I still grieve the day 25 years ago when a friend and I found a baby bird on the sidewalk under a tree. She was tiny, helpless, nearly featherless. We both believed the first, most fatal myth: if you touch the baby, the mom will reject it.
We had accidentally touched her, because my friend almost stepped on her. She was on a busy sidewalk, so we moved her aside. And then we felt certain we couldn’t leave her there.
I took her home, believing I could somehow care for her. I tried a number of feedings, from varieties of baby food to sugar water to fruit and vegetable purees.
I gave it the college-level try, but I was kindergarten-level naive. The baby never ate anything, and over 48 hours she became weaker and weaker. I eventually carried her to the bank of a pond, soothed by self-delusions that nature would somehow make it all okay. I left her there, believing…what? Little Disney characters would flutter in and sprinkle her with fairy dust? She’d be adopted by a nanny bird or a benevolent fox would nurse the bird along with her litter of pups?
The baby bird died there, alone and hungry.
Nature wasn’t going to step in and save her, because I’d already thwarted nature’s one perfect plan. To allow nature to save her, I needed only to do one thing: Put the baby back in the tree. Right where we found her. Right where her mother surely watched us carry away her baby to a certain death.
Barring that, I could have reached out to any number of resources I had no idea about back then: Audubon Society, local wildlife rehabs, animal shelters, veterinarians. I didn’t even know to do that. And get this: we didn’t have Google then. It was the dark ages.
Fast-forward a quarter of a century to this past weekend, when I found a baby squirrel under my apple tree. Wide-eyed, passive, trusting little creature that can only be a baby squirrel, he was all too happy for me to pick him up. I’ve rescued several, and they always do the same thing: crawl up my chest, nuzzle under my chin, and make a snuffling sound that shatters my heart. I wrapped him in a piece of fleece fabric, and he kneaded it with his paws, trying to suckle it like he would his mother’s soft belly.
My husband and I fashioned a little nest out of a small box and attached it to a tree limb. There the baby waited, sleeping peacefully, for 3 1/2 hours until it grew dark and cold outside. I brought him inside for the night, keeping him safely in his fleece wrap and a cat carrier, while I Googled emergency feeding and re-hydration for baby squirrels. Again, I gave it the college try, and much less naively this time, but the baby still didn’t eat.
Bright and early the next morning, I put the baby back in his tree, this time sitting in the open on top of his fleece wrap. After about an hour he got playful and explored the tree. He found some hidey holes I didn’t know were there. I learned he could climb down, but couldn’t climb back up, and would panic when he wanted to return to his fleece but couldn’t. So it was clear he wasn’t quite ready to fend for himself, and his mom wasn’t returning.
Usually the mother will return. When she doesn’t, there’s still hope.
I turned to the experts: a local wildlife rescue center that’s expert in saving the hordes of nature’s innocents who nearly lose their lives each spring. Whether from natural predators, the unnatural predation from family dogs and cats, traffic accidents, deaths of parents, or untold other reasons, youngsters in the wild face an uphill climb to survive to adolescence. The wildlife center looks like a nursery this time of the year: babies of every conceivable species suckle bottles and take nourishment from eye droppers and are swaddled and nurtured by nanny humans who, no matter how skilled and compassionate, readily caution that they are a poor replacement for the infants’ actual mothers.
Roger (that’s his name, because, as you can clearly see, he looks like a Roger) will spend perhaps a week in the adorable wildlife nursery under the care of people who know how to feed and raise him, and then he’ll come back here, to his home tree, hopefully to thrive.
The babies I’ve saved since then always awaken my grief over the one I killed with kindness 25 years ago. The babies saved don’t erase that loss, but help me feel I’ve tipped the scales in the favor of the innocents. And since nature isn’t populated by magical faeries with gold dust, these babies need all the help they can get.