How baby songbirds saved my chickens June 22, 2012
Chickens aren’t the only birds we care for around here. We seem to have a rotating cast of winged stars that stay at our cottage a while before returning to the wild. Or, in most cases, our cottage *IS* the wild, and we’re just friendly neighbors who mind our business. Some birds stay for just an hour or two, like this stunning creature whom I found, well, stunned beneath the plum tree one year:
I would have preferred to leave her alone to see if she’d recover on her own. However, our roosters don’t take kindly to strangers, and when I saw them spot her, I had to intervene. I scooped her up carefully, examined her for injuries (nothing apparent) and waited. She sat on my knee for a while, a little more than an hour, and then fluttered to the porch rail. Shortly thereafter she seemed to come out of it, and flew away.
Some neighbors are not so welcome. We have to fight to keep the starlings out of our rafters, for instance. There are a lot of pileated wood peckers around here, too. I love to see them, but the chickens think they’re hawks, and run for cover everytime one flies over with its laughing call.
We have other avian neighbors we love to see, though. For instance, cardinals nest in our butterfly bush every year, and we get the pleasure of watching a brood grow up right in front of the porch:
We also have bluebirds that nest in a box nearby. We rarely see those babies until they fly, but when we had something scare one of the babies out of the nest one year, I got to see the brood as I replaced the baby in the nest.
By far my favorite neighbor songbirds were a group of three phoebe nestlings. I thought *I* was saving them, but as it ended up, it was the other way around.
I’m not sure why I even noticed them, really. I’d been loosely tracking their nest for a while, simply because the birds were in our open barn, and one of our hens had been laying her eggs in the hay we kept for the goats, beneath the nest. I thought it was a barn swallow nest at first–we have lots of those–it was mud and straw and plastered into the beams of our barn. However, after catching sight of the mother feeding the young, I was inclined to think they were some sort of flycatcher. We have lots of those, too, but I’m afraid the glimpses I got of the mature bird were in the dark of the barn, and knowing there was a nest there made me rather inclined to stay away most of the time. She was dark grey and had a slight crest on her head, with a lighter breast, perhaps buffy sides. Eastern Phoebes.
I did notice that the babies seemed rather–well, droopy. Very quiet in the nest. Perhaps it was the nature of that species, but I was concerned. Even during those rare moments when I happened to glimpse the mother visiting the nest to feed the babies, they seemed listless and not inclined to gape. (Gaping is what altricial baby birds do when they open their mouths wide to be fed by mama bird.) I got so concerned that one day I finally peeked in the nest to see if I could find if something was wrong. One had died, and I removed it. The others were crawling with red mites. In chickens, and I presume in baby birds of all species, this can be deadly and cause anemia. I was in an agony of indecision as to what to do! I tried to get in touch with an acquaintance of mine, Julie Zickefoose, sort of a master bird rehabilitator (among other things!), however she was out of town. Finally, I just left them alone; just kept an eye out whenever I checked for barn eggs.
A few days later, I was horrified to discover that the whole nest was GONE. It had been torn down, or fell, maybe. I was able to find three of the four still-living babies on the ground below, and–since there was no nest to return them to–brought them inside. They were cold and ill, and were still crawling with the mites. I went back out later and searched fora long time, but I never did find the last baby.
I am not an expert at baby wild bird care; as you readers know, I take care of chickens, and they’re very different! Worse, I didn’t know how old these were, perhaps a week old or so, maybe more. They were mostly feathered, with fluff still lingering on the feather tips. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I DID know they would die without intervention of some sort. Only one was strong enough to even be able to lift its head. With Julie out of town, I had to go by instinct for a while. Naturally, the best thing would have been to put the fallen baby birds back in their nest… but when the nest is gone, THEN what do you do?
Their recovery and release is a long LONG story, so I’ll just cut to the chase. They did recover with warmth and attention, and when Julie returned a few days later, she was generous in helping me understand what to do, and in sharing her own experience. Thank you, Julie! With Julie’s advice, I was able to keep them healthy, feeding them a mixture of crickets, mealworms, and kitten food mushed with yogurt. It was the worst looking baby food, EVER.
Eventually, they learned to catch insects on the wing, and flew away. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so happy and sad at the same time. Still, for a week or two after that, I had little birds flitting around my head every time I went outside. They landed on my head, on my shoulder, clung to my shirt, sang me little phoebe songs. Occasionally, they would leave a dead bug in my hair. I wondered if it was a birdie thank you. I had saved them.
It didn’t occur to me until much later that they had saved my chickens, too. When I saw they were covered with mites, I checked our flock and discovered that they were also infested. It was that hay in the barn; mites just seem to love hay and straw. (Yes, this is another post warning about the potential problems associated with using hay or straw with your chickens. Except I didn’t even use it; I just had it. In the barn. Far away from them.)
Pine or aspen shavings: good. Hay or straw: bad.
So, thank you, baby phoebes. Thank you for alerting me to the mites in the hay. My chickens most certainly thank you; I’m glad the infestation didn’t have to get bad enough that I had to notice it from signs of illness in my flock. Thank you for helping me catch the problem early! And thank you for the buggy hair. Who would have thought that bugs in the hair could be so heartwarming?
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