Massachusetts, Summer 1951
Bark scraped my hands as I climbed down from my favorite tree. Pine pitch, oozing from forks in branches, was fragrant as it heated up in the morning sun. I jumped from a low branch onto a soft carpet of pine needles, and there on the ground was a baby bird, beak stretched so wide open that its mouth appeared to be as big as the rest of its downy grey body. My thump must have made it think mother was delivering food. As I kneeled to look more closely, it began to chirp loudly, making sounds almost like cackles. The poor thing must have fallen out of its nest, and now the mother wouldn’t be able to find it, I thought.
I picked it up, and tiny toes clung to my finger, and its beak still gaped for food while its chirping seemed too loud for the size of its body.
“Mom, can I keep it and take care of it. I promise I’ll feed it and give it water! Please! Please! Please!” I begged, my seven year old self very sure that I could raise this bird.
“Dad won’t like it. He’ll say you have to let it go.”
“Well, just let me take care of it until Dad gets home. Please! Please! I have an empty shoebox it can live in, and I can find bugs for it to eat and kill flies with our fly swatter. My bird book says baby birds eat bugs.”
“Okay for now, but you’ll have to ask Dad when he gets home from work.”
I did my best to make for Chirpy a nest with dried grasses in the shoebox. I spent the entire day hunting bugs in the woods and killed flies with the fly swatter. Turning over rocks and fallen tree limbs turned up many varieties of shiny beetles and squirming grubs. Each time I came near the shoebox, Chirpy opened her beak and I dropped in the next bug as she cheeped. I found an eyedropper in the medicine cabinet to give her drops of water.
I decided to hide Chirpy from Dad, so I wouldn’t have to give her up. He was a cruel man. I had seen him laugh while drowning my favorite barn kittens in a bucket of water, and burn with his lighter a dog that barked too much.
I found a depression under a big rock in the woods and put the shoebox there for the night, hoping that no wild animal would find it. I pushed dead branches over my box to make it less noticeable. Mom didn’t say a word to Dad about my baby bird and let me spend my days finding bugs and killing flies.
Chirpy’s adult feathers began to grow and she seemed to practice flapping her wings as she grew bigger and stronger over the course of about ten days. I was so proud that I really did raise this bird and help it grow up. On a rainy cold morning I took the lid off my shoebox for the last time as Chirpy flew to the top of a tall birch tree at the edge of the woods. At first I was devastated. Chirpy was gone! Would she be safe? Would she be able to find her own food? Could she stay warm in the cold rain? Safe from prowling neighborhood cats?
I ran, tears streaming, to the house. “Chirpy’s gone!” I cried to Mom. “She flew away.”
“The same thing would happen if her real mother was feeding her.”
“But I wanted to keep her always. She was like my pet.”
“No wild animal can be a pet. They’re meant to be part of nature, a world we’re not supposed to tame.”
I retreated to my bedroom drowning my sorrow by paging through my bird books, pictures of cardinals, blue jays, robins, and other birds I loved. I thought about how it was for a mother bird, feeding a nest full of babies, spending all her days hunting bugs, and then having all her babies gone within weeks. My experience showed me how helpless baby birds were, entirely dependent on parents. I read in my books that birds care for their young because they have instinctive behavior, not because they care about their chicks.
This foray into the world of a mother bird changed my life. I became even more fascinated with nature, in birds, in animal behavior. This experience at age seven may have been one of the catalysts that moved me on to degrees in biology, a career as a biology teacher, and eventually coauthor of a best-selling high school biology book. Thank you Chirpy!