Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, September 3, 2007

Hooray for all the Red-eyed Vireos!


I can't get over how many Red-eyed Vireos I've seen this late summer/early autumn. I took a walk with my dog Photon up Seven Bridges Road last week (sadly, the very last bridge on each end is being replaced, so for the duration you can't take that route to Hawk Ridge). It was a lovely walk, and everywhere we looked there was another Red-eyed Vireo. I think they must be pigging out on grasshoppers because I saw them on the ground and in low branches in open areas where there were a lot of hoppers. And when I was counting at Hawk Ridge on Friday, a couple spent the day feeding around the main overlook, two were singing (with a Mourning Warbler joining in a couple of times!), and several moseyed through. What excellent company!

Roger Tory Peterson once estimated that at the time, Red-eyed Vireos were the most abundant songbirds in North America. Now they don't have as much suitable habitat--they're heavily parasitized by cowbirds in forest fragments, and a lot of what used to be quality forest is now developed. But they're doing pretty well despite their problems.

Almost two decades ago, when my daughter Katie was five and I was a licensed bird rehabber, a woman up the shore somewhere dropped off four baby Red-eyed Vireos at my house the Thursday before the Fourth of July Weekend. She told me she was "teaching my kids how to raise baby birds," but "I know they always die--I didn't want them to see that part and we're having company this weekend."

She'd been feeding the babies nothing but canned dog food, and not cleaning up after them. Each of the little babies was totally caked in dried feces and dog food--one of them had enough dried stuff around its mouth that it couldn't even beg. It took hours to get them cleaned up enough to detect feathers at all. I could only identify them because of the distinctive vireo beak.

The poor things had literally been entombed in all that dried crap, so their growth was stunted. I knew that at this point they really didn't have a chance, but did my best to at least ensure they'd die comfortably. Except the one who was in such a weak state to begin with, who died within a few hours of arriving, the others grew and preened and seemed to at least feel pretty good, but they were clearly deformed--their bills full size but their heads and bodies were pitifully stunted.

I don't think I've ever been so angry at someone in my life. What on earth did she think she was teaching her kids?? That baby birds only live for a matter of days? That they should eat canned dog food? That they're filthy? Did they have a clue that parent birds, or foster parents in an emergency, must provide them with a balanced diet high in protein and Vitamin D-3, keep them clean, and when they're ready to jump out of the nest, lots of space for excercizing and learning about the big world. She'd had these little birds for over a week, and acted like every day they survived was an amazing triumph even as each day she drove another nail into their coffins. The confidential way she told me she was bringing them to me so her own children wouldn't have to watch them die made me even angrier. No, she was leaving it to MY children to watch them die.

That summer, Katie wrote a little book about the right way to take care of baby birds, and why it's illegal, and should be illegal, for untrained people to even try. She brought it to kindergarten that fall. Meanwhile, those poor babies are buried under our lilac bush.

Anyway, it's lovely to see healthy vireos this fall, birds raised by their natural parents and apparently doing splendidly.

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