A Frightful Servitude

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Young Frightful on my Father's Shoulder

Have you ever heard the rule “If you find a baby bird on the ground, don’t pick it up”? I always thought that it was to protect the bird. When you live out where I do, wild critters… well, we name them and talk to them, but rarely do we feed them.

Anyway, one fateful morning my mom climbed back into the truck and transferred something from her cupped fist into mine. “I doubt that this guy’s gonna live, but it won’t hurt to give it a try”, she said. I opened my hand to find a tiny baby barn swallow. It had fallen into a horse stall from a rafter nest apparently ravaged by the barn cat, so we couldn’t leave it where we found it.

Oversized bulging eyes, wrinkled naked skin, a single scraggly tuft of feathers on the top of its head – the chick was so cute. Sure, I was only nine years old but I had read all about this kind of thing in My Side of the Mountain. I decided to name it after the falcon, “Frightful”, that Sam Gribely raised.

And thus began our servitude.

Every morning, at the crack of dawn, Frightful woke everyone by screeching her head off. She didn’t stop until someone had groggily shoveled a delectable mixture of turkey-flavored baby food, yogurt, softened cat food, and hard-boiled egg white pushed through a sieve into her gaping beak. This delicacy had to be luke-warm, it had to be prepared often, and it had to be shoveled into her mouth with rapid care and precision. Once glutted, she would abstain from screeching for exactly 29 minutes. Then began the process all over again. She communicated her need by the extent to which her mouth gaped open: ‘wide’ meant that she wished to be fed, ‘impossibly wide’ meant that we were not suffering enough for her tastes. My parents and I tiptoed through the throne room – I mean kitchen – so that we wouldn’t wake her majesty between feedings. One wrong step and she would instantly wake, stretching her mouth as far open as it would go and squawking at the top of her lungs. After nine to ten hours of two feedings per hour, she would mercifully let us sleep until sun up. This went on for years… by which I mean a few weeks.

After Frightful’s adult feathers finally came it, I carefully planned a series of lessons to “teach” her how to fly. When she immediately took off flying the first day, I naturally concluded that I was a very good teacher. Landings were another story. After her first face-plant debacle of a touchdown, I realized we had more work to do. No matter how much I demonstrated proper technique, her landings were always awkward. Because she preferred to land on the top of my head, I could only stand very still and hope for the best. She eventually took to making a small slow-down circle around my head before landing. We were both good with that.

Eventually her majesty decided she liked hanging out on our back porch and talking to me through the window. It turned out that our cat liked her being there even more. To protect her from the cat, we took her to join the barn swallow colony at the lake. She happily chirped at me and flew off, losing herself in the flock nesting under the bridge. I ran for the car so that she wouldn’t see me leave and try to follow.

We devoted weeks of our life to this aggravating and endearing little bird. In doing so I learned the real reason behind the no-touching baby birds rule: It’s to protect the humans.

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