For the Birds Radio Program: Baby Siskin

Original Air Date: Aug. 14, 1989

Laura’s been caring for a cat-injured baby Pine Siskin. (3:56) Date verified.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Pine Siskin)

Last week a woman from West Duluth brought me a baby Pine Siskin that had been attacked by a cat. Cat attacks are virtually always fatal–even a small puncture quickly becomes septic, and treating small birds with antibiotics can be touchy. This poor little siskin, the tiniest bird I’ve ever handled, was torn up on both sides beneath its wings–the lungs were obviously damaged because large air sacs swelled up beneath the skin on its lower chest.

The wounds were so bad that I expected the bird to die the first day. It was hungry, but was too little to eat seeds by itself, so I fed it tiny crumbs of bread soaked in water, and gave it a few drops of amoxycillin which I had on hand for my nighthawk. The siskin accepted the bread greedily, reassuring me that at least it wouldn’t die hungry. It also downed the medicine eagerly, apparently liking the sugar base it was suspended in. In spite of my fear that it wouldn’t survive the night and my efforts to keep from growing attached, it wasn’t long before my maternal drive was revved up for this little bird too tiny to perch on my index finger.

By the second morning I was coming to terms with the fact that it was going to be around for a while—at least long enough that I had to come up with a better recipe. In the wild, baby Pine Siskins are fed regurgitated seeds—not only don’t I have the foggiest knowledge how to regurgitate seeds, I have even less inclination to try it. And anyway there was no way I could begin to produce the requisite siskin spit which it would need. I borrowed some small seeds from a neighbor with a cockatiel, mashed them up, and soaked them in water with vitamins and minerals. But the little siskin wanted no part of that—all I could get it to take was bread, so I started wrapping small bread bits around one or two seeds and soaking it in a mixture of milk, egg yolk, and vitamins. The third day the swelling on its side became so huge that its right wing rode up at an odd angle, well above the left. But it seemed in good spirits in spite of the wound. I kept giving it amoxycillin, in hopes that it could fight off the cat’s germs.

By the fifth day, the swelling on the lower side had gone down, but now it had a new swelling on the side of its neck–a big, bulbous sac that made its breathing more labored and its feathers stick out oddly. But its eyes were bright and it didn’t seem to be in any discomfort. That day I suddenly had the inspiration to go to a pet store and buy some mash for hand-feeding baby cockatiels and parakeets—seedeaters that also depend on regurgitated seeds in the wild.

By this time the little siskin was flittering all around my office, perching on my houseplants and sleeping in crevices between my books. Whenever it was hungry, it would make little peeping sounds, so no matter where it was, I could eventually find it. It’s important not to keep wild birds in cages, because the metal bars damage their feathers, endangering them once they’re released. But there are obviously other risks in allowing birds to fly loose in a room, not even counting the obvious cleanliness problems. Sure enough, that evening the baby siskin somehow managed to get stuck behind a file cabinet when I wasn’t around. When I went up into my office, I couldn’t find it anywhere—it took me over 2 hours to find it in an office which is only 50 square feet. By that time the little guy was exhausted, dehydrated, and frightened almost to death. After all that had happened to it that week, it seemed for sure that this was the last straw. But next morning the little guy was just as perky as ever. And after a week, I’m feeling pretty confident that little Phoenix the siskin may fully recover yet.

(Recording of a Pine Siskin)

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