Saturday, May 21, 2011

Do not talk to the birdies

I started volunteering in the baby bird nursery at PAWS wildlife center where all the little birds who can't yet feed themselves are kept. Birds are grouped according to species and stage of growth and each stage has its feeding schedule. Some of the birds have been injured, like the baby robin I thought of as "Paddlefoot" because his broken foot was bandaged onto a paddle-shaped brace. The most common cause of injury is cat attack (one reason why I advocate the Audubon Society's mission to keep cats indoors).

These are wild animals whose exposure to people needs to be kept to a minimum so they don't become habituated to us, the goal being to get them to the point where they self-feed and can be released back to the area where they were found. The birds are housed in baskets or cages covered in mesh to block their view of us. Only when it's feeding time or when a technician is checking them do the birds see people nearby.

Hard part #1 is resisting the very human impulse to talk to the birds. After all, they're talking, even screaming when I first lift the mesh and they know it's time to eat. I can understand why the one with the loudest voice gets the most food--the parent birds would want them to just shut up, like whining kids. Fortunately we people with our ideas about fairness and equality try to make sure each bird gets the amount of food it needs. But there's no encouraging the reluctant ones with a "Come on, open up" or telling the aggressive ones to cool it. This is not at all like hand feeding baby cockatiels where you want them to get used to a human voice.

Hard part #2 is getting reluctant birds to eat. Finches are easy and will eat until their crops burst. A group of robins I was feeding the other day began with beaks wide open but would suddenly flop over, sound asleep, after getting a bit of food. I learned to wake them by tapping their nest. The movement suggests the shaking of the nest when a parent bird lands. Nest shakes, eyes and beaks open, food goes in (more on that another time), sleep.

When a bird is awake but reluctant, you open and close your hand, tapping the thumb against the fingers in imitation of a beak opening and closing. Instead of looking at your hand and thinking, "Yeah, like that's gonna remind me of Mom," the babies automatically react to the movement by opening their beaks. Another trick I learned is to swoop my hand through the air above the nest in imitation of the parent bird coming in to land. Happy meal comin' in!

Babies: it's all about the food. For us, it's about the food and the poop.

Unfortunately, I can't take photos in the baby bird room, making this a photo-free post. Here's a link, though, to a blog post where someone recorded the progress of a robin's nest right outside her window:
The Robin's Nest.


  1. I wish we could have all our doors indoors. But we have too many.

    Sounds like you've got it figured out.

  2. Even though there were no photos, you did such a great job of describing feeding times! I could picture the interactions so vividly. :)

  3. Sounds a bit of an exact science!! I don't think that birds would stand a chance with me in will them
    Have a good week
    See yea George xxx