September 7th, 2010

What I left out

THE BOYS NEXT DOOR and ENDLESS SUMMER do not contain real people or events or even places, but they certainly were inspired by my experience growing up on Lake Martin near Alexander City, Alabama. I have been caught in a thunderstorm on the lake, I have nearly lost a sailboat mast in deep waters, I know what it feels like to wake up outdoors at 6 a.m. (though not in my boyfriend’s truck), and my brother had a spectacular waterski crash that left him needing stitches in his forehead. But of course I left out much more than I put in—and one of the big things I left out was critters.

When we built our house at the lake, development was new there, and critters were everywhere. I had many run-ins with snakes—and in fact, snakes played a big part in ENDLESS SUMMER until my editor made me take them out. At my house there were lots of frogs and lizards, which I am not the least bit afraid of now, and a variety of flying stinging insects, which I am very afraid of. And there were lots of birds.

My mom loves birds. Unfortunately, birds seemed to love us too, and several of them crashed into the sliding glass doors we’d built into all sides of the house so we could enjoy the lake. We drew the curtains taped silhouettes of hawks to the doors. None of that seemed to help. So when a bird wanted in a little too hard, we would take him to the vet and then nurse him back to health. When I remember our lake house, there is always a big bird cage in the corner of my mom’s bedroom, where the dog couldn’t get it.

The bird I remember best didn’t crash at all. My brother brought him home from junior high. Some boys had disturbed a nest during recess and he was able to save one bird. He was the cutest little baby sparrow! I wanted to name him something woodsy and spicy, like Paprika. To annoy me, my brother wanted to name him James. So we named him Jerika.

There was nothing wrong with Jerika except that he was too little to be let go. So we raised him, and when he was old enough, we put his cage outside and wired the door open so he could come and go as he liked—which is what the bird books said to do. For a while he left during the day and slept in his cage at night. Eventually he didn’t sleep there, but he would fly down onto the deck when we came outside and want us to feed him blueberries (see pic).

I was reminded of all this one day last June when I was jogging—I definitely didn’t make up the jogging in 95-degree-heat in ENDLESS SUMMER—and my son on his bike found a baby barn swallow.

Let me interrupt this reverie for a public service announcement. It is a MYTH and WRONG that you can’t put a baby bird back in the nest because the parents will smell your scent and won’t feed the baby. Birds can’t smell that well. If you possibly can, always put the bird back. Failing that, you can create a nest and the parents may find the bird. They will always be able to take care of it better than you can.

I was not able to do either. The nest was way too high to reach, built on a support on a bridge over the jogging trail, and if I’d made a new nest for the bird, dogs on the trail would have swallowed him in one gulp.

So took him home. I kept him warm. I tried to feed him boiled egg yolk and give him water from a dropper. I pulled out all my baby bird knowledge. When that failed, I called my mom, who has retired from amateur bird-care. She told me to take him to the Alabama Wildlife Center at Oak Mountain State Park.

By this time I was really worried about this bird. He hadn’t opened his mouth to eat or drink and he hadn’t said a word since we found him. But on the drive down, he said, “peep.” His voice was very quiet but when you consider the size of the bird, it’s like he was shouting.


At this point I decided he would be okay. I delivered him to the kind people at the wildlife center, and last month they sent me a postcard certifying his success.

This is such a little thing, one baby bird…but with everything going on in the Gulf this summer, I was happy to have a hand in saving one little guy. Oak Mountain State Park is a beautiful place, with lots of bridges for barn swallows to build nests under. I hope he is enjoying himself.