First week of June & on three occasions I walked by hairless baby birds fallen from their nests. I noticed the first from the corner of my own crusty eye while wearing pajamas & sunglasses, walking the dog, not realizing what I had seen until the trains screeched above, startling me enough to shiver, turn & witness the slightest motion, a defeated backstroke on concrete.
As I paused for a breath to consider options, the dog darted toward a pigeon eating moldy breadcrumbs, pulling me off balance and nearly into the street. I tried to yell “no” but the moment had passed. He was already pawing a tree. I looked at my watch. I would be late for work if I didn’t hurry—plus, I still had to brush my teeth. I let the dog pull me home. After brushing my teeth I gave him a biscuit and ran to the crowded subway.
The second bird was actually a kitten and it was already dead. I thought it was a wet, bunched up t-shirt until I saw half of its head had been eaten, pecked by birds & rats. There was no saving this one. This time I didn’t even give the dog a chance to notice. He was already preoccupied with a pile of dog shit anyway.
The third bird, I thought was a chicken bone. There is a fried chicken spot nearby and the dog is always finding bones to eat off the ground. He picks them up discreetly to carry in his mouth until scolded. It is usually a very quick affair. But this time, he just nudged the ground gently, revealing a translucent baby, eyes still closed, mouthing air for food. The dog looked at me. I looked at the dog. We both looked at the bird. Its eyes had not yet opened. A few wet black feathers stuck to its bumpy skin like a bad comb-over, barely covering dragon’s breath bruises and bones clear to marrow.
This bird still had some fight left in him. We both did. I ran the dog upstairs and gave him a toy to distract him from eating my shoes when I left again. I washed a bowl in the slop sink and tore up brown paper bag & paper towel to put inside. I uncovered the electric radiant heater in the corner and turned it to low. I ran back outside into the rain.
By the time I showed up the bird was no longer moving. I resolved to pick him up anyway, to find a better resting place than a Queens’ sidewalk, stranded between empty warehouses. As I wrapped my fingers around his bloated belly, he gasped back to life & into the same familiar backstroke without water. I placed him in the bowl and made sure he was comfortable. He looked pretty beaten up from the fall, but all the parts seemed to be moving. I covered his flesh with paper towel to protect from the cold rain.
Walking back down the block to my studio a man with broken English gestured to the bird. He had seen the rescue attempt. “How long ago you found?” he asked. “Five minutes”, I replied, “I was walking my dog—he found him.”
The man explained he had heard a full grown bird, which he now assumed was probably the mother, causing commotion on the sidewalk a short while earlier. He said he had not seen the baby because it was hidden behind the dumpster, and must have fallen from the door frame above. He told me to wait and ran inside to get a ladder.
I waited for him & examined the broken bird’s body. I put my ear to the wet doorframe and listened until I began hearing the chirps from above. When he came back I climbed to the top of the ladder, towards the chirping, while he steadied the base. I peeked through a narrow crack between pieces of rusting metal and into the nest. The man dug through the cardboard dumpster & tore off two pieces: one long and skinny, one short and fat. He passed me the skinny piece first, saying, “Here—use to place inside, by chirping, toward center of nest, where life is”. I did as he said.
The process became difficult when the bird didn’t want to stay put. Despite being so weak, he somehow managed to flip himself over & over again, each time back towards the light. I tried to push him firmly into place, towards the center of the nest, so he wouldn’t fall through the crack before his mother could return.
This is when the man handed me the second piece of cardboard and said, “Here; put like this”, gesturing up and down as if straightening papers on a desk. I nudged the bird one more time towards the nest & wedged the cardboard at the bottom of the opening until the fit was secure. We both agreed this would be a good barrier to keep the babies from falling, while still allowing enough room for the mother to fit inside.
I climbed down the ladder and dumped the shredded paper towel and paper bag. The man folded the ladder. We both looked at the piece of cardboard, stuck firmly in place, and then back at each other. I explained to him this was the third time this week I had seen a bird fallen from the nest and thanked him for the ladder. He thanked me and called me his friend. Whether or not this was just a popular expression of broken English, I knew that he was. When I returned back to my studio, the dog was waiting for me at the door; ears pulled back and tail wagging.