How Hand-Reared Starlings were Released Back to the Wild
A cardboard box with amazing contents
It was early evening and I was preparing the dogs' dinner, as I always did at that time of day, when the front door flew open and my friend came storming in, looking furious.
The two of us shared a house and were always taking in abandoned animals of all species and sizes, from dogs and cats to mice, hamsters, terrapins and everything in between.
At that time, we had six dogs, all of whom were bouncing about excitedly, waiting for their food, so I was puzzled when my friend said, "You'd better get the dogs out of the way."
I quickly shut the dogs in various bedrooms, much to their dismay, while my friend returned to the car and then struggled to get through the front door with a large and presumably heavy cardboard box, the lid closed. He carried it upstairs and into his bedroom, putting it gently on top of a chest of drawers.
I followed, intrigued. But nothing could have prepared me for the sight that greeted me as the box lid was carefully opened.
Inside was a large, perfectly-constructed nest, which contained several tiny baby birds, all with their beaks wide open, waiting for food. As soon as the lid opened, they all started chirping loudly and going frantic. They were so very small, but could certainly make a lot of noise!
Baby birds had been abandoned on a lawn for being "noisy"
The reason for my friend's anger was because of an act of great stupidity and selfishness by a human being - something guaranteed to work us both into a fury on a regular basis.
The adult birds had apparently built their nest on the roof of a house. It had gone largely unnoticed for some time - until the eggs hatched.
But suddenly, after only one night of life, the tiny little birds had found themselves dumped without a second thought in the middle of the lawn - nest and all - because they were "too noisy".
Their chirping had awoken the householder - and of course, a human's needs are always more important than an animals' to many people. So the nest was removed and these helpless little creatures literally left to die.
He had climbed up a ladder to move the nest first thing in the morning - despite the adult birds frantically flying round in a panic - and all seven one-day-old chicks were left to the mercy of any neighbourhood cats.
They had been there all day, unfed, as the parents daren't go down and tend to their fledglings' needs. They would have remained there as darkness fell - and probably would have died - had my friend not seen them by chance.
By this time, some 12 hours after being left on the lawn, the baby birds were in a poor state, as the parents had seemingly stopped flying down to them, not having been seen for some time. It had been a warm day and the babies had been out in the sun all day with no food.
We had no idea how to look after birds at first
Although my friend and I had taken in a wide variety of animals, neither of us had any experience at all of dealing with wild birds.
Several phone calls to wildlife charities and a couple of vets proved fruitless when we were merely advised the birds "should have been left where they were" because the "parents would return". This seemed highly unlikely at that point and it would have been a case of leaving them to die.
So we went online and did various searches to find out how we should feed and care for them. We didn't even know what species they were at that point, but thought starlings or sparrows.
Reading that dried worms could be bought for wild birds, I rushed to the 24-hour supermarket and bought a bag of earth worms from their animal feeds section. My friend took on the daunting and full-time task of feeding the babies.
Tweezers used to drop food into fledglings' open mouths
Feeding them proved a massive task. Using a pair of pointed tweezers, he began dropping small pieces of dried worms into their ever-open mouths, trying to make sure the smallest ones weren't left out as their bigger siblings jostled for more food.
It was indeed a full-time job caring for them and he barely slept, because as soon as they had been fed and calmed down for a short while, they were soon chirping loudly for more food.
We had also placed a heat lamp over their nest and they seemed happy enough basking in its warm light.
Sadly, the following morning, two of the birds had not made it through the night and we were down to five. I thought they had been just too weak after being left on a lawn all day with no food in the hot sunshine.
The feeding regime continued over the weekend and my friend became bleary-eyed due to lack of sleep. I took over while he was at work, which was daunting to me, as the birds were so tiny and I had no experience at all of feeding them.
The puzzled dogs and cats were not allowed in his bedroom and merely sat outside the door, listening to the squawking and cheeping from within and no doubt wondering what on earth was going on.
Live worms replaced dried ones as main feed
I was surprised at the lack of assistance or advice from any animal welfare charities - even the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds was unable to offer us any practical help - so we continued to "go it alone" for the next few weeks. The internet was a treasure-trove of information and it was a case of learning by experience.
My friend was like mother and father bird all rolled into one and ran himself into the ground staying up night after night to feed the birds.
Over the next week, to our dismay, three more birds died. We realised it actually was impossible to gauge if anything was wrong, because one minute they would be feeding normally and would seem fine. But the next time we checked, one of them would have passed away, for no apparent reason. It was very sad.
However, the two surviving birds went from strength to strength and before long we were excited to see their plumage was starting to grow and they were certainly starlings.
It was always the plan to release the birds back into the wild when they were old enough. After reading online that they must be taught how to forage for food themselves in order to survive, my friend devised a plan which involved his digging up earth worms from the garden and putting them in a bowl of soil. The idea was this would mimic wild birds' behaviour in digging up worms and teach them how to feed themselves.
This seemed to work and before long, the two surviving starlings - who were getting bigger every day and now had full plumage - were digging up worms quite happily from a plastic tub on the floor. I have to say it was not a pleasant sight and quite often I found live worms wriggling off behind the cupboards. I normally put them back in the garden. I thought if they'd had the presence of mind to escape two hungry chicks, they deserved to live!
The two birds began to fly quite soon
For the first few weeks, the baby birds were happy to sit in their nest in the cardboard box. However, one day, we realised they were starting to teach themselves how to fly. One of them managed to flutter up and sit on the edge of the box and before long, her sibling followed. They remained there and didn't venture any further, simply flapping their wings and squawking, for a few days - until one magical day, they finally took the plunge and started flying round the room!
It was wonderful to see, but this brought with it a whole host of other problems! The window had to be shut at all times, despite summer approaching and stifling heat.
For my friend, entering or leaving his bedroom became a race with the starlings to see who could make it through the door first! They were adventurous and wanted to see what was on the other side! But with six dogs and four cats, it was much too dangerous for them to venture out of the bedroom.
He named them Tweety and Chirpy. We were determined not to get too attached, as the plan had always been to release them into the wild when old enough. But it was hard not to fall in love with them, as they were so cute, friendly and inquisitive.
Feeding them was proving costly too - our garden was devoid of worms and we had to go to the local fishing tackle shop and buy boxes of live worms in soil. The shop-keeper thought I must be into fishing at first, until I told him about the starlings. He became fascinated and always asked me how they were when I went in for more worms. I worked out one day buying live worms meant the two birds were costing more to feed than all the dogs combined!
Cleaning up after the birds was daunting
The other problem, of course, was cleaning up after them, as they seemed to poop all the time and it was hard work getting rid of it all! The curtains, wallpaper, lamp-shade, cupboards, curtain rail, window ledge, windows, carpet and fish tank lids all fell victim to Tweety and Chirpy!
My friend had to put a large dust sheet or plastic over his bed and also had to put sheets on top of the gerbil's and degus' cages to ensure they didn't receive an unwelcome deposit.
We knew that the time was coming when they should be released. They were almost full-grown starlings now and were eating very well. For their own safety at night, we put them in a large aviary (one that had been given to us) and it became increasingly difficult to catch them, as they became aware of "bedtime" and took to hiding under the bed, behind a cupboard or high on the curtain rails to evade capture!
Chirpy in particular was getting very friendly and would sit on my friend's shoulder while he put their food down. Eventually Chirpy would sit on his hand too.
We considered making the starlings a huge aviary
Although we knew they must be released back into the wild, it also became increasingly obvious what a wrench this would be.
We had grown so very fond of them and even tentatively discussed converting the spare room at the back into a giant aviary for them. It had large windows with a panoramic view of the back garden and trees beyond. We wondered about constructing a wooden aviary within the room, as it was never used, apart from as a junk room.
But deep down, we could tell they were yearning to go outside, as sometimes they flew at the window and hit it, which was frightening in itself to see in case they killed themselves.
So we began discussing how to release them, when and where.
The birds made their own decision one day
However, the matter was taken out of our hands in an unexpected way one day.
It was a Saturday afternoon and as always, when I was cleaning and vacuuming, Tweety and Chirpy were put in their aviary and this was shut in the bathroom. This was so they wouldn't be afraid of the vacuum and also to make sure the dogs and cats couldn't get to them.
All of a sudden, from the landing, I heard my friend shouting in a panic from the bathroom. I rushed in and Tweety and Chirpy had gone! He had very briefly opened the small door on top of the aviary to change the birds' drinking water and they had done something which they had never tried before - flown with startling speed out of the door and straight through the open bathroom window.
I was just in time to see them flying off into trees in the distance! It was a beautiful, sunny day and it was exhilarating in a way to see their bid for freedom.
But we were both so upset! Although the intention had long been to release them back into the wild, we had intended planning it properly and taking them, in their aviary in the car, to a more rural area, where we knew there were lots of other birds. However, we hadn't had a choice in the end and they had made their own plans!
On several occasions throughout the remainder of the day, one or both of us went into the back garden and shouted, "Tweety! Chirpy!" thinking they might pop back. But they didn't. They had their freedom at last and had reverted back to their wild state.
The house seemed empty without them and if the same thing happened again, we wouldn't hesitate to take in more wild birds and hand-rear them. It is worth it to save a life and I like to think Tweety and Chirpy are still out there somewhere.