BURT THE BIRD
One morning in early May, 1992, a fierce thunderstorm whipped through my northeast Denver neighborhood as I landscaped a home beside the foothills several miles to the west. That afternoon I returned to see that my yard, the streets, the whole neighborhood, was rain-soaked and littered with wind blown twigs and green leaves torn from trees. Two grackles paced nervously side by side on my roof, squawking hysterically. Moments later I found two dead baby birds (mauled by a cat, likely mine) on the ground below my cedar tree where a week before a friend had pointed out a nestful of cheeping hatchlings near the pinnacle.
But from directly below where the parent birds made such a fuss, in a flower garden, came the frantic “cheeps” of a survivor. There, huddled between red poppies and purple iris, was a soaked, shivering, sorry-looking baby grackle. I took him inside, and quickly rigged up an incubator using a clear plastic bulk food bin from a grocery store dumpster, a soft towel, and a 40 watt bulb in a reading lamp. Soon his feathers were dry and fluffy and he no longer shivered, nestled in the towel and basking in the warmth. I named him “Burt, the Bird”.
Since re-arriving in Denver two weeks before, I had been barely functioning, on automatic pilot, nearly paralyzed by shock and grief over the violent suicide of my old friend Renee’ Ashley, which occurred as I migrated back from Tampa and learned of less than an hour after unlocking my dormant house. But Burt was simply too hungry too often for me to slip further into numbing grief as I struggled to devise a diet for him. I’d always heard that feeding orphaned birds a food slurry with an eyedropper can get it into their tiny lungs, leading to fatal pneumonia.
So I soaked little pellets of dry dog food in a weak solution of warm water and liquid baby vitamins until they softened and swelled. When I offered them to this tiny but incredibly loud baby bird he sucked them up like a black hole, making a hilarious gurgling sound as he continued to scream through a throat full of wet nuggets! Each feeding he’d wolf down seven or eight of them till his neck filled up, and wash them down with an eyedropper full of baby vitamin water, then quickly fall asleep in the warm glow of the bulb or in my hands. An hour later his screams for more food would echo through the house once again, and I’d obey. Umpteen times a day Burt screamed and I fed him. It became a Pavlovian response for me, even when dead asleep. I had instantly fallen in love with this infant eating machine. And Sergeant, “The World’s Best Dog”, didn’t seem jealous, only curious.
Burt grew like something in a 50’s sci-fi movie, and soon his fuzzy baby feathers fell out as wave after wave of flight feathers emerged from his translucent grayish-pink skin. All this growth and change was fueled by vast amounts of watermelon, slugs, raw corn-on-the-cob, peeled grapes, cereal, oatmeal (cooked or dry), raw beans, citrus, bananas, cherries, cottage cheese, and his favorite.....some of Sergeant’s ‘Prime Cuts’ canned dog food. Like me, he was a voracious garbage gut!
Burt had bonded to me on day one, always wanting to be with me, perched on my head (and pooping indiscriminately) as I typed, washed dishes or worked in my gardens. We were buddies. If he was elsewhere in the yard or house and I called out his name, he would invariably answer me with a loud singular chirp. One heartbreaking day though, as he sat drying on a tall squash trellis after a dip in the bird bath, he fell about four feet as I gardened beside him and landed skull first on the corner of a pane of glass at the back of the henhouse. Already filled with horror and sadness over Renee’s death, I saw him bounce sickeningly to the ground, legs painfully stiffening, eyes closed then he lay motionless. I felt guilty for putting him up there too wet too glide, certain he was dead.
But he was still breathing! So I put him on the hay on the floor of his little sunning cage atop the hen house, begging him not to die, my eyes filling up, a big lump in my throat, pretty well maxxed-out with negative life events. I stayed with him, softly calling out his name, watching his breathing. Soon he sat up, head waggling dizzily and unable to stand without falling over. But within the hour he was almost back to normal and screaming for food. Whew!
All that summer most mornings began with taking Burt, perched on my index finger, out to my neighbor’s expansive lawn (vs. my token 10 foot oval of it) for daily flying lessons as I sipped my coffee. I’d launch him with a gentle swing of my hand, but he just controlled his descent. As he got better I’d give him a softball-style underhand toss, and he’d “fly” maybe fifteen or twenty feet. By midsummer Burt was still a poor flyer as dozens of young grackles flew over the house daily. His now nearly adult feathers were a gorgeous shiny gray-black with an iridescent overlay of indigo and violet but the tips of his wing and tail feathers had frayed a little due to rubbing against the bars of his bird cage made vital by my and other cats who’d approach him hungrily. I wondered if he would ever be able to leave home to be with other grackles, even though I’d nearly weaned him from hand feeding by showing him how to catch pill bugs, earthworms, crickets and slugs, and by offering him assorted dry grains and seeds.
Tragedy struck Burt once again one morning during a flying lesson, when he landed on the heat-retaining compost berm on the north side of my house where he spotted and gobbled down a wild mushroom. The next morning the inside of his mouth was a sickly gray, his saliva was gummy, his golden eyes very dilated and his movements slow and jerky. So I gave him fresh water continuously from the eyedropper he had outgrown a few weeks prior to flush him out. He would not eat and seemed very spaced out. Was he tripping? If so it was clearly a bad trip. The next morning he was okay but bonded to me even more, downright affectionate, like a tame parrot. I asked him to recall this lesson about mushrooms when he was off in the wilds as a free bird someday.
A few weeks later, during a practice flight, he proudly surprised me by leaping off my finger and flying straight across my yard and the next two neighbors’ yards in a long, strong but very low flight. But panic filled me as he crossed Ruth’s yard when one of her cats leapt off the front porch and nabbed him in mid-flight with its front paws, pulling him screaming to the ground. Like an hysterical parent I shot forward bellowing my lungs out at the damned feline who was so freaked by the sight of a deranged and angry maniac bolting his way that he released Burt before biting him and fled into the bushes. Walking back to my yard with my heart thumping and Burt perched on my index finger, I noticed the cat saliva on his wings, relieved that this poor cursed bird had once again cheated fate.
October came, the leaves changed to gold and rust, silvery frost coating my gardens each morning and still Burt the Bird barely flew, never again having repeated his Wright Brotheresque performance. I wondered if he’d be migrating to Florida soon but in my truck with Sergeant and Lovely (the World’s Fattest Cat) and my chickens. Suddenly though he was decidedly untame, pecking at my offered finger instead of jumping onto it as usual. One sunny autumn morning, as thousands of grackles oddly swarmed into the tall trees in my neighborhood, their voices filling the air, I coaxed Burt onto my finger and took him out of his big back yard sleeping cage (big to reduce the fraying of his feather tips) for yet one more disappointing practice flight, knowing that winter was closing in. Suddenly he shot up at a forty five degree angle and landed in the dead fifteen foot tall pollarded elm beside my raspberry patch. Convinced it was a fluke he had for the first time ever gained altitude, I climbed up to rescue him once more. With my outstretched hand just inches from him, Burt burst away in a beautiful arcing upward flight to the big apple tree half a block away!
Back on the ground I was filled with conflicting emotions.....pride, joy, relief, uncertainty and a touch of sadness that this might at last be the goodbye I’d hoped for and worked towards all summer. I never wanted Burt to be a pet, just a mature and healthy wild grackle. Parental concern drew me to the apple tree filled with grackles feasting on the red ripe fruits, and I spotted him due to his frayed feather tips right where he’d landed. I called out his name, and as usual he answered back. Without warning there was an explosion of grackles from that tree and towards a distant elm. Grinning and misty-eyed, I spotted one grackle flying lower and slower than the rest of the flock, but damn, he was keeping up!
Back home I read that grackles migrate south each winter too in large gregarious flocks, ending my fears of his freezing to death in Denver, hungry and alone. And all that winter in Florida, whenever grackles flew over making that oh-so-familiar call, I’d check first (usually) to see if anyone was looking then call out “Burt!”, entertaining the fantasy that one would break away from the flock and descend to land in front of me, screaming for ‘Prime Cuts’ and slugs.
I still occasionally wonder where he is, if he is, thankful for the chance to have first saved him then grown to know him. And while I don’t believe in an anthropomorphic God running a cosmic show, I still can’t help but to see Burt as a gift of light and life at a time I was nearly completely filled with pain and darkness. While I will always miss Renee’, Burt’s golden shining eyes reminded me all that sad summer following her death of Life and Love and Innocence.
If that is not a priceless gift, what is?