For the Birds Radio Program: Caring for Injured Birds

Original Air Date: March 9, 1988

Laura is ambivalent about caring for and releasing injured birds.

Duration: 3′41″


(Recording of a Cedar Waxwing)

Pretty soon the Northland’s Bohemian Waxwings will be pulling up stakes and heading north again. This year I’ll miss them more than usual. I took care of a waxwing for a few days this season. It had been picked up, drunk and injured, at the Miller Hill Mall, apparently after eating fermented berries.

Waxwings are gentle and pleasant to have around, but they need wildness and the company of other waxwings as surely as the sky needs stars. As this bird’s health improved, he got so restless that it was painful to watch him. He was still docile, eating raisins and applesauce right out of my hand, but he started making soft little notes which seemed to be pleas to his flock to come rescue him. So the first morning of a warm front, I carried him out to the front porch and opened my hand.

You’d think a captive bird would fly instantly off when you let it go, but in my experience they take a moment or two to get their bearings. Early spring music–the zip of Pine Siskins and the trickling gurgle of melting snow–filled the air. The waxwing sat in my hand for a full minute or so, and then flew up to a nearby maple tree, where he perched, looked all around, and preened his wings and his tail–maybe trying to shake off the taint of captivity. We watched him for a while, and then went inside, my two-year-old Tommy wistfully saying “Bye-Bye, Waxwing.” We checked on him out the window several times, but finally, we looked out and he was gone.

That wasn’t the last we saw of him. A half hour or so later he flew past in a flock of five or six waxwings. He was sadly easy to recognize because, like just about all captive birds, his tail feathers had been frayed by cage bars.

I’m ambivalent about taking care of injured birds. On the one hand, this waxwing really needed a safe refuge while the alcohol worked its way out of his system, and he needed time for the open wound on his foot to heal. Then he needed to learn to balance with an injured foot. If he had been left alone at the Miller Hill Mall, he most assuredly would have died, perhaps after being trampled—shoppers don’t usually watch the ground for injured birds. Chances are not even a hungry predator would have found him.

But I wonder…taking a wild creature into a house, even for just a few days, perhaps that robs it of some of its wildness. Those frayed tail feathers will be replaced as new ones grow in, but are there other, more lasting signs of a bird’s temporary incarceration?

Tomorrow is the 16th anniversary of the U.S.’s Migratory Bird Treaty convention with Mexico, which brought all native songbirds under the protection of the federal government. Because of that treaty, it’s against federal law to possess any wild bird or its feathers. You cannot keep even an injured bird in your possession for a few days without a permit. There are some inherent weaknesses with the law–for example, it’s illegal for anyone to possess the feathers of a protected species—even a Blue Jay feather you find in your backyard. But the benefits of this law far outweigh the drawbacks. Our abundant bird life owes much of its well being to this Migratory Bird Treaty, coming of age tomorrow.

(Recording of a Cedar Waxwing)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”