For the Birds Radio Program: Baby Red-eyed Vireos

Original Air Date: July 17, 1991

A woman “rescued” four baby Red-eyed Vireos, but fed them inappropriate food and didn’t keep them clean until it was too late.

Duration: 4′07″


The night before the Fourth of July, a woman brought me four baby Red-eyed Vireos. They and their nest had been knocked out of a tree a full week earlier, before their eyes were open. She wanted her children to have the experience of raising baby birds, so she kept them, but for the whole week she fed them nothing but canned dog food. She didn’t expect them to last long, and now she was getting her house ready for company, so she decided to let me take them off her hands.

When she brought them to me, they were in a shoebox lined with a filthy paper towel. Their tiny bodies were caked with dried feces and dog food, which stuck their discolored feathers to their skin. The ony way I could even tell that they were vireos was by the hook on the tips of their beaks. Their feathers had been yucky for so long that the little birds had all lost the urge to preen. Usually, when baby birds preen, they are quickly rewarded by the feel of soft, downy feathers in their beaks and the relief to their skin from the itchy sheaths of the growing feathers. But these feathers were plastered to their skin, impossible to preen.

By the time she brought them to me, it was evening, too late to bathe them. She’d been keeping them under a light 24 hours a day, and they badly needed sleep as well as good nutrition and clean bodies. I fed them my normal baby bird recipe—ground puppy chow and Purina High-Pro mixed with gelatin, bone meal, applesauce, and a triple dose of vitamins since they hadn’t had any vitamins at all in a full week. Then I put them to bed in a clean blueberry pint box lined with tissues, and hoped for the best.

The next morning, instead of going on my usual Fourth of July bird walk in Port Wing, I found myself working full time caring for my new babies. After a breakfast of special baby bird mash blended for cockatiels and parrots, which would help with feather development, my first task was obviously to give each little vireo a bath. One by one, I picked them up and held them under the kitchen faucet, allowing warm water to rush over their wings and back, my cupped hand holding the water deep enough to immerse their undersides. Their beaks, feet, and legs were totally caked, and one baby’s eye was sealed shut. I had to be awfully careful soaking each piece of dirt until it was soft and then slowly and gently work it off with my fingertip, all the time keeping the water at body temperature and making sure I wasn’t drowning the little one.

Then, as each baby’s shower was done, I had to hold it in my hand to keep it warm as I blotted the wet feathers with tissues. I kept it in my hand until the feathers were all fluffed out. Each bath took about 45 minutes, so the whole operation took three hours. But it was worth it—when I was done, I had four fluffy Red-eyed Vireos. They still had dark spots where I couldn’t get the sticky dog food off their beaks and faces without drowning them, but they looked sweet enough for my children to immediately fall in love.

Now that I could really see them, the damage of seven days of bad nutrition during the most critical time of a baby bird’s development was painfully clear. Because they’d had no vitamins, each one had rickets—their toes were weak and crooked. And they were dreadfully undersized. That meant that their internal organs were damaged, too.

I don’t expect people without my background to know the proper care for baby birds, and normally don’t get angry when well-meaning people make mistakes with birds, but this Fourth of July, I was livid. Under the very best of experiences, raising a baby bird is a touch-and-go proposition, and the most knowledgeable people do worse than parent birds. For someone to make such an abysmal mess of it and then bring the babies to me to watch die after she got tired of them seemed unconscionable. Here I was, on Independence Day, stuck with four weak, damaged, sweet little Red-eyed Vireos, knowing that the best, and the worst, was yet to come.