A Thing with Feathers

· Living Without Answers ·

November 29, 2017

September: my children find a bird on our deck, flailing in circles on his back, his black bead eyes wide and blinking. A wren with brown and white stripes around his eye, the one perches on our deck and trills his loudest, a song that my daughter tries to imitate: “Too-wheet! Too-wheet! Too-wheet!”

My five and three year-old are immediately distraught: “Oh, no! What do we do?” So I google it. How do you help an injured bird? My answers range from “do nothing” to “put it in a box with a blanket.” But DO NOT FEED, and DO NOT TOUCH.

I’m watching it, mustering up my best guess, my instinct. The same kind of wild guess you use at 3am to figure out why the baby is crying, and what to try next to get him back to sleep.

I find rubber gloves . . . a shoebox . . . a rag. I try to scoop him up gently, which amounts to a lot of scooting in circles, in fear that I’ll apply too much pressure to his leg, or wing, whatever is broken, which at first is hard to determine with all the fluttering and kicking. But it’s only one that’s kicking, the other stuck at a right angle, and won’t retract against its body. He’s lost some fight with another bird during the night, and is at our mercy, his breath quick and shallow–though I have no idea if this is from fear, or normal for a creature his size.

I manage to get him in the box on his back, afraid to lay him on his hurt side, and put it in the shade. Then search for some kind of shallow dish for water . . . a lid to a toy teapot will do. And we wait, and watch.

A few hours later, he has somehow wiggled out of the box, and is again on his back, in the sun.  Is it warmth he wants, or escape? It’s pretty hot. My daughter is kneeling and commiserating, personifying: “It’s ok little bird, we won’t hurt you,” my 3 year old son echoing, “we won’t hurt you,” shaking his head. She says things like, “He misses his family,” and “We need more birdseed from the grocery store!”

There’s poop in the box, which we probably scared out of him.

His wing seems to be stuck in the slat between the deck boards, and I again take a guess–and scoop him up again with my big yellow gloves and put him back in the box, this time in the sun. His legs are not even that: twigs, whispers of pink bone and claw. He’s still. My daughter says he’s taking a nap, and I wonder when it will become permanent.

Later, thunder comes, it begins to rain, the wind is breaking a wind chime, and I’m expecting a deluge. I put him under the umbrella–and he manages to flop out again. Thirsty? For untainted water? He flutters excitedly–I’m second guessing everything, knowing I’m personifying this creature, and I clearly have no idea what he needs.

So I go out and wind down the umbrella, and he flops in circles in the water puddling on the table. Turning his head, he seems to be . . . drinking? Did I finally guess right?

Until he’s shivering. Still on his back, legs up, quivering. If there are such things as universal bodily responses to cold, surely this is one. I dig the box out of the trash and go out again to scoop him into a dry place, and take him down to the garage, where it’s warm and dry, set him on an upturned bucket in the single shaft of light coming in through the outside door. Everything wants light.

Then I fix dinner and leave for my Zumba class, checking on him on my way out. He’s still there, feathers still a little wet and clinging together in clumps. I put him outside this time, under the deck on a chair, intending to check on him when I get back.


One Zumba class and 6 rotations of weight machines later, my husband sends me a text that my son, before bedtime, has put some little piece of candy, BB-sized, up his nose. His attempts to rinse it out with the squeezable Neti bottle were fruitless–no candy. But he felt good enough to go to sleep. I ask him to call the nurse anyway, who says, “Wake him up and take him to Urgent Care.”

And after the check-in, the nurse’s diagnostics, the explanations and questions, we hold him down on the bed so the doctor can get a good look with the otoscope. He’s screaming and rigid and angry and afraid, and the doctor’s tool is not a special animal, or magic, doesn’t make funny sounds, it’s just a bright pointy light that’s doing something to him, and the world is always a scary place with loud noises, and all his screams amount to nothing.

The doctor couldn’t find it, but concludes there’s no more blue snot, so it must have gotten swallowed earlier. We go home. It’s dark, and the fireflies have already disappeared. I take him upstairs and tuck him in, and he asks for me to sit in the chair, and to snuggle, so I lean over and rest my head against him, my arm around him, and I smell and kiss him, and we breathe for a few minutes. Then I sit in the room with him until I think I can get away with an exit.


In the morning, I remember the bird. I send my daughter outside to check on him. But he’s gone.

He couldn’t have walked or flown away, and I suspect some animal found him–a neighborhood cat, maybe. Though there are no feathers, no bones or blood. My daughter is sad, but not distraught, too distracted by her brother’s new birthday toys, and the fun babysitter is coming.

I want to assign meaning to the juxtaposition of these events. I want to think our efforts weren’t pointless. In a faith that provides so many answers, that constantly testifies that “there are no coincidences,” and “there’s a purpose for everything,” I want to know it.  I want there to be something redemptive about these little deaths.

On the other hand: do my puny attempts at compassion really only matter if I see the results? Can it be enough to hope that, regardless of the outcome, my faith is accounted for righteousness?

What if it lived?

Sometimes my daughter will see another one outside and ask, “Is that our bird?”

And I say, “It could be.”


November 24, 2017


  1. Sherilyn

    November 29, 2017

    Beautiful ending. “It could be” just might be my new mantra.

  2. Lisa

    November 30, 2017

    What a great read! Thanks!

  3. Jennie

    November 30, 2017

    Lovely. There’s something heart-wrenching about injured birds or animals. I think we see our own helplessness and pain in theirs. And yes, like Sherilyn said, “it could be” as my new mantra.

  4. Sandra Clark Jergensen

    December 3, 2017

    I love this. That we can’t fit all the pieces together and assume closure, a story arc, or knowing. But the hope of what could be.

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