It was frigid. The moment I appeared at the door, the dark-eyed juncos fled. All but one. This little bird was huddled, lying at an odd angle in the snow. My heart sank even as I picked him up. One foot seemed damaged, maybe frozen. I had to try to revive him…

After depositing the bird on a house log, I slipped off my snowshoes and brought him indoors (I use the pronoun ‘he’ but I have no idea whether he was a male or female). He opened his beak to swallow the few drops of sugar water that I dribbled into the side of his mouth.

Placing my little friend in a covered basket that I keep just for this purpose I went back outdoors to begin the morning chores – snowshoe my path up the hill, create another to the gas tank, make more paths for the dogs, and finally, to shovel out the garage. January lasts forever.

I slid open the door.

Oh no, not again. Here was a second junco clinging to the branch of the nearest tree. He was situated just above the one I had found huddled in the snow with frozen feet (?). Tree Junco never moved when I walked past him/her and was still there 45 minutes later when I returned.



I was familiar with this story.

Three years earlier, during the first week in January, I rescued a chickadee that turned out to have a badly broken wing that I could not set (I am a former rehabilitation person). I kept him in my bedroom until I could face the final chapter… A bird with a badly broken wing cannot fly.

A second chickadee ended this story abruptly by appearing at the window, frantically trying to get in while the caged bird cheeped pitifully as he hopped back and forth, dragging his wing (how the chickadee at the window knew where the caged one was remains a mystery).

I promptly unzipped the carrier, scooped up the bird, and deposited him on a fir bough just outside the door, where he was immediately greeted by a bevy of chickadees that seemed to arrive from nowhere and all who seemed to be welcoming him back with excited chirping. One of these chickadees immediately hopped into the fir. It was late afternoon, a frigid January dusk. I knew it wouldn’t be long.

I hardly dared to hope that this junco story might have a different ending.


After entering the house and removing my snowshoes, I immediately went to the basket.

To my great joy, little junco flew out! The bird headed for the window, landing neatly on a trellis, where I captured him with ease. His feet were fine.

I couldn’t wait! In my stocking feet, I ran to the sliding door and opened it to see what would happen next. Tree junco had one piercing eye fastened on me like a laser beam. The moment I released the bird, junco took flight. His little friend caught up with him before the two disappeared into the pines…

For once, a happy ending!

Postscript: Just after I built this house, I had a cat that I had reluctantly adopted from the clinic (I already knew she was an outdoor cat and cats are the number one killer of songbirds).

One day I came home to a horrifying sight. Zoe had a baby cardinal in her mouth. The parents were frantic and stayed on the ground with the little bird, who I soon discovered had been severely bitten. A cat bite is fatal.


Strangely, another pair of cardinals were also standing watch, perched in a nearby pine tree keeping an eye on the parents. A prolonged four-day dying ensued, with me unable to alleviate any of the suffering that these birds were experiencing, besides keeping the cat in and witnessing the parents/relatives (?) trying to feed their baby on the ground just outside my door.

The trauma I experienced was so severe that I ended up giving away the cat and haven’t had a one since.

The lesson these cardinals taught me was to pay close attention to what happens with avian relatives when any bird is wounded.

I soon learned that the birds around here become deeply distressed when one of their kind is in trouble, and it doesn’t have to have anything to do with parenting/mating.

When my free-flying house dove Lily b. lost his beloved mate about 15 years ago, I thought he was going to die. I put him in a basket in the living room, under which my dogs and I sat. I played the Mozart Requiem for him – a piece of music he loves.

To my utter amazement, almost instantly about 50 mourning doves flew in the apple tree just outside our window. These birds remained in that tree for about half an hour. How did they know? And where did so many come from? Mourning doves are Lily b’s closest relatives. After the birds left, Lily returned alone to his bower. He lived.

The chickadee incident taught me that separating a bird from its flock is probably more devastating than we can comprehend and that in the end, it is probably best to let a bird with a broken wing freeze (in winter) or be taken by a predator. The other option is worse.

I would be very interested in hearing from anyone who has had similar experiences with birds who exhibit attachment behavior outside of mating/parenting season because I can’t find any literature that addresses this issue. Is it possible that birds remain in relationship with one another throughout the year? Is it possible that birds grieve for one another? My observations suggest that they might.

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