A Saltmarsh Sparrow Named Sal
Copyright 2021 by Susmita Ramani
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.'
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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...
thatís what Iíd wanted for her.
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.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher