He might have been thirteen. I saw him chasing the newly-feathered Starling in the street, hunched over with his hands cupped and outstretched. He caught it, and it perched happily on his finger, half fluff and half feathers.
I was walking with my children. He was out of breath, clearly shaken and red-faced. A nearby storm drain was lying askew; his bags tossed here and there. “It fell in the sewer. It can’t fly,” he said.
I looked at him calmly. My children, one of their hands in each of mine, peered up at us. I nodded. “It’s a hard time of year right now. We’ve been here seven years and every year quite a few die.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him Starlings are considered a nuisance, nor that my dog had cornered and killed one just the day before. I’ve picked three more up off the ground since, smaller and unable to sustain the fall from wherever they came. Sometimes the kids and I bury them under the baby bird rock; a heavy rock that keeps scavengers from unearthing them. Other times I put them in the dumpster.
He repeated, still a little shocked, “It was in the sewer. It can’t fly,” then, “I can’t tell if it’s hurt. I don’t know what to do.”
My kindergarten son blurted, “Keep it for a pet!”
I smiled. “Their moms come and go and sort of monitor them. She might be gone, but she may come back, too. You can put him down. It’s ok. He might make it, or he might die. Sometimes the cats get them, sometimes it’s a storm drain, and sometimes they do just fine. It’s ok.”
He looked at the fragile bird, still perched on his finger and happily chirping, and he froze. I held my breath with him to see how long it lasted. No one notices when I do that. It’s a simple barometer I’ve used for many years now.
I smiled. “Hey, at least you did your good deed for the day!”
He broke into a lopsided grin and began to breathe again.
“Good luck,” I called over my shoulder as we continued on our walk. I’ve made a note to ask him what he decided to do, next time I see him out and about in our small town.