It was a struggle to keep these fragile creatures alive. A finger seemed enormous  beside their tiny bodies.

Eventually, we jury-rigged a hamster cage and put the twins outside during the day so they could watch other birds and learn.

The Sparrow Diaries   Part 3

August 29, 2008

Who would ever think that simple sparrows could engender so much unbridled affection?

Fledglings find their way

Roused at first light by Remus's incessant chirping, I trundle upstairs fearful that Romulus is lost to us forever. All night I worried about predators, or that he will simply die from hunger. Opening the balcony door, I immediately spot our scruffy sparrow, perching on the closest maple branch, mere inches away.

I perform my signature feeding whistle, he cocks his head, looks at me and flies to the railing. I hold out a syringe of minced mealworms and insect paté (they're finally off the baby-parrot stuff) and he takes a gobble. Then it's back to the tree for his circus routine of mouth-opening and wing-fluttering at every passing bird. The next time he returns for a beak-full, he hops back in the box.

It has been 15 days since I left the house for more than an hour. I feel like a shut-in. I tell my husband Richard I need to get out. But what about the birds? They will just have to come with us. And so, we make plans to visit a friend's house for dinner. Romulus and Remus are in their box on my lap as we drive across the city. After searching fruitlessly online at Craigslist for a cheap birdcage, I ask my hosts if they happen to own one. No, they reply but will a hamster cage work? Within minutes, the twins are in a new home. I find freedom in feeding them through an open door but I am starting to feel some strange twinges ...

Part of me is troubled that I am too imprinted on the birds and they will never leave; I have already read tales and seen videos of people whose sparrows live with them like children. This was never my idea. I want to ensure the birds can fend for themselves and will, one day soon, fly away and live on their own.

The other part of me is sad at the thought of them departing. Mind you, I am exhausted, so the idea of them taking off into the big blue is momentarily more appealing. We figure that within three days, they should be ready to venture forth.

The morning has dawned bright and fresh. In the past few days, we have witnessed a miracle: Romulus and Remus actually ate some birdseed on their own. My husband suggests today is the day to open the door of the cage.

"Maybe tomorrow is better," I counter, suddenly feeling separation anxiety. "I mean, they're so happy where they are and have you seen them cock their heads to one side when I talk to them? And flutter their wings when I come near? And ..." I can hardly believe my ears. Is that me speaking?

The jury-rigged cage, with its two makeshift perches and rope tied around so I can hang it near the bird feeders, is taken outside. It is 9 a.m. I open the door and hold my breath. Four rapid-fire snapshots later, Remus has flown off into the highest tree. It's her first flight. I'm so proud of her.

Romulus, however, won't budge. He just stares out the open door. Then hops about. And stares some more. We are dumbstruck. Does he know something that we don't? Was that night spent on a limb in monsoon-like weather enough of a taste of the outside world to give him second thoughts? Twenty minutes pass. Then, summoning all his courage, he flies off to the same branch as his sister. We can see them side-by-side in a towering copper beech doing their chirping routine. My eyes well up as my husband puts his arm around me.

I am at a loss. I clean the cage but leave it open in case they want a safe haven. I neatly arrange their food. I sweep the third-floor balcony where they have spent all or some part of 20 days. Now what? I wander about in a fog. I sit outside and scan the trees. Six hours later I hear them (yes, I can actually recognize their chirping) and look up. Wonder of wonders – Remus swoops down from the beech and alights on my head! Then Romulus lands on my arm! I am elated – and then concerned. I put them on a Benjamina twig and rush to the kitchen for mini-mealies. They chow down, go to a higher lilac branch and fall asleep together. They are inseparable.

For three glorious mornings the same scene repeats. As I ponder our good fortune in securing a new life for the twins, I notice a neighbour's cat prowling about in our trellis and even jumping into our yard. I shoo it away, but have a sense of forboding.

Mostly, we have kept our cats inside. Unfortunately, we can't control the neighbour's.

My husband leaves to do errands. I head inside to wash dishes. A half hour later Richard is in the house, the colour drained from his face. A motionless Romulus lies cupped in his hands. I am frozen in anguish.

I spend a good hour crying then ask Richard to bury our beautiful friend. Placing Romulus in the nest where he was born, I wrap it about him like a finely woven shroud. Richard returns with red-rimmed eyes, and says, "I put Romulus next to the little ones in that peaceful corner of the garden."

We are unable to go out, or talk to anyone, for a day.

I email friends for it is in times of sadness that we seek greater wisdom. I am hoping they can help us understand why the ending we had written in our heads has eluded us. The neighbour's cat was merely following his instinct. But why Romulus, gorgeous and perfect? Why us?

But wait. Remus is still out there flying to the tallest trees, calling back when I whistle, finding her way, making friends.

She is more timid now. With the departure of her brother, life must seem somewhat more precarious. But when she hears my voice she gets all a-twitter, ruffling her wings, cocking her head as I tell her that she needs to do more flying because her increasing roundness reminds me more of the penguins I saw in the Antarctic than a little sparrow.

So, as devastated as I am, I am trying to lean toward the fullness of the glass. There is Remus, still Remus, acting more and more like a wild bird every day. You would never know by looking at her that I have cut back on the number of times I provide food (which she always consumes on her own, mini-mealies mixed with seed) and I am trying hard not to whistle at all. I believe I am having a far tougher time than she, but the great good news is that with every moment she is more and more wild; her telltale chirping more and more distant.

With any luck, she'll still be here next spring, maybe with a brood of her own. I think I'll hang on to the remaining mini-mealies and insect paté – just in case.

The feathers came and still Romulus and Remus responded to my makeshift ‘mother’ whistling. But what do you do when your fledglings start to spread their wings...

Gutsy stole our hearts.

It was pouring rain and Remus found a way to take flight to into the tree surrounding the balcony. It was a sleepless night.

The feeding started at dawn and lasted until dusk. Every 15 minutes.

The cage was placed beside several bird feeders.

Max kept a watchful eye as he had since the beginning.

The duo started to fly around the cage. We knew it would soon be time to open the door.

The food had changed to something more substantial. There was little more amusing than watching them eat.

One sunny afternoon, we decided the time had come. Remus was the most interested in the new open-door policy...and soon took flight.

Romulus hopped about, ignoring the open door for more than 20 minutes! Then he stopped, looked around and flew off to join his sister.

More heart-rending images on the photos page

This is the last shot of Romulus and Remus before the neighbour’s cat got involved. In the years since then I have watched that same cat jump into the air to catch birds from its hiding place in a lilac tree. Sad.