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.
On Wednesday, I did my first orientation day at the Amsterdam Animal Ambulance service. What this consisted of was riding along with one of the ambulance crews for a day to see what the job actually entails. They (very wisely) ask all potential volunteers to do a couple of ride-alongs and a couple of shifts shadowing in the dispatch room before signing a volunteer contract and starting the training program.
This was my first chance to dip my toe back into the animal-rescue waters since the end of my internship at PAWS. I’d been looking at ways to start working with animals again since I got back, and working for the Animal Ambulance seems like the ideal combination of being able to help both domestic and wildlife. But I wasn’t sure how it would compare to my expectations. I’m still not sure. I’m still digesting the experience, and looking forward to my next ride-along to help firm up my thoughts. But here are some first thoughts and impressions from the day itself:
* Pigeons are the schlemiels of the animal kingdom. Our first five calls were pigeon related: four were feral Rock pigeons (the ubiquitous street pigeon that most people think of when they hear the word) and one Wood pigeon. According to Albert (the driver), around 50% of all calls they go out on are pigeon related. Despite their ubiquity on the street, feral pigeons seem to be the least street smart birds on earth and seem to get themselves into all sorts of trouble. The ones we saw had all stumbled into trouble one way or another (aside from the Wood pigeon that was suspected to be infected with Trichomoniasis), whether getting tangled in wire and breaking a leg, or somehow getting covered in oil.
* Geese and highways are not a good combination. I won’t go into details, but although the bird was still alive when we got there, the story did not end well for the goose.
* I am more convinced than ever that not only is it NOT cruel to keep cats as indoor pets, it’s actually irresponsible to let them wander freely. (I know my saying this will not go down well with a number of my outdoor-cat-owning friends.) Anyone who truly believes that cats are savvy when it comes to traffic has never had to pick up a recently-expired, still-warm, heavily-bleeding tabby from the side of the road. (For anyone interested in information on keeping cats indoors, please check out this PAWS page about cat health and safety.)
* If you do let your cat go outdoors, please get it microchipped, so that when it does get hit by a car, or attacked by a larger animal, or tortured by some sick fuck, the animal care workers who pick it up can find you and let you know so you won’t always wonder why Fluffy didn’t come home one night. In fact, getting your dog or cat microchipped is a very good idea even if you don’t let it roam free. Even indoor cats and dogs who are always kept on leads can wander off sometimes, and if your pet is chipped, it makes it much easier to trace the owner and reunite you with your furry friend.
* Sometimes there are happy endings. One of the last calls of the day was to come get a seemingly stray dog that had been dropped off at a police station. This dog was obviously owned, it was sweet (if a bit scared), well-fed, and wearing a collar (although no tag, and no microchip). We picked it up and brought it to the nearest shelter (which was just about to close for the evening). When we got there, the shelter staff had a woman on the phone who had lost a dog that fit well with the description of the pup we’d just brought in. So it looked like a happy reunion was the likely outcome of that call. It was a nice way to end the day.
All-in-all it was a good, if not always happy, experience. The rhythm is very different from what I was accustomed to from working at PAWS. For one, I was (stupidly, perhaps) surprised at how much time is spent just driving from place to place. That’s something that I’ll have to get used to. Also, the turnover is something I’ll have to adjust to. At PAWS you saw the entire trajectory of an animal’s recovery (or lack thereof) from intake to release (or death). On the ambulance, it’s pick up the animal, assess its condition/needs, figure out where it needs to go (shelter, vet, disposal), and bring it there. That’s where your involvement ends.
I’m still mulling over if this is the path for me. I’ll admit that last night, late at night, I was having some doubts (although I think that’s natural). But doubts notwithstanding, I think that for now, this is a way to move forward in my desire to work helping animals, and something that will prepare me to move in a different direction if that’s what I choose to do at a later time. It’s a good way to start wading into that pool.
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.
One of the great things about bad birdwatching is that you can be completely lazy and still do it. Birds, unlike say, badgers or snakes, are everywhere, out in the open, easy to spot. All you have to do is pay attention, and they’ll reward you with their everyday presence. And sometimes you can end up having remarkable encounters without even trying.
I already mentioned seeing my first pair of Black terns when I went birdwatching with a friend the other day. Thing is, we weren’t trying very hard. We had expected to see only familiar species and were yakkin’ away about something completely different when they appeared, like magic, right in front of our noses, flying over the irrigation ditches in the polder, diving on occasion to catch a tasty morsel. Stunning birds, they were. And because we were ostensible bird watching, we had our binoculars with us and could watch them as they flew towards the horizon. But at times they were so close that the bins were completely unnecessary.
Today, walking home with my sister and nephew through one of the most exclusive shopping streets in town (a convenient shortcut… not someplace I was shopping myself), a fluttering movement just above the streetlights caught my eye. My first thought was “bat” but it was still full daylight. I turned to get a better look and was amazed to see a Swift swoop over the street and up under the roof of a building. I’ve seen lots of Swifts from a distance, and their eerie cries on the wind are a true sign of summer in this part of the world. But I’ve never been blessed to see one so close, squatting in some of Amsterdam’s most pricey real estate. Truly amazing.
But the most remarkable close encounter I’ve had lately was with a bird I see from close range on a daily basis: the Jackdaw. There are hordes of these birds – the smallest member of the crow family – in my neighborhood, and they’re quite confiding. They hang out in large groups on all of the grassy patches in the area, and at dusk, perch and noisily rearrange themselves around the trees on the far side of the square from where I live, making their high-pitched “Kaw Kaw” sounds. They’re not afraid of humans and watch you with their seemingly knowing gaze as you walk by just a foot or two away from them. But even so, this encounter took me completely by surprise.
I was eating dinner on the couch and watching Springwatch on the BBC. There was a persistent “Kaw Kaw” from outside, but as it’s a sound I hear constantly, I didn’t take much notice. Suddenly it struck me that one of the “Kaw Kaw”s sounded much closer by than the rest. I turned around and this is the sight that greeted me:
The little guy had fledged right onto my window sill. Although his parents were in the tree outside calling to him, he appeared to be more interested in what that strange, large, pink mammal on the other side of the glass was doing. He was there for quite a while, well past dark, and I called an animal rescue line for advice. They assured me he would be perfectly all right even if he spent the night out there, and that as soon as it was light, mom and dad would be back to feed him until he was strong enough to fly off himself. I checked on him occasionally before going to bed, and he’d settled down nicely onto his chosen perch. And indeed, the next morning he was gone. Although he did leave me with a small parting gift.
In the days and weeks since, I’ve seen a young jackdaw in the neighborhood following its parents and learning how to survive. I don’t know if it’s the same little guy, but I like to imagine it is. Wherever he is, I wish him well. Good luck out there, little jackdaw! Take care of yourself!