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Monday, August 22, 2011


At 4 pm on Saturday, I stepped out of my house and headed off into the neighborhood on my daily after-work walk.  Saturday is the last day of my work week, and as I started my walk I was feeling the kind of peace that I imagine most working folks feel when a few days of freedom are stretched out before them.  With each progressive step, I shed a little bit of the stress that I had picked up over the preceding five days, and by the time I had traveled about a mile I was feeling calm and reasonably centered.

That day I felt compelled to walk a route that I rarely travel, down a steeply-inclined, well-forested road that lacks sidewalks.  My mind wandered as I trudged down the hill, and I wasn't even aware that I had tuned out my surroundings until movement at my feet snapped me back to reality and the present moment.  Before my eyes focused my mind had already identified the movement as belonging to a ground feeding bird, and I had also already identified the movement as abnormal due to both proximity and pattern.  As my eyes focused and the details resolved, a series of thoughts came in rapid succession, "American tail feathers...left wing drooping...left eye partially closed...dried blood on wing and head...likely cat attack victim...f@#$!"

The profanity came as automatically as the rest of my thoughts, and it was in no way directed at the bird or cats.  It was directed at people who let their cats roam free in the world with no regard for the safety of their pet or for the wild animals that their pets are likely to kill or injure.  After more than 16 years of working with injured wild animals, a staggering number of which have been injured by domestic cats, my tolerance for this completely preventable cause of wildlife injury has been utterly spent.  In addition, as a cat lover that has seen countless cats in my neighborhood suffer and die due to the laissez-faire attitudes of their supposed guardians, I feel a surge of anger anytime I am faced with evidence of an unprotected domestic feline.

My initial surge of anger quickly passed as I redirected my thoughts toward how best to help the victim that was before me.  Droopy wing or not, she still might have been able to fly, and I wouldn't know whether or not I could help her until I tested her ability to escape.  I crouched down and made a quick movement toward the robin with one outstretched hand.  She spread her wings and flapped hard, but she gained no lift from the effort.  She managed some forward movement by pushing off with her legs, but the movement was arrested as she weakly bounced off of a thick tangle of ivy growing alongside the road.  Assuming this might happen, my left hand enveloped her immediately with a technique known as the "bird bander's hold".  She struggled briefly against the restraint, calling out more in fear than in defiance, and then she relaxed and fell silent.

A quick examination of the robin uncovered multiple, serious lacerations.  Her eye was clearly damaged, although to what extent I could not be certain, and the trailing edge of her left wing had a blood clot that stretched nearly the entire length of her humerus.  Although the bone felt like it was intact, the amount of bruising and dried blood present gave me serious doubt that the robin would ever fly again.  The anger that I had felt upon my initial sighting now turned to sadness for the tiny being that was in my hand.  Her injuries were at least 24 hours old, and it was likely that an infection of pasturella or some other bacteria that is abundant in cat saliva was already setting in.  Even if her injuries were not fatal, this infection most likely would be.  I carried her the mile back to my house as quickly as I could, and when I arrived I transferred her to a dark but well-ventilated box and immediately drove the 45 minutes back to my place of employment to get her either the care or the humane release from suffering that she needed.

On the way home from the wildlife center I reflected on what I had just experienced.  As a biologist, I was taught to believe that one individual among a population of millions is insignificant; that we should not get hung up on the fate of one but on the overall health of the many.  While this reasoning may be sound from the standpoint of population viability, it would require that I give up a fundamental piece of my humanity to fully embrace it.  When I met that robin, she was definitely one individual among millions, but she was not insignificant.  She was a fellow living being that was suffering and needed help.  If I had passed her by, I would not have been confirming that she was an insignificant individual in a much larger population but, in my opinion, I would have been confirming that I was.


Saturday, July 9, 2011

Change of Pace

After rising with the sun this morning, I headed for my favorite patch of fireweed at a Seattle area park.  I had been anxious to visit the patch since a single fireweed plant in my backyard opened its first pink blossoms almost two weeks ago.  The fireweed patch is beautiful in its own right, but it is more than just the flower that lures me back year after year.  The fireweed acts as a stage, on and above which a great drama plays out.  Darting among the green leaves and pink blossoms are flashes of green, white, black and reddish-brown, occasionally punctuated with flashes of brilliant red iridescence.  The whole area is literally abuzz with activity, and at times I can become dizzy trying to keep track of it all.

The main players on the fireweed stage are juvenile Anna’s and Rufous Hummingbirds.  Occasionally an adult will pop up in the mix, but for the most part the area is dominated by rowdy youngsters vying for totally supremacy of the best blossoms in the patch.  There are constant dive-bombings followed by erratic chases.  The buzzing and trilling of wings fills the air.  One moment a long curved bill is inserted into a flower, the next moment it is being used like a rapier in a fencing match.  I occasionally try to capture the activity through the lens of my camera, but mostly I just stand and take it all in with my senses.  As I stood in the patch this morning, watching the spectacular aerial ballet above me, my eye was suddenly drawn to unexpected movement at a much lower altitude.  I looked down among the slender-leaved stems of the fireweed plants and found that a less frenetic, but no less interesting player had just arrived on the stage.

A Pacific Chorus Frog was working his way through the fireweed patch, presumably in search of a meal.  The fireweed leaves were just strong enough to bear his weight, though they still bent considerably under the load.  The frog was traversing the plants mostly by walking, but I am quite sure it was his landing after a jump that had caused the initial movement that drew my attention.  Having just been immersed in the high-speed world of the hummingbirds above, I found the slow, deliberate movements of the frog almost hypnotic.  For several moments I forgot about everything else and focused my full attention on the fascinating, sticky-toed hunter.  

My trance was broken as two battling mini-birds buzzed by within a foot of my face.  Their fight continued as they rounded a snowberry bush and disappeared from view.  Three more birds buzzed by in quick succession, and for several minutes I was drawn back into the air around and just above the blossoms at the top of the fireweed plants.  By the time my mind turned back to the unassuming amphibian making his way through the lower leaves, he was nowhere to be found.  No movement in the plants betrayed his direction of travel.  Wherever he was off to, I felt extremely fortunate to have spent even a short time in his presence.