Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Pete Morin Editorial Review--Issue #46

The Story of Sweet

It's not often that one can become closely associated with nature, but on a summer day in 2004 that's exactly what Sue and I did when we took our usual morning walk to the local convenience store.

The store manager had a rather unusual request; she asked us if we would be willing to rescue a baby starling that had been abandoned by its mother. Two siblings had already died from cold and lack of food the previous evening and the only remaining chick didn't look like it had much life left. As I looked at Sue, trying to let her see my reservations about accepting the bird, she instinctively told the proprietor "sure, we'll take it". Thus started our adventure with the little starling chick that would come to be called 'Sweet'.

As we found our way home,pondering on what to feed the chick, I remembered an old Burt Lancaster movie called "Birdman of Alcatraz". Lancaster portrayed Robert Stroud, a self taught ornithologist (and two time murderer) who was imprisoned in Alcatraz, the infamous Federal prison in San Francisco Bay. A small Sparrow had dropped into his cell one day and he devised a method to feed the bird using cockroaches and bugs that shared his living space. Since we had no available cockroaches and bugs were not a staple diet for a starling (a quick search on the net confirming this), we decided to try a concoction of suet, oatmeal and water. Starlings are unique in that they eat just about anything, perhaps attributing to their legend as being a scavenger bird with an over-population to boot. But what did we care about over-population. This was life in its very newest form and we would not give nature a chance to destroy its own creation without a fight.

Sweet completely took over our daily lives. During the day she (we would assume by the markings that it was a 'she') had to be fed about every half hour and if you were late, she let you know! I would mix the concoction and feed it to her with a wooden match stick. Sweet seemed to love it and would gobble it down as fast as I could provide. As she finished her feeding she would slide back into the rear of her nest to seek the relative safety of its confines until her next feeding. She was also very fastidious in that she would not foul her nest, but would make her way to the edge to do her business.

We kept Sweet in a large cat cage inside our gazebo in the backyard so to be safe from any possible predators and she thrived in this environment. Soon it became apparent that she was more than just a hungry mouth and pot belly and started to grow feathers which gave her the appearance of a real, honest-to-goodness, bird. She even started to venture outside her nest to explore the confines of the cage. Sweet became such a central part of our lives that on the July 4th weekend we took her with us on a trip with Sue's sister and husband to South Hadley and Amherst. We ate lunch at Windows on the Common in South Hadley and had to excuse ourselves every half hour to feed her. We kept the cage in the back of our car and the arrangement worked
out perfectly.

As Sweet got bigger we had to consider how to acclimate her to the wild. It's one thing to raise a bird, or any other animal, for domestication, but yet another thing to raise one with the intention of release into the wild. We had always made it our motive in raising Sweet to do so with eventual release in mind. I would now occasionally bring her outside the safety of the gazebo and teach the fine, non-human, art of flight. Nothing could be more amusing than watching a human attempt to teach a young bird this amazing feat, but teach her I did. I would bring her to a lilac bush and place her on a low hanging branch and then gently nudge her to take flight. The first few attempts were met with total failure as she fluttered helplessly to the ground, but nature has a strong instinct placed within its winged creatures and soon Sweet was successful in gaining a somewhat small measure of lift.

Sweet progressed rapidly in her new found art and it was now time to see if she could navigate beyond the gazebo. I wasn't too concerned about her flying off to parts unknown since she still required feeding every hour or so. Quickly she learned how to maneuver from branch to branch on various trees in the yard and I also taught her how to peck at the ground for insects. Imagine, if you will, a man prone on all fours nibbling at the grass in an attempt to demonstrate to a bird the benefits of ground feeding! And it worked--a credit as she was to her hardy species, she caught on with gusto. Once, when our neighbor was having his garage rebuilt, a worker on the job site proudly proclaimed to us that Sweet had just eaten an ant! Sweet wasn't just our bird, but the entire neighborhood was aware of her presence.

July passed, as summer does, to August and Sweet was now a full grown bird. She would now meet us at our bedroom window every morning at 5 am to let us know that breakfast should be served as soon as possible. I would grudgingly, but willingly, oblige and then she would be on her way flying from tree to tree in the anticipation of enjoying another beautiful summer day. As I saw her fly about the yard I wondered if we had done the right thing in trying to save this stout hearted little creature. That old saying 'it isn't nice to mess with mother nature' is a concern that can't be denied, but Sue and I both felt we had done the right thing.

Soon Sweet no longer came to our window, but would meet us on the railing on our back deck. She was hesitant to accept our offerings of food and friendship and one had the notion that nature and the natural order of things would reclaim its design. It was on an August morning that she jumped across the railing on the deck and let us know that we had done all we could; she was ready for flight and freedom. We knew the day would come and looked forward to it, but yet there was a sadness in our souls in not knowing what lay ahead for her. Would she be able to avoid danger? Would she think that all humans were her friends? Only she could answer and yet there is no answer. We do the best we can in helping to preserve and nurture life and hope for the best.

We never saw Sweet again, but her story fills these lines and our hearts with a fond remembrance. Fly on little bird. Freedom comes to those that love it.

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