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Red Paint

/anne-sophie olsen

The Orphan


Not fully one day old, and small enough, still, to be cupped in one hand, the hatchling sparrow already knew the rhythm of hunger, which rises and falls without cease. Every twenty minutes, and sometimes before, it wriggled and gaped its beak. More accurately, its beak would begin to gape, and the wriggle, driven by something more naked than instinct, more invisible than impulse, would follow. It was a movement that spoke of growth, and immediacy of need. This was accompanied by a near-imperceptible peep peep peep, which persisted until the biological impulse that engendered it, hunger, was appeased. Then the beak closed, the head drooped to rest, and the body, for twenty silent minutes, stilled.

In these moments, the hatchling seemed dead. But it would always revive. Even after it nearly choked on the food at the end of my tweezers — dog food, moistened, with applesauce and egg — inhaling it partway into the lungs and coughing an hour into the night, it revived. By morning, it was peeping as usual, gaping and wriggling and peeping until it was fed. This is how my father found him, naked and wriggling in the middle of the driveway, peeping at nothing and no one until he was brought inside and given me to peep at, though he wouldn’t have known the difference. To his blind less-than-instinct, one moment there was no food, no warmth, and the next, there were these in abundance.

I realized I’ve started to write “him” instead of “it.” This is natural, isn’t it? to give personhood to the things we want to love us.


The age of a hatchling sparrow can be determined at a glance by its skin and its eyes. During the first few days of its life, a hatchling will be mostly a naked pink, with its eyes sealed over by dark gray lids. It will resemble, bodily, a miniature plucked chicken. Everything that you know to define Bird (wings, claws, tail) is only just starting to shape itself. Quickly, though, pin feathers begin to sprout along the front curve of the wings, along the spine, and like the bristles of a broom from the nub where the tail will soon be. Though the eyelids are still sealed, the hatchling begins to resemble something independent. It is, of course, still a full week and a half from being bodily autonomous, but the pin feathers make it look less raw, less vulnerable. By the fifth or sixth day, its legs have gained some strength, and now the claws are perceptible — little needle tips. Gray skin has scaled over parts of the wings, back, and rump, giving it the appearance of being partially armored. This, alongside the claws and swiftly lengthening pin feathers, makes the hatchling resemble a tiny dinosaur. Its eyes are open now. You wonder if it is aware of you as you drift in and out of the room, heeding its calls for nourishment.


It was understood that I would be attempting to raise the sparrow alone, being the only one in the family impulsive enough to take on the burden without a second thought (this burden being not only the care of the hatchling, but also the loss of my personal time, and the possibility of emotional fallout if the hatchling didn’t survive). A week into my caretaking duties, my family took a two-day road trip from Minnesota to Virginia, to visit the university I’d attend as a graduate student in the fall. The sparrow traveled with us in a toilet-paper lined shoebox that I heated with hand-warmers and cradled in my lap during the drive. With the shoebox lid on, and the sparrow’s peeping not yet strong enough to raise suspicion, we smuggled him into and out of hotels. At night, I draped a towel over the shoebox to keep in the warmth, leaving a corner uncovered for air and sometimes rising in the night to make sure he was breathing. I remember bursting into tears multiple times under the strain of giving the sparrow near-constant attention. He had grown fussier to feed, often refusing food off the tweezers, and I had no syringe to replace it. Once or twice, when I rose in the morning and crossed the dim hotel room to meet his demands for food, he flinched away from me and huddled in the far corner of the shoebox, head low, trembling.


By its tenth or eleventh day, the sparrow, now nearly a fledgling, has grown so many down feathers it hardly resembles the creature it was on day one. The little hollow quills that have been growing along the wings have unsheathed their soft brown barbs: wing coverts, the beginnings of real feathers. There is real strength in its legs. It uses its claws to grip your forefinger, on which it perches so you can lift it up from the shoebox to switch out the dirtied paper towels. There is a discernible difference in the vitality of its chirping — no longer helpless, now insistent. It chirps now not only to beg for food, but to locate its caretaker. Where are you? it peeps from the corner of the room. Here, I’m here, you respond, and it quiets. In only a few more days, it will start to fly, and be known as a fledgling.


I know now that he flinched from me in the unfamiliar light of the hotel because I wore a shirt colored bright red like a warning, the same one that, in my six weeks of caring for him, would send him into a frenzy every time he saw it, so that he’d fling himself against the wire cage, rattling the bars so they seemed about to break. If I’d had the reflectivity of mind then that I do now, I would have stopped wearing the shirt around him in order to test his loyalty. I would have known that I wanted what I could not have. I would have seen, then, that he was a creature of something more naked than instinct, of something that made him twitch and dart more quickly than I could blink, that would call to him the minute I brought him outside to set him free.

On the day he learned to fly, though, he favored my shoulder as a perch above all else. He flew first in short bursts, launching himself from carpet to knee, knee to stomach, stomach to crook of the arm, and then to the shoulder. His legs scrabbled surfaces, whatever they could find, in support of his flight. When he reached my shoulder, he would rest. Feathers lightly fluffed, he sat and chirped into my ear, watching the house pass by as I walked from room to room to room. By the end of the first day, he flew to my finger when beckoned.


The parents of fledged sparrows continue to feed their brood for several weeks post-fledging. This is the tactic: feed them regularly, so they don’t starve, but teach them to scout for insects, to scour the grass for seeds. There are the seeds of dandelions, which parachute in the wind. Thistle similarly blows its crown wide open, begetting a feast. Then, of course, there is human refuse to consider: crumbs of grain fallen on the back deck after a meal, a sliver of picnic cantaloupe dropped in the grass, or maybe apple. Sparrows have been known to use human behaviors to their advantage, and have been caught on camera dipping through the automatic sliding doors of restaurants in pursuit of a chip or a French fry. Even sparrows seek the finer things in life.


Living with him was an agony. He defecated on most surfaces, including my shoulder. He ate messily. He loathed (rightly so) being put back in his cage, where he needed to be when I wasn’t in the room (note the messy eating and the defecating). After several weeks, it became almost impossible to put him back in the cage without much struggle and evasion on his end, and much frustration on mine. I knew that he had already imprinted on me, that his creaturely mind considered the two of us an animal one and the same. I knew that I wanted to keep him — my mind shunned the term “pet,” preferring, perhaps, “friend” or “companion.” Still, I wished once that he would simply evaporate. Maybe he wished it too. Once or twice, when released from his cage, he flew directly into a wall or window and buckled to the floor.


House sparrows are one of three North American birds not protected by wildlife law. Meaning that, should you find a hatchling bluebird or a fledged red-tailed hawk, you must be under no illusions that you may keep it. These are precious birds, counted and catalogued by birders and scientists alike, who sit in board rooms and write innumerable articles eagerly discussing methods of conservation (rightly so). However, should you find a hatchling house sparrow, pigeon, or starling fallen from its nest, you are under no obligation to deliver it to the nearest wildlife center. In fact, you are discouraged from doing so. Keep the pest, if you like, by all means. The wildlife center you bring it to will most likely dispose of it quietly.


After I’d first brought the hatchling into the house, a basic internet search revealed to me my error: I had done a needless thing. The parents of fallen hatchling sparrows will continue to care for them on the ground, provided they can find them, and they haven’t gone cold. I hurried to put the hatchling back where we found him, under a plant in the front yard to shade him from the sun, in a shoebox to keep the ants away. I waited. Took a shower, ate dinner. A few hours later, in the cool, early evening air, I went back outside. His body had grown cold, and the skin was red and wrinkling from dehydration. He made no sound. Was he too weak to do so? No parent sparrow would find him, hidden under a plant, if he was silent. Gently, I moved the shoebox, and he wriggled to life with a violence that startled me. All of his being writhing toward provision unknown to him.


House sparrows are notoriously aggressive. Not only are they known for cheating other species out of nesting sites and attacking the nests of birds much larger than themselves, but they are also vicious amongst their own kind. Male and female sparrows alike are quick to leap and jab at one another over the smallest perceived infraction. The squabbling of sparrows is so common an occurrence that those people who live alongside flocks tend to no longer hear their chirps and angry chattering: all of it drifts into background noise. The human who undertakes the care of an orphaned sparrow must also accustom herself to such offenses as the nipping of an earlobe or pecking of the lip, and understand that these attacks are merely displays of dominance, which is muddled, for the sparrow, with playfulness. There is no reprimanding or reasoning with a sparrow. It abides by its own code of conduct, and should it come to see you as another sparrow, it will treat you as such. This phone, it will insist, is mine. This laptop is mine. This fork. This book. This shelf. Mine, mine, mine.


I understand now that I tried to love a wild thing. Mostly, I think I succeeded. But is a wild thing meant to love in return?

I released him with little fanfare. It was unplanned — I had been preparing to make the trip once more from Minnesota to Virginia with him in tow, this time in a travel-size bird cage instead of a shoebox, so that he could live with me in the large, renovated barn I would be renting alone while I completed my graduate degree. I liked to picture him perched atop a bookshelf while I read, my desk while I wrote, keeping the long vigil of two years’ solitude with me. But he had become increasingly resistant to handling. He shied away when I entered the room, and distrusted me when I tried to put him back in the cage. I increased the time he spent outside the cage from two hours to three (owing to my family’s clean furniture, and the dog, he had to be kept alone in my study), but this only seemed to make him more agitated when it was time to go back in. His wildness grew from him like a shadow. He feared to be near me. I hated what seemed like his hatred of me, though of course he could feel no such complex thing as hatred. It thwarted me all the same. So I released him, during an afternoon when the sun washed the bare planks of the back deck with warmth, and sparrows were chirping, it seemed, fraternally, from rooftops and high in the trees.

Anne-Sophie Olsen hails from St. Paul, Minnesota. Currently, she attends the MFA program at Hollins University.


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