She thought it was goo. That’s what my 5-year-old said later about noticing the little pink-and-gray heap on the ground as we walked home from the park. I was in a hurry; it was lunchtime and starting to sprinkle. But I turned back with my 2-year-old to see what my older daughter, calling to me from the driveway of a blue house, had found.
The goo was a baby bird. Its bulbous eyes were still sealed shut, and it clearly couldn’t yet fly. I started to explain gently that these things happen sometimes, a chick falls from its nest and dies—but then noticed it wasn’t dead. It was kicking. It craned its neck, gaping for food.
“Can we help it?” my daughter asked. She pointed out that a car pulling into the driveway might squish the bird. I scanned the branches overhead but couldn’t see a nest. “Can I poke it with a stick?,” she suggested.
“No,” I said. “Stick!” the 2-year-old said, taking off purposefully down the sidewalk.
“Nobody is poking it with a stick!” I said, and scooped the bird into my palm. I only meant to move it out of the driveway, but the pink body was warm, and the way the bird twisted its head against my fingers was uncannily like how my daughters, in the delivery room, had rooted against my chest for milk.
With my bird-free hand, I started rapidly Googling. Was the bird a fledgling, an adolescent that looks awkward out of the nest but is being fed by its parents and should be left alone? No, it was definitely fresh from an egg. Could I fashion a new nest by drilling holes in a bucket and hanging it from a tree? Um, no. If returning a hatchling to its nest or tree isn’t an option, I read, I could keep it warm and call a local wildlife rehabilitator for help.
Bringing a wild animal into my home had all the markers of a bad idea. But as I watched my 5-year-old, I remembered a similar encounter when I was a child. I can still see that bird’s heart beating through its translucent skin. I imagined the moment searing itself into her memory. Also, I remembered that an outdoor cat named Sammy lived across the street. Also, my toddler was returning, now brandishing a stick.
“OK,” I said, “we can help.”
When the wildlife rehabilitator called back, the girls were eating PB&Js and the hatchling was in a plastic container that I’d lined with a dishcloth and set on top of a radiator. She was all business, and I emailed a photo. “Starling,” she said. She could tell by looking at the bright yellow lips that stretched wider than its face, giving it a froggy appearance.
Since European Starlings are an invasive species in the United States, she said she doesn’t take them in. No other rehabilitator was likely to either. But she assured me adult birds don’t really care about the scent of human hands on their babies (a common misconception) and gave me advice for locating the nest so I could replace the bird.
They’re cavity nesters, I learned—they live in holes. I should look for something like a dryer vent on the side of a house and watch for adult birds coming and going. If I couldn’t find the nest, she advised frequent feedings—every 15 minutes, for a 14-hour day—of cat food or dog food (preferably turkey or chicken, no seafood).
At naptime I left the bird on a heating pad set to low and walked back to the blue house to search for the nest. After a few minutes of looking around, hoping I wouldn’t appear on a NextDoor post about suspicious neighborhood activity, I saw a dark shape swoop past and vanish into the side of the neighboring house. I walked partway up the driveway and peered up. There was a hole in the siding about 15 feet above the ground. A starling ducked out, glossy black-brown feathers flecked with white, and scrabbled for a moment between the house and a gutter downspout before flying away.
I was elated by my detective work until I looked more closely at the ground below the drain pipe. What had appeared to be wet leaves on the asphalt resolved into carnage: four more hatchlings, gray and unmoving. A neighbor told me they’d been there since yesterday.
As a science journalist, I write often about animal behavior. It unsettled me that I didn’t know what caused the scene I found that day: strewn carcasses, a lone survivor. In the aftermath a few weeks later, I sought answers by calling Cornell Lab of Ornithology avian biologist Robyn Bailey. She is project leader for NestWatch, a long-running community science project that encourages people to monitor bird nests around them.
She explained that starling nest real estate is competitive: They need a cavity or crevice to nest in—whether that’s a nest box, a naturally occuring hole in a tree, or the side of a condo—and these spaces can be in short supply. When a starling finds a good spot already occupied, it can get aggressive, evicting the hole’s occupants. Sometimes, that might mean evicting other starlings, Bailey said; other times, the target may be one of many species of native birds that also nest in cavities, such as woodpeckers, bluebirds, and swallows. If there are eggs, an adult starling can use its beak like forceps to discard them one by one.
In other cases, Bailey said, starling parents may push one of their own young from the nest—if it’s sick, for example. “As cruel as that sounds, they just have a way of knowing that this one is not going to make it,” she said. But she thought that probably wouldn’t explain five hatchlings in a driveway at once.
It’s impossible to know what happened on my street that spring day; we can only guess. Some accident might have knocked the hatchlings from their cavity. A mass eviction of chicks by other starlings is another plausible scenario, according to Bailey.
Starlings’ habit of stealing nest spaces from other native birds is partly why many wildlife rehabilitators don’t take them in. Introduced to North America in the late 19th century, starlings likely number in the tens of millions here today. They’re very adaptable. They thrive in both cities and farmland, making themselves a costly nuisance to humans by eating crops and livestock feed and covering urban structures with their poop. While most native birds are protected by law—in fact, illegal to care for yourself—invasive species such as European Starlings and House Sparrows have no such protection.
There’s nothing to stop someone like me from getting involved, Bailey said. Which was good to hear, because I already had.
One thing about caring for a newborn animal is that it’s hard to calibrate your level of worry. This is also true about a pandemic. My second daughter was born in April 2020, a time of early COVID-19 lockdowns when we all walked around with six feet between us, as if carrying coffins.
I tried to accept uncertainty and focus on keeping my family safe. But it wasn’t clear what safety meant. I sprayed down counters in my home. I read articles about the risks of an errant sneeze into a container of takeout food.
The hospital seemed clearly a germy milieu, so we rushed our newborn home as soon as we were allowed. She was healthy but oddly tanned, like she’d been on vacation without us. Her bilirubin was too high. To clear her jaundice, I was told to breastfeed her every two hours or less.
Yet she wanted nothing but sleep. When it was time for a meal I blew on her face, tickled her, squeezed her hands and feet. We encouraged our older daughter to play next to the baby with her most obnoxious noise-making toys, and still she wouldn’t wake. Anxiety clenched me each time the hours stretched between feedings, and my newborn’s placid face turned a deeper yellow.
Luckily, the virus remained abstract to the children. We didn’t speak about death within earshot.
But within a few days, a new blood test showed she would be fine. The baby lost her tan, and we moved into the next phase of pandemic parenting: the days dilated and disappeared, with all of us at home and never quite enough childcare. Luckily, the virus remained abstract to the children. We didn’t speak about death within earshot. Early on, when my older daughter resisted her mask, I told her we wear it to keep safe and show we care about other people.
Privately, though, caring started to feel foolish. Allowing myself to comprehend the number of lives lost, as the hundreds of thousands ticked upward, was paralyzing. Hoping that the next variant would be the last, or that vaccines for young children were around the corner, led to disappointment. I built up walls. An eggshell.
That rainy spring day, I had made a decision with my kids to risk caring about something, and it was too late to go back. My husband watched with concern as I peeled the lid off a cat food container and scooped a morsel of chicken pulp onto a chopstick. “Are you this thing’s mom now?” he asked.
The bird was less active than before. I put it back in my palm, hoping touch would remind it of the nest. I tried to tempt it by waving the food over its nostrils. Finally, the beak yawned open long enough for me to deposit a single flake inside, and a little puddle of watery poop appeared in my palm.
Soon after, my husband told me the bird was cheeping.
It was a workday for him, but he too hovered over our rescue. The bird’s gaping beak appeared over the rim of the box every few minutes. We both nudged morsels onto the hungry point of its tongue as the bird’s cheeps, barely audible at first, grew full-throated.
The children dragged over chairs to stand on. As we all crowded around, my older daughter’s face lit up. “I love taking care of a baby bird!” she said.
We’re doing it, I thought, and then, Oh no, we’re doing it. Would the hatchling beg for food all night long? Would I have to teach it to fly?
By the time I was cooking dinner, though, the hatchling looked to be in a deep, contented snooze. I told myself the bird was taking the rest its body needed, like my jaundiced baby had.
Just before we sat down to eat, though, I noticed the starling was stiff. We told the girls that the bird was resting, but that we weren’t sure it would survive. “I want it to be alive in the morning,” my older daughter said, getting her pajamas on.
I told her I did, too. But the bird had been through a lot, I reminded her. It certainly would have died in the wet driveway. In our home, it had been warm and dry. It had enjoyed a little food and company. “It’s lucky you found it,” I told her.
I asked my husband to dispose of the body before the girls woke up.
What I really wanted to know from Robyn Bailey, the biologist, was whether I should have done more. Or less.
“It’s very difficult to keep baby birds alive,” she told me. That’s why, of course, returning hatchlings to their nest or contacting a licensed wildlife rehabilitator are far better options than trying to raise them yourself. “More often than not, it does not end well,” Bailey said.
I had wondered if I should have left the bird where it lay, or stuffed it back into the side of the house. But if the bird I saw tending that nest was a usurper, there was probably no help coming from a member of the hatchling’s own species, either. But so much is unknowable.
Today, North American birds of most kinds are struggling. A 2019 study estimated that the United States and Canada have lost 3 billion birds since 1970, including many common species; a 2022 report found that more than half of U.S. birds are in decline. And even though European Starlings use strong-arm tactics to beat native species for nesting sites, this doesn't mean they are thriving either. “It’s obvious that House Sparrows and starlings are also declining,” says Bailey, as extensive data from the NestWatch project shows.
This makes starlings an interesting species to scientists who are trying to understand these much more sweeping losses of avian life. “If our birds that are the most adapted to humans and cities and living amongst us are struggling, what does that mean?” Bailey said. “They are neither good nor bad. They are organisms that, through no fault of their own, have been introduced here, and have some lessons for us.”
The wildlife rehabilitator was more terse about those lessons when I emailed to tell her what had become of the baby starling. “Bird world is tough,” she wrote back.
Human world is tough, too, I thought. The week before we found the starling, I had published a piece about my frustration at being unable to vaccinate my toddler. In response, a stranger wrote me a mocking email, calling my toddler a “snowflake” and saying we’d be better off when the virus killed the “useless old.”
We can act just as cruelly as birds that dash each other’s babies to the ground. Like the invasive starlings, we take up too much space and push aside other animals. I can’t hate starlings—with their spangled, iridescent backs and their swirling murmurations—any more than I can hate humans. If I keep telling my children that the unwanted animals are worth caring for, maybe I’ll keep believing it too. No one else is coming to scoop us off the ground; no one can save us from the ways we harm each other—except ourselves.
The daughter who had instigated our whole misadventure barely reacted at the end. She asked “Where’s our bird?” between bites of cereal in the morning, and when we told her, she seemed to shrug it off.
But the night before, my husband had knocked on the bathroom door as I was drying off from a shower. He had on his blue rain jacket with the hood pulled up.
“Are you going to make fun of me if I bury it in the yard?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
He took my gardening spade out the front door, and for a moment I let everything break through the shell: the despair, the losses, the pride in my family for deciding to love a small doomed thing with a froggy mouth. Then I got ready for another day.