Okay, so on my first day back to South Africa I closed the door on a tiny gecko. I was feeling really badly about the whole situation and clearly out of practice in the wildlife category. But I got the chance to redeem myself when my friend Camilla called me up to rescue the baby bird she’d practically tripped over.
I caught up with her and looked down at the smallest feathered bird I’d ever seen (well, aside from a hummingbird, but I expect them to be small). The little tyke was no more than a week or so old, a fledgling with half feathers, half baby down. He was so small, I don’t know how she didn’t step on him! And I’m amazed the local wildlife – specifically the feline kind – didn’t make short work of him. Clearly the bird got tired of his broody parents and attempted to fly out of the nest. Luckily, he was so small, he more or less floated down to the ground. He had no bodily damage whatsoever, except to be a little shaken and dehydrated.
His parents were still buzzing above, but we realised there was no way we could get the little guy back up to his nest, and we couldn’t leave him there either. So, though I’ve never in my life owned a bird, let alone raised one, I decided I was the lesser of the two evils. I took him home in a soft-sided green cooler bag.
For four days and nights I lived and breathed bird nurturing. At the advisement of many animal experts and websites, I concocted a mixture of water-softened kitty kibble, egg whites and pureed bananas, and every fifteen minutes I fed the little bird (who we named Peanut) a few drops. He would then promptly back up to the side of my hand and poop overboard. It was like clockwork. Feed, back up, poop, sleep, squeak, feed, back up, poop, sleep. He sat in my hand for most of the day, preferring the warmth of a body to the little bed I created for him in a tupperware container. I don’t blame him. Given the option between a soft, warm, cosy hand hammock and a messy tangle of tissues and socks, I’d go for the hammock.
At night he would sit on my shoulder and watch old episodes of Supernatural with me. On occasion he would attempt to fly. Sometimes he even succeeded, though he was much better at flying down than up. He did manage to get from my shoulder to the top of my head a few times, but most times he didn’t quite make it, instead landing on the frame of my glasses, where he would perch. In fact, he eventually started to beeline to them and just sit up there, watching the world. He clearly didn’t care that the glasses were still on my face.
He slept through the night every night. In fact, the first night I checked on him every hour, worried like a nervous mom. Each time I peeked in, he was sound asleep, breathing peacefully. By around midnight, he finally looked up at me, gave me an evil eye, and then tucked his little head back under his wing and returned to slumberland.
By the second night, he decided he preferred to sleep outside his make-shift nest and would instead find the nook where my neck meets my shoulder and tuck in there. I was a little panicked about this at first, worried I would roll over on top of him and squoosh him during the night. I realised after the first night, though, that I apparently don’t move AT ALL when I sleep, and neither does he. We were both in exactly the same position when we woke up the next morning. From then on, he refused to sleep anywhere but on my shoulder.
He didn’t have the best balance, so he was constantly falling over backwards when he tried to preen himself. And though he could get airborne, his aim wasn’t precise, which meant a few fly-by run-ins with immovable objects. He flew almost as if in slow motion, so when he collided, he sort of bounced off and landed gently on the floor. Actually, he didn’t really land. He more or less glided, not quite as softly as a feather, but not that far off either.
When I put him on the ground, he would either call out to me or hop to where I was. In some cases he would even try to fly his way over to me. He never strayed more than a few inches from me, and whenever he got spooked, he came right back to his stand-in mom. I felt so privileged to have this bond with a totally wild animal. It was amazing to watch him, to interact with him, to hold his little warm body, and to have him trust me so fully.
Because he was so small, he often got food all over him while feeding. Sometimes he would take in too much and suddenly whip his head around, sending a shower of it in all directions, including all over me and himself. He would stick out his tiny tongue and attempt to wipe away any residual food, but he couldn’t reach very far. He would end each day covered in his leftovers, which meant he got a bath every day as well.
I’d fill a bowl with warm water and douse him, using an ear bud (Q-tip) to gently wipe the food off his face and feathers, careful to apply minimal pressure and to keep the bath short so he didn’t have heart failure from stress. The tiny sopping skeleton of bone and feather was more than a little relieved when bath time ended. Baby birds can die quickly from chills, so I had to make sure to dry him off immediately after his bubble bath. I’d wrap him in a tiny towel, plop him down on a dishcloth, take out the hairdryer, and gently dry him, making sure to keep my hand next to him for comfort and to gauge the temperature of the hot air (these little guys can also overheat quickly). He’d sit there in a torpor, beak lifted ever so slightly, eyes closed. He might be the only bird who ever got salon services daily.
Peanut was a Cape White-eye, a species endemic to South Africa. They are beautiful green birds with, as their name states, white around their eyes. They aren’t very large as adults, so it isn’t surprising that their offspring are tiny. They are sociable birds as well, which would explain Peanut’s cuddly nature. That and the fact that he couldn’t be much more than a week old. He needed parents, and I was the best option he had going at the moment.
Last night he was as chipper as ever, and I was really surprised at how well he was flying around. He fell asleep, as usual, tucked into my shoulder cave.
I found him this morning chirping softly as he normally did. Immediately he opened his tiny beak for food, and I obliged. However, he didn’t do his normal pooping routine. In fact, he seemed to struggle a bit, and only a tiny dribble came out. After that, he just looked up, chirped softly, cuddled in my hand, and fell back to sleep. For a few minutes I was thinking about getting up and starting the day. I had planned on going out today to scrounge up some proper insects for him to eat because I really wanted to get him on a diet that would better mimic his normal one (though, outside of the egg whites, what I was feeding him wasn’t far off). I ended up falling back to sleep for about a half hour.
When I woke up, he had already slipped away.
I spent a good hour trying to revive him, convincing myself he could not possibly be dead. He was so full of life last night. He even started to fly across the room, pretty impressive for a baby bird less than three inches long and still half-covered in down. But he wasn’t waking up. My world suddenly became eerily quiet and empty.
I’m no expert on birds (clearly), but given his inability to poop today, he probably died of compaction (or so I am told). As much as I keep blaming myself, I think there honestly wasn’t anything I could’ve done to help him. It happened so fast!
I cried all day.
It’s amazing how something so small can make such a huge impact on your heart in so short a period of time. All you want to do is give them love and see them grow up big and strong. And when they don’t make it, you feel like you let them down. You feel responsible. You feel like a failure.
I know I tried my best, but it still hurts my heart that he didn’t survive. I only hope I made his last few days as awesome as they could possibly be. And at least one person in this world will remember Peanut.
Sorry for the sad post, guys. I know it’s sappy, and I thought about waiting a bit before I wrote it, but sometimes I think it’s better to just let the raw emotion do the talking. This is one of those times. So please bear with me while I pine for my little friend. And please ignore any typos and such. I can’t deal with the idea of rereading this right now to fix any mistakes. Just needed to get it out and make sure the little guy had a memorial somewhere, even if it’s a shoddy one.
R.I.P., little Peanut. Know that you were loved very, very much, and you will be missed.
All rights reserved. ©2014 Jennifer Vitanzo