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I don’t know what kind of bird this is, I don’t know its sex. All I know is that for five days it occupied my backyard, walking around among my herb pots with a bemused air, as if hoping any minute to find a familiar face or landmark. There was no visible injury, no reason that I could see that it wasn’t flying but there it was, grounded among my pots of parsley, basil, sage, mint.

We came upon one another early the first morning when I went out my back door to empty the kitchen compost pail. The bird scuttled out from beneath my pots and, thinking it was a rat, I almost spilled a few days worth of coffee grounds and veggie peelings all over my pajamas.

When I calmed down I realized that this bird was not even trying to fly away. It moved around like a chicken, keeping its eye on me and edging away if I moved too close but it never flapped its wings. In fact it seemed not to realize it had wings.

I zapped into rescue mode. There was no sign of injury but the bird was clearly young and vulnerable. She (?) would be no match for the cats who patrol my yard, the raccoons, bigger and meaner birds, or the coyotes rumored to be in our area. I would have to keep our terrier out of here. How would she eat?

Resentment reared its head. Why did she have to pick my yard? Where were her parents anyway?

While I stood there trying to figure out my next step, the bird settled on the edge of a pot of cilantro and stayed very still as if hoping I would just go away.

So I did. I confess, I was hoping that she would somehow be gone the next time I wandered through. But there she was that afternoon and, after a long night, the next morning. I called the local wildlife rescue folks and reached a man who sighed into the phone as he explained about adolescent birds. They are sometimes out of the nest before they are sure of their wings. It’s pretty common. When I went online in search of more answers, the folks on a Cornell site explained that adult birds liked to get their kids out of the nest and care for them in nearby locations because they were more vulnerable if they all stayed in one place. The man on the phone and the folks at Cornell said if there were no adults in evidence over the next few days, that the only step I could take would be to throw a towel over the bird, scoop her into a box and take her to the refuge where they would keep her.

I wanted her to be someone else’s problem. But every time I thought of tossing a cloth over her, holding that fragile frightened body in my hands, something inside me resisted. So I gave it one more day. Then another. Every morning it seemed like a miracle that she was still alive. She even took a bath in a little dish of water I set out for her. I got used to her. I looked for her. I kept our dog away from her. I went to bed every night thinking of her. Then on the fifth morning, I walked out, said “Good Morning,” and proceeded to water my herbs as I had done twice during her stay.

A beat of wings and she was suddenly on top of our fence looking down. I was struck dumb by a sense of deliverance. When I checked a little later, she was outside the fence, on a cement retaining wall near the compost. That night, she was gone for good.

What if I had intervened? What if I had chased her all over the yard with a towel, forced her into a box and then into a car? What if I had left her with people with much bigger problems to solve? In other words, what if I had tried to save her and made her suffer or, at the very least, complicated her struggle in ways I could not begin to imagine?

I blush to think how many times I’ve done this. In the name of friendship, motherhood, or trying to be a loving daughter, I have intervened, rushed to the rescue with advice, books, quotes, lectures, analysis, yes, analysis. I love to dig into the facts, research, and present people I love or even some I’ve just met (I cringe as I type these words) with tomes of information about their illness, family dynamic, emotional pain, along with hugs and an intense desire to show them a way out.

Someone else’s problems are irresistible to me. Just ask my husband. Or my son. Both have watched me kill perfectly good plants (even the indestructible mint) with too much attention, too much watering. Both have let me know, gently but firmly, when I cross the line from loving kindness into interference with them.

My bird friend came along just as I was penning a long letter to a loved one who is struggling right now. My chest had been tight for days about what to say, what not say, how to find the words that would somehow fix what I saw as his problem. I sent it but not before backing way off the analysis and advice and just letting him know what I saw and that I cared. In some way, I suppose, the earlier version of the letter was like the towel I was considering throwing over the bird’s head. I would be trying to scoop up my friend, hold him in my arms, fix his problem for him so he would be safe.

That’s not what the bird needed. It’s not what my loved ones need either. It’s not even what I need. The bird reminded me that sometimes the best we can offer each other is a little room to breathe and a friendly place to sit and figure things out on our own.

I’ll keep trying.



  1. What a touching and true story. I worry about the birds in our backyard also. Sometimes they fly into my studio thinking it’s ????I used to get scared by them but now I know to gently put a broom near them, ask them to hop up for a ride and then take them outdoors where they can hide up in the bushes or trees.

  2. what a beautiful experience and isn’t it amazing the messengers who appear in the universe, sent in the most unexpected of ways to teach us a lesson? beth
    Ps – i loved the book

  3. ELizabeth, this bird looks like the doves that don’t hesitate to get in the seed fray around our bird feeder. Their tecnique seems to be hang back, let the seeds fall, then rush in and grab them.

    I’ve been a fixer for as long as I can remember. I don’t think I’ve been above throwing a towel or two over a loved one’s head.I’m left wondering why no one follows my good advice.

  4. Interesting perspective. Funny how the lessons come in the strangest ways when we most need them. Like MerryMe above, I believe that little bird is a dove. Seems fitting, as they symbolize love, peace and hope.

  5. Thank you to everyone who is helping to identify my feathered friend. I thought it looked dove-like but had no idea what one would be doing in my backyard. Unless it was sent to teach me a lesson. Ahhh…I think that’s it.

  6. Betsy, Looks like an adolescent mourning dove to me. I think St. Francis would approve of your kindnesses and reflections. And thank you for sharing this piece with us, your readers. I hope I will remember your words when my mind and heart scream “intervene.”

  7. Betsy, I just loved this post. And it was just the thing to read this week, as my sons prepare to launch into their next adventures, far from home. My impulse is to throw a towel over each of their heads, and then impart my maternal wisdom into their ears as I hold them close. And instead, of course, I must simply stand by, and wait for each of them to fly.

  8. Yikes! I’m a towel holder! Thank you so much for the illumination. I will think of that little bird and your thought-filled words today. And thank you,Katrina, for sharing.

  9. Betsy,

    What a beautiful piece and what a precious bird.

    A few months ago, I saw something in my mom’s pool; it looked like a huge rat. Our cats were staring at it, waiting to attack. It made its way to the step, then plopped down on the cement, exhausted. But it wasn’t a fat drowned rat, it was a sweet, little bunny rabbit! My mother threw a towel over it, brought it in the house, and the next day after a bit of warmth and lettuce, we set it free where we often see other wild bunnies. Your story reminded me about our bunny episode. Though, this time, the towel was needed 🙂 it made me think of my own towel days.

    I, too, tend to intervene, advise, and analyze (“analysis, yes, analysis”!) too much and oftentimes end up feeling yucky about myself for not just keeping quiet. I have changed though, through a lesson similar to yours, that most people just want others to listen. It’s tough, but I think I’m getting better! 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful story of patience and compassion–and always so beautifully expressed.


  10. Well, Kimberly, you may have to use the towel but clearly the situation called for it. And, in the end, you did provide a friendly space for the rabbit and then let it go on about its business. Understanding what is needed and being able to give it is a gift in itself.

  11. Bets, so well put. As I watched loved ones wrestle with life’s challenges, it’s a delicate balance to know when, how, or even if to offer assistance. This reminds me to have more faith in others and in nature’s process.

  12. Great story and so true. Especially for parents of twenty-somethings.
    BTW, I think the species is a Mourning Dove, but I’m not an expert.

  13. Touching story, I’m so glad it has a happy ending! Last year, I dealt with the dilemma of medicating a wild squirrel who had lost half her fur. The dilemma became worse after I found out she was a nursing mom, and that my medication could affect her kits. After waiting and debating for weeks, I finally decided to go ahead with her treatment. I was terrified throughout the treatment period, but the story finally had a happy ending as well. Here, interfering was required, but your article will remind me not to get overenthusiastic next time around!

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