By Frederic Friedel
When our son Martin was three we moved out of the city of Hamburg into the countryside, to a little town called Hollenstedt, about 45 km to the southwest, into a nice quiet house, where our second son was born. The idea was to bring up young children close to nature, with forests and fields, animals and plants, fruit and vegetables in your own garden — as opposed to cement and cars, and the din and bustle of a mega city.
Outside my office window in Hollenstedt, just two or three meters in front of my desk, was a pear tree, and in the first branch fork a pair of song thrushes would, every year, build a nest and bring up their chicks. I watched it all happen — the construction, brooding, feeding and fledging. It was quite marvellous.
One year there was a ring at the front door. The neighbours’ children had come to inform me that there were bird chicks running around in their and our gardens. I immediately checked the nest of my song thrushes and found it empty. We searched for and found the errant chicks, four in all, and replaced them in the nest. They were clearly too young to fledge. But an hour later the kids were back — the chicks were once again hopping around the garden.
I realized what was happening: the parent birds had suffered some kind of mishap and not returned from foraging. The chicks were starving and could do nothing other than jump out of the nest and hope for the best. So what to do? I took a bucket, made a straw bed and put the chicks into it. They were begging with wide open little beaks, clearly in great distress. So I took little pieces of cooked spaghetti and stuffed it into their mouths. The theory was that spaghetti was the same shape as worms and they would be comfortable with that. They swallowed it thankfully. The next day I went to a pet shop and bought grubs and real worms, and we kept feeding the “boidies” — the term our kids used for them — with plastic tweezers.
The behaviour of the song thrush chicks is called “imprinting”, and it was expedient that I knew all about it because I had studied the works of the ethologists Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen at University. Filial imprinting is when a young animal reaches a specific phase in which it decides who its parents are — and then follows them around and tries to imitate their behaviour.
If you want to know more about imprinting in a very entertaining and inspiring way, get hold of the film Fly Away Home. It is based on the actual experiences of a sculptor and naturalist who started training geese to follow his ultralight and succeeded in leading their migration in 1993. Really, get the full movie. For now here are some impressions:
Back to our boidies in Hollenstedt. What next?
Fred and Martin realized that the time came when they had to learn to fly. How do you do that? Throwing them up in the air didn’t achieve much — they just fluttered down to earth, fairly helplessly. So we started running through the garden with the birds perched on outstretched hands. They would spread their wings but hang on for dear life. After a while we drop our hands suddenly and they would flutter forwards. Slowly they got the hang of it and after a day or two were flying merrily around. They had truly fledged.
Next came foraging. We would turn over stones and dead branches to look for insects beneath them. And there I discovered something important: there are different degrees of eyesight. I would usually see nothing useful, but the birds would go in and pick a dozen edible morsels which I had missed. On the one hand their eyes were much closer to the ground; but on the other they clearly had much better, sharper eyesight than human beings.
After a few weeks of our nurture they were normal grown birds that flew around the garden. Except that they were completely tame. When we sat on the porch they would immediately join us, and we could pick them up with our hands and perch them on the back of a chair or anything. The most poignant thing was early in the morning, when Ingrid would open our bedroom windows. The boidies would immediately fly in and perch on her shoulders, or join me on the bed. Clearly they had been waiting in the apple tree outside for the moment when their parents would make an appearance.
We had the young song thrushes as part of the family for over a month. They were well known to all the neighbours, whom we would sometimes visit with the birds perched on our shoulders. Then we went away on a trip, and when we got back the birds were gone. Some distant neighbours later told me they had had a bird in their garden that was “completely tame and unafraid.” Clearly one of ours. But we ourselves never saw them again. I hope they learned to fend for themselves properly in an often hostile world.
What we got from the boidies was an intimate contact with a shy, natural animal. It was a lifelong experience which every young child should have.