Editor’s note: The following column was originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on June 6, 1966.
A PICTURE TUMBLED to the floor. It was a colored snapshot of a male rose-breasted grosbeak sitting on top of a bird cage. I had just opened a letter from one of our good Manchester readers. I was amazed at the story she told.
“Enclosed is a picture of ‘Little Joe,’ a rose-breasted grosbeak we found on our driveway last year in June. It was Father’s Day. He was very young as he could barely fly, so we brought him into the house because of the neighborhood cats, and now he is one of the family. We think he is quite unusual as he eats all kinds of vegetables, fruits, hamburg and, of course, seeds. He plays with toys in his cage and when I let him out he follows me all over the house, sometimes on my shoulder or the top of my head. He doesn’t like to be left alone. At night when we are watching television he makes such a racket we have to bring his cage into the living room. Then he is happy.
“We have let him fly out of doors but at sundown he comes home and is happy to be back in his cage. Is this behavior unusual for a grosbeak? All of the tradespeople and our friends who have seen him think he is pretty special. Their comment is, ‘If I didn’t see it I wouldn’t believe it.’”
From my knowledge of wild birds in captivity, one part of this story seemed almost incredible. I refer to that part of her letter which stated that the bird returned to his cage at sundown after flying outdoors. It is not unusual for hand-reared birds to return a first or even second time, but to continue to do so until they are a year old is indeed remarkable.
June is the time of year when young birds will be seen apparently floundering around on their own. This is sometimes true as was the case of the rose-breasted grosbeak reared by our correspondent. Most of the time, however, fledglings are really being watched very carefully by their parents. If they are not disturbed, they will be well taken care of. After a few hours the little birds will gain strength and begin to fly and keep out of harm’s way.
Nearly every spring I have several inquiries as to how young orphaned birds should be cared for. I try to make sure that the bird is truly orphaned, and if it is I then suggest a program of care. Young birds are apt to need warmth, especially at night. I recommend placing them in a box on soft paper towels and hanging a low wattage light bulb in one corner. The box should be large enough to allow this bird to move close to the bulb when it is cold and to move away if it becomes too warm.
Unless the bird is a young hawk or owl, it will usually do well with a mixture of finely mashed hard-boiled egg yolks and finely sifted bread crumbs, slightly moistened with milk or cod liver oil. Small bits of fruit, canned dog food, or finely chopped beef may be added to the diet as the bird becomes older.
In the case of young hawks or owls, you should use raw meat complete with fur or feathers, for these young predators require this type of diet. If the bird is too small to feed itself, place the food well back in its throat, making sure not to give it too much at a time. Too large a morsel will choke a young bird. When they have had enough to eat they will refuse more food, either by not opening their mouths or not swallowing the last morsel. A young bird should be handled as little as possible. They should be fed at least every half hour during daylight hours. Do not force a bird to drink water. Water should be available in a shallow dish. A bird may be taught to drink by dripping its bill in water, but water should never be poured down its throat.
Young birds should only be adopted when it has been determined that their parents have abandoned them.
Stacey Cole, Nature Talks columnist for more than 50 years, passed away in 2014. If readers have a favorite column written by Stacey that they would like to see reprinted, please drop a note to Jen Lord at email@example.com.