Last summer, outside the office building where I was working, a co-worker came across a baby sparrow laying on the concrete, right in front of the steps to the main entrance. Because I worked the front desk at the time and my job fell under “general office administration”, I was the first one she asked to come help her figure out what to do. We headed downstairs and outside, quickly finding the wounded bird. He had a bloody wound on his tiny head, was making the tiniest of chirps and moving very slowly towards one corner of the steps, presumably to die. We crouched around him as he struggled, making sure no one stepped on him as they entered and exited the building. It was clear he had fallen from a nest and we looked up and spotted the nest in the giant number zero that was high on the front facade which marked the building’s address.
We didn’t really know what to do next and were just starting to wonder if animal services would even make the trip for a tiny bird when we saw an adult sparrow enter the nest, likely the mother. She was chirping up a storm and hopped around the nest several times. She then flew down onto the concrete, near where we were still huddled around the baby who was now in the corner, eyes closed and not making a sound. She flitted around, chirping incessantly and we got out of the way in the hopes that she would see the baby but he was too far away. She just kept flying from the nest to the ground, nest to the ground, in what appeared to us to be a frenzied search (sparrows, like squirrels, seem skittish to me already and I know little about their behaviours but you didn’t have to be Holmes and Watson to see what had happened here).
This went on for about two minutes and we still weren’t sure what to do. The baby was still breathing but did not look good and we knew time was probably not on his side. It was then that I remembered the chickens: hens talk to their chicks and the chicks learn to recognize their mother’s voice, even while still in the eggs (of course, both hens and chicks are deprived of this in animal agriculture today). I figured this would probably be true for other birds too so I gently scooped the motionless baby bird into my hand and carried him over to the pavement where the mother kept landing. I held him there until she zoomed down again and the coolest thing happened: as soon as he heard her chirping, he lifted his head and started his faint little tweeting again (I’m taking back that word for actual birds). The mother came over to my hand and if I spoke sparrow, she was probably telling him, “Where have you been? I’ve been so worried, you little shit!” (Or she was telling me to piss off and let go of her kid – I can’t be certain.)
My co-worker and I were still crouched on the concrete and we had no way to get the bird back up to the nest so we slowly inched our way over to a grassy patch close by that was near other trees and away from people and street traffic. The mother followed us and we kept baby and mother in sight of each other at all times. They’re back-and-forth chirping never stopped once.
We eventually settled on a sheltered spot near a tree with lots of foliage around for what might end up being their second home. We lay the baby bird down and the mother came over to him immediately. Whatever their vocalizing meant, it was obvious they had been reunited.
Two things happened for me that morning: one, I was reminded that people care about animal suffering….when they see it. This co-worker of mine who ate another kind of bird nearly every day for lunch was not an uncaring person. She saw the fallen bird and did something about it. She was not unsympathetic – just disconnected between this particular bird and the one she happened to eat at Christmastime every year or at noon every day.
The second reminder was that humans do not hold exclusive rights to motherly love, physical pain or the struggle to survive. To quote author Sarah Sentilles from her book, A Church of Her Own:
“Words like God and life and morality and family belong to everyone. No one group owns these fundamental categories.”
Humans aren’t the only ones capable of worrying about their offspring. We have not cornered the market on parental concern, vulnerability or the definition of loss and suffering. Animals have every right and every capacity to these experiences too, including the ones whose pain we will never see in the light of day until we choose to look.