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Smell the Coffee: Bringing up baby

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- One of the most wonderful pets my family ever had was Bammy, a blue jay that my brother brought home after finding the baby bird in the street near our house. The mostly bald baby Bammy was covered with mites, which was likely why he'd been tossed from the nest.

At the time, my mom was also raising two warblers whose parents had been killed by a car right in front of our house. Those babies, more developed than the jay, had become so hungry they'd likely left the nest seeking food, even though they weren't yet able to fly.

Raising one baby bird is a chore. Raising three is exhausting. The high metabolic rate of baby birds means they can't go long without a meal. A bird so young its eyes are still closed and it doesn't yet have feathers must be fed every 15 to 20 minutes from sunrise to sunset. After their eyes are open and feathers have begun to appear, they need to be fed only every 30 to 45 minutes.

The schedule makes one admire the parenting moxie of birds.

When the warblers were full grown, we set them free. The male left, but the female, Goldie, chose to stay. As, a few months later, did the jay.

There was something damaged about Goldie. She wouldn't have survived in the wild and seemed to be missing whatever birds have that normally prompts such natural bird activities as grooming. And flying. Goldie preferred to walk.

A few years after Goldie and Bammy had declared their intentions to live at our house permanently, a baby cowbird fell from its nest onto my parent's brick patio, breaking its leg. Squeaky's leg didn't heal correctly, and although he could eventually fly, he couldn't land without toppling, so he, too, chose to walk. Or hop.

Bammy, though, was a world-class flier. He would fly full speed at this decorative room divider that had angled slats 4 inches apart. He'd pull his wings closed for a split-second on one side and emerge and reopen his wings on the other. I used to expect he'd meet his end at that divider, that we'd find his body on one side and his wings on the other, but it was a combination of old age and pneumonia that did him in when he was nearly 12.

All these years later, we'll still occasionally find some little reminder of him, like a peanut or some small treasure Bammy had stolen and tucked deep between the pages of a book. Sometimes, when I'm visiting my folks, I'll be at the bathroom mirror and I can almost feel Bammy's presence, as he would accompany me there every morning to groom himself while I fixed my hair. I don't know that I've ever heard that sassy blue jay yell without thinking of him. He was this amazing, intelligent creature that we could've so easily missed out on getting to know.

Every spring I'm reminded of my old bird friends when I hear someone talking about having found a baby bird and not knowing what to do. Often, the bird isn't really abandoned, but only appears to be; yet if it actually is, there's much to consider. One thing is that according to West Virginia Code 20-2-51 regarding the legalities of possessing a native wild animal, "The director may issue a permit to a person to keep and maintain in captivity as a pet," but only as long as the wild animal or wild bird "has been acquired from a commercial dealer or during the legal open season."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is even tougher: "You must release all releasable recuperated birds to the wild as soon as seasonal conditions allow. Birds may not be held for more than 180 days."

Thankfully, we knew none of this when we raised those birds, and I kind of doubt it would've stopped us if we had.

For those who find themselves faced with having to decide between attempting to rescue a foundling or leaving it to face nature's wrath, I've cobbled together some tips that could help the noble scofflaws. Visit blogs.wvgazette.com/karinfuller.

Reach Karin Fuller at karinfuller@gmail.com.


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