Tuesday, September 15, 2009
One morning in June a few years ago, I went out onto the deck to have my morning coffee. I heard a loud begging squawk of a bird, which was quite persistent and lasted all morning. Finally, my young son and I went into the yard to investigate. Bingo! There on the ground was a young nestling bird, which I determined was a red-eyed vireo (Vireo olivaceus). About 25 feet above the location of the baby vireo, I could see a nest on a limb of a red maple tree; obviously, the bird had fallen from the nest, which was too high for me to reach. I always hate these decisions, but the choice was clear: either try to raise the baby by hand-feeding it, or let it die. Lazy DrTom probably would have let nature take its course, but my empathetic 12-year old son would have none of that. He was such a cry-baby.
We put the bird in an old bird cage that we had from our daughter's zebra finch days, and then the work began. The bird was hungry even now, so we started the laborious process of collecting crickets and other insects from the yard, and feeding them to the open mouth of this insectivorous species. Nestling birds can eat a tremendous amount. How adult birds can locate and collect enough insects to feed 4-5 ravenous babies has always amazed me. They eat so much and grow so fast that you can literally see the increase in their body size within a 24-hour period.
The vireo, which we named Gulliver, begged and ate, and we hunted and searched. This was really getting old. Insects were getting more difficult to find for some reason, even when I used a sweep net. So I did what most red-blooded Americans do to solve their problems--I went shopping. I bought mealworms at the local pet store. This solution was a little expensive, but mealworms are a nice, plump juicy meal, and Gulliver loved them. So far, so good. We even took Gulliver on a little trip with us to Hershey Park. When we got to the park on a really hot afternoon, we left Gulliver in his cage in the car while we reconnoitered a bit. We returned to the car only about 20 minutes later to find the bird lying on the bottom of the cage, with bird guano all over the car seats. The poor thing had gone apoplectic before passing out from the heat. Of course, our son was hysterical (cry baby), so we rushed to our motel room, and hustled the patient into the air-conditioned room. After applying drops of water to his bill for several minutes, Gulliver lapped up the life-saving liquid and made a remarkable recovery. Whew!
We returned home that day and decided that it was time for Gulliver to try his wings. He was now about 12 days old, the time at which he would normally fledge from his nest anyway, so I banded the bird with an aluminum leg band, and set him free. We didn't know what to expect. Would he zoom off, never to be seen again, or what. Quite the contrary. Because we were his sole source for a well-balanced meal, he was not about to leave the cafeteria. He stayed very close to the house for several weeks, mostly on the deck railing. Whenever any of us went outside or came home from work, he immediately flew to us, landed on our shoulder, and begged incessantly. As the summer continued, he spent more and more time in the forest next to our yard, but I could call him to the deck to feed him. He was adult size by now and eating quite a bit, so I decided to adopt an economy of scale and order a box of 2,000 crickets from Rainbow Mealworms of California. On the very day the crickets arrived, Gulliver apparently moved into migration mode and was gone. Red-eyed vireos spend the winter in South America, so I figured his ancient instincts had kicked in or he had been picked off by a predator during the night, leaving us with beaucoup crickets and no mouth in which to insert them.
Throughout that winter we often discussed our experience with Gulliver, this interesting little bird that had befriended us. Had he made it to Argentina? Did he even know that he was a red-eyed vireo? Had his instincts developed normally so that he could function as he should? Our answer came the following spring. I was standing on the deck one May morning, when a red-eyed vireo landed on the railing for only 1-2 seconds, and then returned to the woods. Vireos are common in our woodlot, but they never land on our deck. In addition, I saw the unmistakable glint of a shiny metal band on one leg of the bird. Gulliver had survived his first migration and returned to the location of his birth.
We never saw Gulliver again after that brief encounter that May morning. It was almost as if he was signaling to us that he had made it, and to say thanks, and now I'm an adult, and I'm nearby. I usually hate that anthropomorphic stuff (i.e., making it sound like animals have human emotions), but even DrTom is allowed to slip once in a while.