Two days ago, the cat – who rarely hunts – brought in a fledgling. He was the size of a walnut shell, still downy, despite the defined markings on his wing feathers. Aidan put him under the apple tree, so he could die in peace, and kept the cat in for an hour. Hoping the parents might return, I moved him to a hollow in one of the trees. Predictably, as soon as the cat emerged from the house, she found him and brought him inside again. There was no sign of any parent birds, so I put him in a box, gave him water through a dropper, and a little cat food, and expected him to die of shock in very little time. By the afternoon he was still alive, and apparently unharmed, so I called to the vet for advice. I was given a plastic bag of baby bird food and told to feed him every hour.
I looked on the internet and thought he was probably a Chaffinch, and that there’d be at least another week of caring for him before he was ready to be introduced back to the wild. I resolved to take him into the vet the next day so they could check him over and advise me properly.
It was extraordinary how much zest for life this little creature had. As soon as I approached his box he craned his neck towards me, beak wide, head weaving from side to side, knocking against my clumsy fingers. I tried different methods of getting the meal down, the edge of a spoon, tweezers, my fingers, but in the end a dampened prong of the tweezers worked the best – the food slipping down past his little tongue. After a while, and lots of near misses, we both got the hang of it fairly successfully.
It was an utterly absorbing task, and getting up groggy with tiredness just as light streaked the sky, I was soon wide awake, fascinated by his eagerness to feed. In the morning I expected him to have died, but there he was, head turning to greet me, beak wide. As soon as he was ready for food, the sound of him chirruping filled the house.
After feeding him before going out to teach the second afternoon, I held him in my hand and searched for signs of damage. He couldn’t walk very well – his body toppling forward, wings flapping. Perhaps that was just because he wasn’t ready to leave the nest. He pecked at my palm, settled down, then lifted his beak, and sang – a clear, exquisitely lovely sound.
I was away only a short time. On my return the house was silent. I ran upstairs to feed him, but he’d died. He sat small and stiff, eyes part closed, in the corner of his box. I took him out and rather than bury him, placed him amidst the ivy in one of the trees where the chaffinches feed – where he too should have fed had he grown.
Perhaps I’d been doing the wrong thing – over-feeding in my eagerness to build him to strength. He was so lusty and yet so frail. One of my students, who I emailed for advice, said it was probably inevitable. It’s so hard for us to rear small birds. But in those moments of watching and feeding I was lost to anything else, life pared down to a matter of survival or not, and our joint will. His brief presence, our connection, and his wonderful song seem to me now like a perfect gift, imbued with significance that defies reason.