Last week we talked about a red cardinal chick it was my privilege to rescue from a miserable fate. I found it among a pile of wet leaves and branches left behind after I cleared away a head-high pile of branches that filled my back yard in Port Arthur, Texas, after a very nasty storm.
I will never forget that day. I thought the chick was dead when I saw it lying in its rain-soaked nest amid debris left from the branches I had just hauled away. The featherless, day or two old chick lay stretched out, completely motionless, with its thin red neck flopped loosely to one side and its eyes closed.
My first instinct was to let it be, but then I realized that in a minute or two I’d be raking up that pile of debris. It seemed wrong to rake up that tiny lump of once-living flesh and bone, treating it as though it had no more meaning than a leaf or twig. So I bent down, picked up nest and chick, stared at them sadly for a moment, and got a surprise — a tiny flicker of an eyelid.
Realizing that the chick was still alive, I took it inside, dried it and its nest, wrapped them both warmly in cotton and tissue paper, and put them inside a small, white, cardboard box that had once held a pair of baby shoes. Then, convinced that I had done all I could for the moment and saddened by the thought that the chick would probably die anyway, I went back to work.
Well, the little devil fooled me by being alive when I came in a little while later; not very much alive, but alive. So I searched my brain for something to do and came up with the idea of warm milk in an eye dropper, followed by small bits of whole wheat bread soaked in the warm milk and fed with a tweezers.
My! That little character could eat!
And it could teach too, as I soon found out.
Every time I felt I knew what was going to happen next, I found out I was wrong. Twice that night I got up to feed the tiny featherless thing, certain as I opened the tiny white box in which it was nested that I would find it dead.
Twice, I was wrong. Wrong, but happy.
After that, it graciously taught us something new each day.
First, it taught us that it takes a long time spent looking in many books to find out what kind of chick you have. Tik-Tik, as we named her after her juvenile call, was a female red cardinal.
After we found out what red cardinals eat, we found out a tiny chick can eat an incredible amount of it. Often!
And call until it gets fed. Tik-tik! Tik-tik! Tik-tik!
It may be a small vocabulary, but it can get your attention!
On the third day in our house Tik-Tik taught me that I had a brain the size of pea, and that any creature which has been tossed out of a tree should be very carefully inspected for injuries.
Like a broken leg.
I gently splinted one spindly leg with lots of cotton, tiny lengths of toothpick, and a bit of tape. It healed well, but ever after had a slight curve in it to remind my of my brain size.
We learned that with two active, curious cats in the house a large strong cage is no assurance of safety when you are out of the house at work all day, but a closed door is.
We learned that cats must be fussed over a lot when you bring in a replacement pet. Otherwise they constantly look worried.
We learned that the natural diet of a vegetarian bird is not easy to match, even in the most well-stocked supermarket, but with a lot of effort, and a little creativity, a tiny chick can develop into a healthy, happy bird in a very short time.
We learned that the best way to hand-raise a bird as soon as it is capable of getting around a little, even of taking a stroll around the living room carpet, is to dispense with the cage except when it is needed for protection.
We learned that when a bird decides it is time to fly, it does not make an appointment; it just flies. All over the place!
We learned that there is nothing quite as much fun as a bird that flies around the room as happy as can be, lands on your shoulder, pecks your ear to get your attention, takes off, shows off some more, and then comes back and falls asleep on your knee.
We learned that the kind of bonding that occurs between a human and a pet is not limited to dogs and cats, and that a bird can be every bit as “human” and loving as anybody else.
And we learned that when the weather is right, and there is plenty of natural food outside, and the bird you have hand-raised is ready to make it on her own, you have to bite your lip, take her outside, and let her be free. That was a tough one.
But listening to her singing her song the first time wasn’t.
We learned that birds who are tik-tiking for a handout will sit 35 feet up in tree yelling at you until they finally figure out that you can’t fly up there with it, but that they will eventually come down, sit on your shoulder, and feed out of your hand. Also that they will bring their kids for a handout.
We also learned that hand-raising one chick that has been given up for dead is only the beginning. Over the years there have been three sparrows and one dove, all looking just as dead to us as Tik-Tik did at first, and all capable of being saved if you are able, and willing, to make the effort.
We also learned that if you are not exactly sure that a sparrow is ready to be released — especially if you are down in the Valley on a 110-degree day — do not release it. Why? Because it may fly down to the end of the cul-de-sac and march up and down a grassy patch in front of a ferocious fenced-in dog that goes crazy trying to get at it, thereby nearly worrying you to death.
And we learned that if you have trained said sparrow to come to a special whistle, it will come, but it will run around in circles trying to avoid being picked up and hauled off to safety.
And that Lynx Lake or Sedona are two nice places to release birds. And a squirrel too, if you’ve started branching out.
It has been a long time since Lolly and I raised a wild young animal. It has been a long time since we went back to one of the places where we released one of the troops in hopes of seeing it.
But the memories are more than enough.
Remember what I said at the beginning of last week’s column? “I’ll tell you what, Johnny. I believe there is a theme that runs through our lives if we’re lucky, a theme that makes it easy and simple to make choices. Why? Because they feel so right!”
That’s another thing that Tik-Tik taught us.