his kin. Time and time again he brought himself down to my level. 

Guiding his eating habits was largely a work of trial and error helped along by research and observation. At certain times it seemed that he was being picky and bratty, refusing to eat things that were good for him such as earthworms, berries. This usually happened after he was fed his fill of his favourite food, mealworms. The larger, the better. A little research and deductive reasoning showed that he was not being a spoiled brat but rather that his digestive system quickly lost the enzymes needed to process certain foods, and together with them the appetite for these foods. A bird’s metabolism is super-fast, and a young growing bird’s metabolism is even faster. Their gut flora changes with the foods they eat, and those changes happen very quickly. Dropping the desired foods in his gaping maw gave him a “stomach” for them again, and on the next day he would eat them of his own accord. I learned not to be afraid to hand-feed him well after he could eat on his own, confident that he would not lose the skills he had acquired. And it was after these feeding sessions that he showed spurts of independence, hopping off to forage on the forest floor for his own food. Allowing him to get hungry in the hope that he would hunt more was a bad idea: all it did was drain him of the energy and will to do much of anything. His output was prodigious, and delivered without warning albeit at regular intervals. But, get this—my Birdy's shit didn’t stink. Not even a bit. And the bird himself had the generic fragrance of a newly-washed baby, a very similar scent across the species.   
In the beginning I put pressure on him and myself to see to it that he became wild as soon as possible. I felt frustration and defeat when he refused or failed to fly off and hunt on his own, resenting his dependence on me as a heavy burden of responsibility and guilt. I felt both loss and hope when he flew off for the first time, and prepared myself for either of two outcomes. I hoped he had joined that other world irreversibly, the world where animals want nothing from humans. I suspected he was not ready for it. And when an hour later we found each other by calling back and forth, I was full of relief and joy. And since then we spent many hours and days in this dance of letting go and then finding each other’s voices. Thus for a while he lived in two worlds, going forth into the forest and coming back to human care and protection and the laundry basket lined with moss that was his bedroom in our home. I hoped he would spend more and more time in the wild where he belonged, but I was wracked with doubt and fear. What if we’d messed him up—what if he tried to bring our human world into the world of birds, confusing other robins away from himself  instead of learning from them? I hoped that his instincts were stronger than his upbringing. I know he would not have survived if I hadn't picked him up; he did not stand a chance against the roaming cats. What I don't know is if he was meant to survive even if he hadn't ended up on the ground, or if the area was free of cats. On average an American robin lives only a couple of years.  Most newborn robins—three quarters—do not survive their first year at all. Those who do, live about five or six years. But his fledging the nest and falling to the ground could have been a sign of initiative rather than helplessness, and he could be one of the 25% who are destined to survive and maybe to live a long life, in which case only the presence of cats and myself derailed his normal upbringing and his entire fate. After a few days of existential turmoil I settled into the self-contentment of motherhood and no longer beat myself up for doting on him. 

Humility before nature is the cornerstone of our future as a species, if we are to have a future. But humility can only take us to a point beyond which we do not know what it’s like to be an animal and to live its life. Beyond that point we must give ourselves permission to feel human, i.e. masters of animals who exist for our benefit because they come under our protection. We need that flotation device in these uncharted waters at the interface of human and animal lives, the place where the human-animal bond is born. And as much as we’re taught to wince at the word “master” and condemn it for political incorrectness, we must acknowledge the truth of our position. The purpose and the significance of this little bird’s life had been changed through my intervention. The only thing I could say with certainty is that he lived to bring me joy, and I took responsibility for this decision. I studied up on his species, their behaviour and diet, the things they like and dislike, and to the best of my ability I arranged for him to exercise his instincts. But did I do what was best for him? I will never know. I told myself that if he got scooped up by a hawk moments after rubbing his soft warm neck on my hand to clean his beak, his life would still have been worth every moment. Nothing I did would have been in vain. Death is promised and guaranteed, and this story was guaranteed to end sadly. We would have lost him one way or another, either to an accident or sudden predation or to freedom in a wild state from which he would write us no letters. But certainties like death and loss cannot define a life. Each moment of his life witnessed by us has a significance it could not have if he’d lived as a wild bird.

It was a miracle and a gift that he allowed me to pick him up and carry him on my arm, his little warm feet curled around my wrist and his tiny claws tickling my skin. It was a miracle and a gift that he spoke and replied to me, and trusted me to care for him. He owes me no gratitude; I owe it to him, although as an animal he does not deal in this currency. Such miracles and gifts are fragile and cannot last, and so our bird left us just as we were settling into the cozy idea of keeping him over the winter till next spring. The bond between us was broken on his part but not on ours. During our last two days with him, his habits of returning to me and responding to my voice started wavering until they vanished like the morning mist, and his wild instincts took over and carried him away. I saw the warning signs, the impending goodbye, but could not picture my life without him—until I had no choice. I ought to be happy for his freedom, and for my own freedom from responsibility, but instead I feel abandoned and saddened by fear. Is he safe? Is he even alive, having flown off in a suburban area with many roaming cats? Does he have the social skills to get along with other robins, to understand their language? One minute his warm little body was coddled in the sentiments we'd been foolish enough to let loose, the next minute he passed into the unknown. Dead or alive, our robin is somewhere out there, still ours, unique among the billions of other robins.