It’s baby bird season again here in the Northern Hemisphere, which means lots and lots of cuteness out there in the world. Unfortunately, it also means lots and lots of baby birds unnecessarily “kidnapped” by well-meaning people. My ambulance shifts the last several weeks have been dominated by baby birds, mostly perfectly healthy birds that should never have been taken in the first place.
Here’s the scene: You’re walking along and see a young bird on the ground. The parents are nowhere in sight and as you approach the young bird it does not fly away. Assuming it’s injured or orphaned you can’t bear the thought of leaving the little guy there to his/her fate, so you take it home, put it in a shoebox, feed it bread and water, and call the animal ambulance (or bring it to a vet or shelter).
Here’s the catch: Fledglings (young birds that have already grown flight feathers) often learn to fly from the ground. So once they leave the nest, they can spend several days on the ground or on low branches before they’re truly able to fly. The parents are rarely far away, even if you can’t see them, and will continue to come back and feed the little peepers, but NOT if there are humans close by. If you find a fully feathered young bird on the ground that is not injured the best thing you can do is back away and leave it where it is. If you’re uncertain of the situation, try to observe from a safe distance. You’ll likely see one or both of the parents come back within a few minutes. Once a bird is taken away from its parents, its chances of survival decrease considerably.* If the bird is injured or if you’re sure it’s orphaned (we recently got a whole nest of Blue tits in because the caller’s cat had killed both the parents :?) please don’t attempt to raise or rehabilitate it yourself. Contact a licensed rehabilitator who has the knowledge and experience to tend to the exact needs of each particular bird species.
On a funnier note, yesterday’s shift saw us transporting the Houdini of Hedgehogs in our ambulance. We got a call from a care home for mentally handicapped adults. The receptionist had found a hedgehog curled up on the sidewalk. The fact that the prickly little fellow was out during the day was already a sign to us that something was wrong so we went over to investigate. It was a young hedgie, but presumably old enough to be foraging on its own. It curled up like it was supposed to when I picked it up and a good sniff told us that there was likely nothing seriously wrong with the little guy. He was, however, infested with fleas (as hedgehogs quite often are) and we suspected that because of this was suffering from anemia and just needed to recuperate at the bird sanctuary (the Toevlucht that also rehabs hedgies). We took him in the cardboard box the receptionist had put him in, lined with towels, and put him in the back of the ambulance. Tucking the four corners of the flaps into each other to close the box, I put a roll of bags on top of the box to weigh down the flaps just to be sure.
As we went to pick up another bird that needed to be brought to the bird rehabbers, all’s quiet from behind us as we assume little Harry (as I now call him) is asleep in his bed of towels. But as we get closer to our destination, we start to hear scratching in the back of the vehicle and realize he’s trying to dig his way out of the box. The whole way there, what we hear is *scratchscratchscratchscratchscratchscratchscratchscratch* then about 15 seconds of silence followed by *scratchscratchscratchscratchscratchscratchscratchscratch*. We joke that we’re going to find a loose hedgie in the back of the ambulance both knowing that there’s no way he’ll get through the thick cardboard during the short drive to the sanctuary.
Never underestimate the cunning of a hedgehog, though. When we got to the Toevlucht, I opened up the back of the ambulance and there, standing next to his cardboard box and sniffing a cat-carrier with a pigeon in it was little Houdini Hedgehog, cute as can be. Laughing, I scooped him up in a towel while my partner gave the box a good looking-over. We were right about one thing; he wasn’t able to dig through the thick cardboard during the short drive. There were no holes in the box. The little bugger (or bug-eater, actually) had somehow pushed his way through the folded, weighed down flaps of the box. The fact that he had the strength and wherewithal to do that gives me hope that a full recovery is on the cards for the little guy. Here’s hoping he’s out in the wild doing his hedgehog thing ASAP.
And since I’m always too busy to take pictures of the cuties we get on board to post here, I leave you with a somewhat related video I took a few years ago on my balcony. Get ready for some hot, young, Great tit action**:
*Although while we’re on the subject, I’d also like to dispel the myth that once a human has touched a baby bird, it will be rejected by the parents. Most bird species don’t have a particularly keen sense of smell and will NOT reject a baby after human intervention. So if for any reason you do have to intervene – say the fledgling is in the middle of the road and need to be moved to a less dangerous spot, or is not feathered (in which case it should be returned to the nest or a surrogate nest if at all possible) – you can do so with a good conscience.
** Shameless attempt to up the google traffic to my blog. 😛
October 4th, aka World Animal Day, saw me riding the ambulance in the company of the ever-cheerful Yvette (who happened to be featured in that day’s Metro newspaper in an article about the work of the Animal Ambulance). It was a lovely summery day, one of the last of the year, and it looked to be a fairly slow one from the get go. The pace in the fall is always less frantic than in the summer, when baby birds seem to fall out of trees like ripe fruit and irresponsible pet owners dump their charges on the street to fend for themselves when they go on vacation. That said, there are always critters in need of some assistance, and today would be no different.
Some days on the ambulance are marked by tragedy. Some days, however, leave you with a smile on your face and a warm, fuzzy feeling in your gut. This would be one of the latter. After a slow start, we got called out to an apartment block where a bird (a Great tit according to the caller) was trapped in a stairwell. Pulling up, we were greeted by the caller, who had been trying for two hours to catch the bird, was already late for work, and was out of both time and ideas. Armed with our trusty net we trooped up the four flights to the attic landing where not a tit but a Starling was perched atop the emergency exit sign. A couple of minutes, a lot of adrenaline, and some handy net work later, and I had the tired, stressed, but luckily perfectly healthy little bird in my hands as we made our way quickly downstairs and out into the fresh air. Seeing the open sky above him, the Startling seemed to revive. I opened my hands and he took to the wing, and in the blink of an eye, he’d disappeared into the trees. It’s rare that we get called out to help a healthy bird and it was a wonderful feeling being able to immediately release this guy where he belonged.
Another call that contributed to the warm fuzzy was from a concrete company, of all places, out in an industrial park. They’d found an abandoned kitten so we went up to retrieve it and bring it to the shelter. We assumed it would be a kitten of at least a few weeks old, but when we got there, the little morsel in the hands of the receptionist couldn’t have been more than four days old. Its little eyes and ears were still closed and it was mewling pathetically for milk. This wasn’t a job for the shelter but for our colleague Alga, who raises orphaned kittens. When they found her under a bush, she’d been cold, but they’d warmed her up and fed her some coffee creamer (not ideal) and she was very active and squirmy. It was hard to pry the little mite out of the protective receptionist’s grip but we convinced her the kitten would be in good hands and she finally let us take her. The poor little thing had to be kept warm, so rather than put her in one of the carriers in the back of the ambulance (which is normal procedure for our charges) I held her against my chest as we drove across town to bring her to Alga. The wee kitteh meowed and squirmed and suckled my fingers, my shirt, and my seatbelt, and then eventually fell asleep in the palm of my hand. Those of you who know me know that I’ve never had a maternal urge in my life, but holding that teeny tiny tabby against my breast almost made my ovaries explode. I understood why the receptionist found it so difficult to hand her over to us, but I knew that she was going to be well cared for with my colleague. Another happy call out.
My ambulance training is officially over and I’ve been declared ready to work independently. Today was my first day working in a team of two as a full-fledged “dierenhulpverlener” (animal care worker/first responder). It was, as usual, a day filled with varied experiences, from stray dogs to severed legs (don’t ask) with lots of birds and cats in between.
One of the most special moments came when we were called to come rescue a gull that was trapped on the fire escape of a large office building belonging to a bank. We didn’t know what to expect, having been told that the bird had evaded capture until then, so we grabbed a carrying case and our trusty net and reported at the front desk as instructed. The security guard there led us through the gate, up the elevator to the fourth floor and to another reception desk. Two ladies there told us that the bird had gotten away from them again and was now on the third floor. They joined our convoy as we made our way with our security escort down the central staircase, through an office space full of very curious workers, and onto the third floor fire escape.
There on the landing, just an inch from the ledge, with nothing but some wide-set bars between it and open air, was a not-quite-fledgling Herring gull: about half the size of an adult, mostly fluffy and spotty but with a few flight feathers starting to unfurl on its wings. It was clearly not yet ready to fly but it sure looked ready to jump. Without even thinking, I pounced on the little fluffer before it could make its escape. It was healthy, fat, and absolutely gorgeous! It was also calling loudly for its mother in between trying to bite me and mother was circling overhead calling back in turn.
Lots of gulls nest on the roofs of high office buildings, so we suspected that it had plunged off the ledge of this one. We asked the security guard if we could go up and see if we could find a nest. He hemmed and hawed for a second, but soon agreed. So our motley crew – two ambulance workers, two receptionists, one security guard, and one baby gull in a cat carrier – headed back through the crowded office space, a wake of bored office workers rubbernecking to get a glimpse of the action as we passed down the center aisle. Up two more flights in the lift, through another locked door up onto the roof. It didn’t take long to find the round twiggy nest nestled into the roof gravel. I opened up the carrier, grabbed the little gull, and popped it back on its wooden throne. At which point it stood up and took a runner for the edge of the roof. We all held our hearts, afraid it was going to bolt over the ledge and end up on the fire escape again or worse, plunge six floors to certain death. Thankfully, it stopped just on the edge of the roof, landing in the wide, flat rain gutter just an inch lower. We beat a hasty retreat to allow him the space he needed to gather the courage to wander away from the ledge, and also to allow mom to come back to her babe. We could see through the window in the door that junior had walked back a bit further from the ledge and was calling to mom again.
You can’t help but worry about the babies living such a precarious life. The receptionists were surprised we didn’t take the bird with us, assuming that it would be safer in the care of the local bird sanctuary. But a baby bird is always better off with its parents, and it’s a rare treat for us to be able to reunite them. Too often, they’re snatched away from their parents and can’t be returned for whatever reason. To be able to do so is the best of all possible outcomes. The precariousness of survival on the edge for these little ones is just part and parcel of life in the wild.
As we emerged from the building on the ground floor and walked back to the ambulance with our unused net and empty carrier, we heard gulls calling above. Looking up, we saw an adult Herring gull circle the corner of the building where the juvenile was last seen, once, twice, and then come in for a landing.
I haven’t posted in a while because there hasn’t been much exciting to tell. Both the classes and the on-the-job training are continuing. We’ve finished with the introductory course (which is mainly procedural stuff) and have moved onto the meat (excuse the wording) of animal first aid. Last night we covered infectious diseases. Yum.
Tuesday was my second ride-along with trainer Roos. Unfortunately she’s having to fit a lot of new volunteers into her schedule, so the ride-alongs are more widely spaced than one would hope, but she’s hoping to up the frequency for all of the trainees in the coming weeks. This time, we were accompanied by Richard, an eager volunteer who recently finished his training. He had a lot of reassuring words for me about how quickly you pick things up, and how it’s ok to make mistakes. (Which of course I know but it’s nice to be reminded.) I admire his intrepidity. At every call, he was out of the ambulance and at the side of the animal in a flash, even when this involved climbing over a rickety wooden fence and pulling a floundering heron out of the water. (Of all the birds we get called out on, herons are potentially the most dangerous, so I’m quite nervous about the first time I’ll have to handle one.)
Once again, my presence in the ambulance seems to have coincided with what everyone said was an uncharacteristically slow day. (This has happened every time I’ve worked so far.) The calls were mainly bird-related: dead gull, dead swan, injured duck, injured heron (both of which had to be euthanized). One dead cat that had to be fished out of a canal.
Possibly the silliest moment of the day was when we were called to a local high school to pick up a hen that had been roaming in the school yard for several days. Concerned for its welfare, the concierge of the school put the bird in a box and called us to come get it. When we got there and opened the box, we were delighted to discover that the chicken decided to thank the concierge by laying an egg. The poor dear (the hen, not the concierge) seemed fairly healthy if a bit undernourished, so we brought her to the bird sanctuary to be fattened up, and then either brought to a petting zoo or one of the local parks that have free-roaming chicken populations.
The cutest moment came at the end of the day when, after returning to base, Roos and I were sent down to the animal holding area to check on some Guinea pigs that had been picked up by another crew. It was a momma pig and 4-5 baby pigs, and the folks over at the rodent sanctuary that were going to rehome them had asked if we could separate out the boys from the girls. So after a quick lesson in how to sex Cavias, we headed on down to sort the boys from the, well, the not boys. Easier said than done.
After much squealing from the pigs, and what felt like untoward prodding of piggy genitals, we came to the conclusion that they were simply too young to sex. (Mom’s sex characteristics were pretty easy to see, so we knew it wasn’t our technique at fault.) Of course, the only thing to do after upsetting baby peegs is to comfort them, which we handily accomplished by petting them and cooing endearments. They seemed to forgive us for our violations, and the one I was holding ended up happily sitting (and shitting) on my chest. I went home with a spot of pig poo on my shirt, but it was totally worth that last moment of cute contentment.
Yesterday was a beautiful snowy day here in Amsterdam and since this is such a rare occasion, I decided to take my camera and walk home from my morning appointment through the lovely Beatrixpark rather than take the bus as usual. You could call the park my local patch, although I don’t get there as often as I’d like. I went to my favorite spot – a small grove of coniferous trees – to see if I could spot some of the species that frequent that little corner of the park (especially the little red squirrels). My next stop was the little fenced pond where waterbirds often stop to get a free handout from the locals. The pond was teeming with birds – mallards, black-headed gulls, moorhens, an Egyptian goose, a big mute swan, even a Grey heron – but the most dominant birds on the pond were the gaggle of domesticated geese making their presence known. It was the perfect photo opportunity. The birds were so close that I was able to get some wonderful photos without even having to really zoom with my sad little digital non-SLR camera, so I was happily snapping away when I suddenly became aware of a bit of a commotion behind and to the right of me. I heard a man say to his little daughter “they’re coming to rescue the pigeon” and when I turned around, I saw a group of firemen/women and someone from the animal ambulance service. Looking up, this is what I saw:
I’m not sure how long he’d been stuck up there, but luckily a good Samaritan saw him and had called it in an hour earlier. What came next did my heart good!! I was able to get some pictures of the rescue (with the rescuers’ permission) and here they are.
I have no idea what eventually came of the pigeon. I hope that someone was eventually able to get the offending wire off of the bird’s legs without too much damage. I hope he survived his ordeal and will be back in the park soon. But seeing all these folks jump into action to rescue one little pigeon in distress absolutely made my week! Happy Holidays, everyone!!
My conscious mind may still be at a loss about what to do with my life, but the universe and my subconscious are conspiring to wake me out of indecision.
Since my return “home”, I’ve not taken any concrete action, just falling into the blissful (for now) inertia of working in the bookstore and enjoying days off that – for the first time after years of study – are truly my own. Lots of time is spent on the couch, reading, watching TV, farting around online. Vague ideas are floating around my head about getting in touch with organizations about volunteering/training, but nothing has yet found purchase.
Enter the birds. The week after I left the US, PAWS took in more than 100 seabirds affected by a massive algal bloom off the coast of Oregon. Although I can’t be there to help, I’ve been following the fates of these birds and the folks working their asses off to rehab them and return them to the wild as well as I can from half a world away. (Happy news: the first group of birds ready to go back to the wild – 11 Common murres – were released in Edmonds yesterday!) And while my interest in developments there come in great deal out of concern for the birds, there’s more than a little wistfulness involved, wishing I could be there to help.
Soon after my return here, I noticed a Jackdaw hanging around my ‘hood that seems to have an injured wing. The wing droops and does seem to impede his (or her) flying ability to an extent.
Several days in a row, I tried to catch the bird so I could get it to someone who could help it, only to discover that despite the injury, he was not as incapacitated as I thought. Although not able to take flight, he was still fast enough and adept enough to get off the ground and out of my reach by flapping away into the greenery and hopping from branch to branch. I had to let go the idea of “rescuing” this bird, who despite an injury seems to be surviving quite well (I still see it in the neighborhood).
Then, last night, walking home from the tram stop after work, I was mulling about birds and the various ways I could possibly work with them when out of the corner of my eye, I saw a dark clump huddled up against the houses. I could very easily have overlooked it as in the dark it looked like a bit of plastic that had blown there in the breeze. But something nudged it into my consciousness and told me to turn around and look, and there was a little rock pigeon, looking warily at me, hugging the bricks. I came closer, and the bird didn’t move, just looked scared. I hustled home, dropped off my bag and my Thai take-away, and grabbed a box I had actually prepared for the Jackdaw I hadn’t rescued last week. Hurried back out to where the pigeon was, and easily picked it up and put it in the box. (It flapped a bit but was really easy to grab – not a good sign.)
Back home, I put the box with the bird in it in my darkened bedroom, closed the door, and called the Dierenambulance (the animal ambulance). The (none-too-pleasant) dispatcher seemed to think that I had needlessly plucked a healthy, but sleeping pigeon from the street and argued with me before agreeing to send someone. I stuck with my gut feeling that there was something wrong with the bird, and while never wishing injury on an animal, really hoped that she was wrong and that I had done more good than harm by taking pidgie home with me. An hour and a half later, the (MUCH nicer) ambulance personnel showed up and checked out the bird. Not only was it really thin and missing wing feathers, it had puncture wounds on its back and wings (likely from a cat attack). They confirmed my feeling that I had done the right thing and had helped the bird by picking it up and calling them. I gave them a donation (they run on donations) and they left to bring pidgie to a vet who could treat him.
After they left, I felt really choked up. Not because the bird was hurt (I saw a lot of animals with much worse injuries this summer), not because I was worried about it (I knew it was in the hands of people who would do the best they could), but because it felt so good to be able to do something concrete to help an animal again.
I still haven’t broken out of my lazy-day inertia (honestly, I think I deserve some laziness after the last few years), but all these birds keep tickling my consciousness. It’s like the universe is throwing pebbles at my window.
I actually have been composing a long-ass post about other stuff that I’ll be posting soon, but seeing as today was the last day of my internship, I couldn’t let this milestone pass without honoring it. It has been an amazing, intense, and unforgettable experience, and I can’t thank the awesome people at PAWS enough for everything. They are an incredible team of smart, funny, caring people who give blood, sweat, and tears to help wildlife in trouble.
It’ll be weird not being there. There are certainly things I won’t miss, most of them having to do with poo. But there are plenty of things I will miss too (aside, of course, from the fabulous staff and volunteers). I’ll miss (in no particular order)…
… feeding angry squirrels. “I hate you I hate you I hate you… Say is that a syringe? Nomnomnomnomnom… I hate you I hate you I hate you… Mmm… Another syringe! Nomnomnomnom….”
… baby opossums. Ok, really, all opossums, with their grabby little hands and feet and their “vicious” gape with all those teeth that they don’t quite know what to do with. “Look, I’m scary! Hey, why are you picking me up? Can’t you see how scary I am? Oh crap. She didn’t fall for it! Now what? My jaw hurts.”
… filling up the kiddie pools for the raccoons, as they brave the stream from the hose to “wash their hands”, all the while watching you with rapt curiousity.
… feeding the little hummingbird in her little tent as she buzzes around indignantly at lightning speed as if to say “dude, you’re in my space”.
… going into any of the aviaries to feed the birds. Hand-feeding mealworms to the juvenile Barn swallows as they hover in front of your nose.
… doing the meds list or tubings or helping out in the exam room and getting to work so closely with a huge variety of species, from Black-headed grosbeaks, to Great blue herons, to Glaucous-winged gulls, to Common murres, to Northern flickers.
… gulls. Cute, fluffy, spotty-headed peepers as youngsters, beautiful, adaptable flying machines as adults. Love ’em.
I’m sure there are things I’ve forgotten, but these are what come to mind. It truly has been a “wild” experience! One I’ll never forget.
Tomorrow, I burn the sneakers.