Empty Nest Syndrome

Nestling American Robin (1) and Cedar Waxwings (4)

by Katharine Britton
VINS Volunteer

I’m feeling the pang of an empty nest. Not because of a last child about to fly off to college or into her own first home. No, these are actual empty nests I’m grieving. Real nests. Real birds.

For the past three months I have been one of many volunteers feeding orphaned baby birds at the Vermont Institute for Natural Science (VINS). A dozen robins, several grackles and European starlings; a few phoebes, chickadees, and nuthatches; one cedar waxwing, one flicker, two mockingbirds, a hermit thrush, and a few song sparrows, among many others, have passed through our facility.
Nestling Black-capped Chickadee
In one week’s time, a hatchling, which somewhat resembles a clam with a beak and legs, becomes a nestling: a soft pile of feather and bone wedged into a nest. By the following week that soft dumpling is in the fledgling room, having discovered one morning that he (or she) has wings, but isn’t quite sure what to do with them. Staff members furnish these fledgling enclosures with tree branches and trunks (custom designed for the species of bird) and what were so recently clam-like hatchlings, soar – and occasionally crash land – from perch to perch, teaching themselves to fly. Had they not been orphaned, their parents would have taught them how.

Nestling Black-capped Chickadees
Before they learn to fly, baby birds engage in four primary activities. The first two are eating and pooping. We baby bird feeders are responsible for what goes on at both ends. The most practiced and least squeamish among us develop the dexterity to catch the little gelatinous missiles before they hit the side of the nest or the floor of the incubator or box. Barehanded. It’s not difficult, really, to judge when the bird is about to send one off. They hike their bottoms up to the edge of the nest and let fly over the side. At least that is what their genetic programming tells them they are doing. Nestlings aren’t especially coordinated, and occasionally – quite often, actually – the gelatinous goop lands in or on the nest, or even on a nest-mate.
Nestling Hermit Thrush (L) and Cedar Waxwing (R)
The nests, I should point out, are not charming assemblages of twigs and leaves, bits of seed fluff, and the occasional aesthetic decoration that you see in the wild. Ours are utilitarian nests that we construct from Cool Whip containers, washcloths, paper towels, and toilet paper, wound into a coil the correct diameter to accommodate the number of nesting birds. Sometimes this will be a clutch of four. Sometimes a single, orphaned bird – the family cat or dog having dispatched its siblings and parents.
The third baby bird activity is making noise. They chirp, peep, screech, tweet (really)… Merely sliding open the door of an incubator that’s housing a clutch or two of hatchlings elicits paroxysms of delight from its occupants – or so I interpret the boundless enthusiasm. As the door slides open, the hatchlings – lying limp in their nests, lids shut tight over bulbous eyes, the only signs of life the almost imperceptible beating of their miniscule hearts – shoot upright on bandy little legs, sometimes nearly launching themselves right over the side of the nest in their exuberance. Beaks open, they peep as though their lives depend on it. Which, in the wild, would be true. It is thrilling to receive such a hearty welcome.
Incubators keep baby birds warm and toasty.
At this stage we feed them formula, delivered via syringe, down the gullet. Baby birds need a lot of sleep (the fourth activity). All that excitement: the opening of eyes, the standing, the squeaking, sometimes so exhausts the little fellows that they nod off between swallows. A gentle tap, tap on the side of the incubator, or slowly closing and reopening the door is enough to startle them awake and, up they spring, beaks agape, necks upstretched, so happy to see you. I’m aware that I’m anthropomorphizing here. Theirs is a programmed response, having nothing to do with me. Still. What a feeling.
Once the hatchlings become nestlings we offer them tiny bits of scrambled egg, mealworms, fruit, and soaked cat food. Generally, tiny beaks open obligingly as soon as we appear (generally hourly), and eagerly accept six to eight morsels. Some species are greedy and noisy: grackles, for instance, and will keep begging. Others, phoebes and bluebirds, are fussier and satisfied earlier. These species seem more independent, more interested in growing wing feathers and learning to fly than being forceps-fed.
Fledgling Eastern Pheobes (3, left)
and American Robins (2, right)
Once the birds are in the fledgling enclosures, dishes of water are introduced and experiments in bathing begin. What fun! The sheets and towels covering the floors are soon soaked. Changing a wet sheet in a five by six foot enclosure, housing five bobbing robins, a grackle, a starling, and four phoebes sailing around overhead and scolding, is not easy. It also has risks. Hats are recommended. At this point the birds are also given dishes of food so they can learn to self-feed. The bluebirds, ever inventive, spend far more time liberating mealworms than consuming them.
Feeding them in these enclosures is an exercise in patience and faith. They are now mobile and believe they are ready to fly free. Think adolescence. It’s difficult to keep track of who’s been fed and who hasn’t. Birds occasionally land on the food dish you’re holding, or your head, shoulder, or hand, making feeding even more challenging, but also great fun: A bluebird on the hand is worth any number in the bush.

Fledgling Eastern Bluebirds (3) and American Robin (1)
The birds, once fully-fledged and self-feeding, are moved to an outdoor aviary, where they can perfect those flight skills they’ve so recently discovered. And then we say goodbye. I can only hope that the birds will be able to translate what they learned at VINS into the wild: encounter blueberries, say, and with a flash of recognition, know they’re safe to eat.
Bidding farewell to a group each week after my shift – knowing that, by the following week, they might be gone – was both heartwarming and heartbreaking. I grew attached to these little duffers, who trusted me to show up with my syringe or forceps at the prescribed time, to remember who’d been fed and who hadn’t, to make sure everyone got enough, and to keep their enclosure clean. I tried not to bond, since these were wild creatures that, sadly, wouldn’t benefit from learning to trust humans. But I did.
Fledgling Eastern Bluebird
And now nesting season is over, and birds are making their way south, even, I hope, some that I helped raise. The counters in the VINS “nursery” are bare of boxes, and empty Cool Whip containers stand stacked in the corner like beach chairs at summer’s end, reminding me of all the fun I had with my little feathered friends. I wish those fledglings long lives, smooth sailing, and many healthy broods of their own – none of which ever need care in our facility, because that would mean they’d been orphaned.
A mother’s job is to raise her children to become independent, but then, when they gain that independence, we grieve, not only for the little ones we’ve lost but for who we were and what we had. It is a mother’s nature to care for another. My baby birds are grown, the nests are empty, and I miss them all greatly.

To learn more about VINS’ baby bird feeder program and other volunteer opportunities at VINS Nature Center, visit our website at www.vinsweb.org or contact Chloe Viner at cviner@vinsweb.org or 802-359-5001 ext. 210.


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