One of the many gifts of living in New York City is the opportunity it gives people to indulge in people-watching and life-watching at any hour of the day or night, and to observe human tendencies, good and bad, in multidimensional, surround-sound, real-time viewing.

Very recently, around forty-five minutes before sunset, on a very warm late-Spring muggy evening, I was walking up Broadway, when I noticed a woman standing in a fixed position, concerned look on her face, focusing at something close to her feet. A few feet away, standing opposite to and facing her, there was another woman throwing some bread pieces on the ground.

The object of their gaze was a baby sparrow, a fledgling, that had fallen onto the concrete footpath from its nest located about 12 feet above us. In another quite commonly seen New York City image, the nest was located within a hollow rectangular metal tube that formed part of temporary awning around the building on the corner of West 62nd street and Broadway. It is quite incredible to view the way birds and other non-human creatures adapt to life in a big city, but also very sad to see situations such as this one that demonstrate the risks and dangers to such vulnerable birds and animals that dwell in an urban environment.

Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis.
Source: Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis.

A few sparrows sat on beams and tubing near the nest, viewing us, one chirping more loudly – perhaps its mother. From time to time that bird flew down to the ground a few feet from where we stood, looked around it and at the little one, and flew back up to keep a birds-eye view on what was happening.

Being an animal lover I stopped and talked to the woman facing me who seemed determined not to ignore the situation but did not know what to do. I suggested that we call a nearby association, The Wild Bird fund that I heard about a while ago, a group that does wonderful work rescuing and rehabilitating injured birds. The woman called a few times, but only got their voicemail message since it was around 8pm (their closing time), and it was apparent that by now the office staff had left.

It was a busy time on a busy street, and many people were walking by, some quite unaware about the vulnerable baby bird on the ground inches away from them. I stood at a 90 degree angle to the woman, to provide further protection for the little one, to prevent unaware people from stomping on it while they texted, talked or were otherwise occupied as they walked by in their fast-paced New York stride.

Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis.
Source: Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis.

Given what the little bird had been through, it seemed in remarkably good shape physically, though I imagine it may have been feeling great bewilderment and fear. I felt encouraged to see that it was alert, and hopped around, tried to fly - but in flapping its tiny wings it was clear that this fledgling was too young and its wings were not yet formed into flying capability.

The kind woman and I talked about one of us taking it home for the night and calling the rescue group the next day, as leaving it on the street was leaving it in great danger and set up for probable demise. My concern about removing it from that area was that in transporting it to my home, or if she did so to hers, the trauma of such a journey could also bring on shock and death for the little one.

In the meantime, though many people walked on by, a number of caring souls stopped. Some just looked, and moved on. Some looked, and stayed. A crowd was forming around us: an innocent baby bird, flanked on 2 sides by two stalwart women determined to save it.

A local resident, walking her dog, shared her concern and said she would go back to her nearby apartment building and find out whether a ladder could be brought to us, and then someone might be able climb up to place the baby bird back in its nest. The woman came back, somewhat breathless due to her rushing, saying with great disappointment that she was told she was not allowed to bring the ladder out to the street.

The feeling of concern and intention to find a solution for this problem was growing. This was an inspiring scene to be part of, to witness and experience people with kind hearts and compassion, who cared about the suffering of a little bird, and who were willing to take time to help in any ways they could.

A young man stopped by, and I immediately felt some intuitive mistrust about his intentions. It did turn out that he was somewhat of a prankster, and did not share the genuine concern that most of us who were there felt. He offered to help, said he could easily get the bird back into the nest, he said he could do so if he jumped up to one of the side rails, was handed the bird, and then he could pop it in the nest-bearing tube. I was convinced that his idea could not be carried out safely – if he stood on the rail, even if on the tips of his toes, he would still be way too far from the tube to allow the safe and gentle return of the bird. But he was intent on showing us his agility, got up on the side rail, stretched and elevated himself to hold the higher rails and tubes next to the sparrows’ home, and then swung from them with the greatest of ease, hanging loosely above the little one on the ground. I leant over the bird to protect it from this man falling onto it or jumping down too close to it, and asked him to stop his performance. With an impish grin, he jumped down, landing way too close for comfort to the bird and me, and then went on his way, another of the colorful characters of New York, having expressed his athletic buffoonery and having been of no help.    

And then, good fortune at last.

It did not seem that it would turn out to be so at first, but the outcome, oh it was sublime!

A huge and loud Sanitation Truck, doing its thing, pulled up to the corner curb, only feet away from us, stopping by the heavy metal garbage container that is situated there. My initial reaction was concern that the noise and strong vibration of the engine and the vehicle’s garbage chomping feature would stress our little fledgling. But then, in fast pace, team-thinking and action emerged.

Speaking to the Sanitation Worker, Dominic, who was placing garbage bags there into the truck:

  • Someone asked, “Can you help us get this bird back into its nest?” as they pointed to it.
  • The woman with dog who had previously attempted to get a ladder to the scene asked, “Do you have a ladder”? Dominic shook his head and said no.
  • Someone asked, “Can you think of how we can help it?”
  • Someone said, “Why don’t we pull the metal garbage container under the nest?”
  • “Dominic said “I’ll stand on it…” and I said “….and I’ll hand the bird to you”.

Boom, boom, boom – it was a laser-like flow of communication that led to swift and productive action.

With the help of others, Dominic moved and rolled the bin to the position below the nest. He jumped up, each foot on the outer sides of the rim, precariously perched there. Eyes around focused intensely on him. I got myself into Protector-Director mode, asked two men to hold each of Dominic’s thighs, asked someone to stand behind him and another person to stand in front of him – so that if he lost balance he could easily be caught and prevented from injury.

Having read that the widely believed idea that the act of holding a baby bird will inevitably lead to rejection by its mother as she smells human scent is a myth, and feeling confident that sensitive handling would be less traumatic for the little one than placing it in some tissue or the like, I gently scooped the bird into my hands, in a non-bumpy motion placed it in Dominic’s waiting hands, he smoothly placed it on the matted nest carpet within its metal tubing home, and it hopped on in. People cheered. Dominic hopped down, I hugged him, other people hugged him. Such elation had been created by simple teamwork, cooperation and a simple act of kindness. The bin was returned to its original position, and people went on and about their respective ways.

I stayed around a while after that. After some time the mother entered the nest. I waited some more time. The baby was not booted out. It was now well and truly night-time, the chirping of the birds around had subsided, including that of the mother bird, and home I walked.                                                                                  I returned the next afternoon to check on the status quo. That is when I took the photos included here. The mother was sitting on a metal beam nearby, chirping away. And higher up, I could see the little face of the baby bird peering out of its tubular home. I recalled with gratitude the efforts of caring people that made that possible, and felt great joy.

Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis.
Source: Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis.

This piece is for Psychology Today, so now I’ll clarify some psychological, self-help and ‘making life better’ aspects of, along with aspects related to, this experience.

 They include:

  1. Life is a gift, sudden and unanticipated things can happen, we can be booted out of familiar circumstances or fall out of safe environments whether we are birds or human.
  2. If we are not cognitively impaired nor injured critically and if we are willing to hang in there, life-saving or redeeming circumstances may occur. There is a survival-leaning resilient capacity within most humans. When we choose to refuse hopelessness, and focus on possibilities and probabilities that things can and do get better, we strengthen our immune systems, and may live longer, healthier and happier lives. Where there is life there is hope, despite and including how dire some circumstances may seem at the time.
  3. There is a great harmony and beauty when people come together in support of a worthwhile cause. When few or many people, rather than only one person, work towards a common goal and cause, that not only brings a greater amount of human problem-solving energy and power, more hands, greater means for solving problems and creating solutions – it also amplifies feelings of unity, compassion, care, kindness and co-operation.
  4. In practically any rotten circumstance, any one of us has a CHOICE about how we respond or react. Allowing ourselves to succumb to fear, panic or dread will usually NOT efficiently fuel our ability to seek and produce fruitful solutions to problems. We can choose to accept that life will contain challenging situations, and focus on the here-and-now and what can be done therein - rather than on thinking that the situation is desperate, despicable, too hard and awful. In-so-doing we conserve our energies and increase the probability of producing more successful outcomes. Even if the final outcome proves not to be as we wished it to be, we can feel comfortable in knowing that at the time of crisis or difficulty we did the best we could and consequently, with tranquility, can more easily accept what we could not change.
  5. Some people we encounter in some situations may say that they want to be helpful, but their actions prove otherwise. It is beneficial in practically any such situation, to be mindful, watchful and vigilant. Don’t believe the words of those we don’t know too well until there is some evidence that backs those words up.
  6. Be on the lookout for acrobatic buffoons and pranksters, act with caution and protection of self and others when they are around, and diplomatically, assertively and non-aggressively invite them to leave!
  7. Let’s care for others in need, human and non-human, plant-life, and all else on this remarkable planet. Particularly at this time, when many people feel concern and unrest about the situation on the planet, climate warming, and deficits in certain environmental policies, let us make every effort to do what we can in support of the well-being of all forms of life on this earth, not only in terms of the broader picture, but also in our immediate surrounds.
  8. Doing whatever good we can do may not only be life-enhancing and at times lifesaving, it is also uplifting for the mind, heart and soul of any of us who act with care and compassion. In any possible circumstance, where we may do even a small act of kindness, let’s do it. For creatures great and small, human and not.

Like when a vulnerable baby bird, a fledgling incapable of flying, falls to the ground.

About the Author

Debbie Joffe Ellis

Debbie Joffe Ellis, MDAM, Licensed Australian psychologist and Licensed New York Mental Health Counselor, teaches at Columbia University in NYC.

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