“What is it?” I said to my friend Maggie Ciarcia, one of my mentors way back when I started rehabbing songbirds, as I peered into her carrier.
“It’s a mockingbird,” she replied.
“Get out,” I said. “It looks like a miniature vulture.”
I could see the basic structure of a young mockingbird, but that was where the similarity ended. Although mockingbirds are mostly an unspectacular combination of grey-brown and cream, they have brilliant white wingbars and outer tailfeathers, which they like to flash when they are aggressively hunting an insect, aggressively courting a mate, aggressively chasing an intruder from their territory, or aggressively doing whatever else they do.
This mockingbird, however, looked as if he had just escaped from a washing machine. The feathers on his body were dry and brittle; his head and neck were covered with ratty down, and not much else. He perched uncertainly on a stick anchored to the sides of the carrier.
As it turned out, a young woman had found the mockingbird, as a nestling, on the ground in Central Park in New York City. She had been unable to find the nest, so she took him home and fed him nothing but cat food for three weeks – three nutritionally critical weeks in a bird’s life.
Wild birds feed their young an assortment of insects, some berries, plus their saliva contains a cornucopia of vitamins. If a human wants to raise a baby bird successfully, mealworms fed a vitamin-rich diet will do the trick; cat food will not, which is the first reason this particular mockingbird looked as lousy as he did.
The second was that when the nestling grew into a fledgling and started flying around her apartment, the young woman took him to her parent’s house in the suburbs. She left him for the afternoon, locked safely in her parents’ screened-in porch; unfortunately, this was the afternoon the town had decided to spray for West Nile Virus, and the fledgling was soon engulfed by clouds of pesticide.
The town sprayed with a “safe” pesticide (excuse me while I make a rude noise) called Anvil (Sumithrin), which is a pyrethroid, a synthetic version of a natural insecticide produced by chrysanthemums. It all sounds so harmless and organic; but inhaling synthetic pyrethroids can cause coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest pain, and difficulty breathing – and this is in humans, whose lungs are far less fragile than birds’. It can also cause liver and kidney damage, anemia, increase the risk of liver cancer, and it kills fish and bees. In addition, Anvil only contains 10% pyrethroids – the rest is 10% piperonyl butoxide (which causes skin and eye irritation and has been classified by the EPA as a possible human carcinogen) and 80% “inert ingredients,” which, thanks to our mystifying/infuriating national poison regulations, the manufacturer is not required to disclose, and which may contain ingredients just as toxic as the pesticide itself. This was the other reason the mockingbird didn’t look so hot.
The third strike against him was that he’d been raised alone, and so was friendly to humans and had no idea that he was a mockingbird. I took the ratty, imprinted, badly-fed, poison-covered bird into my bathroom, gave him a bath, and let him dry in the sun. I took him out to one of my flights. He could fly, though not well. As he perched, I noticed that his left foot turned slightly inward.
I put Tequila on a diet of mealworms, vitamins, and extra calcium.
“Tequila!” I exclaimed to Maggie. “Why did she name him …”
“Don’t ask me,” said Maggie, who was also too fried from summer bird care to get the reference.
“Whatever,” I said. “I’ll call him Tequila. Because that’s what I want when I look at him.”
Tequila was the bird I kept underestimating. He didn’t mind me handling him, so each day I would cradle him and listen through my stethescope for the rattle I knew his chest must contain; I heard nothing. I was sure he didn’t know he was a mockingbird, but as it turned out, he at least suspected it; when I added three young robins to his flight, he harassed them so unmercifully that I removed them. He loved the rain, and his feathers actually started looking better. He grew stronger and more agile, and, little by little, his slightly turned foot began to straighten out. I gathered prime mockingbird food – pokeberries, multiflora rose, and Virginia creeper – from local fields and draped them around his flight, and soon he was helping himself.
One August day, as I innocently carried an armload of berry vines into the master’s domain, he rewarded me by ricocheting off the top of my head. He landed on a nearby branch, and resumed the assault.
“Quit it, you rotten bird!” I cried, fending him off with a handful of Virginia creeper. “Ingrate!”
Within a week, I had two more young mockingbirds – Mocker 1 and Mocker 2. They were no match for Tequila, who had weeks of outdoor living and flight practice under his belt. He raced over and sent them flying in different directions; they landed, panting, only to be pursued again. Eventually things settled down, and they all perched calmly on separate branches. The next morning, however, the tables had turned, and Mocker 1 and Mocker 2 were chasing Tequila back and forth. Luckily, it was a large flight.
By mid-September, Tequila had an entirely new set of tailfeathers, and his formerly nearly bald head was covered with feathers as sleek and beautiful as a dove’s. His attacks on my own head had only lasted two days, but they had drawn an invisible line between us; he was not the human-friendly bird who had arrived more than two month earlier. Mocker 1 and Mocker 2 were swift flyers, and had learned to catch the live crickets and moths I released into the flight by watching their flightmate in action. They were ready to go. But more remarkably, so was the bird I had thought would never be releasable.
I opened the door for all three of them one sunny early afternoon. They flew through the release hatch of the flight and into the trees, calling back and forth to each other, eyeing the pokeberries and mealworms I had placed in a large dish on top of the flight. For a few days I’d catch glimpses of a mockingbird – from a distance, I couldn’t tell who it was – as it landed on the flight, grabbed a few bites, and took off again. Eventually my sightings stopped, and only then did the light dawn. Scout! Boo Radley! And … to follow the bird theme … Atticus Finch!
“Wait – I get it!” I cried to the empty air. “Tequila Mockingbird!”
Maggie Ciarcia, in Carmel, NY, rehabs songbirds and non-raptors, but she’s really known as the Opossum Lady. If you’d like her to do a wildlife program with her education opossum, or if you have opossum questions, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org