Apologies for the length of this post and the time it has taken for me to publish it - I just thought that if anyone else has had the experience of looking after a baby bird, they may be interested in hearing our story....
France, 4th August 2013
France, 4th August 2013
Day 1'Bird' came into our lives a week ago today. N was chopping down a load of bamboo out here in France and suddenly he called me to come and look. Somehow still attached to a long bamboo shoot, lying on the ground, was this little bird's nest with one little baby and a small cream speckled egg inside. We decided to try and put it back roughly where it was, inserting the shoot into the hollow of a previously cut bamboo stem. Bird sat there in his nest, looking remarkably like Schulz's Woodstock (the Peanuts cartoon strip always made me smile), swaying around in the breeze. We went on with our gardening until the chirruping of 'Bird' became hard to ignore and I was concerned that the mother would not now come back*. At this point we made a fatal decision - to bring Bird and nest inside and to try and feed it.
We found a box (having just invested in a number of electric fans due to the extraordinary heat) which was deep and spacious. We put Bird and nest inside it, in one corner, with paper towels and cotton wool underneath it to keep it warm, and I set about concocting some food. I decided that bread soaked in milk could only be good and found some tweezers with which to administer it down Bird's gaping red throat. He seemed very grateful. L googled 'How to look after baby birds' which suggested they need to be fed every half hour or so. We were due out for a late lunch at friends, so on that basis we decided that Bird had to come too. The friend wasn't impressed and made yuck noises at our little avian friend, who was only just starting to get feathers. They did however provide us with a syringe with which to administer tiny drops of water which we felt may be necessary given the 40 degree heat.
When we got back home we realised that his nest would soon get very mucky and unpleasant unless we gave Bird 'nappies' as every time we fed him he forced out an almighty yellow poo (it reminded me so much of the colour of new-born human baby poo) so we got some paper towel and folded it into the nest to line it. L found her mini hot water bottle and filled it up and put it under bird's nest to keep it warm. I rang my parents to wish my father a Happy Birthday and my mother told me birds shouldn't be given milk as it can kill them. Oh. Too late now! So we put Bird to bed that night with some trepidation...
We woke the next morning slightly surprised that Bird had actually made it through the night. Apparently E woke at 3am and checked on it and was relieved to see it still breathing. Given that Step 8 of the Caring for New-born Birds website said, ominously, 'there is of course still a great chance that your bird will die' (which followed Step 7 where we were cheerily told: 'you will probably become very attached to your bird'), we felt quite proud that this little fragile creature was still with us. I discovered another website which told me baby birds can be fed crushed up boiled egg, so I found myself hard boiling an egg and mushing it up for Bird at the same time as brewing coffee for N and I. Having survived milk and bread, I thought a little protein could indeed be in order now.
And so we got on with our day. There were gardening and domestics to be done and lunch to be had.
We decided to go into the village for lunch as it was a bit grey for the beach. Much debate as to Bird, but we decided he should come too and we left him in the car while we ate. The rest of the day was spent at home so we were able to keep feeding Bird his hard boiled egg and keep an eye on him. All that changed was his nest: a pink paper cocktail parasol which L had been given with her ice cream at the restaurant suddenly appeared perched at a jaunty angle on the side of Bird's nest. It seemed remarkably appropriate in all this holiday heat and amused me greatly.
That night it was my turn to have Bird. I slept fitfully, like a mother with a new-born, terrified that Bird was going to die on my watch. Before daylight I woke with a start and turned on the light to check that he was still alive. Somewhat to my astonishment he stirred and shuffled in his nest and then gave out a little chirrup. I gave him some food, then closed the flaps again and turned off the light. I still couldn't sleep properly though, so gave up the struggle and got up early to get on with my day. Bird snoozed on happily until the household started to stir some hours later.
It was only a little later that I first noticed Bird suddenly seemed a little lacking in energy. We put him on the ground to see if he would hop about but he seemed a little wobbly. It was then that I noticed the tiny creatures crawling over the white 'nappies' in his nest. I peered at them and they looked like minuscule spiders. Some were pale coloured, some were darker. I quickly decided they were not a good sign and immediately found a little plastic box in the recycling in which to bathe him. I put in a centimetre or so of tepid water with a minute squeeze of ecological washing-up liquid. I plonked the little thing in and sloshed him all over. I don't think he liked it much but I tried to persuade him it was for a good cause. I could see more of these little dots in the bath water and felt satisfied that I had washed some of them out. I then dried him with paper towels and popped him back in his nest having changed his nappies once more. I noticed he was shaking so picked him up again and cupped him closely in my hands. I thought perhaps he had got cold due to the bath (his feathers were growing but there was still much pink skin under his wings and below his chest). When he'd stopped shaking I put him back in his nest, now empty of the little speckled egg which had lain next to him as L had cleaned poo off it earlier but unfortunately it had broken in the process. No brothers or sisters for Bird now! I also decided to put him back on a more mixed diet as I thought his lack of energy could be due to too much protein and a lack of carbs. So I mixed the egg with bread, water, some crushed up crackers, a bit of grated Parmesan cheese and a drop of milk.
The day was hot and after lunch the beach called. E decided to stay at home, so Bird was left in her care for a few hours. She continued to feed him regularly and give him tiny drops of water on the end of his beak from the syringe. N came to pick her up later and bring her down to the beach for supper with the rest of us - and of course Bird had to come too in his fan box. He was looking much perkier again and hopping on to the edge of his nest. We left him in the car and checked on him from time to time during our meal. All appeared to be well in Bird's world. We felt pleased but N couldn't help reminding us about 'Step 8'...
The girls had Bird in their room overnight and apparently they woke to hear his chirping and duly fed him. Due to the continuing heat we decided to stay at home by the pool. Bird was washed again, his nest cleaned out and nappies changed and was fed at regular intervals. We let him hop about on the ground a bit and he was far less wobbly than previously and starting to hop out of his nest in the box more and more. These were all good signs...
Bird was very chipper again today with much chirping and feathers coming along nicely. He almost looked fluffy. I had woken early, my mind full of Things To Do, and decided that when the rest of the family eventually woke, we would go and visit the market at a small town about half an hour away where we hadn't been for some time. Bird was now such a part of the family that it was automatic that we bring him along. So his box was loaded into the car and off we set. We purchased speciality cakes, wine and Armagnac and then enjoyed a good lunch before having a mooch around the church and the local shops. In the antiques and bric-a-brac shop we spotted, quite serendipitously, a small sky blue wooden birdcage. It was perfect, if somewhat overpriced! But madness prevailed (helped along by red wine, no doubt) and Bird had a new home to move into from his fan box. L, always the nostalgic, was not amused...
The day was muggy and warm and we felt in need of a swim. Bird had remained in the car during our visit and again while we were at the beach as he seemed strong and happy enough in his little boxed world. He sang like an angel all day (it was like having an aviary in the car with us) and every time he opened his wide beak for food his throat was bright red and healthy looking. I was already looking forward to putting him in his cage and watching him hop about and even, possibly, start to peck at some food himself. I imagined him on the terrace in his new sky blue home, looking out at the world he would soon inhabit, singing his little heart out.
We started to feel that we had turned the corner, that he was growing stronger by the day and we felt suitably chuffed. Step 7 had certainly proved true, and maybe Step 8 had been eluded after all...
We had friends stopping by for lunch on their journey down to elsewhere. Bird had spent the night with the girls again and I left them to do the looking after. I felt there was less need now to be quite so vigilant but I kept reminding them to feed him and change his nappies nonetheless. What I didn't do was actually look at him properly. Instead I busied myself cleaning the house, doing laundry and trying to finish all that in time to go to a local market. G, meanwhile, dedicated herself to lining the bottom of Bird's new cage with long green leaves while he sat on the grass in front of her. I took a quick photo. She popped the nest and Bird inside to see how he liked it while L was determined Bird should stay in his box and was busy cutting a window in it so Bird could see out, now that he was getting bigger and stronger.
We missed the market so had to go to the supermarket to buy food for the late lunch with our friends who were having a terrible journey. Bird was with us and G did mention in the car park that she thought he was chirruping less. I didn't really have time to concentrate on it much and told her to give him some more food. We then rushed home to get everything set up and prepared. G told me again that Bird was rather quiet but I was too busy getting lunch sorted. The friends arrived and we chatted and ate for an hour or so. As they were about to leave G was getting increasingly concerned about Bird, so they left with the words 'go and look after Bird!' and we waved them cheerily goodbye.
I then, finally, turned my attention to dear Bird. The moment I looked at him I realised there was actually something terribly wrong. I saw that his throat was no longer bright red but grey; he was weak; he was opening his beak to chirrup but no sound was coming out. Just yesterday he was so full of beautiful song. I couldn't believe how quickly it had all changed. I rushed to boil an egg to give him some nutrition and I gave him a bath as I saw all the little creatures had returned. He was so weak and I dried him quickly and kept him cuddled in paper towels in my cupped hands. I desperately tried to get some of the egg down him but it was no good. He was fading away before my eyes. I realised it was hopeless, that I had left it too late to react, that this little life which we had done so much to nurture, was now slipping away. I went outside and sat at the table where we had been so happily eating lunch such a short while ago, still holding this fragile creature. I saw the glazing over of his eyes, once so bright, just moments before he noiselessly opened his oversized beak for the last time. I saw him take his last gasp of breath and could tell the very moment his little soul slipped away. It was absolutely heart-breaking and I felt so guilty. If only I had looked at him earlier; if only I had paid more attention to what G was trying to tell me...
I cannot really describe the next few hours. I wept and wept for Bird. He had come into our lives so unexpectedly but, just as Step 7 had said, he became part of our lives so quickly. Looking after him took me right back to looking after my new-born babies - they are so utterly dependent on you. And I failed him just when he needed me most. I know this sounds ridiculous - it was only a bird who would probably have died anyway. Such is the fragility of all living creatures. It's just that we were doing so well, I did not believe that it could change again so quickly. I had imagined the next stage in his sky blue cage, and had visualised the day he would fly off into the trees and bushes around us. I knew the immense pleasure and satisfaction that would have given us all. But it didn't happen like that. Life rarely does what you expect, does it? Eventually I knew I had to let Bird go and I decided to put him back at the base of the bamboos from which he'd come. I noted how much heavier he felt now that life had left him and I stroked his once perky little head before laying him down amongst the dead leaves before gently covering him with them. It was so very hard to walk away...
I was surprised the girls did not seem as upset as I was as they settled down to watch a film - perhaps because I blamed myself so much. Yet later that day E suddenly came to me in tears, the reality suddenly hitting.
G woke this morning and came to our room in tears as well, remembering how just yesterday she had woken to Bird's chirruping. And finally it sunk in with little L as well and the next thing we knew she was digging him up and saw how his belly had swollen and burst open. I did not want her to remember Bird like that. Lots of tears followed and her desperate desire to bury him was met by N who dug a little grave and put him in his nest and then covered it back with earth. We then found a square of old wood flooring and L diligently carved 'Bird' on it. This lay on top of the grave with some flowers sellotaped onto it with a little picket fence all around it that L had constructed to keep the little grave sacred. We said a prayer to Bird and took a photo. He had finally been laid to rest.
In the week that we shared with Bird he (or, indeed, she - we never did discover how to tell whether it was male or female) gave us all - grumpy old N included - such immense joy. The tiny little songbird in his cardboard fan box. If nothing else, it has taught the girls something about nurturing, life, death and the harshness and, yes, transient beauty of Nature. It's amazing how one week and one little creature could give us so much to remember.
After Bird died, I spent a lot of time agonising as to what it was that went wrong. I thought at first that we had drowned him (it is very easy to get water in their windpipe which is under their tongue - some websites actually say you should not give them water for this reason and that they will get what they need from their food), but in the end I decided that he most likely died from acute anaemia and then organ shut down. I later discovered, by searching the internet, that the little spider-like creatures I had seen, some white, some dark in colour, were actually bird mites which are blood-sucking parasites. Instinctively I had done the right thing by washing him and cleaning his nest, but what I didn't realise was what a serious problem they were, especially during the night - indeed, nests are frequently so badly infested that the fledgling birds leave it purely to escape the unwanted attentions of the mites. I had noticed Bird hopping out of it and now realise why. What I should have done is got rid of the nest completely - instead I had thought of it as his 'comfort zone' and somewhere he felt safe. The mites had literally sucked the life blood out of him.
It was simply my inexperience which had caused Bird to die - if I had known better he may well be alive and singing his little heart out in the garden today. But as a friend kindly pointed out, in his one short week of life our little song sparrow had enjoyed more love than any other like him. That much, at least, is true.
* I've also subsequently learnt from a website that it is a fallacy that, once a baby bird is touched, the parents will not return to the nest. Apparently birds have a very poor sense of smell. It would no doubt have been better if we had left Bird well alone and his mother would have eventually responded to his calls. The wisdom of hindsight.