A Saltmarsh Sparrow Named Sal

Susmita Ramani

© Copyright 2021 by Susmita Ramani

Photo of a young saltmarsh sparrow.

For five years, I lived and worked as a lawyer in New York City. In 2003, I took off a few months between jobs, lived on savings, and roamed around the city. Every day, I woke up in my high rise one-bedroom apartment on 34th Street and 9th Ave. with a view of boats on the Hudson, kissed my cats (Max and Oscar) bye for the day, went down the elevator, chatted with the buildingís doorman, Lee, then wandered the city with one or more of my many friends who had the flexibility to hang out at random times (who were otherwise actors, dancers, personal trainers, restaurant staff, college students, and so on).
One Saturday, my friend Abby asked me to meet her at Union Square for brunch at Zen Palate (which by the way has a tofu cheesecake to die for!). I took the subway and arrived a few minutes early. It was a sunny spring day, and I stood waiting for her at the edge of a heavy stream of pedestrian traffic outside a Petco.
Suddenly, an infinitesimal, high-decimal chirp pierced the air like a needle. I looked around, and on the cement pavement, under hulking metal scaffolding about a foot nearer the building than the footpath where I stood, was a fledgling -- a fully-feathered adolescent bird that had grown through the hatchling/nestling phase and matured enough that it had tried to fly from its nest. The bird was beautiful, like a dollop of brown feathers, with jewellike eyes and the tiniest of yellow beaks. It chirped again. 
But it wasnít going anywhere. It seemed stranded...and, understandably, frightened. It didnít seem injured, but I couldnít tell for sure. I didnít feel comfortable leaving it there, so close to a heavily trafficked walkway. Nor were there any nearby sheltered nooks where it would definitely be safe. I looked for the nest it had come from, and couldnít find it anywhere. 
I scooped up the bird and placed it onto a shoebox lid a passerby offered me. I walked into the park, held up the shoebox lid with the bird on it, said, 'Fly!', and waited to see whether it would try to fly away. It didnít. It seemed comfortable where it was. Meanwhile, I looked around the park through a new lens of prey-versus-predator, and saw potential threats to the bird everywhere: off-leash dogs, stray cats that hung around the park, and packs of recklessly stampeding pedestrians.
Abby arrived, and we rescheduled brunch for another day. Together, we took the bird into the Petco. (Never was there a more fortunately placed Petco!) I bought a birdcage, a heating pad, a canister of powdered baby bird formula, an eyedropper, a canister of birdseed, and whatever else the Petco employees recommended. My plan was to nurse the bird back to health, then when it was stronger, return it to Union Square and release it back into its habitat.
I put my sweatshirt over the cage so the bird would stay warm, and took a cab home, carefully holding the cage on my lap. I unlocked my apartment door, and before my cats could try to greet me, I dashed into the bathroom, placed the bird on a secure table far out of direct sunlight, and shut the door.
I noticed the birdís speckles, stripes, the dark markings near her sparkling black eyes, and her short, sharply pointed tail feathers. After research, I decided she was probably a female saltmarsh sparrow. I named her 'Sal.'
I phoned the cityís wildlife rescue organization and ran my plan by the lady who answered the phone. She agreed that considering Salís location when I found her, I was doing the right thing by keeping and feeding her for a few days. She also approved what I was feeding Sal.
I turned on the heating pad to the recommended temperature, and lined the cage (including covering the heating pad) with clean cotton washcloths. I added a small container of water, which she used to clean herself, and a small container of sand, which she (often) used as a bathroom. I cleaned her cage a couple of times each day.
It was fortunate I had no job at that time, because I had to stay by Salís side, feeding her every hour around the clock. For each meal, I mixed powdered baby bird formula with filtered water and fed it to Sal with an eyedropper, which took several minutes. In the early stages, it was difficult, with the formula dribbling down the sides of Salís beak, while she shrieked -- and meanwhile, the cats meowed and scratched the bathroom door to be let in, which I never did. Over time, it became smoother and faster, with Sal slurping down formula like a pro. Within a couple of days, Sal went from shy and suspicious to demanding, screaming for meals. She grew quickly. Every morning, she seemed a little bigger, stronger, and fuller-feathered.
Three days after I found Sal, and again every three to five days, I returned to Union Square with her, sometimes with a friend, other times on my own. Several times, I opened the cage door, urged Sal to fly, held my breath...and nothing happened, so I returned home.
But one day, about three weeks after Iíd found her, I opened the cage door as usual...and out she flew, like it was as easy as birdseed pie. She alighted on a nearby tree and chirped several times, then flew away. Maybe she returned to the nest that had been her home, or was reunited with her mom and siblings. Thatís what I hope happened.
Two girlfriends were with me that day, and afterwards, we got frozen yogurt to celebrate Salís maiden voyage into the city as a wiser, savvier young female. It definitely felt symbolic to us somehow, and deeply personal and important.
I returned to Union Square Park often after that day. Once or twice, I was sure I spotted Sal. But she didnít come too close. Sheíd returned to the wild...
And thatís what Iíd wanted for her.

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area with my husband and two children. For years, I've been the go-to for my friends and family when they want a poem or song lyrics.

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