Falling out of the nest

A writer reflects on our instinct to save nature.


It’s that time of year in Tucson, when all of nature seems to bloom much earlier than anywhere else in the West. By March, the birds are done building their homes in our trees. And then, by April, when the paloverdes’ yellow flowers pop, at least one of those birds’ little chicks will typically fall out of its nest. 

Baby mockingbird, 2020.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

This year, it happened to a tiny mockingbird. I tried not to think about the impact the little creature must have sustained when it hit the ground; after all, it was still alive, moving and crying for food. But looking at it, lying on the ground with feathers so fluffy they looked like soft fur and limbs so awkwardly long they looked out of place on its small body, I couldn’t help but pity it. 

I once read that it’s too easy to confuse pity with love. But as I stood over this defenseless little bird, wondering what to do, I immediately leaped from pity straight to obsession. Perhaps it’s just instinct — the same emotion that kicks in whenever we witness the pain of others. I don’t pretend to be a savior, but I knew I needed to do something. This happens every spring: At least one baby bird falls from the sky, my family is heartbroken, and I become obsessed with trying to keep the chick alive. 

The creature becomes the center of our family: Should we take turns standing watch so the neighbor’s cats don’t get it? Or should we just let it be, and see what happens? No, we couldn’t possibly do that; I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. Besides, there’s a slim chance that we can help keep it alive for a few more days, until it learns to fly. So, we pick it up gently and look for a soft surface, with shade. We make sure the parents are still around — both mockingbird parents, we’ve noticed, are involved in the care of their offspring — and we worry when we hear the bird cry repeatedly outside our bedroom window, and neither parent comes to it as often as we think they should.

Nests, 2020.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

Three times in the last three years now, we have created makeshift nests for these fallen birds. The first was made from a small cardboard box that once held Persian cucumbers; we used it to house a tiny cardinal instead. Most recently, for the mockingbird, we repurposed an old hanging planter. Only once have we seen our rescue bird (a mourning dove) heal and grow big enough to fly away on its own. We weren’t there for the occasion, but our next-door neighbor, the one with the much-feared outdoor cats, confirmed that the bird took off. She saw it happen.

I’ve been trying to save little animals since I was a kid, and having to choose between letting go and stepping in still tortures me every time. There is something primal that is triggered inside me whenever I see a baby outside its nest, crying for its mother. I once “rescued” a squirrel about two inches tall that sat trembling on a state park trail. When I asked the ranger if I could take it to the vet, he gave me his blessing, saying, “I didn’t see anything.” 

As a child, I was something of a Dr. Dolittle: A tortoise once found its way to me at a city park, and I brought home a white, red-eyed rabbit that was slated to become a test animal at the lab where my mother worked. I named the rabbit Persephone, after the Greek queen of the Underworld who was allowed to return to the surface every spring. At one point, my family ended up with a pair of Australian parakeets (Martinica and Paquito) that were kept in a cage inside our apartment. It used to pain me to see them in captivity, to know they could never fly from canopy to canopy. To this day, I regret not having let them go free.

Box nest, 2020.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

My local newspaper in Tucson says that, over the past few months, there has been an increased number of calls to the Arizona Game and Fish Department from well-meaning but often misguided people like me, who have tried to save” wild animals here in town. In one instance, someone thought that a young javelina, which had gotten separated from its mother, had been abandoned near their house. There have been similar reports involving bobcat kittens, baby tortoises and deer fawns. In the majority of cases, it is best to leave all baby wildlife alone,” read a recent Arizona Game and Fish Department press release. Peoples desire to help seemingly abandoned animals can have unintended negative consequences.” If an animal is raised in captivity by humans and can no longer learn from its parents, its chances of survival are slim when, or if, it is finally released back into the wild.

In the short time we’ve known this seasons young mockingbird, it has challenged all the ways in which Ive undermined nature and its instincts, time and time again. I saw that it could move on its own away from the searing midday sun, up the ledges and all the way across our yard, until it found shelter from the neighbor’s cats underneath a prickly pear cactus. It survived overnight when the weather cooled down. And one morning, when I saw it standing precariously on the edge of its planter-turned-nest calling for its mother, I feared that it would fall. But I finally realized it was perfectly capable of finding its own way back. Little bird was more in control of its own little fate than I trusted it to be. Perhaps there was never a need to build a makeshift nest for it at all.

Maybe my savior-like instincts weren’t needed this time — maybe not ever. And that brought me some relief, even on the third day, when we noticed that the bird’s cries had quieted, though its parents had not stopped calling. We peeked inside the planter nest that hung outside our bedroom window. And that’s when we saw the little bird lying there curled on its side, dead. 

Maybe this was bound to happen. No amount of human worry or obsession could have saved it. I like to think the parents are mourning it, and that this is why they continue to visit that specific spot on our tree, the place where their baby once perched on our hanging planter. Then again, they might be caring for another chick nearby, this one safe at home in a nest they made themselves.

Ruxandra Guidi was formerly a contributing editor for High Country News. She writes from Tucson, Arizona. 

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Note: Roberto (Bear) Guerra is HCN’s photo editor and Guidi’s husband.

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