Harley perched on the edge of the kitchen table, watching the tall green pines and blue sky through the picture window. She did not shuffle her claws, or pan her head from side to side. She was unusually still, and focused. I like to think she was in deep thought about leaving home. We had just completed a 1,200-mile car trip, most of which Harley spent perched on the dashboard of my Jeep, eating freeze-dried crickets, and watching the world slowly glide by. I carried her from the kitchen to another table on the back porch. At the age of six weeks, she flew off into the humid, summer dusk to either begin, or end, life on her own.
A month and a half earlier, I found Harley’s mother sitting in an asphalt parking lot on a scorching Alabama summer day. The bird did not move; I assumed it was injured, hot and thirsty. A Frisbee from my car trunk, filled with water, was my feeble attempt at wild bird first aid. I returned after work to retrieve the plastic water dish and the bird was still there, under a car, hiding from the retreating sun. It flew away when I approached it with a cardboard box, intent upon capturing and rehabilitating it. With the adult bird gone, two fuzzy, golf-ball sized chicks, formerly sheltered under their mother’s breast, remained.
Most folks don’t notice grounded birds sitting on hot parking lots. Those that do, probably don’t give them much thought, much less try to launch a rescue effort. I scooped up the two furry chicks, who were braying for their mother, and put them in the box with the Frisbee. A wildlife advocate might point out that I had basically stolen two children from their mother, who was capable of raising them on her own. My take on the situation was that Mom had some physical or personal issues, and that the chicks would not last another day on the asphalt. I mumbled a verbal vow to the mother bird that I would take care of her kids; I managed to fulfill half of that pledge.
My next stop was at a big box pet store, where the teen-aged clerk asked what type of bird I was raising. Good question, as I had no clue. I bought powdered “baby bird formula”, and liquid vitamin drops, both of which were to be mixed with water. Across the parking lot, at a big chain drugstore, I purchased eyedroppers that would get the formula and water into the birds’ mouths.
The two gray fuzz balls, on matchstick legs, were pining for their mother when I set the cardboard box on the kitchen table. My wife and kids hammered me with unanswerable questions: “What type of birds are they?”, “What do they eat?”, “Do you have to teach them to fly?”, and my favorite, “How do you know how to raise baby birds?”. With Marlin Perkins-sounding authority, I announced that if I managed to keep them alive, and growing, that they would fly away in a week, two at the most. It would be a good experience for the kids to watch the chicks blossom into mature, self-sustaining adults. This rationale seemed to appease my wife, who made a mental note to contact a Wildlife Re-habilitator in the morning. Her plan was to schlep off my rescue operation into the hands of a professional.
A copier paper box, set on the dining room table, was the baby birds’ new home. A drugstore heating pad, on top of an insulated cookie sheet, and underneath the box, kept the little chirpers warm. A bowl fashioned from paper towels served as a nest within the box. My son added hair from the dog’s grooming brush, which he thought would remind the chicks of the downy underside of their mother’s breast. I tossed in some sprigs from a Holly bush, and pine twigs to complete the nature theme within the box.
The first feeding went well; vitamin laced-water for re-hydration, followed by several squirts of the formula. One chick would tilt its head back, and allow its gaping orifice to be filled. The other did not. It ate and drank some, but not as much as its sibling. I repeated the feeding ritual every two or three hours, arising several times each night during the first week. We learned to hold the birds, and to work the tip of the eyedroppers into the corners of their rubbery beaks when they did not want to cooperate at feeding time. In a few days, the hungry chick was noticeably larger than the chick that had trouble eating. On the third or fourth day, we lost the smaller and weaker bird. My wife had named the two, “Laurel and Hardy”. With just one left, my 11-year-old daughter figured we had lost “Laurel” and were left with “Harley”.
Harley kept growing, and feathers started sprouting on the trailing edge of the wings she was learning to unfurl and retract. She liked to be held, especially in my cupped hands. In time, I would feel the odd sensation of her wings vibrating on my palms as she learned to rattle them into place. She was content to lie in my lap for hours as I watched TV, or to sleep on my warm, undulating chest as I snored through an afternoon sofa nap. I rotated a supply of freshly laundered rags that were used to capture the constant, and unpredictable flow of effluent from the bird.
My wife did call the Wildlife Rescue Service. They said they “don’t do birds”, at least not the garden variety-type we had. After referencing my Peterson’s bird guidebook, she figured Harley was a Starling. She went on-line and printed the how-to, and wherefore of baby Starling care. Following this guide, I mixed canned dog food, dry baby cereal, a boiled egg and applesauce in the kitchen blender to feed the “Starling”. My wife announced she would “never eat anything from that blender again.” Harley was not too crazy about the Starling food either. She liked bugs. Smashed crickets and small mealworms. Soon, she was gobbling down a half-dozen live crickets three times a day, chasing them the vitamin-laced water. I left the garage door open at night, with the light on, to harvest June bugs for Harley to snack on.
Over the next month, the fuzzy, gray golf ball-sized chick grew into a game bird the size of a 12-ounce can of soda. When the wing and tail feathers sprouted more fully, the Peterson’s guide was re-examined, and we identified Harley as a female Night Hawk, part of the Goatsucker family, and cousin to the Whippoorwill. Harley’s disproportionately large coal black eyes, ear openings, wings and gaping yawn were designed to aid her in insect harvesting while quietly gliding through the night air. Her exterior feathers formed a dark, autumn dead-leaf camouflage pattern, designed to hide her from predators while nesting on the forest floor. Maybe that’s why I found her mother on the parking lot-- Night Hawks nest on the ground. Maybe a lawn mower, or shrubbery trimmer forced the young family out of a ground-based nest, and onto the asphalt.
The Starling website did give tips on baby bird flying lessons. The first stage is to hold the bird in your outstretched palms, and quickly drop them from heat to waist level. The bird will instinctively extend its wings, and become accustomed to flapping and retracting them. The next stage is to toss the bird into the air, and catch it in the palm of your hands. The toss extends progressively higher over time. The third stage is to have someone else toss the bird into the air and let it fly to you, again extending the distance over time. Harley liked to land on top of my head, on my shoulder, or on my chest, hoping for a quick assist from my hands. In the final stage of learning to fly, the bird basically takes off and lands on its own. It took Harley about a month to graduate from stage one to stage four.
Our final adventure with Harley was a two-week, 1,200-mile road trip to visit my five sisters, brother and parents. Their reactions to my new pet were mixed. My mother, from Chicago, asked if the bird needed to be “sprayed” to disinfect it. Harley stayed in her folding cage in the basements of most of the homes we visited. To ease the logistics of traveling with a live bird, we switched to freeze-dried crickets and mealworms during the road trip. My brother was amenable to fetching Harley from the roof of his detached garage. Sister One has three cats, but let Harley snack on her Japanese Beatles. Sister Two has four Chihuahuas, who were surprising docile to their avian out-of-town guest. Sister Three is not a pet person, was probably the only sibling who did not hold the bird. Sister Four has a Guinea Pig from our last visit, is probably being begged for a pet bird now. Finally, Sister Five is a card-carrying Audubon Society member, who also fetched Harley from a rooftop for me.
During the trip, it became clear that Harley would either be a lifelong pet, or fly away to somewhere that she would not be found. She spent nights outdoors, without a cage, in Springfield, VA and in Columbus, OH. On each subsequent morning, I found her, waiting, in neighboring yards, to be picked up and fed. In the parade field of the Virginia Military Institute, I launched her a dozen times for long, circular flights. A few summer session Cadets leaned out of their un-air conditioned quarters, amazed at the sight of the “wild” bird that could be held and would not fly away.
A bird expert will tell you that I had “imprinted” on Harley, and that she could never survive in the wild. Maybe I was irresponsible to let her fly away on that mid-summer night. I did find her on the neighbor’s fence three nights later, and she let me top her off with the last of the live crickets, and some vitamin water. As she took off for the last time, I noticed that her wings were beating stronger and faster. Now, weeks later, while on evening walks with the dog, I’ll see a solitary bird, with telltale white stripes under the wings. I like to think that that bird is Harley. At my daughter’s evening soccer game, a solo Harleyesque bird sailed over the field, from one goal to the next, and into the night.
I miss Harley, and learned a lot from her. Birds sneeze just like you and me. She would un-fold one wing, stretch out the leg on the same side, and open her large mouth for a sustained yawn. She did that often. She liked to be held, and to fall asleep while being held, much like human infants. Raising a baby bird also makes you a more discriminating bird watcher. You automatically notice the tail, head, wing shape, and other subtitles among the breeds. Growing up in Kentucky, I used to hunt the neighborhood birds with a BB rifle. It was fun at the time, but I could never do that now. I might shoot Harley.