Jean of Earthfire protectively holds a baby sparrow
— by Susan Eirich, Ph.D. —
August 1, 2017
A sweet young volunteer, Gwen, came into the office walking softly, her hands cupped together in front of her ever so gently, holding something apparently very delicate and precious. It was a baby bird. She had seen it tumble off our roof from under the gable onto the ground. She rushed to pick it up. It was still alive.
It was far too young to survive out of the nest, having just sprouted a few tufts of feathers sticking out in ungainly fashion from its naked pink skin. It was a baby sparrow.
Left to Right: Baby sparrow just fallen off roof, baby sparrow in hand | Photo by Earthfire
Here was a golden opportunity for Gwen, who loved animals deeply and seriously. We had just received our rehabilitation license. I thought – why don’t we give her a chance to learn skills under our supervision. We gave her instructions and sent her home with little bird warning her that raising a baby bird was very difficult. But under her determined and loving care over the next week that little creature just thrived.
Gwen was going away for two weeks and asked if we could take over now, so into the office came the little bird in his box and nest and cloth napkin liner and grasses. It was “just a sparrow.” But it became the toast of the office and focus of nurturing female attention. All work stopped for his frequent feeding as he opened his beak impossibly wide and ate impossibly large amounts so we were sure his stomach would burst. It never did. He was also quite demanding, feisty and a strong presence with his alert black eyes and determined wing flapping. And strong! Amazing power in that tiny little body.
Sally our office manager named him Captain Jack Sparrow and he was then referred to as Captain Jack. But sadly for Sally it turned out he was probably a Captain Jaqueline. It took Sally a long time to adjust. We do much of our work long distance via video calls. Captain Jaqueline had no respect for such dealings and insinuated herself into office calls by loudly demanding food NOW. As her squawks resonated across the internet, the consultant hosting the call said good-naturedly, “Could you please tell that bird to be quiet!” And thus her presence and existence was seen and celebrated by people around the country. I left my chair to go take care of her needs and brought her back in her box to show the source of the disturbance. One person, upon seeing her feathered little body exclaimed, “Oh I love sparrows!” So there you are – each species has its fans, as it should be.
It wasn’t long before she escaped from the box she had been in since babyhood and we realized it was time to put her outside in a cage. There she could practice her burgeoning flying skills safe from marauding magpies and in full view of our rather large sparrow population. We hung the cage just under the eve of the gable she had fallen from so it would be familiar and hoped her parents would come by to bond with her. Numerous sparrows did indeed visit. Often. But we never did see any offer to feed her. Concerned she would strive to death if we let her out too early we kept her in the cage until she was 6 weeks even though she obviously was eager to get out and fly. One day we opened the door, filled the cage with food and hoped she would fly out but know to come back for nourishment.
A wild sparrow accompanies Captain Jac(queline) Sparrow on top of the cage, who is seen sitting inside still not having left her cage yet | Photo by Earthfire
Gwen watched the baby sparrow fall from a nest beneath the gable, sliding down the red roof where she was then rescued | Photo by Earthfire
Watch the the noise and activity from other sparrows that surrounded Captain Jacqueline Sparrow during her transition back into the wild.
We never did see her come back. For two days she hung out near the top of the large leafy willow just by the roof, flapping her wings piteously asking to be fed, as baby birds do, guaranteed to tug at a mother’ heartstrings – and mine. But there was no way I could reach her. For two days she flitted about in the sanctuary of the willow tree populated by numerous sparrows. One came with inches for her and appeared to visit. But most just went about on their sparrow business.
I knew from previous experience that sparrows are devoted parents and thus was hoping her parents would take over. But we have a large and active magpie population who eat small young birds so they can feed their own young, and we couldn’t risk letting her free just hoping a parent would come. The cage near her natal nest and sparrow family was the best we could come up with.
I left the cage door wide open, with a plethora of food inside; hanging outside; on the ground below, as sparrows are ground feeders. But there are unexpected issues that arise when doing rehabilitation! One of our more adventurous hens discovered the seeds on the ground and although she has more than enough of her own feed plus the bugs of 40 acres, decided this was something she had to have and she is not a hen easily dissuaded. Completely unexpected was finding a large black and white malamute nose buried deep in the bird seed bag……
Although I do not know for sure, my instinct is that after a day or two of probable hunger and vain efforts to get me to climb the tree and feed her, she started to follow the myriad other sparrows that visited the tree, robbed the chicken and duck food, or flew to the roof where she was born and started to fend for herself. We found no little sparrow bodies on the ground. No feathers or signs of foul play. Plus it just felt right. Jean would feel her presence in the tree the first two days and felt nothing amiss after that. I had specifically not encouraged her to bond to me or other caretakers as she was to go wild. If I had, perhaps I could have called her out of the tree to feed her. My decision was to handle release by leaving the cage door open and plenty of food around. How do you know which is the right decision? There are few clear answers.
Some people would say why so much bother for a sparrow? The simplest answer is that it is Life that calls to us in whatever form; young Life in particular that we feel called to nurture, and we ignore it at cost to our humanity. Each life is desperate to survive, no matter what its form, color, species – these are variations on the grand theme of the Life force expressed through each unique individual. No life form is “ordinary.” And when Gwen picked it up with the utmost care and reverence; when she transferred it to me and I held it in my hand and felt its fluttering heart, there was no choice.
And if in fact Life is an expression of the underlying consciousness of the universe,* then we are honoring that incredible fact and gift, that is given to each of us.
*see article From the Frontiers of Science
August 3, 2017, 11am
Jaqueline has been out of our sight now for 5 days; out for a week. This morning Jean gave me a call –she’s back in the cage! Befuddled I said, “What? Who is in what cage?” “The sparrow! She’s back!” And so she was. I have no idea why. I had put food for her everywhere in my worry, and she didn’t actually go to the bottom of the cage to eat. She was just flitting about inside it, in excellent form. Then she left. Then she came back…..but – She Made It!!!!!
Dr. Susan Eirich is the Founder and Executive Director of Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary and Retreat Center. A licensed psychologist, biologist and educator, her goal is to widen the circle of conversation about conservation to include the voices of all living beings.