It was a hot summer evening. We were working back in the office when a man came, carrying a plastic bag. He opened the bag, and I looked inside to see a tiny bird. It was no more than an inch long. Its body was bald, pink and soft. It looked rather like a plastic bag pushed out of shape and stretched due to the weight of the contents. The man handed me the object, saying he had found the baby on the ground. It thanked him for bringing it, and he smiled and left.
I looked at the tiny blob of life, now dependant upon me for its survival. As it was without feathers I could not even identify the species. the only thing which was promising was the wide, soft, yellow beak, from which emanated a hungry and insistent squawk. It seemed miraculous that such a tiny thing could be alive. If it was clockwork it would have been easier to understand. But this was a hungry, living being. For a moment I was panic-stricken as I pondered my new responsibility. I did not know what to do, and then I thought of Balchan. He had worked at our shelter for many years, and being from a village often knew the answer to questions concerning animals. His earthy wisdom would surely provide a solution.
‘Bajra’, he said, in answer to my question. ‘Peesnaa, uske baad, pakaanaa’. (grind, and then cook). He vanished, only to reappear a few moments later with a bag of bajra seed, a type of millet, which he handed tome. following his advice, I put the seed in the blender until it was ground and then cooked it in a little water. Procuring a pair of tweezers, I tentatively held a small lump of the sticky seed in front of the little bird’s beak. Miraculously, he opened his mouth wide, and as I placed the tweezers in his gullet, he swallowed the ball of food.
I repeated the process and again the hatchling took the seed. I could not believe that something so magical could occur, that something so small could eat and digest, that the minuscule organs contained within the red, bald, lumpy blob, were actually functional. the hatchling lay, too small to move, its head buried in the folds of a rag.
When it was morninso that mother could remove it from the nest. As he matured and the feathers started to grow from his tail, I began to expand his diet to include ground rice and chapatti. Wherever I went around the house he followed me, flying onto my shoulder or head, or, if he was tired, nestling under the folds of my collar or neck, and sleeping.
After he had been with us for about two weeks, he was about half the size of an adult bird. He had a magnificent colouring of being, cinnamon and pearly brown. Much of his body was still covered in down, and there was one patch of bare pink skin still remaining just under his throat. Here I could see his crop bulging after he had eaten. It was actually possible to see the pieces of coloured fruit – yellow mango and red watermelon, through the skin. His ears also were uncovered, two tiny dark holes on the sides of his head.
By now his beak was more in proportion to the rest of his body. Although it was still soft and flexible, it was assuming more the appearance of a mandible that could peck. I began by holding the tweezers in front of him, rather than thrusting them down his open mouth. Soon he understood that I was asking him to peck, and I then began to place the food morsels on my finger, from where he pecked them in a rather clumsy way.
By now I had forgotten that we were from different species, that we spoke different languages, ate different foods, and that we saw the world differently. As far as he and I were concerned, there was no difference between us. the same Energy, the same Love had given us both life, had made us both grow according to our own particular shape. Among the many calls of the birds I recognized his call for food and he recognized my voice increasing the volume and frequency of his chirrups whenever he heard me. He expressed love in a way which was so delicate, so fragile and so perfect that I could only worship the sacredness which emanated from him . He would fly to my shoulder and flutter his wings against me, or, cheeping frantically, follow me round the g, I feared to open the basket as I expected the bird would be dead, but when he saw me, he began to squawk for food. Again I was overwhelmed with the mystery of life, that this tiny, orphaned being should be alive and wanting food.
Day after day the little bird demanded food with loud chirrups. I wondered what was his species, but it was impossible to tell. Then one day, I noticed spikes began to emerge from his skin, and, suddenly, without warning, in a matter of hours, his wings were transformed and small feathers sprouted. I saw, with great wonder that he was a sparrow. The feathers were brown and cinnamon coloured. I thought I had never seen such a beautiful creature, and I knelt in reverence before him. How did this speck of life transform from a red lump into a sparrow? The scientists would have mumbled about genetic material, trying to sound as though they had all explanations, but who had created the blueprint upon which this genetic material was based? It was Life itself which had planned the course, and the magic unfolded before my eyes, as conjurers unfold rabbits from hats.
By now I was the mother. He loved me and called for me. When I put my finger into the basket he hopped onto it and ran up my arm. One morning he vibrated his wings rapidly and took flight, falling unceremoniously into my lap. I felt I was witness to a profound sacredness.
With every day he taught me something new. I saw that after he ate, he turned round backwards, and ejaculated a neatly packaged bundle of faeces. Presumably this action was performed room, flying from my hand to my head to my shoulder, or running up my chest with his wings vibrating rapidly, and calling to me ceaselessly.
I know that the scientists would say that he was ‘programmed’ to follow me, that he was ‘imprinted’ and that it was ‘instinct’, but I watched others of his kind who lived outside the door in our garden, and I saw how they spoke with each other, how they learnt which dog was safe, and when to come for food, and I knew from an intimate observation that the fledgling loved me because we had shared life, we had taken communion together; we had mutually participated in the passage of time.
The time came when I had to leave for a conference overseas. The bird was now almost adult. We renovated a huge aviary where he could live with other birds, until I returned and released him in our garden. But when I left him in that beautiful kingdom, he was bereft. He flew frantically against the wire, and ran backwards and forwards along the ground.
Somehow he found a small hole. Somehow he escaped. His small body was seen hanging from a crow’s beak.
Whenever I see a sparrow, I rejoice in the perfection of the essence of their being, in the light, the movement, the brightness and I know that he is a part of all sparrows, and lives on through them. And I still feel he is with me, sitting on my neck, chirruping.