MIAMI — Earlier this spring, my girlfriend, Mary Lezcano, drove past what looked like a crime scene. A predator, probably a feral cat, had massacred a nest of birds, leaving the grassy swale caked in blood and feathers.
There was just one survivor, a tiny black nestling with white curly head tufts that made it look like a grumpy old man. The bird was clearly doomed if left alone. So Mary pulled over, carefully put the critter in a box and drove home. “I found a baby bird,” she texted me.
It was the right thing to do. But from there — like countless well-meaning nature lovers before us who’ve encountered seemingly helpless fledglings during South Florida nesting season — we did just about everything else wrong.
We fully expected to release the orphan back to the wild as soon as it could take wing.
But over the next few weeks, the bird grew attached to us and us to it. He’d perch on our heads, squawking like a hungry toddler, which he kind of was. We posted his picture on social media to ask if anybody could ID his species. Crow? Raven? Grackle? And, in a telltale sign of our misguided emotional bond, we even named him: Winston, after a character in a British crime comedy film.
In doing all this, we unwittingly went against most every bit of sound advice on what to do when you encounter a baby bird in South Florida. Not only is it illegal to raise a native bird without a state and federal license, but we’ve since learned that every human interaction can dull a wild animal’s natural instincts. So while we thought it was funny when Winston hopped around us on our lawn, that bounding bitty bird only whet the appetite of our pet cats.
Had we saved a bird from one killer feline only to serve him up for another?
Spring is nesting season for most birds in South Florida, and they find a way to survive and thrive amid the urban sprawl. Red-tailed hawks like to nest next to the library in Miami Springs, where we live, and I am based as a courts and crime reporter for the Herald. Despite having the roaring runways of Miami International Airport on its southern border, the city happens to be a certified bird sanctuary.
But they’re everywhere in South Florida — robins, blue jays, mockingbirds, all raising their young. It’s a time of year when birds are not just heard. In Miami Beach, for instance, the city pays a falcon handler to ward off federally protected grackles, which attack pedestrians who get too close to their nests.
Birds have incredible metabolism. They hatch, eat like crazy and grow rapidly. Within a few weeks, they tumble from their nests, hop around some bushes, learn to flap their wings and fly.
People often mistake this as a baby bird being abandoned by its parents. “It’s a natural process of falling out of the nest and the parents feeding them on the ground to encourage flight and strengthening their wings,” said Paddy Cunningham Pascatore, a South Florida bird expert and guide. “I always suggest to people to put it back in the nest if you can. If not, a box where the parents can still feed them — not too high.”
Many people don’t realize parent birds are still watching, still feeding. So often people wind up essentially kidnapping babies, putting them in a cage and trying to raise them, probably the wrong way.
“It’s an innate human desire to bond with wildlife, to make it your pet,” said Ron Magill, communications director at Zoo Miami and South Florida’s best-known wildlife expert. “But if you really love wildlife, leave it alone.”
Sometimes — and this is our best defense — a baby obviously needs to be rescued. Parents can be hit by cars, eaten by hawks or, most often, stray or pet cats. Many cats hunt birds, even if they’re not hungry.
“I recently saw a tabby cat with a dead cardinal in its mouth. It just left it in front of my house on the ground. Cats will kill simply to kill. It’s their instinct,” Magill told me. “People don’t realize that the single most dangerous invasive species in the country is the feral cat.”
Something about Mary
Mary has always been a magnet for animals in need, so we might have been a little overconfident about our wildlife rescue acumen. Mary has found — and given away — many a stray kitten. Sometimes, it’s a possum she feeds and releases, or a raccoon. So a baby bird seemed no big deal.
Mary gave this orphan, which clearly would not have lasted the night, its only shot at survival by taking it in. But from there our mistakes mounted. We should have immediately taken the bird to one of several nonprofit rehabilitation facilities, such as the South Florida Wildlife Center in Fort Lauderdale, Wildlife Rescue of Dade County or the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station.
Instead, we plunged this wild thing into a strange human world. We put it in an indoor cage, thinking it was safe. But the bird was surrounded by the sounds of the television, us talking on Zoom calls and my little fluffy dog Lulu barking at the mailman.
Sunlight, experts say, is crucial to helping birds develop their feathers, which is why wildlife rehab facilities keep them outdoors, or use incubators with full-spectrum lights. And nature, obviously, has a much quieter soundtrack.
Still, it seemed like we were on the right road. Every couple hours, we hand fed him cat food soaked in hot water — protein enough, but not as good as the regurgitated worms and bugs his mother would have shoved in his beak. The bird did get strong and it wasn’t our worst error. Sometimes, people go to pet stores to buy formula that purports to be for “all baby birds,” but is actually just for seed eaters, like doves or sparrows.
People also mistakenly believe that it’s a good idea to feed wild baby birds bread soaked in milk, which can actually lead to deformed wings and legs.
As Winston grew, his squawking became so loud we had to move the cage outside, hanging it on the thick branch of a sapodilla tree. Mary still let him loose in the screened-in porch to try out his strengthening wings when she did yoga. He did less flying than hopping around her mat. “He just wanted to be around me. I just went with it,” Mary said.
We didn’t realize he was possibly “imprinting” — learning behavioral cues from human feeders who could teach nothing about the ways of the avian world.
“Human-imprinted birds also frequently have a difficult time communicating with other birds of their own species — vocalizations, postures, and a fear of humans are all things that birds learn from their parents, siblings, and other birds,” according to the Wildlife Center of Virginia. “Ultimately, imprinted birds find themselves in a ‘gray area’ — they cannot appropriately interact with either humans or their own species.”
That also, of course, could erode his instinct for danger — making him particularly vulnerable to cats or other predators. It did not escape notice that Negrita, our rescue cat named for her jet-black fur and who spends most of the day in our yard, was constantly eyeing Winston.
Despite that and our initial goal to return him to the wild, we kept giving Winston reasons to stay. When he began to fly around the yard, we bought a bird bath. Every couple hours, he’d fly down, plunge into the water and shake his feathers. One Saturday, I spent all day coming in and out, calling his name, feeding him as he hopped clumsily in a mango tree, watching him peck at twigs atop our garden shed and roof.
But as the sun began to set, I realized I no longer heard his annoying uh-uh, uh-uh, uh-uh call. I walked around the block looking for him. Mary later did too, yelling “Winston!” in the street, surely befuddling neighbors. We both said the right things. It was time for him to return to the wild. But we both cried a bit that night.
Of course the next morning we went to look…