Little Sal

This past May, I took in a tiny nestling woodpecker that fell from his nest at the top of a dead tree at the nature preserve where my office is located. 

I tried several tree services to see if they could renest the baby. One sympathetic, brave tree climber even tried to help, but the snag was too unstable for him to safely reach the nest cavity.


While I’ve assisted with the care of hundreds of baby birds during my years volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation center (AWARE), and have raised numerous baby squirrels from infancy to release, this was my first time raising a baby bird on my own. 

For exactly six weeks, I had the privilege to care for this tiny miracle, witnessing his transformation from a helpless, constantly-chirping clump of pin-feathers to a fully-feathered, fast-flying wild bird. Being a bird-mom wasn’t so different from mothering my own infants. The baby needed to be kept warm, fed, clean, and dry. In this case, nighttime feedings weren’t required, but for the first few weeks, I offered a specially prepared formula, warmed, by syringe every 15-30 minutes for 14 hours a day. And, of course, what goes in…

Needless to say, juggling full-time work and a baby woodpecker didn’t leave me with spare time for writing (I regret neglecting my blog and you faithful friends who read it), but I did post regular updates on Facebook and Instagram. What follows is a photo and video essay, comprised of my social media posts during this amazing journey.


May 17 — This little nestling fell from a tree cavity and was found on the ground this afternoon by @adambetuel at the nature preserve where we work. We weren’t able to get her back in the nest, so I’m doing my best as foster mom for now. Hoping a tree service will help me get her back in the nest since the parents are still tending other babies. Can you guess what species it is? Lots of good clues… #wildliferehab #babybird #justanotherdayattheoffice #feedme #crazyanimallady


All day long this one chitters! Looks like she’ll be staying with me a bit longer. A tree climber attempted to renest today, but the snag was just too unstable for him to get as high as he needed to be. We’ve made it 48 hours! She’s working hard growing, and I’m working hard keeping her fed! #feedingtimeagain #babyseason #nestling


Here is something pretty cool to see! (Yes, the baby is quiet which is remarkable in itself.) Woodpeckers have long tongues used for spearing and raking insects from crevices. Their tongues are so long that they they wrap around the skull. If you watch closely when the baby flicks her tongue, you can see it moving over the top of her head. Another day of feeding every 30 minutes begins! #babybird #wildliferehab 


Learning how to be a woodpecker…pecking and probing. So many new feathers, and this afternoon I heard my first “peek!” #proudmamamoment #wildliferehab  #birdspam #sorrycanthelpit


He sleeps… #heartmelts #abirdinthehand 


Growing feathers… #littlemiracles #artinnature 


When the baby comes back after being with a friend for a few days and isn’t a baby anymore…! We’re calling him Sal.   #imabigkidnow


Nest? Who needs a nest?! #proudmomma


Spending time on the porch to get used to the sounds and sensations. I wish he had a sibling to bond with, but for now, I’m all he’s got. #snowwhitesgotnothingonme​


When you’ve been playing hard and can’t keep your eyes open anymore… #tuckeredout #sosleepy #isnthethecutest


Lots of exploring and new experiences today. This guy’s been ready to leave the nest from the start, apparently. I think those black bars on his tail feathers mean he’s actually a Downy Woodpecker, though I would’ve sworn he came from a Hairy’s nest. (Both are nesting in the area where he was found). Whatever this little bird is, he’s sure got a lot of spunk!  #whatsthisbird #ohthecuteness

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​And just like that…solid food!  #imabigkidnow #birdwatching #fledgling


He knows his mama! Just flew right to me from the top of his cage! #lapbird #theskysthelimit


Working for the birds… #birdsmatter​​​

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​​​This guy is fully flighted now! He thinks he’s quite done with his mesh cage (and people!), but he’s stuck with me a bit longer while we work on self-feeding. Made progress today! #theygrowupsofast


Twelve days… #theygrowupsofast​​​

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Two weeks ago this little miracle fell into my life (and hijacked my FB and Instagram). He’s weaning now (as you can see in these pics and the video I just posted), so our days together are numbered. He’s given me a such a precious gift. #gonnamissthatkid  


Learning to eat from a mealworm feeder… ’cause you know, someone might put one out for him when he’s released.  #woodpeckerlife


This little troublemaker is gaining independence and knows good and well where to find his grub, but mom’s shoulder is a sure bet, too. Gonna miss him this week while traveling for work, but he’s with a great bird-sitter who has promised to send updates. #gotmealworms #birdmom   


I saw lots of gorgeous birds in the mountains this week, but this is the one that has my heart. Thanks to my friends Joy and Ken for taking such good care of Sal while I was traveling. #littlesal  #theygrowupsofast #birdwatching

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​​Today we tried blueberries! #ithinkhelikesit    

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Bath time!! #rubadubdub #birdwatching #littlesal #wildliferehab #woodpecker

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What’s that thing you’re always holding up in my face, mom? #woodpeckerselfies #trouble #curiousbird


I have an aviary, at least a temporary one! A fellow rehabber donated it to me, my amazing husband drove 50 miles with me to pick it up and promptly put it together on our lower deck, and I installed the screen. Sal moved in two days ago and is happy being outside and unconfined all the time. When he’s ready (not flying at me for food when I visit), i’ll open the door for him to explore the big wide world. He can return to his safe retreat until he’s ready to be on his own. I decided that even if I could find a release cage for him with another rehabber, Sal and I are in this together till the end. #wildliferehab #gamechanger 


Someone missed me while I was out of town for my teacher workshop this week. (Or is it the other way around?) #birdmom

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Learning to eat peanuts and showing off his neat trick of holding his food on his belly while he pecks at it. Thanks, @juliezickefoose, for the suggestion! #wildliferehab  #goodeats


A little piece of my heart right here… Friends ask about Sal’s name. When he was found, near a Hairy Woodpecker nest, I mistook him for a Hairy nestling, and not yet knowing his gender, embraced the suggestion by @katy_manley to name him (when “Hairy” met) “Sally.” Later, discovering “she” was a “he”–and a Downy Woodpecker–I changed his name to Salvador, meaning “savior”–“Sal” for short. So, may I present Salvador Downy! #littlesal  #whatsinaname​


Soaking it all in… Little Sal’s release day is impending! #birdmom #bathtime  #woodpeckerlife


Sal is pretty charming after his bath as well, even if he looks rather silly. Feather care is important! #washandgo 


Little Sal is free! I released him this morning with a small group of friends. After he left the cage, he checked around the outside of it for 2 minutes, made several jubilant flights around the yard, then disappeared for two hours until returning for a mealworm snack. He has explored all corners of the yard, and we’ve been calling to each other throughout the afternoon. Friends ask if I’m sad, but I couldn’t be more excited to see him enjoying his freedom.  #freeatlast #salvadordowny #thisaintmyfirstrodeo


June 29 — First night in the books! Sal flew off to sleep among some pines last night after I topped him off with some mealworms. I was glad he stopped by again for breakfast! #thefreelife  #birdwatching


Sal continues to grace our lives with his presence. If you’re curious, you can see more of his adventures on my Facebook and Instagram feeds.

Oh, and then there were these bluebirds…

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Praise for the Pigeon

Recently, I had the pleasure of “bird-sitting” a charming pigeon named Martha. Found on the ground with an untreatable injury and unable to fly, she was deemed non-releasable at the wildlife rehabilitation center where I volunteer (AWARE). Sadly, for most birds, this prognosis requires humane euthanasia, as wild birds are generally easily stressed and not suited for a life in captivity.* Well-adapted to living in proximity to humans, however, rescued pigeons often fair quite well, and because they are non-native to North America and not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, they are one of the few wild birds that can legally be kept as a pet. Many people would ask, “who would want a pigeon for a pet?!” Indeed, the pigeon is a much maligned bird, often referred to as a “winged rat.” Luckily for this particular pigeon, my friend Susie, a high school science teacher, wanted to give her a home and to introduce Martha to her students to foster an appreciation for birds and the environment. I enjoyed briefly having this calm, curious bird as a guest in my home and at my office at Atlanta Audubon Society (where she was, not surprisingly, a big hit) until Susie could pick her up. Having also worked closely with pigeons in rehab, I can tell you that they are smart, personable, and beautiful birds, and they have a rich and fascinating history.

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Martha the pigeon visits the office.

Determining the exact historical range of pigeons, also known as Rock Doves, is nearly impossible, but fossil evidence in Israel confirms they have been around for more than 300,000 years. They have been associated with humans for at least 5,000 years, having been raised for food, used as racing or homing pigeons, or kept as fancy pets (bred in a wide variety of color patterns, ranging from pure white, to rust, to slaty-blue). Pigeons in the United States are feral descendants of escaped or released domesticated pigeons; truly wild pigeons exist only in Europe, North Africa, and western Asia, where they typically dwell on rocky coastal cliffs. The birds we see in our cities have adopted the artificial “cliff” faces created by tall buildings and bridges for nesting and roosting, the best available substitute for their natural habitat.

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The adaptable pigeon has fared well living in urban areas.

Pigeons are smart and adaptable. Studies have shown that they can recognize human faces, learn the alphabet, and pass the self-recognition test when looking in a mirror, and their navigational abilities have been prized for thousands of years. In fact, selectively bred homing pigeons have the amazing ability to return to their homes when displaced 2,000 miles or more. They’ve served as long-distance messengers and as prized athletes in international races. Such notable figures as Genghis Khan and Julius Caesar used homing pigeons to carry important messages, and the Greeks used pigeons to send news of Olympic victories. One of the most famous pigeons in U.S. history, Cher Ami, saved 194 American troops trapped behind enemy lines during World War I by delivering a message indicating their location. In spite of being shot in the chest and losing a leg, Cher Ami delivered the life-saving message before she expired. She was awarded the French War Cross for her service and is enshrined in the Smithsonian Museum. The incredible navigational abilities of pigeons are not fully understood, but scientists believe they rely on a number of extraordinary capabilities, including the ability to hear infrasound (like the sound of the ocean hundreds of miles away), the ability to use olfactory cues (they follow their nose), and a sensitivity to the earth’s magnetic field (think built-in compass system).

If you take the time to look closely, pigeons are beautiful, too, and have a number of endearing qualities. Even your “run-of-the-mill” pigeon dons a spectrum of vibrant, iridescent color including purples, bronzes, and greens, and each bird has its own unique markings. Adult pigeons have striking orangey-red eyes, and who can resist those pink feet! Pigeons are strong and graceful in flight, too. They have been clocked at close to 100 miles an hour and are surprisingly acrobatic. Watch closely the next time you are stopped at a traffic light with a flock of pigeons taking wing. On the “personal” side, pigeons are faithful mates and devoted parents. They form life-long monogamous pairs and display affection to each other. Both parents play an active role incubating their eggs and feeding their young. Newly hatched pigeons (squabs) are fed by both parents for the first few days through regurgitation of “crop milk” (not to be confused with milk made by mammals; never feed milk to birds as they cannot digest it!) and are gradually introduced to seeds. Parental care continues until the young are nearly grown, which explains why baby pigeons are rarely seen.

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Pigeons don’t all look the same. Each has unique plumage.

This month marked the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, a related species that once darkened the skies for hours as they passed overhead in flocks of millions of birds. In just a few decades, humans drove this bird to extinction, the largest human-caused extinction in history. (Here is a fascinating and stark account of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon: Why the Passenger Pigeon Went Extinct.) Let’s hope we have learned a lesson. The last surviving bird was a captive named Martha (in whose honor I suggested the name for Susie’s bird). Let’s hope we’ve learned a lesson. Common as they may be, today’s feral pigeons deserve our compassion and respect, or they too may face an unthinkable fate. If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I have a special fondness for animals that are maligned and misunderstood—like opossums, coyotes, vultures, and crows. I hope that by reading you will begin to rethink these unique and wonderful creatures.

The beautiful Passenger Pigeon, which once darkened the skies with flocks of millions of birds, went extinct 100 years ago this month as a result of human over-exploitation. Let’s hope we have learned a lesson. Image courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

*Some exceptions are large birds of prey and members of the crow family, which can sometimes adapt to living with humans and can make excellent wildlife ambassadors with proper enrichment and training (see My Friend, Edgar Allen Crow). These birds, however, are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which “makes it illegal for anyone to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, or offer for sale, purchase, or barter, any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird except under the terms of a valid permit issued pursuant to Federal regulations” and includes all species native to the United States or its territories. Anyone wishing to keep a wild bird must obtain a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.