For the Birds Radio Program: Baby Vireo Update

Original Air Date: July 19, 1991

One by one, the little baby vireos have died, except one.

Duration: 4′23″


On the Fourth of July, I woke up to four little Red-eyed Vireos cheeping in my office. They had fallen from their nest in a storm a week earlier. They were all stunted in growth and suffering from rickets. The woman who brought them to me after feeding them nothing but dog food for a full week expressed surprise that they only needed food every half hour. She apparently didn’t realize that nestling songbirds seldom call for feeding lest they call a crow, jay, or other predator’s attention to the nest. Unless they’re absolutely desperate for food, they remain silent. Such tiny birds need feeding every ten minutes or so during daylight hours. Once or twice a day, you can take an hour’s break, but frequent small meals are the rule.

The weakest of these vireos were the biggest and the smallest. The woman explained that the little one was the runt and never ate as much as the others. I found that it actually needed almost twice as much as the others, in small but more frequent meals. By this time, it should have been at least five inches long, but it was hardly over two inches–the size of a hummingbird. The big one was in just as bad a situation. Even that one was only about 3 1/2 inches—much smaller than it should have been. But because it was growing faster than the others on poor food, it had the worst case of rickets, with horribly crooked legs as well as feet. My favorite if the four was a medium-sized one without feathers on its head. It was funny looking but had personality. After it was bathed and had eaten a snack, it hopped and fluttered about my office. A round metal brace running across the bottom of my chair caught its eye. The brace was about an inch in diameter, and six inches off the floor, and the little guy decided to fly up to it.

When a fledgling gets any idea into its head, it persists at it. This one worked for over ten minutes on its project. At first six inches was beyond its flight range. Then, as practice made its wings stronger, the slippery metal became the problem. It had trouble first wrapping its toes around it, and then, when it did get a grip, its whole body spun upside down, and it finally let go and dropped to the floor.

Somehow, even awkwardly sprawled upside down, a baby bird never looks embarrassed—just more determined than ever. And after a dozen attempts, my little “Spunky” finally managed to balance atop the metal bar for a whole ten seconds. This satisfied him, and he flew to the floor in triumph. Spunky quickly mastered flying, and flew to me or one of my kids whenever he was hungry.

My daughter Katie’s favorite one was the other medium-sized one, which she named Rudy. Her name wasn’t the political gesture of a born Minnesotan–she simply chose the name because Rudy was downright rude. The first time we took the babies outside, the biggest and smallest vireos sat quietly in a lilac bush, Spunky flew back and forth between the bush and a spruce tree, and Rudy instantly started snapping at bugs. He even pierced a full-sized tent caterpillar and swallowed it whole. My children loved all four of them, and the birds seemed to enjoy perching on their little fingers and being carried through the house and yard.

The tiniest vireo was the first to die, three days after it came. Its organs were just too small to keep it alive. The biggest died two days later, its bones and probably its internal organs too damaged. With the loss of two warm bodies to snuggle between at night, Spunky, missing so many feathers, succumbed to hypothermia the next morning.

So far, Rudy is still hanging in there. He will always be too small—I don’t know how he’ll make it all the way to South America this fall—but right now he seems to be having a jolly good time. He spends every nice day in the back yard, catching his own bugs and coming to me for a big meal whenever I go outside. When the weather’s bad and at nighttime, he comes in to sleep in a box, safe and warm.

I gave these babies my best shot, and I’m glad they all had at least a few days to perch on trees in the warm sunshine. But it sure is hard to watch the sorrow in my children’s eyes when a tiny bird is close to death. Most people who bring me baby birds understand that time is of the essence. I sure wish everyone understood that.