The Secret Life of Melanie O.
Sunday, July 08, 2007
Wart, the grackle
When I was about age 27 and living in central New York, we had a house in a small suburb. It was an older style Cape Cod timber frame house badly in need of insulation and a new heating system, but it had a great back yard with cedar trees and a vegetable garden.

We had a cat, whom I called Dingbat. She was a long-haired beige ball of fluff who was probably the greatest hunter around. We went away overnight once, only to come home and find fur all over the upstairs dormer. We feared the worst had happened to Dingbat. No - a squirrel had gotten into the house and Dingbat, fierce protector of her castle, decided that it was a better meal than dry cat food.

Dingbat protected the house from mice, chipmunks, and all manner of rodentia, but when she went after a nest of birds one early spring, my admiration for her turned to horror. I wound up rescuing a fledgling bird from her grasp. My sons came running in to tell me that there was a commotion with the cat in the back yard, and so I rushed out only to find a young bird, barely with pinfeathers, in her clutches.

I scolded Dingbat and took the baby inside. It didn't seem too worse for wear. No scratches or bite marks that I could see. Shaken, but not stirred, the naked little bird cocked his head at me and immediately bonded with me as its rescuer.

Since I rescued it, I felt responsible for it. With the help of my sons, we went to look for the baby's nest, but it had been abandoned. I wasn't going to leave this little baby on its own, so I decided I needed to find out what it would eat.

I knew a little bit about bird habits, and tried a variety of things. First, bits of grain or Cheerios softened with a little warm water. The baby turned it's little birdie beak up at anything with vegetable matter in it. I dreaded this - it must be a bug and grub eater. Great - just what I needed on top of four sons to chase after.

Dutifully, I went out to the vegetable garden and dug up some earthworms. I hand fed him and baby gobbled them eagerly and then pooped just to show me that I had gotten it right this time. I didn't expect him to live past the first day. I figured the trauma of being caught by Dingbat would be enough to do him in. But the little bird was a tough little guy and was still with us the next morning.

By the second day, I knew that baby bird was here to stay for a while, so we had to give him a name. I had been reading T. H. White's The Once and Future King and decided that baby bird should be called Wart, after King Arthur's nickname. After all, Merlin had turned Wart/Arthur into a bird at one point to assist him with his education. Wart the real bird was developing distinct human bonding characteristics, and I was bonding to Wart, as well. This wasn't good. Giving him a name probably didn't help matters.

Wart, of course, needed a "nest" to stay in, so I found a cardboard box, shredded newspaper up to pad it, and Wart settled into the makeshift nest. At night, I threw a little blanket over the top and he settled in and went to sleep. In the morning, as soon as I took the blanket off, his little voice could be heard shrill and loud, and he jumped straight onto my hand as I held it down to him. "Feed me!" I can only assume this is what he was demanding first thing in the morning. So, out to the garden I went, to dig for more earthworms. After a while, I kept a plastic gallon jug filled with dirt and worms in the garage so that I wouldn't have to go digging so often.

In the meantime, Dingbat the cat was introduced to Wart. She seemed to understand that he was now a part of the family and that she shouldn't chase or hurt him. She never did after they were properly introduced. She sniffed him up and down, looked at me as if to say "must we, really?" And then left it at that. Afterwards, she treated Wart with supreme indifference.

This went on for several weeks. Wart grew feathers. Wart sat on my shoulder and went everywhere I did. Wart would not let me out of his sight. Having become his rescuer, I was now his surrogate mother. In the mornings, when I took the blanket off his box, he fluttered now up to my shoulder to perch. I decided it was time to teach Wart how to fly when he started fluttering around the livingroom, stretching his wings and trying them on for size.

It was high summer. I could now identify what kind of bird Wart was. Wart was a common grackle. He would one day have black feathers with an oil slick sheen. But for now, he was still quite young and needed to learn how to fly.

I took him out to our back yard and he sat on my shoulder, the way he always did. I imagine his surprise when I cupped him in my hands and tossed him up into the air! His natural response was to flap his wings, and he fluttered to the ground several times. We repeated this exercise several times a day. I decided I needed to get Wart to be a bit more independent and discover the back yard for himself. It's where he was born after all.

One day I took Wart out to the backyard so that he could explore on his own. I went inside the house for the afternoon, and after several hours, went back out to the back yard to see if Wart had disappeared and gone exploring, or even better, perhaps discovered other grackles. No - he had been hiding in a tuft of grass next to the fence, and as soon as he saw me appear, he came screeching out from his hiding place, ran across the lawn, and plopped himself down between my feet.

It was the cutest thing I'd ever seen, but unless I wanted to hand feed a grackle for the rest of his life (as well as dig worms,) I'd have to teach him to be independent.

For several days, I took him out to the back yard and eventually, he did get the hang of flying. He never flew very high or very far from me. I dug up worms and bugs and hoped that instinct would kick in and he'd at least take a peck at them. He was clueless.

Finally, near the end of summer, I decided it was time to launch Wart into his own world. It was painful - I was very attached to that little bird, but I didn't feel it fair to handicap him and keep him from the life he was supposed to have.

In the end, I took him to a park and stayed with him a while. He didn't fly away. I had to put him in a tree. I think we both felt miserable, but I hope that instinct kicked in and he survived. Funny how a little bird like that can get under your skin. Of course, were Wart still around, I'd still be digging grubs and worms and he'd still be pooping on newspaper as if to say that I got it right.

Darn it. I miss that bird.

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posted by Melanie O. at 8:21 PM -
  • At 9:04 PM, Blogger gardenbug said…

    I remember that bird...also your experience with birds in Hawaii at the Budhist Center. You can charm the birds right out of the trees.

  • At 9:49 AM, Blogger LivinginOz said…

    Awww... what a nice thing to say.

    Birds that are raised by hand are really amazing. They are true "bonders." I often wish I'd find another fledgling to raise, but it hasn't happened since Wart.

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About Me
Name: Melanie O.
Home: Durham, North Carolina, United States
About Me: Female, American health and beauty-conscious professional who has rekindled a childhood love of dolls.
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