Our adventure with wild Cassin’s finch began one morning before playing tennis at the Barranca Mesa courts.
When I first saw the baby birds, I thought they were pinon pine cones. Then they moved, and I thought a cat had left some injured mice beneath the pinion tree.
Finally, up close, the wiggling brown things turned out to be tiny, naked birds struggling for security in a sea of short pine needles. There were three of them. They looked very bedraggled and weak.
I found a stick and gently pushed them together beneath the tree where they would be shaded. My friends had arrived for our tennis game. We looked for a nest in the pinon tree and scanned the area around the court for mature birds, but there was no evidence of any natural help for the little ones.
We went off to play our game, all the while keeping one eye out for cats and for any sign of the nestlings’ parents. Needless to say, we didn’t play brilliant tennis that day.
After one hour of play we had seen no sign of help or concern, and we fully expected to find the tiny naked birds dead. When we took a break and checked on them, we found two very much alive. They had wiggled around in the pine needles and gotten themselves thoroughly glued with pitch.
The third had vomited something yellow. It had apparently been injured in the fall from the unseen or destroyed nest, and it died in my hands. With a stick, I eased the two vigorous baby birds into a paper cup and tried to drip a little Gatorade into their mouths, which were gaping at every touch.
When I got home, I called Kathleen Ramsey at the Wildlife Center. She said that someone had just been to a wild bird clinic. If the little birds were gaping (opening their beaks to be fed) they might survive, given intensive care.
These days the clinic is doing great work supporting wildlife in trouble, and the correct thing to do is take wildlife to them to do their job. In the late 1970s, however, we were asked to follow directions, so our work began.
As directed by the clinic we fed the two finch nestlings a soft wet mush of one ounce Gerber’s baby cereal, one teaspoon Gerber’s baby beef, and one thin slice of banana mixed with water (plus mealy worms if available).
The birds sat naked and gaping in a small bowel lined with soft duff and straw from the Hen House. They were to be fed and offered water with an eye dropper on “the back corner of the beak” every hour from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. for six to eight weeks.
We were to keep the birds clean with warm water on a cue tip, keep the humidity up with misting or a damp wash rag, the temperature at 80-85 degrees F and avoid drafts. Don’t use stringy cloth. We covered them at night with a piece of flannel. My notes begin July 9. A few feathers had appeared on the tiny naked birds, and they were taking food from an eye dropper.
The birds politely deposited their watery droppings on the edge of the bowl. The wateriness suggested that we should gather up our nerve and add just enough water to their gruel so it would stick onto the end of a cue tip stripped of its cotton. “Just poke it down their beaks. It’s a pocket in there,” we were told.
On July 16, the birds were “feathered out with all over brown stripes and no distinctive marks and eating gruel from the end of a cue stick, chirping a little.” They were going to make it. The real adventure had begun. (To be continued.)