Bird trauma: Reviving a fox sparrow

Bang! The all-too-familiar, dreaded noise signified that a bird had flown into my dining room window. It was Sunday morning, October 21 and my house guests, Eric and I were enjoying a leisurely breakfast.

The hit spoiled our mood. Going to the window we spied a fox sparrow, wings outstretched, head up, beak gaping. Immediately, I ran outside. Gently — ever so gently — picking it up, I held the sparrow against my wool sweater.

The sparrow nestled in, tucking its wings, soaking up the warmth. And then I waited. In twenty minutes it was gone. Revived, warmed… and free.

My mother taught me how to handle injured birds when, as a child growing up in Toronto, she used to go out on the balcony of our apartment, and rescue them. Most of our feathered patients recover. Some, like this past summer’s catbird, are beyond help, their necks broken upon impact.

But, depending upon the angle when the bird hit the window, plus velocity of flight, many birds can indeed be saved. A few years ago, I saved a brown thrasher that flew up into my car as I was driving along the Steele Line. Thankfully I was negotiating the big S bend on the line, so my speed was slow. Otherwise the thrasher would have probably died upon impact. I did exactly the same thing for the thrasher as I did for Sunday’s fox sparrow.

The important thing is to pick up the bird with extreme care. What I do is softly approach the bird. They have excellent hearing and so I imagine that as I walk toward the fallen bird, my footsteps must make a terrifying, pounding vibration and impact on the earth. I slowly bend down, attempting to be as bird-friendly as possible, then depending upon the bird’s position, I cup my hands, slowly bringing them over and behind it.

Then I pick the bird up, and in a smooth, slow motion bring the bird against my body. The hope is that it will adjust its wings so that they come together.

Almost invariably, unless a wing is damaged, the birds do this.

And then, I stand in a sheltered spot, gently holding the bird so that it gets the comfort of stillness and warmth.

Over the years I have found that it normally takes roughly ten to twenty minutes to revive a bird.

This is what happens:

First the bird snuggles against my body and, at this stage, they are typically completely still. Then, after anywhere from five to ten minutes, I detect movement. Usually it’s a movement of the head and at this point I open my hands that so far have been sheltering the creature.

Eye to eye, we regard one another. Whereas my gaze is met by a bright-looking bird’s eye, and a feathered body that never fails to amaze, delight and astonish no matter what the species, I can only imagine how horrifying I must look to it. Like a gigantic, fearsome predator or monster, I feel positive.

At this stage, my “patient” usually looks at me then snuggles back into the warmth. I’ve learned to assess the brightness of the eye, the coordination and control of the neck and head. Does the head flop around at all? That means the trauma to the neck might be too severe for survival. But again, usually I find that the little victims do recover.

The next stage is a perceptible though slight ruffling of feathers or adjustment of body position in my hands. This indicates to me that the bird is checking itself. Are all parts moving, or some such assessment, seems to be in progress, much as we do if we fall while skiing or something. Just like the bird, when human beings suffer trauma we usually move the body part(s) to make an assessment. “Can I walk? Is my leg broken? Can it support my weight?” are the types of questions we make while we decide whether we can stand up, for example.

This is what I think the bird is doing.

At this point, I start to open up my hands, see if the bird can support itself by standing on my hand. If it cannot, I re-cup my hands and return the creature to my body’s warmth.

If it can stand, I still keep the bird sheltered, but start to slowly, gently move my hand out from the trunk of my body. The bird usually sits, regarding me then starting to look around. At this point in time I may slowly start to approach a lilac bush or tree which can offer the bird its own perching shelter, away from me.

Now the bird usually shows signs that it’s ready to take off. It will start ruffling its feathers, checking out it’s wings. Then, in a twinkling of an eye, it’s off, usually flying clear away.

And that’s all the thanks I need.

So, why bother? Why not let Nature take her toll?

For starters, my two cats sometimes beat me to the window-victims. I hate that. I love my two cats and they do their necessary farm and house jobs, controlling red squirrels, chipmunks, voles and mice.

But the cats are serious killers of songbirds and so I like to try and rescue the injured, not see them suffer death in the jaws of Tigger and Chico.

There is nothing like such up-close-and-personal observation of a species, too.

This past Sunday, I had the good fortune to rescue that fox sparrow. Perhaps it would have survived, perhaps not. But under my care, it flew away unharmed and, in the process, I was given the opportunity to observe this gorgeous little chestnut-brown and gray sparrow that is 17-19 cm long.

It’s quite a large sparrow, actually. It gets its name because of the red-chestnut colour. It breeds “from northern Alaska east to Labrador and Newfoundland “ here in the east, and “winters from southern Canada (locally) and northern United States to southern United States,” says Birds of Canada.

These days, you’ll find fox sparrows in the shrubbery, beneath lilacs for instance. They have a very characteristic motion: they “scratch noisily in the leaf litter” notes the book. This describes them aptly.

Look for them and, with your binoculars, observe their habits and also, the brilliant colour of their feathers. The breast is white, with mottled red-fox brown splashed on it.

Remember: only approach a bird that may be injured with extreme care, slowness and gentleness. You don’t want to do more injury than has already occurred.


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance journalist who enjoys birds. Contact her at