5 - A NEW MOM AND POP

The little thing had wing feathers of sorts with suggestions of more to come. The head was as good as bald except for two rows of down branching in several directions, resembling fuzzy moose antlers. A trail of down followed the spine to where tail feathers would eventually be. His armpits, sides, and bottom were bare and reddish — he certainly looked unfinished — and pathetic. He sat in the box on his bare bottom, supported by scrawny, pale grey elbows. Stomach temporarily satisfied, he pursed his lips and went to sleep.

Sam's search for worms began in earnest. We had to have a supply ready for the next feeding in fifteen or twenty minutes. He scoured the yard; two worms, a juicy spider, and a dragon fly. "That should be enough for three or four meals," he announced with great satisfaction — pleased with his own resourcefulness.

Sam offered the worm first and his little charge practically bent his beaks back double as he yelled for more. He accepted the spider's abdomen but not the legs, and he refused the dragonfly; however, he was still hungry. Not until that moment did we realize we were in real trouble — not another worm or insect could be found; numerous frantic inspections of the yard proved fruitless, making it obvious that we were seriously deficient in some aspects of bird parenting . . . WHERE had Mr. and Mrs. Robin found all those worms?

"I'm going to have to go to the sporting goods shop to buy worms," Sam finally admitted, a bit chagrined by his failure as a provider. He made a hurried trip, bringing back six-dozen worms.

"This surely ought to be enough for a couple of days. They certainly are EXPENSIVE! They charged me $2.40 — let's see, that's over three cents a worm!"

Robin ate gluttonously every twenty minutes or so and each time, after he had his fill, fell asleep almost immediately. (I was able to observe his eyes and realized for the first time that the bottom lids moved upward to close — opposite to human eyelids.) At the end of two hours he had made a tremendous dent in the worm supply; if we didn't make another run to the sport shop before it closed, we'd be in a mess of trouble. This time Sam approached the salesman with, "Look, I've got this problem," and he proceeded to tell about the baby who was eating us out of house and home. "If it's going to stay with us for two or three weeks, I can't afford to keep it in worms at forty cents a dozen," he pleaded.

The salesman took pity on him and sent him to the worm farm where he would be able to buy worms at wholesale. For eight dollars, Sam bought three one-quart cartons of worms, and he was happy in the thought that at last he had a proper supply.

"They'll store nicely in the refrigerator," the worm farmer assured him.

Robin finished the first batch of worms and started in on the new supply before he went to bed that night. The next morning he opened his mouth wide as Sam offered him the first breakfast worm; but as the forceps neared, he clamped his beak shut and refused to open it again. No amount of coaxing could make him open up. Sam waited and then gently nudged his beak, to no avail. He kept trying, sometimes clacking and smacking his lips, attempting to convey the deliciousness of the meal, but the bird would have nothing to do with the eight-dollar worms.

"Swell," Sam muttered, and said some other indistinct words. "Now, what do we do?"

Robin certainly wasn't full. We could tell by his crop, a storage chamber below his esophagus which became swollen and distorted as Robin would stuff himself. The food would remain there to be softened and stored until the stomach could accommodate it. Maybe the bird was sick? Things went from bad to worse — he began to lose his vigor — we were frightened that we would lose him. We searched for help in the telephone directory, looking for an Audubon Society number but finding nothing, then we called the County Humane Society. Luckily, they were able to give us the phone numbers of people who care for injured and homeless birds.

"Don't be too disappointed if he doesn't make it," the first woman consoled us. "Many times the birds do well for two or three days, and then they have a delayed reaction to the shock they have experienced. Perhaps this is the case with your bird."
Her disheartening suggestion seemed to hint at the symptoms of Robin, all right, but we did not wish to yield to such thoughts and asked her for instructions for his care. She gave us a full regimen: feeding, watering, bathing, nesting, and expected behavior. The diet consisted of high-protein foods: ground meat, beef heart if possible, baby cereals mixed with boiled egg yolk and enough water to make a paste, and Terrell's Red Label canned dog food. Drinking water was not necessary until later because the food contained sufficient moisture. She also suggested a cereal bowl lined with crumpled paper towels to serve as a nesting cup.

"Give it a tree limb, too; otherwise its feet will atrophy," she said. "And you must keep the baby warm — put a 25-watt light over the box.

"Oh, and another thing, dip some of the food in clean, unsprayed dirt or sand. That'll help the bird grind its food."

Sam sped to the store a third time. The beef hearts were so large that he settled for a half-pound of ground round instead. In the meantime I boiled a few eggs, and the bird's banquet began to take shape. When it was all set, Sam tempted the baby with cereal-and-egg-paté. To our surprise, coaxing proved to be totally unnecessary: we had managed to pique his appetite. Next came the ground steak, and the little glutton almost swallowed the forceps. Our motherly, baby-stuffing instincts were overflowing with satisfaction. We glowed with success and happiness.

We began our own assembly-line feeding program, but soon discovered that Robin required less in quantity, possibly because the quality was better than the full diet of worms. We learned much later that less than half of a robin's diet is animal matter, principally insects, with less than 10% worms, while the remainder is made up of small fruits and berries. No wonder he had clamped his mouth shut — he had simply O.D.'d on worms.

Robin spent a good portion of that day and the next in the cereal-bowl-nest (in the box). The tree limb, placed next to the bowl, was of no interest to him because he was still sitting on his elbows. Sometimes he relaxed so completely that he actually dozed off and lost his balance. Each time he righted and rearranged himself, only to doze off to repeat the same act again. Because robin babies are well packed in their nests, they remain upright by mutual support as they doze in unison. It must be a secure feeling.

But our poor baby had such a loose arrangement in the cereal-bowl-nest, even with the crushed paper towel lining, that he must have had a sensation of falling into infinity, which caused his rude awakenings. In retrospect, had we known better, we would have provided a tighter nest, a basket with two or three lamb's wool companions for warmth and security.

Robin was fastidious about his nest. Even from the first day in the roomy cardboard box he managed to back into one corner or another to use the bathroom. He pushed his bottom as high up the corner as he could in an attempt to find the edge of the box; but, of course, the sides were too high and the discharged droppings landed half-way up. This behavior puzzled us at first; then we realized that he was trying to drop his waste outside the nest. We marveled at his inborn tendencies, the instinctive patterns, uniquely programmed within each of his kind. The nesting bowl was a definite improvement. He began to sit on the rim which enabled him to drop his discards outside his bedroom and thus fulfill his innate housekeeping needs. We had observed his parents tidying the nest when the babies were new, by carrying away their droppings in their beaks.

TO CHAPTER 6