One day my wildlife rehabilitator friend Marilyn brought me a black shoebox decorated with 6 or 8 quarter-sized holes. Energetically sticking his head out, then in, then back out a different hole was a vaguely sinister-looking brown bird, obviously outraged that someone had the nerve to put him in there. “He thinks he’s a cuckoo,” said Marilyn.

Harley the Starley was a young European Starling. He had two major strikes against him: one, he had been found and raised alone by someone with little knowledge of birds, and so was imprinted. Two, he was a starling, an aggressive, overly plentiful invasive species that are edging out our more gentle native songbirds. Some bird rehabbers won’t have anything to do with them; others love their extreme personalities. At that point all I saw was a bird in need.

Whatever, I think I said.

Knowing that sometimes imprinted birds can “wild up” if put in a flight with others, I released Harley into my larger flight. He ignored the other young starlings, got into a rolling-on-the-ground dogfight with a young Northern Mockingbird, then landed on the back of a Yellow-shafted Flicker and started pounding him on the back of the head. I quickly grabbed the little delinquent, put him in a spare parrot cage, and brought him into the house.

Soon afterward the kids, then eight and nine, “accidentally” let him out of his cage. He flew a couple of laps around the house, then landed on the floor and joined their Pokémon game (they’d set up action figures and Harley would knock them down, resulting in a complicated point system). No dope, Harley subsequently charmed every child who walked through the door, earning himself a place in the household – at least, until I could figure out what to do with him.

For over a month Harley flew around the house (don’t ask about my cleaning routine), hassling the parrots, sneaking up and pushing the wrong button when the kids were playing their Gameboys, sunning himself under the lampshades, and eating all the Egg Drop Soup when we ordered Chinese food. When he started changing into his adult plumage we took outside, where he had races with the kids and learn how to catch his own food (“Look, look, Harley, there’s a bug!” SNAP! He was a quick study.) He’d always come back inside, and spend the night in his parrot cage.

Then one day we were in the yard, and suddenly he was gone. We searched everywhere. This was not in the plan. He was familiar with birdfeeders, and knew how to catch insects; but I never release a single flock bird who has not grown up with members of its own kind. For days, we searched and called his name. I was mortified and filled with guilt. “But mom,” said my son finally, “he would have been so sad if we had kept him locked in a cage.”

This is the problem with rehabbing, there are all those shades of grey.

Written by Suzie
Suzie Gilbert is a wild bird rehabilitator whose shameful secret is that on more than one occasion she has received a female LBJ, or a fledgling whatever, and has been completely unable to ID it. Luckily she has birder friends who will rush to her aid, although she must then suffer their mockery. She is the author of her bird-rehabbing memoir Flyaway (HarperCollins) and the children's book Hawk Hill (Chronicle Books). Her recent suspenseful, bird-filled adventure novel Unflappable (Perch Press) was selected by Audubon Magazine as one of their Three Best Summer Reads of 2020. She lives in New York's beautiful Hudson Valley and is always up for a good hike.