My first memory of an awareness of birds and their importance in our lives was – like so many things in my life – connected to my mother. She’d rescued a baby bird that fell from its nest in our backyard, and for days she lovingly nursed it back to health, making it a soft-cloth-lined shoebox to sleep in, giving it food and water. B. echoed this loving act early in our relationship when he spied a fallen fledgling by the trail where we hiked one day. He quickly moved it to a soft spot out of the way of the path, but not far from the tree where its mother might still find it. What is it about a fallen bird that is so compelling? Perhaps it’s that it should be a creature of flight, a transformation that, as we watched the bird take off after my mother’s care, proved startling.
Although they may look similar, there are actually three stages of baby bird development that occur before full independence: hatchlings are newborns, featherless and sightless with eyes closed. Once they open their eyes and grow feathers, they become nestlings. After about two weeks in the nest, they can leave but cannot fly – these are fledglings. It’s common to find them on the ground, as that’s part of their growth process. It’s also fine to gently pick up the bird and place it back in its nest if possible; contrary to popular myth, the mother will not reject it. Sonoma County wildlife rehabilitation center Native Songbird Care and Conservation provides help and education about local birds.
This time of year is once again the Great Backyard Bird Count, a great citizen science project held all over the world and put on by Cornell University’s Lab or Ornithology. Anyone can participate in any country, just spend at least fifteen minutes in a single place to count (as best you can) the number of different bird species you observe, and submit results online (the site also can help with bird identification).
Some of our favorite winter birds are Cedar waxwings, beautiful brown and yellow crested small birds with red-tipped wings. They whistle to each other and fly close together, often whirling and swooping in unison. These nomads wander from country to town and back in search of new berries, and are crucial seed-dispersers in our environment. We spied them enjoying a rainshower in a backyard tree one day, an enchanting picture that instantly brought to mind that startling image from my early memory.