A Baby Bird Called ‘It’

Me: N, do you think wild animals belong in cages?

N: No, they belong in the jungle.

Me: What if they are hurt or abandoned by their parents?

N: We have to take them to a vet.

Me: Yes, we can rescue them. And sometimes, while doing so, we might have to put them in cages.

It’s a Sunday afternoon of reading and storytelling in bed with my three-year-old niece, N. She has a big appetite for stories, certainly bigger than for food. The keenness she displays during story-time wriggles away as food replaces fables at mealtime.

Today, we are spinning stories about animals in the zoo and N is curious about a word that I’ve just used – ‘rescue’. I explain it to her in the simplest way I can, citing examples of injured and abandoned tiger cubs that are adopted and looked after by humans and later released into the wild. She is intrigued. While N is dwelling on the riveting idea of animal rescue, it is time for her dullest chore – lunch.

As we walk towards the dinning area, I notice a small grey lump on the terrace floor, which is adjacent to the dinning area. Assuming it’s a dead rat fallen from the grips of a clumsy kite I casually step out to take a closer look with N tailing behind. This is no rat. Large prominent beak, tiny frail wings and small sparsely feathered body – it’s a baby bird. And it’s alive.

N hurriedly announces our discovery to the household and is absorbed in studying the bird. There goes her lunch. The bird fluttering weakly on our terrace floor is no more than two-weeks old. By now I am sitting on the floor a few inches away from the chick, completely clueless about our next move. So much for confidently telling rescue stories to N.

As though she sensed my doubts, N calls my husband, D, to the arena. He brings to my attention the series of high-pitched screeches coming from above us, and we conclude that we are looking at a nestling Common Myna that mysteriously fell out of its nest onto our terrace.

Common Mynas are gregarious creatures and we have a pair nesting on the balcony three floors above us on the 21st level. They are raising a family inside our neighbour’s abandoned air conditioner outdoor unit. Since the beginning of lockdown, the duo have been continuously shuttling food to their hatchlings. They are generally omnivores, feeding on almost anything, but their diet mostly consists of insects. Hence, we did not think to look at our feathered neighbours when we repeatedly found our terrace floor covered in some sort of fig seeds. We wrongly attributed it to our human neighbours instead.

As a cavity nester, the Common Myna has adapted very well to urban settings. I am sure some nook or eave in your building is currently being used as a nesting hollow by the Myna. It aggressively scouts for suitable nest hollows during its breeding season and is known to evict other birds from these hollows, often killing the occupant’s chicks or destroying eggs. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) listed Common Mynas among 100 of the world’s worst invasive species in 2000. In Australia, Common Mynas threaten native biodiversity due to their territorial behaviour and nest cavity competition. Ironically, it was first brought into the island nation from Asia to control the spread of insects like caterpillars and grasshoppers in market gardens. Little did they know it would soon become a swooping pest.

After a few minutes of brainstorming, D and I reach a conclusion that we know absolutely nothing about rescuing a nestling. Nestlings, unlike fledglings, are too young to fly. They are also completely dependent on their natural caregivers for warmth and food.

Also read: God, Religion and Chicken Curry: Questions From My 8-Year-Old During Lockdown

A hopeful N looks on intently as the adults scratch their heads. We turn to our birder network for some guidance and immediately receive a few useful suggestions. As per one of the suggestions, we examine the infant Myna for injuries and we see no visible wounds. We try stepping back momentarily in the hope that the mother will swoop down to pick up her chick. But as we do so, ubiquitous kites and ravenous crows make their presence felt, forcing us to move into the scene. N is quick to observe the proceedings and gushes with excitement at the prospect of rescuing the baby.

Have you heard of common folklore about birds abandoning their eggs and chicks that are touched by humans? I must admit I fell for that one and was apprehensive about our rescue mission. D had the better sense to verify the myth and we debunked it immediately after accessing some authentic literature online. The myth derives from the belief that birds can detect human scent.

On the contrary, it has been studied that birds have simple and small olfactory nerves, which limit their sense of smell. In other words, birds do not abandon their chicks in response to touch. They have invested much time and resources in rearing their hatchlings to forsake them simply due to human scent. Nonetheless, it is best not to go around fiddling with bird nests and chicks unless it’s absolutely necessary. They might not react to human scent but they do react to disturbance. They typically respond either by attacking the intruder or by deserting the nest as human presence may attract undue attention of predators.

Maybe there is wisdom in the folklore after all.

The helpless bird has been on our terrace floor for a while, weakly flapping its naked wings and opening a mouth that stands visibly large on its tiny body. Is it hungry or thirsty? Some of our fellow birders advise giving a few drops of water to the chick and we abide. N has been vigilantly keeping her eyes on the terrace door to ensure that our two dogs stay inside. Our little soldier cheers us on while we attempt to give some water to the baby. Knowing what I know now I would not have offered water to the chick. It is believed that nestlings receive enough water through their diet. A slight miscalculation can prove fatal as the young nestling can likely choke. We stop at a few drops. The chick is more responsive now but is noticeably shivering.

A quick research informs us that young nestlings with few or no feathers cannot self-regulate their body temperature. So the parents help maintain optimal body temperature by brooding their chicks. I put on a pair of gloves and gently scoop up the chick with both my hands. The warmth of my hands instantly comforts the chick and the shivers stop. But the nestling looks weak. D, N and I agree we need to call a vet.

There is one hitch – we are in the midst of a lockdown thanks to the damnable coronavirus pandemic raging across the globe. Finding a veterinarian to take a look at a wild Myna on a Sunday during the lockdown is going to be a mammoth task. I dial a few numbers; most go unanswered, and the rest “do not tend to birds”.

We are on our own.

Type ‘how to rescue an uninjured nestling bird?’ on your search engine and the results indicate locating the nest and quickly placing the baby back into it as a foremost suggestion. We breathe a deep sigh of relief and glance towards the nest. It looks accessible. I intercom the neighbour in whose window balcony the Mynas are nesting. The lady on the other end of the line, although very courteous and genuinely concerned about the bird, is unaware about the presence of the nest right outside her window. I am surprised that loud raucous calls and noisy chattering of nesting Mynas have gone unheard. “It must be outside the unoccupied guest room with the inaccessible window balcony,” the lady clarifies. The lady is kind enough to check and confirm that the window area is unfortunately sealed. Sigh! Moving on to plan B. Except there is no plan B yet.

It’s been over two hours since we spotted the nestling on the ground. N’s mother managed to feed a distracted N in the midst of our terrace drama. Eating food did seem like a dull chore when we had a rescue mission to plan. D and I skip lunch and devote next few minutes to engineering a makeshift nest. After arguments galore, we agree on a plastic container lined with newspapers and paper towels to keep the infant warm. D fashions a hole on the side for a feeder effect, painstakingly covering the edges with cello tape to prevent the fragile infant from cutting itself. I place the infant inside and shut the lid; it conveniently slips out of the feeding hole. Fail. This time we keep it simple. We grab an empty plastic flower tub with holes at the bottom for drainage, layer it with paper towels and move the chick into its new home. It promptly moves to the farthest side of the tub, plonks itself on the soft surface and rests its head in the corner with eyes shut.

The idea is to place this makeshift nest close to the original Myna’s nest and keep an eye out for the parents. It is said that the parents usually return to feed their babies as long as the babies are placed in a safe place close to the original nest. Finding a safe spot up here on the 17th floor terrace isn’t going to be easy.

N, our human fledgling, is complaining of stomach ache. Obviously she turns to her primary caregivers for comfort and hesitantly leaves the arena. Meanwhile our little nestling is looking frail. It has been denied the comfort of its mother’s warmth. The predators are aware of the nestling’s presence and are hovering around with big appetite. We cannot leave the nestling unattended in the hope that the mother will return to feed. After partially covering the tub with a slab of tile, we place the nest on our terrace ledge. Nestlings need to be fed up to seven times a day from 6 am to 10 pm. As you might have guessed, we do not have the faintest idea about nestling feed.

We try the numbers of some bird rescue centres shared by reliable sources. The numbers go unanswered. We manage connecting with one centre that is in a position to help. Except, they are out of staff today and request us to wait till tomorrow. Until then we are its custodians.

Also read: Mumbai Bird Race – A Day Out in the Concrete Jungle

We look up online for feed options and start putting together a meal for our visitor. We begin with mangoes, the only fruit in our home right now. I dice them into tiny pieces and take a stab at feeding the baby with a toothpick. After gently tapping on the beak a couple of times, the chick opens it up and accepts the mango pieces. Three small bites and the beak shuts tight. I know force-feeding is not the answer, never worked with N either. Perhaps mangoes are not appetising enough for Mynas, it would have relished some scrumptious grasshoppers instead.

We try again after an hour. Feeding eggs to birds may sound odd, but it is not unusual for birds in the wild to eat other species’ eggs. Eggs are a great source of protein, even for birds. I bring out small pieces of hard-boiled egg and feed the chick. The chick feebly takes in four bites and sluggishly moves into the dark corner of the tub. Dark clouds roll in. The nest needs rain shelter. We get to work and construct a shed out of plastic sheets, garbage bags and plastic pegs. Let’s hope it can weather a storm.

D and I completely lose track of time. This little grey lump has turned our Sunday into an amorphous blob. The next thing you know we have skipped our evening snacks and it is mealtime again for the infant. The chick’s appetite has gone out of whack. I am nervous whether it will make it through the night in this ailing state. Come tomorrow we will handover the chick to the professionals who will figure out a way to reunite the Myna family. We call it a night after an unsuccessful feeding attempt.

D and I are both more of night owls than morning larks so waking up at the crack of dawn usually means staring groggily at the wall hugging our duvet. Today we wake up to our alarm at 6:00 AM, and without easing into the day head straight to the terrace to check on our infant. Two house crows are hopping around the nest. I slowly slide open the tile to find the baby fast asleep inside the nest with its beak pointed upward. The nest and the chick made it through the rainy night. Phew! Loud squeaks and screeches from above disturb the nestling; it opens its eyes and lets out a feeble chirp. The Mynas above are in the midst of their feeding frenzy, exchanging loud notes on matters of grave importance. D instinctively removes the tile from the tub-nest along with the plastic shed, exposing the chick. I am not sure if they have spotted their nestling in the tub but their hysterical alarm signals something’s up.

We decide to take a chance with the predators and watch the proceedings from the dinning area. We sit inside for an hour, observing. No sign of the Mynas. What’s more their calls are fading. We decide we have watched long enough and move back into the scene feverishly waving our hands to chase away the curious crows. After feeding two pieces of moist mangoes to the infant, I partially close the lid on the tub as the chick drags itself to the farthest side.

We exit the terrace and park ourselves in the dinning area, disappointed at the Myna parents for abandoning their infant. Speaking of feeding, D is starving and goes into the kitchen to fix himself some breakfast. It’s still too early in the day for me to feel invigorated. I stay put, present but inert. High pitched squawking rouse me from my trance and what follows next is a scene that could rival any dramatised film.

An adult Myna, presumably the mother, alights on our terrace floor with what looks like a scrap of food grasped in her beak. Alert and upright, she holds her wings in attention and struts around scanning the area. In the background is the father’s sharp trilling call, possibly sounding alarm at any incoming threats. I am eagerly rooting for the mother to locate her infant and signal D to come witness the much-awaited family reunion. D nonchalantly reminds me of the lid partially covering the tub-nest. Only two fingers can fit in through the opening. Perhaps that’s enough space for the mother to drop in the feed?

We watch with bated breath as the mother hops on to the ledge near her infant’s cot with searching eyes. Tension builds and the music swells as the mother approaches the makeshift nest. Just then alights the father announcing his entrance with loud squawks, and perches on the left side of the nest. They most certainly have located their infant. Although both the parents are in close proximity to the infant, we don’t see them feed the chick. The mother appears to have eaten the food clutched in her beak. Convinced that the lid on the tub has hindered their feeding process, I curse myself to my heart’s content and wait for the desolate parents to take off.

After ensuring the exit of the Mynas we step out and attempt to feed the resting infant but to no avail. The chick is doomed if it continues to resist food. I later learn that it may take only a second for the parent bird to feed its baby. So, did the mother feed the chick in a flash while we were distracted by the father? My guess is as good as yours. Of course I ask this now in retrospect, D and I were busy wallowing in self-blame when the event occurred.

Also read: The Semal Tree: Delhi’s Last Bridge to Nature

I head back to bed to clock in some shut-eye. D attempts to lure the Mynas once again by exposing the chick while keeping an eye out for the predators. The only thing he succeeds in luring is sleep. He finally concedes, puts the lid back on the tub and retreats to bed. We are no springtime heroes; the professionals from the rescue centre are scheduled to come in at 11:00 am to take up the baton.

D and I don’t have any children of our own and as of now we don’t have an overwhelming desire to procreate. Don’t get me wrong, I love children and adore my nieces and nephews to bits but the vagaries of parenting do not tickle my fancy. However, my attitude to this fragile grey lump with strangely large beak is different. I have fretted over it in so many words already. My parental instincts kick in and I wake up after a short nap to check on the infant.

The chick lay sprawled across the tub, unmoving with eyes sealed shut. The original parents are sounding their alarm from above. I mechanically grab the leftover mango pieces and gently tap on its beak, praying for a response. It lifts its frail head and partially opens its eyes for a brief second before slipping back into unconsciousness. I panic and call out to D. He suggests holding the baby in my hands and keeping it warm while he hurriedly rings the rescuers and urges them to speed up. Curled up in my hands, with its little chest heaving, the baby is on the brink. D describes the dire state to the rescuer supplemented by videos. The rescuer knows what’s coming and advises us to keep the infant warm. Any sudden movement might cause trauma, thus transporting the baby to a centre in this fragile state is not an option. The rescuers are not coming.

Unaccustomed to life or death decisions, we do what we think is right at the time. I hold the baby close to me in my cupped hands hoping to provide a reassuring presence while D feeds it a few drops of water. At the risk of sounding cliché, we wait for a miracle. But with every passing second the infant’s breathing becomes irregular. We reassure ourselves that it isn’t in pain that its body is naturally shutting down one bit at a time. When death finally came, it was absolutely unmistakable. The infant took its last breath in front of us and went cold to the touch. We laid the lifeless body to rest near a lake around our house, under the canopy of trees. We are yet to ascertain the infant’s sex, not that it matters. For us, the infant will always be a beautiful little visitor called ‘it’.

We later discovered a set of neatly clipped dragonfly wings placed on top of the makeshift nest. Perhaps the Myna parents had returned to feed the infant one last time before its demise? Or maybe this was a gesture of assuring their presence and comforting the baby? Very little is scientifically known about bird emotions, and there is much debate about their capacity to mourn. But the Myna parents surveying the land in search of their missing baby, the distress calls and the vocalising all point to behaviour akin to grief.

The rescue stories that N and I had spun ended with happy reunions and wild freedom. As dreaded, N eventually asks us about the baby. Maybe this is a good time to lay the groundwork for harsh reality. Nah. We decide to keep that for another day, for another experience. For now, we paint a picture of hope and survival and let her rejoice in a happy ending. This year has been a grim one as it is.

N: Where is the baby Myna? Me: It’s mamma swooped down and took the baby this morning. It is in a happy place.

N smiles ear to ear.

Sorry N, we promise to tell you the truth someday.

Aditi Pradhan is a birder and film production consultant from Mumbai.

Featured image credit: Vivek Doshi/Unsplash