The one who's not a parrot

Birds of a feather, flock together. And really a bird in need is advocacy opportunity.

The one who's not a parrot

I know that this site is about parrot advocacy and providing every parrot everywhere a proper and loving home. But as the parent of a rescued starling, who embodies one of the rescue problems common among softhearted people like me, I thought it might not hurt to also consider that side of rescue and advocacy.

Ringo came into our lives thanks to my friendship with the folks who run a federally and state-licensed rehab center in our community. They focus on raptors and that includes rescue and treatment for injured hawks, eagles, owls and sometimes songbirds; release of rehabbed birds; education programs using birds who could not be released; and endless advocacy, even to convincing local power companies to follow wildlife safety guidelines when erecting utility poles. They're good at what they do and know more about wild birds than Google does.

Someone found a baby starling on the ground, took care of this starling until it was feathered, and tried to release it. Of course, by then – and my friends could have told her this – it was too late to release the baby. She had imprinted on her human caretaker. She saw humans as the source of food and safety and did not recognize starlings as her own kind. Her caretaker didn't want to keep her and took her to my friends' center. My friends called me. Their center is devoted to raptors and in Illinois, starlings are not considered “native species,” and are therefore legal to keep as companions. So are pigeons and house sparrows, by the way. Ringo came to live with me.

People will often see a baby bird on the ground, assume it's in need of rescue, and pick it up and try to save it. Ringo was lucky. Usually the baby dies in human care. And usually the baby didn't need rescued to start with. Baby birds on the ground are almost always under a parent's watchful eye. The parents are feeding and tending to Baby and if you let it be, they will take care of it. Unless there is an immediate threat to the baby's safety – a cat lurking nearby, a lawnmower, it's too close to the street – leave the baby where it is. If you can find the nest and you're sure it's the right nest and you're sure you won't kill yourself putting Baby back, you can do that. I promise, because I've done it, that the parents won't mind that you touched their baby. Let me prove that.

The first summer we lived in our current house, starlings built a nest in the eaves. It wasn't a great place for a nest. Not well protected, and too crowded for safety. The babies fell out more than once. We picked them up and put them back. Three or four times. The parents always kept feeding and taking care of them. In one instance, we were sitting on our porch and noticed Mother Starling was very agitated in the front yard and kept looking at us and squawking insistently. We went and looked and sure enough, a baby had fallen out again. We picked it up and put it back and Mother went right in to tend the babies, happy that we'd gotten the message. Probably they were first-time parents or they'd have chosen a better spot and built a better nest.

This rule also applies to baby bunnies, by the way. Baby bunnies are left alone by their mother purposely during the day so as not to attract predators to their location. She comes by morning and night to feed them and stays away the rest of the time. Leave them alone unless they're in immediate peril, and put them back if you can find their nest.

But back to birds. Birds are very prone to flying into windows and knocking themselves silly. Sometimes they hit hard enough to die. Most often, they're just dazed. We keep a spare cage handy during the warm months and we have picked up many a dazed bird and put it in the spare cage until it feels better, then we let it go. We wouldn't interfere except the neighbors have a cat and our neighborhood has a large and hungry population of hawks who would love to snack on a dazed bird who can't defend itself by flying away. I love hawks, but I do not want to provide them with a free lunch. We feed the song birds and feel somewhat responsible for them.

Birds are so vulnerable. They are adaptable, but envision your neighborhood for a moment. What hazards are there that affect their ability to survive? If you live where it snows, how do they get water and food in winter? What do they do about shelter? You can do a lot for them. Hang birdhouses and feeders. Keep water available. Don't manicure your yard into House and Garden pristine condition. Leave some places for birds and bunnies and squirrels to live and find food and raise babies. We have an evergreen in our front yard that, frankly, isn't much to look at. I transplanted it with my dad's help when I was a child, outside my bedroom window. It's a giant bush now. The feeder is near it, close enough that the birds can hide in it and perch on it. They love it, and every time my husband suggests removing it because it's, as he says, “a junk evergreen,” I refuse. The birds need the cover. We let our fence row get a little shaggy. We have lots of trees and they're not necessarily ornamental. And we have tons of birds, sparrows and mourning doves and robins and starlings and blue jays and all the birds that some people don't like and try to discourage. We don't discourage them. We embrace them. We have squirrels and bunnies and groundhogs and possums.

Advocacy, in my corner of the world, extends to all the creatures whose lives can be cut short and made miserable by human activity. I do what is in my power to make them comfortable and welcome. If I'm going to spoil and pamper my parrots and starling and dogs and fish and snails, I can't turn around and fail to reach out a helping hand to the wildlife living outside my windows.

As for the one living inside with us, feeding a starling who doesn't know she's a starling is a constant worry. I buy her high-quality cat food, and have to buy an expensive brand that comes in small enough bits for her to swallow whole, as that's how starlings eat. It must be little round bits, with no star or fish shapes as cat food often is. I buy dried meal worms for a treat and sometimes live ones, which she loves. When moths or beetles find their way into her room, she stalks and eats those, too. I've tried supplementing her diet, as some websites suggest, with chicken mash, but she absolutely won't touch it. She was weaned onto cat food and cat food is all she will eat in the way of dry food. Starlings don't eat seed and can't digest it. They are meat eaters.

Ringo is very lively and active and she talks and whistles, though her spoken words are garbled and nobody but I would understand what she's saying. I recognize the cadence of the phrases I use so often around her: Who's my baby? Pretty girl! I love you! and her name, which I gave to her when I thought she was a boy. She loves to "help" me practice flute and piano, and goes to bed on her own when I have finished practicing and change into pajamas. That's the ritual, and starlings apparently love routine and ritual every bit as much as parrots do. She has the same toys I give to the parrots, and a couple of toys that are Ringo-specific. Starlings don't like to be touched and are very independent, so to keep her beak and nails from getting overgrown, she has a tray of rocks we picked up outside, washed and offered to her. I hide her treats among the rocks and the pecking and hopping around in them keep nails and beak in good shape. She lives in solo splendor in the second bedroom, where I keep my clothes and collection of stuffed toys, since she can't be with parrots (we tried, very briefly, and immediately concluded it wouldn't work). I observe the wild starlings for ideas on what might entertain her, but really, she is not a wild starling and only bears the slightest resemblance to them in behavior. She's been a person since she was a naked baby and doesn't even recognize starlings. She's been on my shoulder watching the bird feeder when something startled the wild birds into sudden flight and she didn't even twitch. Whatever signal they gave each other meant nothing to her. And though she doesn't like for me to touch her, she bounces all over me as if I were her personal trampoline. She peers under my clothes and unties my shoes and preens my hair and squawks at me and sits on my arm and stares at me as if trying to hypnotize me.

Because she is with us, and we are bird people and willing to do whatever we have to in order to provide her with a safe and healthy life, she is fortunate. A baby raised by someone unwilling to provide that home and care for a life that could be as much as 20 or more years long, or taken from outdoors in the mistaken belief that she was an "orphan," when she was not, is very likely doomed to die. Feeding a baby bird is difficult. Keeping that baby from imprinting is next to impossible unless you are specifically trained. So if the baby does survive, you are responsible for it for life, or for finding someone who will be responsible for it for life.

As my friends at Illinois Raptor Center say on their website, "Help without hurting." 

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