When Is Helping Not Helping?

by Emily Orton

Friday night I was at church trying to coax Lily out the door.  I thought I had that I’m-going-home-now vibe, but two desperate women approached me.

This girl never wants to leave a party

This girl never wants to leave a party

“We need help,” one woman said.  “We’ve found a motherless bird.  It’s probably injured.  It can’t fly.  We can’t see a nest anywhere.  Somebody needs to take the bird home tonight and turn it in tomorrow.”  I could tell by somebody they meant me.

“And…where would you turn in an injured baby bird?” I asked.  “Like a pet store or something?”

“There’s an organization in the city that takes care of injured birds that have fallen from their nests,” she said.  The other woman watched my face for willingness.

My first thoughts were not charitable.  These strangers wanted me to take this bird home and spend Saturday morning transporting it to a care center, wherever that may be in this sprawling city.

The woman sensed my concern, “We can’t take it because we have a cat.”  

“Okay,” I said.  “I’ll get my daughter (who had snuck into the youth activity while we were talking) and then pick up the bird.”

Dopplegänger of the bird I encountered   photo by Christen Goguen for  thewildlife.wbur.org

Dopplegänger of the bird I encountered   photo by Christen Goguen for thewildlife.wbur.org

The bird was guarded by a man dressed all in black squatting on flat feet in front of a young tree. 

“Thank you,” he said immediately.  “I think it’s injured.  I can’t take it because I have a cat.”  Apparently, it’s hard to be a do-gooder if you own a cat.

“Sure,” I said.  By now, I had seen the tiny feathered thing and my heart softened.  Of course I would stop everything and change my plans to ensure its survival.  I’d folded a blood drive poster into a portable platform for the fledgling.  I didn’t want make it a pariah among its own kind with my human scent.

Before we were halfway home, Lily decided the bird was a girl and named it Mira.  She didn’t know that was Spanish for Look.  Everybody looked.  As we passed people on the sidewalk Lily threw out her arm in a dramatic stand-back way and said, “We have a baby bird.  She lost her Mama.” Mira pooped, peed and squawked. 

The bird we took home

The bird we took home

Settled into a gourmet cookie box lined with paper towels, she pooped again.  I tilted her box to one side and she extended her right wing for balance.  I tilted the box the other way and she did the same on her left side.  Everything seemed to be functional, but she wasn’t flying. 

I Googled for guidance while Eli and Lily watched her ignore a capful of water and a sprinkling of baguette crumbs.  I learned a lot.  I learned we had a fledging sparrow.  Mostly, I learned that I had done everything wrong. 

The first thing I did wrong was taking the bird home.  Sparrow fledglings spend about a week of flightless hopping on the ground while they strengthen their wings to fly.  Their parents are nearby supervising multiple offspring, making sure they are all fed and progressing. 

The second thing I did wrong was worry about touching the bird.  The wildlife expert assured me that the bird parents had invested so much in this fledgling already that they wouldn’t abandon it because it smelled of human. 

The third thing I did wrong was tried to feed the bird.  Initially, I didn’t know what species the bird was.  I didn’t know what the nutritional requirements for its precise phase of development were.  I could’ve accidentally poisoned it.

The first thing I did right was taking Mira back to her home.  An hour after we’d first "rescued" the sparrow, I knelt on all fours in the mulch boosting SJ up Mira's tree.  Eli handed SJ the cookie box.  We wanted to set Mira on a branch so nobody else would "rescue" her.  I posted a highlighted printout of instructions on when to help a bird and when to leave it alone in case the fledgling jumped down again before she learned to fly.  Mira latched right on so we left her on the branch.

On the way home a woman closing up a hair salon told me sparrows are spiritual.  They bring a message.  The message this sparrow brought me was that a little struggle is normal and sometimes necessary to thriving.  I don’t think I should ignore flightless birds.  I don’t think I should callously neglect my children, my neighbors or strangers so they can toughen up.  I do think I should remember that while my inclination to help may be commendable, it is possibly ignorant and potentially dangerous.  Helping is not helping if I steal the struggle that will allow someone to strengthen their ability to fly.

Female House Sparrow                                           photo credit

Female House Sparrow                                          photo credit

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