In the garden, the birds are getting busy. They sing beautiful, flirtatious songs. They flutter and spiral in aerial dances designed to impress. They collect twigs and soft cashmere undercoat from the goats, helpfully deposited along the wire fence as they rub luxuriously along it. Two shiny blackbirds, bright yellow beaks and beady button eyes, face off at the bird feeder whilst a dowdy brown female watches with indifference. All is industry and love making. Soon, nests will be full of hatchlings; oversized beaks gaping and calling for food. Soon, parent birds will be even busier keeping their youngsters satisfied.
All this activity has reminded me of my old dog Sam, a few years back when he was a little more energetic. One spring afternoon, I stepped out of the back door to find him crouched on the pavement, head bowed. As I got closer, I noticed between his paws, two tiny featherless baby birds. On the fence, staring in anticipation, sat my three cats, licking their lips meaningfully. Helpless creatures fallen from the nest above, safe in Sam’s attentive care. He had protected them from becoming a tasty snack.
I’d noticed a pair of blue tits building a home in our rafters over the previous weeks. The babies had obviously tumbled down and landed on the path. Luckily for them, they were unhurt and Sam had found them before his feline friends. My heart was touched by his tenderness but I didn’t hold much hope for the pathetic little things. There was no way their parents could get them back in the nest and they were very young; bald, cold and eyes firmly shut. After Sam’s show of heroism, however, I couldn’t leave them to die so I scooped them up gently and took them indoors.
This was the start of a new role for me: chick mother. I found a little box, lined it with kitchen towel and placed them with care inside. Then I decided it would be more comfortable and warmer for them if they had a nest, so I took an old plastic bowl, put it in the box and filled it with shredded paper and tissue. They seemed happy in their new nest but still cold. I borrowed a small soft toy, a fluffy bear, from one of the children and sat him atop the nest like a surrogate mother bird. Then I searched the internet for any advice on rearing baby birds. Nothing encouraging came from my searching, mostly the information was don’t do it; never move a baby bird if you find one as its parents may return and rescue it. I could see the sense in this but my situation was different. If Sam hadn’t protected those birds, the cats would have had them for dinner. I had to bring them inside and see what I could do. I had to try. Further searching followed and I discovered that parent blue tits feed their young on green caterpillars that are abundant in the trees in springtime. They feed them many, many caterpillars every hour each day and into the night until dark. Never ever feed baby birds worms as these are too sticky.
My next job was a caterpillar hunt. There were plenty of trees; bashing the branches with a stick sent down all kinds of invertebrates onto my big white sheet of paper. There were quite a few caterpillars too. I took them inside and chopped them into pieces. A yucky, mucky job, poor caterpillars, but I knew parent birds regurgitate their offspring’s food and I wasn’t going to chew them! I found some cocktail sticks to use as a feeding implement. By this time, the baby birds were making quite a lot of noise and opening their beaks wide in starvation. I stabbed a piece of caterpillar and gave it to the first bird, which took it gratefully. This was the beginning of many days spent collecting caterpillars and feeding baby birds. Every two hours, to begin with, I fed my babies.
Sadly, on the second morning, I came down to find one of the birds was dead. The process continued for the other bird, however, which seemed to be doing fine and ate greedily. After a few days, I bought some live meal worms and chopped them up to feed too. I was struggling to find enough caterpillars; the baby bird ate and ate. The more she ate, the stronger she got and the more food she wanted! I’d also developed a system for giving her a drink of water using a cotton bud. I called her Chickpea.
Over the days and weeks, Chickpea grew bigger and more active. Her eyes opened and she grew feathers, downy at first and then beginning to show her true blue tit colours. As she began to move around more, I realized the box was no longer a safe home so I constructed a makeshift cage from a bigger box and a clear plastic seed tray lid. I put in a small branch as a perch. She began to hop out of the nest and flutter clumsily onto the branch. Soon I realized she would need lessons in feeding herself and flying practice. I started squashing meal worms onto the branch where she could pick them off. At least the gaps between feeding times were growing longer. Eventually, she had a bowl of meal worms to pick at as she chose. Then I started letting her out of the cage so her wings could grow strong. She would fly up onto my shoulder, then back to the perch, then up to a shelf and back to me. Once she was flying with confidence and feeding herself happily, I realized it was time for her release back into the wild.
One morning, just after dawn, I carried Chickpea, tucked safe in her box, far into the woods. When I got to a tranquil spot, full of the calls of other blue tits, next to a babbling stream, I opened the lid. She didn’t waste a moment, out she flew, up into a tall pine. She sat on an uppermost branch and sang. Then she pecked at the mossy bark and flew away. I’m not sure if I ever saw her again. On my woodland walks, I often hear a familiar trill but there are many, many blue tits living in the woods. I hope she lives there happily with them.