Sunday, July 4, 2010

Black Eyes

The car suddenly pulled up in front of the open doors. We all looked up, surprised. I could see the woman in the front passenger seat was holding the head of a Canada goose. I immediately noticed its shiny black eyes, but there was something behind them that troubled me. We all jumped into action, Janey getting a large cage out of one of the back rooms, someone else getting a towel. We opened the car door and the woman got out, keeping a tight hold of the bird, which was wrapped partly with a towel and partly with her denim jacket. She explained that they had found the bird at the reservoir where they had just spent the day, and something was very wrong with its foot. I dashed out to my car to retrieve my emergency kit, while Donna found a syringe and tube to get some hydration into this bird. As I held its beak open and Donna put the tube down its throat, its shiny black eyes seem to be pleading, or maybe it was the look of one who had just given up.

After we finished, we looked at his leg and found a horrific wound. The leg was swollen three times its normal size and then we saw why. There was fishing line wrapped around it so tightly that it had almost severed the poor bird’s foot from the leg. The foot was useless and dangling. It must have taken weeks to get that bad, and the bird must have been in excruciating pain.

Janey immediately called Dr. Susan Klopfer, one of the wonderful vets who works with our organization, hoping she hadn’t already closed for the day, as it was after 5:00. Luckily she was still there and said to bring him right over. Janey and I carried the large cage, with the goose inside, out to her Suburban, and took off. Thankfully, the vet was just around the corner only about two minutes away, and they were waiting for us with the doors open. Janey and I carried the cage in, and Dr. Susan waved us to follow her back into the surgery area.

She got the goose out of the cage and put it on the table with the help of one of her assistants. She took one look at the leg and said there was no hope for this beautiful bird. As I got a small towel to cover the bird’s eyes so it wouldn’t be quite so terrified, she retrieved a syringe with filled with pink liquid, found a very large vein under the bird’s wing, and gently put it out of its suffering.

I cried for this senseless and preventable death. Just because someone was too lazy, or too unthinking, to take their used fishing line when they were finished fishing, this beautiful bird died. Unfortunately, this is only too common. I would like to believe that, if these people knew their neglect was killing wildlife, they would be more careful and dispose of their old fishing line and hooks. I would hope that this bird didn’t die in vain, that someone will read his story and remember it next time they’re fishing. It’s such an easy thing to do.

I will not soon forget those pleading black eyes.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Old and the New

For months, Laurel had been asking me to help her do this, but I just seemed to keep procrastinating.  Finally, we agreed on a day that she, I and Karen all had free, and as I sat there doing it, I understood why I had subconsciously been putting it off.  It was somewhat physically demanding, but its emotional toll was even more so.

It was a pretty day, sunny and in the upper 70’s.  The three of us were at Laurel & Eric’s house to “harvest” feathers.  The theory behind it is simple, with a procedure called “imping,” which you can Google to find out more about, if interested. You can also check out:

Doing this requires feathers that have been “harvested” from another bird, so that they can be released back into the wild as complete as possible.  As long as we have the same feather from the same kind of bird, we can splice and super-glue the two pieces together, and won’t ever have to release a bird with broken feathers again.  The most important ones are the flight feathers and tail feathers, which are crucial to a bird being able to fly balanced. 

Without repairing or replacing feathers, we would have to keep a bird in captivity until it grew a new feather to replace the old one, which may take months in some cases.  Not an ideal situation when you are trying to get a raptor back into the wild as quickly as possible.  Raptors usually tend to molt twice a year, and if a feather is broken right after it has been molted and re-grown, it could be 6 months or more before the next molt, when that feather will be replaced.  That’s a major problem for an animal that relies on its wings to survive.  Interestingly, when a bird is molting, it will molt a feather from one wing, and the next day molt the same feather from the other wing, so that it’s always balanced.

Each wing has 10 primary and 13 secondary feathers, so you have to make sure you get the same feather position for replacement.  For instance, if primary #2 on the left wing was broken, you’d need primary #2 from the left wing of the same species of hawk to replace it.  So, because we have birds that we are unable to save (unfortunately), we have access to feathers that we can use which might help another bird be able to get back into the wild right away.

We set up the table outside on their patio, under their beautiful cedar trees, along with scissors, pliers, cardboard, tape and markers.  Laurel disappeared for a few minutes, reappearing from around the garage with an armload of plastic bags which, upon further inspection, contained the bodies of some of the birds that didn’t make it, which had been stored in their outside freezer.

We proceeded to get the first bird out and cut the wings off, deciding to leave the feathers intact on the wing, which would make it easier to store and to harvest when we needed to.  I set about the task, trying not to think too much about what I was doing.  Laurel warned me that the tail feathers didn’t come out easily, and she was right.  Those took all my strength to pull out, one-by-one, with pliers.

The wings were then taped to a piece of cardboard, along with the tail feathers carefully kept in the right order.  The cardboard was marked as to what kind of bird the feathers were from, the sex (if known), and the medical case number, which we give to every raptor that comes to us.  Some of these birds I remembered from when we first got them, which didn’t make it any easier emotionally.  The cardboard, with feathers, was then put into a large zip lock baggie, and returned to the freezer.  The rest of the bird will later be burned, which is what we are legally required to do.

The wing and tail feathers of these birds were perfect and incredibly beautiful, and even though we chatted to keep our minds off what we were doing, after about the 5th or 6th bird, all of a sudden I found myself absentmindedly stroking the head of a beautiful red-shouldered hawk that I had just pulled out of the bag to work on.  Laurel looked at me and said “You’ve had enough, haven’t you?”  I looked at her and, on the verge of tears, said “yes,” suddenly feeling very overwhelmed.  She then said she had experienced the same exact thing when she was doing this by herself one rainy day a few weeks earlier.  Unfortunately, she didn’t stop when she got to that point, and after doing 3 more birds, found herself standing in the rain, in her driveway, crying.  So, we stopped right then, and cleaned things up.  Hopefully we’ll be able to put some of these beautiful feathers to good use in the future. .  Now, when we have injured raptors missing feathers, the feathers we have been harvesting will fly once more.

Going inside the house, we were able to lift our spirits by checking on two of the most recent babies in our care – a fledgling American kestrel and a fledgling Western screech owl.  What adorable little ferocious raptors they are.  Once they are fully fledged, they will be released in the areas where they were found. 

It helped my heart to see these new little ones, full of promise and the ferocity of life, after what we had just finished doing.  As we put the old behind us, we focus on the new.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

And so it begins

And so it begins. Spring. We’ve slid by these winter months with only a few injured birds – hawks, owls – some made it, some didn’t. But all along, we knew in the back of our minds that “baby season” is going to be here before we know it. Those times during the winter when people called, saying they found a baby owl – and us, knowing that it wasn’t a baby since it was the wrong time of year, that it was probably a Western screech owl, or pygmy or saw-whet owl. So when the call came in last Sunday that someone had found a baby owl, my immediate thought was “no, it’s probably not a baby, it’s probably a screech owl.” But then I stopped myself, knowing that, indeed, it very well could be a baby now. I asked the woman on the other end of the phone to describe it and, as she did, I knew that it was, indeed the first baby of the season.

I call Karen to see if she wants to go with me to get it. Of course she does! So we drive to the little town of Olivehurst just south of Marysville, about 40 miles from Grass Valley. The woman has left for work, but her son, who is the one who actually found the owlet, is there. He disappears into the back of the house and comes out with a crudely taped cardboard box, followed closely by two younger girls. I open the box, fully expecting to see a baby barn owl, and am surprised to see a baby great-horned owl, all grey fuzz and big yellow eyes, probably about 2 or 2-1/2 weeks old. He’s quite dehydrated, so we quickly head back to the clinic with him to check him over. We don’t find any injuries, bruising, or anything else wrong with him. We hydrate him and offer him 2 small mice, which he readily eats, as he sits on the table peering around the room, trying to take in his new surroundings.

We then take him over to Kim’s house, in the hopes that Kim’s educational great-horned owl, Sasha, might be interested in raising him. Kim keeps him in a small carrier inside Sasha’s mew (cage) for 2 days, and feeds and hydrates him regularly. Within two days, it’s decided to try to re-nest the little guy back where he came from, so Wednesday morning Kim, Eric, Mark and Kelly all drive down to Olivehurst to the abandoned lumber mill where the owlet was found.

When they go into the long-abandoned warehouse, they scare out two great-horned owls and a barn owl. The floor is littered with owl pellets (the regurgitated indigestible bones and fur of eaten animals) in one area below where a giant metal door is rolled up, so they concentrate their nest-finding efforts there. Eventually they find where the baby had fallen from, a remarkable 25-30 feet up, and proceed to get the ladder and rappelling rope (Mark is a tree guy, so has a lot of that kind of equipment) up there to check the area out. Great-horned owls aren’t big on building nests – they usually use an abandoned one or a hollow in a tree. In this case, they apparently just laid an egg on the top of the huge metal door, between the door and the ceiling. Eric has brought a “nest” – a plastic box with sides about 6-8 inches high so the baby can’t fall out again, and they put a little bit of straw on the bottom before putting the baby in it and depositing him on the top of the door. They have weighed him, and also leave 4-5 mice with the hope that the parents will feed him.

After two sleepless nights, Mark and Kelly go back Friday morning to check on him. They can see the parents outside in a tree, watching. Mark again climbs the ladder up to the nest and is greeted with much beak-clacking by the baby, which is a defensive thing owls do. Not only are all the mice gone that they had left, but there is part of a fresh pigeon kill in with the baby! And, not only that, but he’s gained weight! Mark practically falls off the ladder, he’s so thrilled. Assuring themselves that all is well, they leave him to be raised by his parents, who obviously can do a much better job than we can.

All of us are ecstatic that this is such a great success story, especially after the last few months where almost all of the birds that have been brought to us, haven’t made it. It was a much-needed boost in the arm (and heart) for all of us, to have this work out so absolutely perfectly.

I just wish they all had such a happy ending.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Miracle Hawk (from April 2009)

The Miracle Hawk

The call came in on a Sunday afternoon: a hawk on the ground. As always, on my way to pick it up, I wondered what I would encounter. Would it even be a hawk? One is never sure of anything when going on these calls. We’ve gone out on hawk calls before and had it turn out to be a quail, or a young blue jay, or a young pigeon… After driving about a mile and a half out a dead-end dirt road, I first came across three people and two dogs next to a stream. It turned out to be the woman who had called about the hawk, her young daughter and son, and their two large and rambunctious dogs. She pointed to where the bird was, and my first thought was “Wow, that is one huge hawk!” It was across a small field of weeds about a foot and a half high, but most of the bird’s body was above the tops of the weeds. As it turned out, it was a red-tailed hawk that was sitting on some rocks which were the same height as the weeds, so it made the bird look really tall. I asked the woman if she could have the dogs put away, which she readily did.

As I slowly approached the bird, she spread her wings, lifted the crest feathers on her head, and opened her beak in typical raptor defensive posture. But she was very weak and put up no resistance, falling over as I put the blanket over her. She had a nasty open and bleeding wound on her wing, and was very thin.

I rushed her to the clinic and got Mike Furtado to help me examine her from head to toe. We could find no other wound other than the wing wound, which was enough, as we could see a broken bone through the hole in her skin. She was thin and dehydrated, and after cleaning & disinfecting the wound, hydrating and medicating her, we left her to recover in a warm cage in the clinic.

Later that night, I lay in bed listening to the pouring rain. I was SO glad that the bird was safe and dry inside, instead of standing out in the field in the cold rain, slowly dying. I silently thanked the people who had cared enough to call us.

A few days later she was seen by Dr. Lund at Mother Lode Veterinary Hospital, who, after x-raying the wing, mended the break and pinned it with an “external fixator” on the outside of the wing to hold the bones in place while they healed. As usual with extreme cases, she was taken to Laurel and Eric’s for extra care. It was touch-and-go for about the first week – all of us holding our collective breaths waiting to see if she was even going to make it. She had to be force-fed, given 3 medications twice a day, and have the wound cleaned every day. Her wing was badly bruised – green and purple –the hole itself having been stitched closed by Dr. Lund. One night Laurel thought she had lost her when she found her lying on her side with her eyes closed.

Eventually, she began eating on her own, but was still very docile – something a wild raptor should never be. She was also found to have two different kinds of internal parasites, and had to be medicated for those, as well.

As the days went by, she slowly gained weight and grew a little stronger every day. She finally began showing some aggression when being handled – a great sign!

I saw her about three weeks to the day after picking her up. What a different bird! Her wing looked great, the bruising was gone and the skin coloring normal. The incision was healed, and Dr. Lund had removed part of the fixator earlier in the week. She was eating well and gaining weight. We put her in the flight cage to exercise and build up her flight muscles.
A few weeks later, we deemed her ready to go. I contacted the family who had called us about her, and they were excited to meet us back in the same spot she was found, to watch the release.
She had eaten well that morning at the clinic and had a full crop. One never knows quite how a release is going to go, and this one was a bit different.
As the small group of on-lookers watched, I stood at the edge of the field she was found in, and tossed her into the air, thinking she’d fly majestically away. She went about 2 feet and landed on the ground in front of me. I picked her up and tried again. This time she flew very low across the field and landed, wings askew, in a low bush on the other side of the little stream she had been found next to. I was a little bit concerned and wasn’t sure why she wasn’t flying away. I made my way across the field, plucked her out of the bush, looked her over, and tossed her into the air once again. This time she flew into a low tree branch. Later, I found out that when a raptor has a full crop like that, they just sit and wait until it gets digested, then they fly off.

Despite the undistinguished release, it was amazing that she even survived. She truly was a Miracle Bird.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Osprey (written in the summer, 2007)

My heart rose excitedly and fell in sympathy at the same time, when I saw her. A beautiful osprey, one of my all-time favorite raptors. I was still fairly new to rehabbing, having only been doing it for a few months, and was excited to be closer to one that I ever imagined, yet sad to see her in a cage. At that moment, though, I felt determined to do everything I could to help her recover so she could be released back to where she belonged. I felt privileged to have Mike Furtado teach me how to take the temperature of, and give my first injection to, a bird of prey. I felt further privileged to help hold her head and open her beak to be fed. I was in awe that I was holding the head of a wild osprey in my hand. On another day I was lucky enough to hold her against my chest, while someone else stuffed small chunks of dripping fish pieces down her throat. It was heartening to watch her be creanced from the top of a nearby hill, and I was impressed with the dedication of the special people involved in it -- to be out in the hot 95-degree full sun, trudging up and down this hill over and over, patiently and determinedly retrieving her from the ground and carrying her back up the hill to fly her once again.

She captured my heart, and the hearts of everyone who worked with her. I knew that when it was time to say goodbye, my heart would soar with her in her freedom, and yet be broken to never see her again.

Epilogue: she was released the next year, at Clearlake, where she had been found.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

And Then There Are Stories Like This! (9/21/08)

It started like any other Sunday morning at the Raptor Clinic. About 9:30, while in the middle of taking care of the birds we currently have, the phone in the clinic rang. That’s WR&R’s line, and whenever it rings, it is someone calling about a songbird that needs rescuing, or mammal, or raptor. The answering service picks it up, but whenever it rings, we all assume that deer-in-the-headlights position, look at each other, and say "uh oh." Since I’m on call on Sundays, if my cell phone doesn't ring after a few minutes (which would be the answering service calling me), we know it wasn't a raptor call and we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Well, this morning, we weren't so lucky. My cell rang a few minutes later with a report that a woman had an injured vulture. I took the number and called the woman, who said her dog and a neighbor's dog, had a turkey vulture on the ground the previous afternoon and she thought it was injured because it couldn't fly; possibly with an injured wing and/or injured leg.

Somehow, they had gotten the bird into their rabbit hutch (separate from the rabbit!) where it stayed the night. I told her we'd be there in a couple of hours when we were done at the clinic. Finishing up about 11:00, Mark Roberts and I loaded a large pet carrier, as well as the necessary accoutrements (gloves, towel, paperwork, brochures) into my car and headed out. We discussed possible scenarios on the way -- if it had a broken wing, that's not good for a bird that relies almost exclusively on using its wings to survive. We both thought this would probably not be a good outcome and thought that we'd probably end up taking it back to the clinic and having to euthanize it.

We drove out toward the “Y” where Brunswick and 174 meet. We turned on one road, then another, the roads getting smaller and smaller, and we finally came to the very end of a small dirt road. As we parked, a man came out of the house followed by 1... 2... 3... 4 small boys between the ages of 6 and 8, and then the woman, Sylvia, who I had spoken with on the phone. All barefoot (the boys, not the man, whose name was Craig), the kids were the ones who had found it the day before, so we asked them for the story. Of course, they all started talking at once very animatedly and very excitedly to say who first saw it, what they thought it was at the time, etc. We finally pieced together that they had been out playing by the pond and noticed that the dogs had something on the ground -- one of them first thought it was a mountain lion (little boys' imagination being what it is, I'm surprised they didn't think it was a grizzly bear)...

Anyway, they realized it was a large bird and very responsibly got the dogs away from it. One of the little boys even took off his shirt and threw it over the bird, which of course immediately calms the bird and stops it from moving. We were very impressed when we heard this part. Enter Craig and Sylvia, who somehow managed to get the bird back to the house and into their rabbit hutch. So, we went over to the rabbit hutch to check the bird out. Mark opened the cage door and sat down on the ground, immediately sitting in the little water dish that the people had left in there for the bird. The bird was very quiet until Mark reached into the cardboard box it was hiding in, and when he pulled this very active bird out, we both said at the same time, "it's just a baby!" It had fuzzy grey feathers on top of its head instead of the bare, red head of an adult, although he did have adult plumage.

We checked him out, his wings seemed fine, his legs were fine, and he was even doing what vultures do when they feel threatened, which is to vomit whatever they have in their stomachs (we don't EVEN want to go there!). Luckily Mark was holding him... We felt his keel (chest) and were pleased to discover that he was not at all thin, he seemed in good body weight, so we deduced that he just fell or jumped out of the nest (as young birds do when they are learning to fly) and couldn't get up into a tree fast enough to get away from the dogs.

We wanted to see where he was found, to see if we could locate the nest, so we put him in the carrier we had brought and left him in the shade while we all trooped down to the pond. We hoped that we could either find the nest, or at the very least, get him back into a tree and off the ground away from predators. The boys eagerly lead us down a little path that wound through a tangled forest of pines, oaks, shrubs, and blackberry bushes to a hidden and beautiful good-sized pond. Along the way, I asked "How did you get our number?" and one of the little boys replied "My Grandma is with Wildlife Rescue." I said "Really? What's her name?” “Kim,” was the reply. Mark and I both said “Kim Franza”?? Kim is one of the directors and team leaders of the Raptor Center! So here were two of her grandsons at these people's house – it turns out they are classmates of the two boys that live there and had a sleep-over the night before. Small world, and small town!

We found "white-washed" bushes (evidence of large birds roosting overhead) so we knew we were in the right vicinity, not to mention that there were vultures flying overhead the whole time. It was obvious that if the bird was on the ground in this forest, there's no way he'd be able to get enough lift to fly, because it was so thick with vegetation. Since vultures are large birds and have such a large wing span, they need a little bit of a runway (like a plane does) in order to get airborne.

Mark and I discussed whether we should take the bird back to the clinic, or just release it nearby. We couldn't release it back into the forest where it was found because of the vegetation, though, especially with dogs and coyotes (which the people also said were around) running around loose. The boys said there was a large open field not far away, so we thought "perfect!" If we could launch him there and he could fly, that would be great. Otherwise, if he couldn't fly, we'd just pick him up and take him back to the clinic’s flight cage until he could, then bring him back and release him there. Knowing that every day at the clinic is not a good day for a wild bird, we really didn't want to do that unless we had no choice, especially since he was in such good shape.

Craig said we could drive to the field they were talking about, so we went back to the house and loaded the bird (in the carrier), Craig and Mark into my Toyota Corolla. Suddenly two of the boys come charging out of the forest, breathless and wild-eyed, saying they just saw two coyotes in the field and there were "a thousand vultures in the trees!" all around the field. So, we headed out a little dirt road that wound through the forest we’d just walked through. The boys and the woman met us there (the boys had dashed back into the forest after relating this news to us) and, although we did not find exactly 1,000 vultures, we did find at least 20 or more of the birds festooned in the surrounding trees, with more flying overhead, and a large open field. PERFECT SPOT! Mark got the bird out, let him get his bearings for a minute, and launched him into the air above the field. He took off flying low, then flew past the trees where we saw him continue to gain altitude, higher and higher, putting as much distance as he could between himself and these strange beings that had held him in captivity. It was awesome! What a wonderful rescue and release, all within about 45 minutes! We all high-fived and hugged each other, and everyone was all smiles and full of thank yous. The boys would have quite a story to tell their classmates the next day. As we were leaving, Mark overheard one of the boys say "This is the best sleep-over I've ever had!"

We were elated that we didn't have to take it back and put it down. Or even take it back at all. It was the absolute best scenario bird rescue kind of a day!

Monday, February 22, 2010

It's Not Always Good

He came to us with hope,

But he was too badly broken.

His eyes; pleading, resigned.

He does not struggle.

He knows.

He shouldn’t have to see,

As he is wrapped in a soft cloth.

This should not be.

The invisible gas enters.

His hope is gone.

He is at peace.