We’d been out on a walk to a local wildlife reserve. The weather was dismal, a steady drizzle reducing visibility. The ospreys we had come to see were faint grey heads hovering over the ghostly bulk of a nest. We’d enjoyed the trip out regardless – a change of scene, a breath of fresh air, a chance for us to burn off some energy. It was diverting to watch redpolls and young bullfinches on the bird feeders though they weren’t immediately familiar – their wet feathers made them look thin, dark, unpatterned. Our coats were soaked, our hair slick and our socks and shoes needed drying when we got home, but we were glad to have been out. As the evening progressed and we ate our tea, the wind became stronger – it would be nice to snuggle down in bed and feel protected from the gale.
It was story time for Amos when I glanced out of the window and caught sight of something odd on the metal pole supporting the bird feeders. I stood up and walked to the window. I could make out a small, just-fledged sparrow, and it seemed to be trying to cuddle up to the main pole while hanging on grimly to the side arm from which hung the peanut feeder. The drizzle had eased, but the bird had a bedraggled look and it wobbled with the pole every time the wind blew. I got the binoculars out. The impression I had got, that the bird was trying to tuck its head under its wing, was right. Its eyelids kept fluttering open then closing again as if desperate for sleep.
“Surely that bird is not trying to roost there overnight?”
“Well, it’s a very young bird,” said Mark, “it probably only came out of the nest this morning.”
I continued to watch as the bird clung on, eyes opening and closing as the gusts buffeted it. Every now and then, it seemed to give itself a shake, become more lively, look around.
“Will it be okay?”
“It’ll probably move off. It looks like it’s thinking about it now.” Mark nodded towards the feeder.
The sparrow was shaking its feathers again, seeming a bit more ‘with it’. I turned my attention back to the children; Peta and Melody wanted their stories too.
Much later, as the rain came down and the wind seemed intent on blowing the bedroom doors open, I wondered about the sparrow. I took a torch and shone it down onto the bird feeding station. The little bird was no longer perched on the peanut feeder hanger, but almost before this could register, I saw it on the opposite side of the pole. It seemed to be trying to shelter under the thin metal ring that can support a water tray in less stormy weather, while attempting to gain some protection from the gusts by huddling up to the central pole. It was the equivalent of me trying to shelter under a tablespoon, while expecting a scaffolding pole to protect me from the wind. The bird’s feathers were soaked, it looked so cold. Such a tiny heart beating inside that scrawny form, such terrible weather for the first night outside a warm nest. I imagined I could see life washing away in the rain, panicked I might find the tiny body lying on the ground beneath the perch in the early light. I pressed Mark into action.
Mark is qualified by the BTO* to handle birds for scientific research. He walked up to the sparrow on its perch and it barely reacted. He popped it into a roomy, soft-cloth drawstring bag where the bird could hold the fabric, feel supported, be protected from the glare of indoor lights. We hung the bag where it would not be bumped, where it couldn’t swing into anything if the bird moved, left the sparrow to sleep for the night in the warmth of our home.
Why had it chosen the metal pole in the storm and not the shelter of the bushes in the garden? Inexperience? If it was one of the sparrows that had fledged from the concrete swift box on our wall, it would never have encountered the swaying motion of a branch until that day. Maybe it was looking for a solid hold, looking to reproduce the stability of the only world it had known so far in life. It hadn’t chosen an easy day to fledge, many birds don’t make it through this first twenty four hours.
The first words out of my mouth when I woke up: “How’s the little bird?”
So often, when we have stepped in to help nature, the creature is beyond any help we can give it. I steeled myself for hearing that the fledgling’s life had ebbed away in the night.
“Hmm,” said Mark, “the little bird.”
He took out his phone.
“This little bird?”
He showed me a photograph of a fluffy, new sparrow, bright of eye, head cocked cheekily to one side. Then he moved the screen on to a short video; his hand opening to gently release the bird, allowing it to fly through the open door and back out into the garden. There was no doubting the vitality, the strength of its flight as it flew into a bright new (very early) morning. I smiled inside – such a little drama in the grand scale of things – but sometimes we all need a happy ending.
*British Trust for Ornithology