The Stand-in Angel

The featherless little thing had someone watching over him, a guardian angel for birds.

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An artist's rendering of a black bird nesting in a woman's red hair

Poor thing. I held the baby bird in my hand, wishing I’d never picked it up from the grass. I’d nearly run over it with the lawn mower. What on earth was I supposed to do with it now? It was barely the size of a Ping-Pong ball, an ugly little thing, no feathers, not even old enough to open its eyes.

A fierce summer thunderstorm during the night must have blown it out of its home. I could see the nest in the tree, a big chunk missing from it. The mother bird nowhere to be found.

I’m not a touchy-feely kind of guy. A retired police officer, I know how harsh the world can be–especially out in the wild. It wasn’t a man’s job to be rescuing baby birds. That struck me as an odd fit.

Suddenly my six-year-old granddaughter stood beside me, staring down at the yellowish mass of skin and bones. “Honey, I don’t think it’s going to live. There’s nothing we can do. It needs its mommy.”

Her eyes grew wide, her mouth quivering. She turned and ran toward the house–where Grandma Iva, the softie in the family, waited. Great. Now I’m going to have to look after this bird.

I sat the foundling by the tree trunk while I continued mowing. I was nearly finished when my youngest son, Mark, pulled into the driveway. He’d gone fishing that morning and I couldn’t wait to hear about his catch.

Before we could start talking the screen door slammed. Out marched Grandma Iva with the granddaughter behind her. “Richard, what are you doing with that bird?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I said.

Grandma shook her head. She’d brought a small, glass mixing bowl with her, lined with paper towels. She gently placed the bird inside. “Don’t worry, baby,” she said. “This is your home now.”

“But we don’t know anything about birds,” I protested. “How are we even going to feed it?”

“I’ve got worms in the car,” Mark said. “Birds eat worms, right?” My granddaughter cheered.

We all went into the house with a carton of night crawlers. Iva cut the worms into pieces with scissors. It was crazy. This is never going to work, I thought. I’m no one’s guardian angel–least of all a bird’s!

Iva held a teensy bit of worm to the bird’s beak and–would you believe it? He opened wide and Iva dropped the food right in. “That’s the way, baby,” Iva cooed. “You’re a hungry little bird, aren’t you?” Baby peeped. Even I knew what that meant. He wanted more.

Iva fed him every few minutes for the rest of the day. It was dark out before, finally, he settled down for the night. “This is for the birds,” I said. “I’m exhausted.”

I was barely awake the next morning, a sliver of sunlight peeking through the bedroom window, when I heard a faint noise. Where was it even coming from? Peep. It grew louder, more insistent. Peep. Peep. Peep. Peep.

“It’s your bird,” I told Iva. “He wants breakfast.”

Our lives changed drastically. We couldn’t go anywhere, at least not together. Someone had to be home to feed Baby. Mark got tired of keeping us in worms. I tried feeding Baby dog and cat food. Nothing doing.

The hungrier he was the more he reared up in the mixing bowl nest, stretching his little body as far as he could reach. He opened his mouth whenever we touched the bowl, as if it signaled his mother was there with more food. Weird. We hadn’t taught him that.

A couple days later I woke to a house that was strangely quiet. I found Baby lying at the bottom of his nest. I nudged the bowl, but he didn’t move. It had been chilly during the night. Too cold, apparently. Iva was heartbroken. How would we tell our granddaughter?

I carried Baby outside and laid him in the sun. Poor Baby. If only he’d had a real guardian angel watching over him, one just for birds.

I went back inside and poured a cup of coffee. Peep. I looked at Iva, a huge smile spreading across her face. Peep. Peep. Peep. Peep. I ran out to get him.

Three weeks went by. Baby’s feathers were coming in, more every day, solid black. I couldn’t help but laugh at that–Iva hated blackbirds. They were pests. But she adored Baby.

One day I took Baby outside with me. I put him in the grass far from the mower. After my first pass through the yard I turned to check on him. He was gone! I looked everywhere but there was no sign of him. “Baby, where are you?” I called. “Here, Baby.” I felt ridiculous. How did guardian angels do it?

Peep. I looked up. There was Baby, sitting on a pine tree branch at eye level, jabbering away. He’d flown up all by himself! I held out my hand and Baby hopped onto my finger. I felt a swell of pride at my Baby’s accomplishment.

Maybe men and birds weren’t such an odd fit. We were both of us created by God, after all. Both of us in need of love and attention in a world that can be harsh.

As Baby got bigger, it was time for him to leave the nest. But there were too many cats in our neighborhood for Baby’s own good. Some friends who lived out in the country agreed to take him. They even built him a house to sleep in at night. During the day he flitted about.

Iva and I went out to visit him. When Iva called his name Baby flew onto her finger, tweeting away. “Our Baby’s all grown up,” I told Iva.

The next spring a blackbird came to the tree Baby was born in. He and Iva chattered for 10 minutes. I like to think it was Baby. But only his guardian angel–who brought him to me–knows for sure.


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