30 Apr 12

Goodbye Little Bird

I’ve been volunteering at my local Humane Society/SPCA as well as the library. Job hunting is soul-sucking but having a chance to get out and connect with people is helpful to the morale. It also ensures that I don’t sink permanently into the belief that a ponytail, yoga pants, and no makeup counts as acceptable attire for every day of the week. At the library I’m helping to run a program that provides computer assistance and instruction to mostly senior citizens. Being pretty passionate about libraries and online privacy, this is a pretty good gig in a setting I enjoy.

Volunteering at the Humane Society is very different. Libraries are silent and clean and serene. The only thing that dies inside a good library is ignorance. A place full of wild animals is messier and more chaotic. I work in the Wildlife Nursery, so while some other volunteers get to cuddle kittens and bunnies and puppies, I’m looking after baby squirrels and itty bitty birds. Right now we’ve got goslings, ducklings, possums, raccoons, starlings, juncos, pigeons, squirrels, squirrels, and more squirrels. They are amazing and adorable and I’m awed by the up-close experience I get with animals people rarely look at face-to-face.

This morning I came in for my shift, and I was pleased to be invited by one of the veterinarians to feed all the little birds in the incubators. I had watched several times and it was exciting to finally get trained on how to get food to the animals quickly, quietly, and with as little disturbance to them as possible.

Small starlings are easy to feed. They shriek nonstop and their mouths gape so wide that it’s impossible to miss. Just take the tiny syringe, point it down the right side of their throat, and squeeze a few milliliters at a time. Older starlings are a nightmare. They are loud and aggressive and have no fear of you at all. They push one another out of the way and try to steal any food they can, making it tricky to be sure that each bird gets the same amount of food.

Grubs are surprisingly adamant in their desire not to be eaten alive. They do their best to wiggle out of the tweezers use to lift them, and they do their best to wiggle away from eager beaks. Baby birds spend so much time gaping and chirping that even if there is already food in their crop they often fail to notice that their fat juicy lunch is crawling right back out their gullet. There are tricks to avoid this; the best was is no keep pinching the grub with the tweezers until the bird has gobbled at it enough that it’s been smashed up, then let the meal go.

Until about 11:15 this morning we also had a tiny baby hummingbird, a creature smaller than a peanut shell and even more delicate. The first time I saw it I was stunned that such a tiny naked thing could live at all without its mother. It was in an incubator, luckily still in its original nest. It depended on the constant monitoring of veterinarians and volunteers to make sure that its habitat was warm, had the right humidity level, and that just the right number of nectar drops made it into the little bird’s gaping crop every thirty minutes.

I was the last one to feed the bird, lowering the tiny syringe to its oversize, floppy head with eyes still closed and hardly any feathers to speak of. After it was fed someone else moved it to another incubator so its habitat could be cleaned. A bit later, I returned to the nursery and became confused when I saw that both incubators were clean and vacant. The little bird had died. I ran to the exam room, distraught at the idea that I might have done something to kill it.

“She just crashed,” the veterinarian explained, shaking her head. “To be honest when we get them this small their chances of survival are very, very low.”

Any of a dozen causes could have been a death sentence for the little hummingbird. The shock of being moved from one cage to another. Microbes in its gut. Temperature changes when the incubator was opened and shut. Too much or too little food. Suddenly snapping its oversize head too hard for its unbelievably slender neck. Whatever the cause was, the result was there on the table for me to see: a tiny body with only the wispiest hints of feathers and two eyes that never saw the light of day.

Most of the animals in the wildlife nursery are there because some kind of human activity disturbed their habitat. This is especially the case with baby birds and squirrels. Usually people don’t think about the impact on animals when they choose to trim their trees in the springtime. The Wildlife Nursery tries to make up for this, and overwhelmingly it’s a success story. Just today some starlings were released back into the wild, and several possums will follow them this evening.

But I can’t help being sad for the little bird that will never join them.