Thursday, 17 January 2013

Raising Twin and Apple

Twice in my life I've raised baby birds.
The first time this happened I was nine years old. It was the summer we moved to the farm and there were Swallows nesting in the big barn where the horses had their stables. One baby bird in particular kept falling out of his nest- it didn't matter how many times I put him back, within minutes he'd be down again. Lord knows how he managed not to break himself apart falling onto the concrete floor. He was more or less ready to fledge and I guess the instinct to leave the nest and fly was stronger than his ability to do it.
We had cats and I didn't rate his chances of surviving them if exposed on the ground for long. So I picked him up and took care of him. He lived in a shoe box in my bedroom. As he got stronger he would first crawl then flutter up onto my shoulder. We were then inseparable: he went everywhere with me, out into the fields to check the ponies, down to the hen house to throw corn, into the barn to search for clutches of hidden eggs. 
I called him Twin, and he was my constant companion for those few weeks before autumn came and I returned to school. 

I remember the first time he flew properly. I was sitting in the bathroom with my back to the radiator talking to my father who was sitting on the loo (lid down, I hasten to add), and Twin was on my shoulder as normal, when he suddenly uttered a loud cry and launched himself off my shoulder towards my startled father. His first flight was erratic, and his aim a little wild, but somehow he made it onto my father's lap where, after getting back onto his feet, he flapped his wings importantly and tweeted loudly as if telling us all how clever he'd been. Within seconds he'd launched himself off dad's lap and flown back to me, this time making a perfect landing.
I was proud, excited, pleased and sad all in one go- Twin could fly, he no longer needed to get around by sitting on my shoulder, he could be an independent bird, but this would mean that he would leave me.

One September morning when the fields were shrouded with mist and the sun came up weak in a pink sky I took Twin with me to the bird's pen to let them out as usual. I paused for a moment with my arm resting on a wooden pole that had once been a gate post. For the last few days the swallows had been gathering along the telegraph wires and on top of the barn roof, ready for the great flight to Africa. Twin was on my shoulder as usual. Quite suddenly with no warning he took off, flew high and strong over the barn, circled round, flew back down low over my head, but instead of returning to my shoulder as he had always done before, he twisted up, the perfect acrobat of the air, soared back to the barn roof and dropped down quickly to land beside his swallow family. I knew it was goodbye.
I looked out for him the following Spring. I was doing the horses one morning when the first swallows came back. One detached itself from the group and flew low over my head, twisting at the last moment and skimming my hair. I don't know for sure, but I like to believe that it was Twin, coming back to say hello.

It was to be almost 30 years before I was again blessed with having the care of a wild bird. Apple was a fledgling blackbird discovered alone and vulnerable on the lawn of my mother's house in the New Forest. Before I could advise her not to, my mother, fearing the attentions of her dog, scooped Apple up and brought her indoors then called me to see whether I could help. It was by then too late to return her to the garden, she was in shock and dehydrating, so I put her in a box and brought her home.

I went to the village shop to get some EMP food (recommended by the lady who runs our local animal rescue), but they didn't have any. Mother Nature must have been watching though because the customer standing next to me turned out to be a person who rears hawks and she knew all about raising baby birds. Get some Diarrolite and a small syringe and give her a few drops, otherwise she'll die of shock, she told me.

The short version of this story is that Apple took the medicine and within an hour was up and chirruping for food. She lived in a cage in our bedroom while she recovered from her ordeal (good job my husband is a farmer's son), learnt to peck for food by grabbing at bits of carpet fluff, then progressed to live white maggots that I got for her from the local fishery. She learnt to fly by hopping down from the tops of various family member's heads. She used to go upstairs with me to my son's attic bedroom where she would sit on his bed and sing to wake him up for school. I guess he's perhaps the only child in England to wake up to the song of a wild blackbird sitting on his bed.

When she got strong enough and had learnt how to peck properly for food and no longer really wanted to be hand fed I put her outside and she would hop about happily exploring the garden and experimenting flying up into trees during the day, then flutter over to me at dusk and come back inside when I called her. After a few days of doing this she flew to me when I called her, but instead of letting me pick her up to bring her indoors flew up over the garden fence and into a tall tree by the lake. 

I barely slept the first night she was outside alone and woke up very early to go outside and call her, hoping she'd made it through safe from predators. The relief when she flew down out of the tree was enormous, but her flying wasn't yet strong enough to get her back over the garden fence to safety without assistance, so I had to hop over the gate, walk round the track, pick her up and bring her back to her tree in the garden.

After that she stayed outside all the time. For a few weeks whenever I whistled she'd fly to me from wherever she was in the garden or surrounding area, almost bumping in to me in the early days until she got the hang of her wings, but in time even that stopped. I was sad but pleased- it meant she was a fully functioning, wild creature and that was what I wanted for her more than anything.

Part of the process of her learning to be outside and live independently of me involved her flying in through our bedroom window at six o'clock and landing on my pillow chirruping for breakfast every morning. She knew it was a guaranteed source of food and I was glad she had it. I went away for a girls' weekend shortly after this leaving my husband in charge and on my return he told me she hadn't been in all the time I was away, so we just assumed she'd stopped doing it and was now fully independent. However, the following morning was a Monday and my husband gets up early for work so consequently I was asleep on my own when something small landed on his pillow and started singing to me. It was Apple. I grinned broadly at her and got up to feed her the dried meal worms I kept in a bag by the bed. She came in twice more after that and then no more. I left her a pile of worms on our window sill which she shared with the Robin. For a while I could distinguish her call and knew where she was when she sang a reply to my whistle but eventually my ear grew less accustomed to her voice and eventually she merged back into the wild.

It was a great success story and something I feel really blessed to have been part of. Would she have survived if we hadn't intervened? It's hard to say. Broadly speaking it's best not to interfere- nature usually knows best and many birds fledge before they look ready to human eyes. Blackbirds certainly do, so if you find a feathered one hopping about on your lawn looking vulnerable the best advice is to leave it where it is. Mum and dad won't be far and the majority of the time baby birds die if you intervene. We were extremely lucky with Apple and it is a memory I will always cherish.

Here she is in various stages of growing up to independence.


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Thank you for leaving a comment. I always enjoy reading them and will try my best to reply to every one. CT x