American robin.

This spring, a family of robins built a nest at my parents’ house in Marshfield. There is nothing unusual about robins nesting here on the South Shore, however, this particular robin family chose a somewhat unique location to roost: on top of an outdoor floodlight, attached to the house, about 10 feet off the ground.

There was no way to see into the nest – neither from the ground, nor from the second story windows. But still you could get an idea of what was going on there – the mama bird keeping her eggs warm until they hatched, and later bringing worms and insects to the babies to eat.

We were all saddened one day in May to see that one of the small blue eggs had fallen from the nest. But that hardly compared to the anguish we felt two weeks later when we discovered that the nest had fallen from its precarious perch, and broken apart. Two baby birds were lying in the dirt below, alive but clearly stunned.

We wanted to help, but we didn’t know how. We had heard that, once handled by humans, baby birds would be rejected by their parents. A call to Massachusetts Audubon’s South Shore Sanctuaries saved the day.

Audubon’s Education Director Ellyn Einhorn was happy to advise us. She said that the “parental rejection due to human scent” thing was a myth, and that it was okay to handle the birds and the nest. But we had to act fast, before the parent birds viewed the situation as a lost cause.

Einhorn advised us to scoop up the remains of the nest and to fit them into a container to help them retain their original shape. We found one of those plastic mesh trays used at garden centers to transport potted plants – and fitted the nest parts together in one of its corners. We added more pine needles and leaves to fill in the gaps.

She then told us to place the birds securely in the nest. We’d never handled birds before, and felt a bit anxious about this – especially since the mama robin was perched on a tree limb nearby, seemingly warning us to stay away from her babies . . . or else. (Einhorn said that the parents probably wouldn’t attack us.) One of the birds was quite sedate, lying in the nest, opening and closing its mouth as if asking for food. The other was all a-flutter. It didn’t seem able to get comfortable, and kept flipping over onto its back. Its head seemed to be turned the wrong way. But – this was probably the most heartbreaking thing — it was very much alive, and in need of help. They were both so warm to the touch, their first feathers just beginning to sprout, their tiny legs and feet tucked beneath them.

Our next task was to put the nest and its contents back as close as possible to where it had been. Even if we’d had a tall enough ladder, there was no easy way to secure the nest on top of the light fixture. So instead, we placed it about eight feet high in the same pine tree where the mama bird had been perched earlier—and secured it to the branches with wire.

Then all we could do was wait. It was up to the parents now – would they go back to the nest and bring their babies food? Or would they abandon them? We tried to stay out of the front yard to give them some peace. Later in the day we were happy to observe the parents returning to tend to their young.

The next day, we peeked into the nest and were saddened to see that the injured bird had died. But the other one seemed okay. Now we’ll keep an eye on the situation, and see whether the robins build a new nest someplace else, or just stay in the makeshift home we created for them. Maybe we’ll see that remaining baby bird take flight!

A word of advice: not all bird species have the same needs. If you find yourself in a similar rescue situation, you might contact Mass Audubon for guidance. You can reach the South Shore Sanctuaries office at 781-837-9400.

By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, correspondent
May 2007

Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.