I've never been particularly fond of birds, though to hear my pen-name, Flippa Bird, you'd think I was completely enamored with them. Which is probably why my love affair with a little baby mockingbird struck me so hard.
I always thought of birds as creepy little creatures, dinosaurs with feathers, emotionless and strange... That is until one balmy Saturday morning in May.
My husband stepped out to mow our back lawn when not even ten minutes later he called out to me in a hushed, concerned voice, "Hey hon, I think need you to come here a sec."
I figured he'd accidentally chopped his foot off (he's the opposite of dramatic), or mowed over our lethargic cat, Wesley Jenkins.
I followed him outside... "Look at this. I almost ran right over them."
And there, literally a couple of inches in front of the mower, lay two featherless, pink, completely repulsive looking, tiny baby birds. They couldn't have even been more than two days old... their eyes bulged under fused blue lids. "What do we do?" he asked me. "I have no fucking idea," I replied, "let me google it."
A quick Google search informed me that I should place the birds back in their nest, which was, thankfully, still intact and in place at eye level in a tree in the backyard. That bit about birds abandoning their babies if they smell human on them is an old wives tale, by the way. Birds have a terrible sense of smell.
I'm ashamed to say that the little creatures stark appearance repulsed me so that I had my daughter place them back into their nest. I couldn't bring myself to even touch them. We went back inside, watching and waiting for the mother bird to return.
She never did.
After about 12 hours of waiting we went out and checked on them up close. It was dark and getting cool. They were panting heavily and craning their little necks frantically for food. I didn't know what the hell to do with them, but my mother-heart wouldn't let me leave them to die.
So we brought them in.
I racked my brain, reaching into the memories filed away, to find info on birds. I remembered that a few years back a friend of mine had raised a mourning dove from this stage. She fed it wet cat food at first, before finding out it was a dove. So either way wet cat food could satiate the poor starving creatures, at least until I figured out what the hell to do. I mixed a bit of wet cat food with milk (a big mistake) and had my daughter feed them.
I called my dove-rearing friend for advice. And I found out much from her: 1. Birds can't digest milk. It can kill them. 2. They need to be kept at a constant warm temperature, around 100 degrees. Too hot will kill them. Too cool will kill them. 3. They need to eat approximately every 30 minutes from sun up to sun down. If they get too weak they will die. If they eat too much they will die. 4. They can't drink water and they need to get their liquid from their food source, but if the food source is too watery they will choke and die. If there's not enough moisture, they will die.
Basically I was fucked. I'd already started these little things on the wrong foot with the whole giving them milk thing.
I grabbed the cat carrier, a heating pad, a small measuring cup, and a dish rag. My daughter fashioned a little bed for them out of the measuring cup and dishrag. She placed the heating pad in the cat carrier and placed the makeshift nest on top of it. She fed them more cat food and we went to bed.
The next morning my daughter came to me, "Mom one of the birds doesn't look so good... It's breathing funny." I told her we'd go get real supplies and that everything would be ok. We bought canned mealworms from the pet store after reading online that birds like mealworms. We didn't know they were supposed to be mushed up. We fed the worms to them whole. They ate them.
"Mom I think the bird is dying. I don't want to go to orchestra practice, I need to take care of him." I looked at the bird. I could tell it was dying. But I knew there was not a damn thing we could do to save him. "It'll be fine," I told her, "get your stuff and let's go.
I dropped her off and came back home to find that the little bird had passed away. The other one was laying there next to its dead sibling, craning it's tiny neck ferociously, looking for food.
In that moment something in me clicked, something primal and fierce. I picked up the wriggling little thing and cradled it in my hand, willing it to fight and hang on. "Please, don't you die too." I told it.
I called my husband over and asked him to take care of the tiny dead bird... I just couldn't do it.
He made a small nest of pine needles, nestled the tiny body in the nest, and buried him in it. He told me he couldn't stand the thought of placing that little baby in the cold, hard ground. I cried when he told me that.
And my resolve strengthened. The little bird in my hands would live.
I understand those animals in the wild who find an orphan of another species and raise it as their own. I understand why they growl and attack when you come near. That fierce, primal mothering instinct takes over and there's not a damn thing to be done but protect, nurture, and love.
From that moment on I cared for that little bird alone. I was like one of those wild animals in my care for her... I didn't want anyone to touch the bird, or feed the bird, or look after it. I became consumed with keeping this small creature alive.
I fashioned beaks out of drinking straws to feed her. I researched and researched and researched until I found a baby bird food formula. Which, by the way, is 60% wet cat food, 20% ground up mealworms, and 20% hard boiled egg (whites and yolk), all ground and mixed to the consistency of wet baby food. I also threw a mushed-up blue berry into the mix.
I kept her with me constantly. She was always cradled safely in my hands. I marveled over every single milestone... When her eyes opened, when her feather capsules appeared, and when her soft feathers started popping out of the capsules! I was in awe when she started to stand on wobbly legs, and then tried to perch. Much like a human baby she'd stand on shaky legs, and not like a human baby she'd curl her tiny talons around my finger.... and then promptly fall right over.
I was falling in love. When the downy feathers on her head appeared it gave her the appearance of a mad professor (total Albert Einstein hair). She squawked and peeped at me constantly.
I named her Professor Peepertons.
In June I had to go out of town for two weeks and it drove me into a frenzy. I couldn't leave her! Who would care for her?! That primal mothering instinct was in full force. Though she was no longer being fed every 30 minutes she still had to eat often and she still had to be hand-fed. We debated over me bringing her on my trip, or driving her 6 hours to my friends house for her to care for Professor Peepertons. In the end we settled on my husband caring for her.
She was still too small to eat on her own. He would need to feed her twice in the morning before he left for work, then come home on his lunch break everyday to feed her, and then he'd need to feed her as soon as he got home... and the rest of the night before they went to bed.
I bought her a very roomy, proper bird cage and made (and froze) enough baby bird food for a month.
"If she dies while I'm gone I will hate you forever," I told my husband.
"I know you will. That's why I'm going to take good care of her," he said
And he did.
He cared for her like a saint, spending every bit of his free time tending to her. He'd whistle songs for her and let her hop around on his head. He face-timed with her every evening so I could see her, he called me daily to keep me updated on her, and he texted me pictures of her. She grew right before my eyes in those pictures!
When I returned home she looked like a miniature version of her people. After wondering what kind of bird she was for so long, I was happy to discover her true identity. Flashy white bars on her wings gave it away: she was most definitely a mocking bird!
Mockingbirds are the songbirds of all songbirds. They have a repertoire of up to 250 individual songs. They can imitate anything from other birds, to cats, to dogs, and other wild life, and even mechanical sounds such as weed eaters or car engines!
Their own true sound is a horrible raspy squawk. The beauty is in their mimicry; it's heard and quickly learned. She was learning to fly, but she wasn't learning any music living inside the quiet walls of my bedroom.
Well thank God for YouTube! I played bird songs from every different kind of bird I could find on there. And I played them all day long!
Much like me she turned out to have a flair for the dramatic. One day as my daughter and I were laying in bed watching a movie we heard the most beautiful little trill! We muted the movie to ascertain where the sound was coming from and low and behold, there was Professor Peepertons sitting on my window sill singing her little heart out. Canary songs, no less: The showiest of all bird songs! Andoh my was it lovely!! We listened to her, for a good 10 minutes, until she finished her song.
We went on like this for a while. I'd spend my days with her in the bedroom. She'd preen my hair and play with my jewelry. I'd still hand feed her even though she was eating on her own. She transitioned from mushy baby bird food and was now eating whole mealworms, crickets, berries, and sunflower seeds. She'd always take a few worms from my fingers before hopping over to her food though.
After a few sneezes from me placing drops of water on her beak, she learned to drink water on her own. She also discovered the joys of baths! I fashioned a birdbath out of a glass serving bowl and she'd splash around, diving in and out of the water, chirping and trilling with happiness!
Her favorite thing to do was to sit on my window sill, gazing outside and singing. It was completely heartbreaking. She didn't even know what outside was.... but she knew she wanted to be there.
Soon she started scratching at her face at night when I'd have to cage her. It was stress... She was stressed. She needed to be free, but I had hand raised her and I was completely terrified that she'd die if I released her. She had only been outside once and it was a disaster! A small group of mockingbirds tried to attack her... She flew under a tree to hide. I scooped her up and carried her inside, determined to keep her safe.
But eventually I came to the realization that I had to let her go. No matter what happened. The sheer bliss she'd have from 5 minutes of unadulterated freedom, even if that was all she got, was better than a life time of being stuck in a cage.
So one morning I let her out of her cage in my room. I fed her and she perched on my hand for a while. I put her back into her cage.
And I carried the cage outside.
I said a prayer. I asked God to watch over her. I asked Mother Nature to be kind to her. Then I talked to my little mockingbird. I told that I hoped I was doing the right thing. I told her I was letting her go, but that I hoped she come back to visit. I thanked her for showing me what amazing people birds are. I told her that I loved her and that I always would.
Then I opened her cage.
We both sat there in a still silence for a few minutes.
Off she flew, high into the sky in a wide sweeping arc, taking with her a piece of my heart.
I couldn't contain my sorrow. I sobbed hard. That ugly, guttural kind of cry where your face puffs up and you can't breathe. I cried until the ugly sobs subsided.... And even then the tears couldn't be stopped. They ran down my face like a leaky faucet and I cried in silence.
I sat in the backyard the rest of the day watching for her, seeing her intermittently, hoping she'd perch on my shoulder one last time.
I hung her toys from the branches of the trees. I nailed her food bowl to the fence and filled it with her favorites. I sat out her makeshift birdbath and refilled it daily with fresh water. I'd catch glimpses of a little mockingbird here and there, but they were fleeting.
Then one day, shortly after her release, I heard a canary singing.
There was Professor Peepertons, perched in the bradford pear in our back yard, softly singing her little canary songs!
She's made a home in our backyard. We see and hear her quite often now. I feel like that was her gift to me. I let her go and so she didn't really go away.
The other morning, as I let the dogs out into the pouring rain to do their business, I was welcomed with the loudest, most exuberant canary song! Professor Peepertons was tucked safely away in her bradford pear tree, singing her heart out! I'd never heard her sing so loudly! I stood there in the pouring rain, soaking in the happiness of it all...
So grateful she was with her freedom that she greeted the pouring rain with a beautiful song!
Though it broke my heart to do so, in the end I did the right thing by releasing her. But I feel like that rainy day melody mended it quite a bit! Maybe I did the right thing by her all along. Maybe a broken heart mended is better than a heart never broken at all. Maybe it doesn't fucking matter. Either way she's alive and happy... and that's all that really matters. There will always be a special place in my heart for that sweet, little mockingbird.