Cradling birds

My eggs hatched. Last night in the middle of a dream. They were cold and I cradled them, blew on them until they were warm. There were 4 white orbs and everything behind my hands was dark. One by one, I brought them back, but still you never know if the things you care for ever have enough strength to be born.

And then they started to crack. One by one. Only I lost one somewhere and didn’t seem to notice. They had been cold and dead and dark and abandoned and I was just happy to save the ones that I saved.

They were gray. Spiny bodies covered in quills. Beaks orange and rising like a small-slivered sun. Baby birds are not beautiful and neither are baby babies when they’re first born. We are humble in the beginning. We have to grow into ourselves. But I held all three of them in my hands and loved them anyway.

I woke up in the dark for this dream and remembered a day when my cat brought in a baby scrub jay. I was home from college – freshman or sophomore year – and he plopped this thin slate-colored liver on the floor. I thought it was dead until it made the softest plea of a sound. And I grabbed Otis, the cat, threw him in a locked room and found a towel.

Somewhere along the way, my mom told me never to touch them. Not only did they possibly carry diseases, but more importantly, to me, if their mother smelled me on their skin, she would reject them and they would die.

How could something so small, barely even alive, already be dying?

I wrapped him loosely in a green towel. He was hardly moving. His eyes were closed. I’d never seen a bird so young that close before. Everything was limp except his mouth which was a blinding, strong, thick yellow. It opened like a snap dragon, some alien plant, a Venus fly trap. It opened wide with red wanting and then fell back and he went to sleep.

Outside, I searched for his nest. I looked high in the trees for any cluster of sticks. I listened for the scrub jays screaming that awful scream – for the most part I hated them. They dove bomb my cats and stole other bird’s nests and had every intention of being pretty birds with pretty blue wings, but they were scrubs. It’s what scrubs did.

There was nothing. The trees were bare. The peaches heavy, the blinding lemons against green leaves, but there were no nests. I had no idea where he came from.

So I took him back inside. Put him in a shoe box. Surrounded him in towels and every time he’d wake up, his sunflower mouth would pop open again and again. How much were birds fed? He was probably starving.

When my mom got home, I showed her what Otis brought in – the tiny wings, all quills and no feathers.

“You didn’t touch it did you? Wash your hands.”

We took him to the only place we could think might know – the PETCO down the street. We placed him in a gift bag with handles inside the shoe box. I placed him on my lap as we drove.

“I keep waking him up!” And his mouth would open again and again.

“Cat food,” the woman at PETCO said. “Feed it cat food, mixed in water. Feed it every 30 minutes. Or whenever it wakes up and is hungry” And she handed me a small syringe with a plunger.

Cat food – how ironic.

It was Friday afternoon and she also gave us a number – a bird and small animal sanctuary in Sacramento. It didn’t open again until the next day and I wondered how I was going to keep this small creature alive, how it would make it through the night. But I fed him whenever he was hungry, kept him warm, squirted cat food all over his face and tried to wipe it off – how strange he didn’t even know who or what was feeding him – all he knew was need.

I hardly slept that night, checking on him, making sure he was still alive, but somehow, this little thing that kept pooping on itself made it through the night and on to the next day.

Cat food. And water. Fleshy open mouth again and again.

When we arrived at the small animal rescue center, the woman had a raccoon on her shoulder. He couldn’t be released for some reason.

But she took my bird and said he was only a little dehydrated and brought us back to a room full of sick or injured crows, jays, owls, sparrows. Babies, fledglings, adults. The chicks all nestled together based on breed. It was the biggest bird orphanage I’d ever seen. And he didn’t look so small or helpless anymore. I knew he’d survive.

That summer, I volunteered there once a week. They still mixed cat food together, but it was a more advanced formula than mine – something the birds could grow strong on. I changed their cages. I fed them – a squirt and move on – there were so many moving, starving, open mouths. “Try to get it all in their mouth, it’s like cement on their beaks,” one lady said.

I lost my little guy, he got feathers, became a real bird. I’d look at the faces of the jays and wonder which one, which one is he. But it didn’t matter. I liked the idea that he might be flying soon and free.


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