February 18, 1997|By Mary H. Cadwalader

I HEARD THE the voice of an unhappy child on my phone:

"A black snake got into the nest in our yard and now there are only two babies left and Dad said to call you because I have to go to school tomorrow and they'll starve."

Oh dear. "You've been feeding them?"

"Yes, bits of bread but they eat an awful lot."

Tell me about it. I've raised baby birds before. But right now is such a busy time. . . .

Sighing, I went and picked them up, borrowed a cage and installed the orphans in my kitchen. They were almost fledged so I expected a brief tenure in loco parentis. However a closer examination brought a shock.

Starlings! Come back, Mr. Snake!

A pair of songbirds would have been welcome. I'd be proud to raise orioles. Robins tame easily. Even a young crow is amusing. But . . . .

But I'm not a murderer, so I set to work.

They quickly achieved names: Dumb and Dumber. After three days they hadn't caught on to a thing, wouldn't sit on my fingers, hid in darkest corners, squawked angrily all day long. Opening cavernous yellow gullets, each would gulp a good-sized morsel, then struggle away and invariably into perils -- the stove, the niche behind the fridge, the sink full of water.

Whatever a mother starling feeds her young could never match the weird diet I offered. Oatmeal, raisins, bits of hot dog, wet cat chow, noodles, cheese. All items went down; the cat chow proved most popular.

When I took them from the cage they slipped and skidded on the Formica. They tried to walk up the wall. They fell off the counter and slid around on the floor's vinyl. But if I poked a fingertip with food on it through the bars of the cage they retreated sullenly.

Meanwhile my cats were unceremoniously ousted, the dogs kept two rooms away. By the fifth day the birds shrieked whenever I entered the kitchen, opened wide, then when offered a snack shut their beaks firmly and turned their heads away. Such bums!

Picky eaters, late risers

I cut some spruce branches to accustom them to a pretend outdoors. They got underneath and stayed there. When I grabbed one to feed it, its talons gripped the branch like death -- then did the same to my hand. They got fussy. Wouldn't eat canned dog food. Potato -- ugh. Greens, nix. Egg yolks, yes. Served from an eye-dropper, eggs became a favorite.

Have to admit they were quiet at night. Not early risers either. At broad daylight I suggested breakfast but it was well after nine before faint chittering announced they were awake.

The sixth day produced a marvel: Dumb flew to a window sill 18 feet away. Dumber fluttered nervously in place. The seventh day they found the stainless-steel sink,and when I turned on a dribble of water, lo and behold, they had baths, wallowing and splashing enthusiastically. They got so wet I turned on a heater to dry them off. (My thoughts of encouraging pneumonia were heroically restrained.)

Came the tenth day and both could fly twice around my kitchen, which is 20 feet long. Enough was enough. It was a sunny morning; I fed them gargantuan breakfast and took them, cage and all, outdoors to a grove of cedars nearby. Opened the cage door and left.

In other years a young robin had often sat on my shoulder between flights. A catbird I'd befriended followed me around the garden, singing. A bee-martin had even returned the next spring after his migration and circled me cheerfully.

Dumb and Dumber simply vanished. Ingratitude, thy name is Starling.

Mary H. Cadwalader writes from Joppa.

Pub Date: 2/18/97

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