Sometimes even Dúlra can call it wrong

 The greenfinch dead in a flowerpot The greenfinch dead in a flowerpot
By Dúlra

A bit like Ace Ventura, Dúlra often gets an emergency call when a bird or animal is in trouble. At this time of years it’s inevitably about a young bird. If only he had a pound for every time he heard someone say, “it can’t fly, I think it has a broken wing.”

Truth is it can’t fly because it hasn’t yet learned. It’s just left the nest and will spend the next week or so walking a thin line between life and death, stumbling through gardens and climbing into thickets. It’s a sitting duck for birds of prey and cats until it can finally get its wings working properly. They’re relying on a very basic tactic: safety in numbers. The only reason it has any chance of survival is that there are so many other fledglings in exactly the same position. Birds of prey can only fill their stomachs once and cats will get bored after their first kill.

The parents always know where their offspring are. The chicks let out calls that only the parents can recognise, in the same way penguins know the call of their own chick in a colony of millions.

When we happen upon a young bird, we may think it has been abandoned, but it hasn’t. The parents are busy collecting food – they’ve had an average of four other youngsters to look after, probably scattered over a few gardens or hedgerows, hidden among the undergrowth. Eventually, it will be hunger that forces the chicks to make that first leap into the unknown and test out their wing feathers. Some birds like seagulls intentionally reduce the food to their young to entice them off cliff-faces, but with most of our garden birds, the parents are close to exhaustion collecting insects and darting around all the youngsters who have just left the nest. With the chicks growing rapidly in size, the parents can’t physically do it for long. The chicks have to ‘man up’ and fend for themselves. Anyone with teenagers will know the feeling well.

And so at this time of year when Dúlra gets the weekly call about an abandoned bird with a broken wing, he knows what to do and what not to do. Don’t bring the bird indoors. It’s relying on food from its parents and they won’t be able to reach it. Don’t ring the RSPB or any bird sanctuaries – they’ll do nothing. They know too that nature must be left to take its course. Don’t pick them up (a reader did this with a troupe of ‘lost’ ducklings near a road recently), put them in your car and take them to a lake or river. Their parents always know where they are but by moving them in a car you’re more likely condemning them to death, because the parents won’t be able to track them.

A few times Dúlra has been called out and the ‘hurt’ bird has already been brought indoors. He just asks where it was found and places it back there, if possible on a high branch away from cats.

And so this week when he got a call about a bird with a broken wing in a back yard, he told the reader not to worry, it’s probably a chick and it’s best to let it be. This didn’t need a Jim Carey-like intervention. The bird might look lost, he said, but the parents always know where it is.

He would call down later just to check everything was okay, he said.

There didn’t seem to be a rush. And so as he was passing on his way home, he called in. But this time Dúlra had tragically called it wrong. And it was too late to do anything about it.

The beautiful adult male greenfinch was breathing his last. He was on its side, unable to stand. It seemed that he had crashed into the kitchen window perhaps, falling on to the ground below.

He died in Dúlra’s hand.

The injured bird maybe could have been saved with earlier action. They can be coaxed back to health if placed in a closed cardboard box where they can rest with a saucer of water next to them. This simple treatment has worked countless times for Dúlra.

It’s unusual for a greenfinch to be living in an estate in summer. Dúlra looked up the gardens and there, a few doors away, was a single, overgrown laurel tree. They love to build their nests in laurels.

The stunning adult bird must have been skimming across the back yards at breakneck speed, trying to feed the gaping mouths of its demanding chicks, which by now would have left the nest. The mother will need all the help she can get, but suddenly, inexplicably, her mate would have fallen silent and simply not returned. She will have to finish off the job of rearing a brood on her own.

Birds die at an alarming rate. That’s why greenfinches will have an average of eight chicks in two broods every year, just to keep their numbers steady.

But the extra tragedy about the dead greenfinch is that their population has been devastated by a new disease in the past few years which has, for some unknown reason, jumped species from pigeons only to greenfinches.

Where once they were common in most gardens, today they are a rare treat.

And in this West Belfast street this week – no thanks to Dúlra – they’ve become that bit rarer.

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