She was so small and quiet, I almost stepped on her by mistake. In a
small patch of uncut grass near my shed, a tiny bird quivered.
I wouldn't have even seen her at all if I hadn't gone out there to get
a spade for one of my mates. She was just a fledgling, little more
than a bundle of fluff, and she barely responded to my presence.
Fledgling birds often appear helpless when they aren't, though, and
the odds were that Mum and Dad were nearby, keeping an eye on her.
Just in case they weren't, I watched over her myself. I had some
breakfast and a cup of tea in the kitchen, daring any local cats to
come near. I read the paper, peering over for any signs of her
parents. None came.
After three hours, it was clear she was alone in the big bad world. I
asked Lainey what she thought, and we went outside for another
The bird had barely moved in all that time, just a gentle ruffling of
feathers, and again she didn't respond to our approach. She was a
meal waiting to happen. That's nature for you; the lucky few survive,
and we were looking at one of the losers. Here was a weak bird,
unable to fly and, judging by the appearance of other youngsters
around our garden recently, a late fledger. She had no hope
whatsoever, at least until we came along. Among predators, perhaps Man
is alone in having compassion for the prey.
We gently placed a towel over her and carefully picked her up. She
didn't struggle at all, and we inspected her. I was concerned that
she may have a damaged wing, but she appeared to be unscathed. We
took her inside and, as we didn't have a cage, popped her onto a towel
we could easily cover with a waste-paper bin. She blinked at us, then
dropped a very large poo right in the middle of the towel. If nothing
else, she clearly had a most unavianlike eye for humour. We had to go
out, so we left her with a few seeds, a couple of mealworms and a lid
of water to keep her going.
We decided to call her Charlie. Although we were both convinced that
she was female, we had no actual evidence to support this, so we
thought a name that could apply to either gender would be best.
We came back with a new home for her. We'd dropped in to the
recycling centre and found a cage for a tenner, and we decked this out
with the finest in shredded paper and cotton wool before introducing
her to it. By now, Charlie had no fear of us at all, and seemed quite
happy to perch on Lainey's hand to study us close-up. In fact, she
positively enjoyed it, holding tightly to Lainey's finger with her
little toes even when it was time for her to go back in her cage. She
showed no inclination to fly, and while this was a bit of a concern in
terms of her future, it at least meant we didn't have to restrict her
too much. We played with her for a while, dripping water from a
pipette onto her beak, and she responded at first with surprise and
then delight, opening her mouth just a little to let drops run down
her beak. It was the first sign we'd seen of her becoming active.
The following day, I was up early to see how she was, and was
delighted to hear a gentle tweeting coming from the cage. She was
testing her wings out, and the floor of her cage was covered in
half-eaten mealworms. She looked stronger and happier, and it seemed
that it was time for her to go back where she belonged.
I texted Lainey the good news, and waited for her to come home from
work. Lainey had done a little research, and it turned out that she
was probably a great tit fledgling, although until she'd developed
some colouration it would be very hard to tell. Charlie was still a
little doe-eyed and weak-looking at times, but you'd expect that from
a fledgling. Most of the time, she was alert, wandering around her
cage, giving her wings one last shake-out and whistling to let the
world know she was ready. She looked happy, and a totally different
bird to the one we'd picked up in the garden.
The time came for us to release her, and we lifted the top from the
cage and carefully removed her from her temporary home. Lainey placed
her on the bare ground near where we had found her and, when we'd
convinced her to let go of Lainey's finger, she was free once again.
Surprisingly, she didn't hop off, or test her wings, but stopped
still. She didn't seem to know what to do. Was she still too weak,
or too nervous, or too attached to her new home? We waited, retreated
to a distance, waited some more, whispered encouragement. After a
while, it became clear that our release wasn't going to go as planned.
Eventually, we gave up, and she clung to Lainey's finger again as we
took her back inside. We told her we'd try again tomorrow if she was
ready, but maybe she'd never be ready. We'd always have a home for if
she wasn't. I was starting to grow very fond of little Charlie, and
couldn't wait until she was strong and confident enough to leave our
little nest. I pictured the moment in my mind's eye; her fluttering
onto the trellis, perching for a moment to look back at us, then
flying off to make her own way in the world.
Sadly, that moment would never come. The next morning, Lainey woke me
to tell that Charlie was in a very, very deep sleep. I knew what she
meant, but didn't want to believe it. Charlie lay on the bottom of
the cage, her head tucked deep into her plumage, unmoving and cold.
It was true—our little friend had died. I took a last bit of
film of her, my voice cracking as I spoke, and we buried her in a
pretty spot in the garden, surrounded by rose petals.
I don't mind admitting that I was deeply moved by the time we shared
with Charlie, and that I feel my eyes welling up when I think about
her. I suppose we gave her a day that she wouldn't have otherwise
enjoyed, and she developed a touching bond with Lainey in particular.
Her last day was a happy one, for all of us, and it's a real shame
that it was the only one we had. Nature is cruel, of course, and
being cute and fluffy doesn't give you a greater chance of survival.
Life is tough for young birds, even when you're safely resting up in a
kind stranger's lounge.