June 18, 2024

Saving Baby Blues

Three days ago, there were four.
They had new feathers and hungry mouths
Now there are two,
Plus one sibling lying under the nest,
Stiff and dead.

I remove the dead baby and see three ants.
Was it biting ants or a House Sparrow murder?
Hurry, my heart says. Make a plan.
The babies cry with hunger or anguish or pain…
They screech in desperation.
Save us!

I run to the house in drizzling rain and google.
(Wouldn’t you?)
I learn Diatomaceous earth kills ants fastest.
It won’t hurt the babies.
I learn to feed them cooked egg yolk.
Hurry. There isn’t much time.
I want them to live.

When I open the nesting box again the babies shriek.
Mama save me.
Mama protect me.
Mama feed me.
The anguish is clear.

I spread more Diatomaceous earth
And squash a few ants fleeing the nest.
I feel as helpless as the babies.
I run inside to get egg boiled for my dog
Back outside, I open the door to the box again,
Clutching my egg treasure.

They scream.
Mouths open wide
Mama save me
Help me.
Feed me.
I don’t know their language.
I feel their panic.

The yellow mouths open wide.
I try feeding them with a tweezer, thinking sanitation.
In less than a minute I give up and
Break tiny pieces of egg with my fingers.
I drop small chunks into two begging mouths.
They swallow.

Is that piece too large? She swallows it down.
Is that piece too small?
It disappears into the nest.
On the job training teaches me.
Close the door between bites
They want to swallow in darkness.

After five bites each, their mouths close
I can’t persuade them to open up
I remember trying to persuade my human babies.
Please take one more spoon of oatmeal.
I wait as nestlings settle
And sprinkle more Diatomaceous earth outside the closed box.

I pray the parents will return
To save the babies and save me.
On google, I read that ants hate lemon.
I return home and cut lemon slices
And tuck a few near the nest.

The day is darkening with cold rain.
Their eyes are shut tight.
Exhausted babies surrender to night.
Are they full?
Are they warm enough?
Will Mama return?

Helpless Bluebird Mama

I open the box one last time
Eyes closed, they snuggle together.
I’ve done all I can.
What does a human know about feeding a Baby Blue?
I hope the parents can help them
So I stay away
And send up a prayer for their fragile lives.


It’s been a challenging year for bird babies in my world. The nesting boxes are mostly empty and aggressive House Sparrows attack and kill smaller birds. They’re looking for food for their families, but they aren’t native here and tend toward destruction. Since I was ill and weak, I forgot to put shiny reflecting ribbon on the nesting boxes to scare away the House Sparrows. The Bluebird parents would have overcome fear to save their young, but the ribbons can’t go up on the nesting box just any time. They have to be placed after the first egg is hatched and the parents become daring to save their little ones.

It was a hard time of year to be sick, but I am trying to forgive myself for not doing what worked once in the past. I remembered the ribbons in time to save the last two baby blues, so I’m grateful for their precious lives. They’re being well fed by the parents now and the House Sparrows stay away. Have you ever tried to save a wild baby? Did you succeed?

For happier posts about helping bluebirds, see When the Bluebirds Fledged. Tree Swallows are another reliable occupant of my nesting boxes, but they didn’t nest here this year, probably because of the aggressive House Sparrows. The Tree Swallow’s Sacred Nest is about a successful swallow family a few years ago.


  1. June 23, 2024 at 1:46 pm

    Lin Gregory


    Looking after baby birds can be so stressful – i’m so sorry to hear that the bluebirds didn’t make it, it’s so upsetting when you invest so much love and time for them. We have had some good fortune with wrens in the past but oh my it was stressful keeping an eye out – when we weren’t in the garden I would be looking out of the window constantly for predators and one of us would run out to scare them away! When non-native species are introduced they so often cause a massive imbalance in nature. For you it’s the house sparrows, over here grey squirrels were introduced and promptly nearly completely wiped out our native red squirrels…mans need for new and ‘exotic’ species from abroad has a lot to answer for!

    1. June 23, 2024 at 2:52 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      Flowers are usually easier than baby animals, and I’m less invested in them. I have wrens here, too, but they often stuff nesting boxes with sticks so other birds can’t use the box or they poke holes in the eggs of other birds. Nature is a challenge and can be ruthless, just like humans. We’ve imported Red Squirrels here where they love to get in homes and tear up people’s attics or eat their books. I can trap them live and release them some distance from here, but a House Sparrow (native to Europe) is a bigger problem. I hope you’re having a delightful summer in the garden. I just went out to do a little planting and it began raining, so I’ll wait a few hours and try again. Blessings from my overheated world.

  2. June 23, 2024 at 9:37 am

    Jean Raffa


    I love your nature stories, Elaine. This one is especially touching. I so admire your valiant efforts to save those avian babies and am thrilled to hear they made it. I’m just now reading this after having arrived at our mountain retreat yesterday. I awoke this morning to the tap, tap, tap of a red cardinal on our bedroom window. Is it the same audacious male who’s been our alarm clock for at least 12 years now or a different one? Maybe a descendant of the original who carries on his mission? It’s a joy to be back, surrounded by nature’s delicious mysteries. Love and healing wishes, Jeanie

    1. June 23, 2024 at 2:43 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      I love your Cardinal Alarm Clock, Jeanie. I imagine it could get maddening if you want to sleep late. As you may have read, none of my baby Blues survived. Nine babies!! House Sparrows are aggressive little birds. They want territorial dominance, not food–just like humans. Since I followed all instructions from experts like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society, I may have to give up on Bluebird housing. Fortunately, they do well in the forest in tree cavities, so they’ll find other places to live. I’ve been watching Tree Swallows and Bluebirds in nesting boxes for decades, so the nesting boxes are for my viewing pleasure more than their survival. I miss them already! I’m glad you’re breathing mountain air.

  3. June 19, 2024 at 3:12 pm

    susan scott


    So tender and loving Elaine thank you for adding to the love and care for nature in the world. The sparrows sound like cuckoos in their drive to steal chicks. Is it an innate drive? Although you do say that the sparrows are not indigenous. Thanks for the tips. CD discs are used in our part of the world on roofs as they flash when there’s a breeze – or they just simply flash, keeping hadedas, or Egyptian geese at bay.

    1. June 19, 2024 at 4:23 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      That’s a good question, Susan. I don’t know what the innate drive is, but I expect it’s about territory. They like to perch near a nesting box and scare the bluebirds away or kill them. They also like to destroy eggs. I’ve read everything I can find and tried everything, but I’m not quite ready to give up so there’s always next year. CD discs are a good idea, and I do something similar called a Sparrow Spooker–except it no longer spooks the sparrows. They’ve acclimated to what used to keep them away so maybe I have to take a nesting box break.

  4. June 19, 2024 at 2:10 pm

    Jan Maltzan


    I do understand that Nature is all about survival under the sun and the moon throughout the seasons but to us the human animal, it can appear so cruel and heartless. We can do our best and still come up short of our goal of saving all that walks, flies and crawls. Living in a large metro area surrounded by vast stretches of farm land, rivers and mountains we have an amazing Wildlife Care Association available to those of us who try our best. Spring and summer are the busiest of seasons! Growing up in Central NY 60 years ago I know there was not much help for us in saving abandoned or injured wildlife, but I’m curious – are these types of organizations still not readily available?

    1. June 19, 2024 at 4:09 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      The world-known Cornell Lab of Ornithology is about a half hour drive from me, but I have read everything they share about this issue and lots of other sites, too. If the predator kills the nestlings or scares the parent who then abandons the nest, there’s not too much to do. House Sparrows will corner and kill a female while she incubates her eggs, but in my many years of protecting nesting boxes, I’ve never had such a challenging year. Is it the extreme heat we’re experiencing? I don’t know. I’ll talk to someone in person at Sapsucker Woods (the Cornell Lab of Ornithology) and see if I missed something. There is also the Finger Lakes Land Trust here and my 71 acres have a conservation easement with them, but this issue is appropriate for the Lab of Ornithology. At the moment, I’m resigned to skipping the nesting boxes for a few years so the House Sparrows go elsewhere. Bluebirds thrive nesting in natural tree cavities made by woodpeckers or by a rotting branch. I love watching them and have had wonderful years of joy–and, who knows, maybe there will be more.

  5. June 19, 2024 at 10:38 am



    Wow! 2 baby bluebirds alive from your love. Miraculous

    1. June 19, 2024 at 11:24 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thank you, Gita. The parents abandoned the nest because the House Sparrows were constantly aggressive, so I couldn’t save them. The House Sparrows wiped out another Bluebird nest, too. Raising flowers is easier on the heart.

  6. June 19, 2024 at 8:17 am

    Aladin Fazel


    Ah! It sounds like a thriller! I can imagine how your heart beats to keep these tiny lives intact. I wonder where were the parents? We also have a small house here on the terrace for the tits and their offspring, and as I observe their activities, they are permanently changing and exchanging their duties to care for the babies. Anyway, you did a good job, dear Elaine. I send my prayers for every fragile life everywhere. Be safe and blessed.

    1. June 19, 2024 at 11:19 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      The parents were terrorized and scared away by the House Sparrow. Eventually, if the adults haven’t been killed by the intruder, the adult Bluebirds realize that this nesting spot is not safe and they abandon the starving babies. The intruder was brought to this country from England around 1850 and has no natural predators here. I kept thinking of the struggle for territory and being willing to kill the children. Our human instincts are too much like birds. This is the first time I couldn’t find a way to protect a nest, so there’s always more to learn from Nature and to learn about the price of attachment. Sometimes doing our best is not enough. Be well and take care of the precious babies–birds and humans.

  7. June 18, 2024 at 10:08 pm

    Marian Beaman


    I rejoiced when I read these words: “I remembered the ribbons in time to save the last two baby blues, so I’m grateful for their precious lives. They’re being well fed by the parents now and the House Sparrows stay away.”
    You did what you could and it worked. Hallelujah! As I read your riveting story I thought back to the neonatal nurses in the NICU and their valiant efforts to save human babies, including our grandson Ian. I also remembered my sisters and I many years earlier trying and failing to save two baby bunnies. I don’t remember what happened to the mama, but we nursed her teeny bunnies by putting cow’s milk into tiny bottles, the ones we used to “feed” our dolls. We were devastated when they died, but understood our efforts fell short. We named them Marilyn and Carolyn. It’s been years since I thought of that incident, but your story sparked that memory. Thanks, Elaine, the Caring One. 😀

    1. June 19, 2024 at 11:06 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      The metallic ribbon worked in the past and it worked temporarily this time, but the House Swallows refused to be discouraged. They didn’t kill the last nestlings, but attacked the parents and forced them to abandon the nest. Those House Sparrows are ruthless. I pay a price for taking sides. I love your bunny story. I tried to save some baby chicks when I was around 10–and my dog ate them. Messing with Nature is full of joy and disappointment. I still have Mourning Doves, Hummingbirds, and many kinds of finches. I’ll get over it. Sending love from NY which feels as hot and humid as FL.

  8. June 18, 2024 at 9:56 pm



    Powerful piece, Elaine! Blessings of the bluebirds!

    1. June 19, 2024 at 11:07 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thanks, Harriet. In the end, the whole problem was the aggressive House Sparrows and I couldn’t set up a tent at the Bluebird Nesting box to save them.

  9. June 18, 2024 at 8:22 pm

    Myra B


    This is a cliff-hanger! Did the parents come back? I suspect some critter dumped out the chicks and the ants were just there for a snack, alas. But, Elaine, your deep caring for beloved flora and fauna is wonderful.
    House sparrows once took over a box of nesting bluebirds when I lived in Trumansburg. A bird-loving friend said, “Kill Them!!!” But, I didn’t really know what to do – I suppose she meant the babies, and I just couldn’t do it. When I moved to Ithaca I learned to put up several bird houses near (not too near) each other, and bluebirds have nested there year after year. But this year, suddenly the happy birds were gone and some larger, brownish birds moved in. Turns out the invaders are crested flycatchers, which I’ve never seen – or heard screech – before. I decided they are welcome too, and I did see the former lovely inhabitants in a different part of the yard. I’ll try to put up additional boxes later or next summer. I guess everyone needs a home – except maybe not house sparrows!

    1. June 19, 2024 at 10:58 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      The House Sparrows either killed the chicks or terrorized the parents enough that they abandoned the nest and the chicks starved. Nature can be cruel. I’ve never had a House Sparrow invasion, but they’re nasty (and cute). The man who works for me can shoot them (the House Sparrows, not the Bluebirds), but I can’t stand it, so they chased away or killed the Bluebirds and Tree Swallows despite predator guards and sparrow spookers and every other human trick. The House Sparrows won this year. I have many boxes at the distance suggested by the Lab of Ornithology, but House Sparrows are ruthless. I’ve never had Flycatchers in my 7 boxes, but the boxes stayed empty this year except for the Bluebirds. Even the Tree Swallows were wise enough to move on.

      Bluebirds will find other nesting sites at the edge of the forest, so the ones who lived through the invasion or others who arrive next spring will be just fine. I’m the one who wants to watch them raise their families. That won’t happen for a while. I still have many other birds around, but no one with glistening blue feathers and their own song lyrics.

  10. June 18, 2024 at 12:48 pm

    Deborah Gregory


    Oh the drama of it, Elaine! Firstly, well done for doing all that any human mama could do (which sounds like it was quite a lot!) and for sharing your delightful prose and wonderful photos with us. Gosh, they really were tiny babies weren’t they?! Personally, I wouldn’t know where to start as my experience of trying to help baby birds has been a real mixed bag.

    A few years ago I tried feeding a baby magpie who was sheltering in my garden, with tail feathers too short to fly. I waited and watched for hours but no parents were feeding him so I dug up a few worms and offered them but alas, he didn’t want them. I barely slept that night and ran straight out to the garden only to find he had already dead beneath the hedge.

    However, I had one really positive experience the day the baby wrens fledged. Throughout the last day, squirrels, a jay and a pair of determined crows tried to get into the box, but as I was sitting outside writing I put myself on ‘wren watch’ and saw off all threats, only to be rewarded with five fluffy chicks fledging successfully that afternoon. Love and light, Deborah.

    1. June 19, 2024 at 10:43 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      We have a world known Lab of Ornithology near me, so I have knowledgeable resources. I’ve provided nesting boxes for Bluebirds and Tree Swallows for ~25 years and never had such a bad year. House Sparrows were imported from England about 1850 and don’t have natural predators here, so when they take charge, it’s hard to stop them. The final act of this drama was the Bluebird parents were chased away from the nest and that’s why the two weren’t being fed. They were being dive bombed. I saw the male Bluebird a few times, but the House Sparrow chased him away. Those babies didn’t have a chance. I still have many, many birds here and my sweet Mourning Dove couple and humming birds and finches of various kinds. There’s another Mourning Dove couple out near the barn. Bluebirds are mythologically beautiful and this is the price I pay for attachment. I’ll talk to people at the Lab of Ornithology again when I’m less upset. My guess is they’ll tell me to give up on nesting boxes. I’ve read and learned and I think I’ve done everything a human can do. If I don’t give the House Sparrows easy targets, maybe I can have nesting boxes again in a few years. Maybe. Sigh…

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