I was interviewed by a newspaper reporter today about an influx of distressed loons, murres and grebes at the wildlife center where I work. The birds were affected by a toxic algae bloom along the Pacific coast that soiled their feathers and compromised their waterproofing. After their feathers were no longer able to repel water, the birds struggled ashore to avoid death by drowning and hypothermia. Once beached, a slow death by starvation was an inevitability for most of the birds. And this was the fate of hundreds, if not thousands of them all along the Washington and Oregon coast. But this was not to be the fate for all of them. Caring humans intervened and transported over 500 birds to a rehabilitation center in Oregon. My own center offered assistance and took in over 120 patients of our own.
Events like this have happened in the past, and reporters tend to ask the same questions each time a similar event occurs. Today was no exception. I fully expected it when the reporter asked me, “If this was an algae bloom that caused the birds’ feather problems, it sounds like it was a natural event. What would you say to people who say that you should let nature take its course?” Now, I was representing an organization during this interview, so I had to give a professional answer rather than a personal answer. So my answer included things like pointing out that human activity affects nearly every aspect of the natural world, and we can’t say that we don’t play some role in the frequency or severity of these toxic algae blooms. I also mentioned that all of the birds for whom we are caring have seen drastic drops in their populations over the last decade so anything we can do to help them is a good thing. Lastly I mentioned that the work we are doing is also largely a humane effort. People finding these animals in distress need a place to turn to for help, and we provide a service not only to the animal, but to the community as well. All sensible, straightforward reasons, but I did not share all that I felt inside.
After working for four days with very little sleep to help care for these birds, and watching everyone around me doing the same, it was hard not to feel somewhat disappointed by the oversimplification of the situation as indicated by the reporter’s question. To be honest, it is not so much that I have a problem with the question being asked. I am a naturalist, and asking questions about nature is a constant state of being for me. What I do have a problem with is the question being asked repeatedly, and in only one context– when people are trying to save wild animals in distress. Is the question ever asked when state wildlife managers say a species like deer must be hunted to make sure they don’t overpopulate and eventually starve from a shortage of food? Is the question asked when human rescue and relief efforts are mounted after a flood or earthquake? So why ask the question when people are trying to help otherwise healthy wild birds who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time?
My real answer to the reporter’s question has nothing to do with whether or not humans contributed to the plight of these birds. I think anyone who can see beyond the tip of their own nose can probably conclude for themselves whether or not that is the case. What I really wanted to say is that we are letting nature take its course. Every single human that has taken part in this rescue effort is a product of nature. Through evolution we have arrived at our present state of being and that includes a complex set of emotions, not the least of which is compassion. While some members of our species only feel compassion for other humans, our compassion extends to the other beings with whom we share the planet. The drive to alleviate suffering is an inseparable part of who we are. To ignore it, or to try to suppress it feels like the most unnatural thing of all. Why, you ask, do we not let nature take its course? I say that is exactly what we are doing.
After grabbing my camera from inside the house, I watched the mixed flock of foragers go about their business. I was especially fascinated by the Band-tailed Pigeons. They were quite adept at maneuvering their relatively large bodies along the thin branches. They were able to tip forward, backward and even turn upside down in a manner that seemed more chickadee-like than pigeon-like.
Once each of the dozen or so pigeons had eaten their fill, they flew into the upper branches of the fir from which the jay and wren had been calling. Now, with both trees free of the larger-bodied birds, the robins and starlings continued to forage in the Madronas for several more minutes. After satisfying their appetites, they too moved on.
On my way home from work today I dropped a wayward traveler off at the beach along Puget Sound. Sometime earlier in the day this wandering soul had been flying high. He was headed for salt water to spend the winter fishing among the kelp and eel grass with large flocks of his kin. He came up about a mile and a half short, but not because he was out of energy or otherwise physically incapable of continuing the flight. No, he fell victim to a trick of the eyes, and his interpretation of what he saw led him to land prematurely. That premature landing could have meant the end of the line for the unfortunate bird.
From the air, it can be challenging to tell the difference between wet pavement and the surface of a body of water. It must be especially difficult for a bird whose species has not needed to make such a distinction for most of its history on the planet. They undoubtedly recognize wet rock faces as they fly over mountains, but a huge, flat swath of glistening wet blacktop is a different matter altogether. The only natural, large flat swaths of glistening wetness that they see are bodies of water, and they can’t tell that the pavement is not what it appears to be until they have already crash landed.
If a mallard or a goose lands on wet pavement, it’s not the end of the world. They simply launch themselves back into the air and continue on their way. For birds like the Western Grebe (today’s wayward traveler) landing on pavement is a disaster. They are highly adapted to life on and in the water. Their legs are situated far back on their bodies making it extremely awkward for them to stand up. They can take flight from water by first paddling and then running awkwardly on the surface to gain enough speed for liftoff. They are incapable of getting airborne from dry land, so once they hit the pavement they are grounded.
Fortunately for today’s grebe, a kind woman found him sitting on her lawn when she exited her home. He had likely crashed on the nearby road and had been struggling about, trying his best to figure a way out of the predicament. His feet had nicks and abrasions from the effort, but he was otherwise unhurt. After he spent a couple hours in a pool to make sure he was still waterproof, and after he finished an all-he-could-eat fish dinner, I was happy to help the grebe complete his journey to his wintering grounds. My co-worker Jim did the honors and placed the bird gently in the water. The grebe paddled furiously away from shore before relaxing and giving himself a few good shakes to realign his feathers. He then swam slowly seaward, periodically diving and resurfacing as he went. It seemed that he had left the troubles of the day behind him on the beach. What he saw and what he felt were once again in alignment.
A holly tree at my place of work has recently become the stage for an ongoing dispute among at least four Anna’s Hummingbirds. The argument was first brought to my attention last Saturday when I investigated the loud vocalizations of two male hummingbirds that were facing off in the branches of the holly. One bird sat low in the tree, looking up and waving his bill from side to side while chattering away in his distinct hummingbird voice. The other was about six feet higher, looking down and doing his own vocalizing and bill waving. While the first two birds were arguing, a third male flew in and buzzed the perch of the bird that was higher in the branches. The perching bird responded immediately and took off on the the tail of the interloper, chattering like mad all the way. The bird that was lower in the branches quickly fell silent and slightly retracted his neck as if he now wished to keep a low profile.
On Tuesday I returned to the holly tree to discover a lone male hummingbird sitting high in the branches. He periodically took short flights to feed on blossoms the tree had produced before returning to hold vigil against intruders from his chosen lookout. No other birds were seen or heard. It appeared that either the hummingbird dispute had ended in victory for the bird that was present, or his two rivals were elsewhere at the moment tending to other matters.
Tonight I released ten sub-adult raccoons that had been raised at the wildlife rehabilitation center where I am employed. When they are making their transition from captivity to freedom, young raccoons always make me think of kids set free in a candy store. But it’s not sweets that the racoons are getting worked up about (although I’m sure they wouldn’t turn them down if offered). For a young raccoon, the “candy” in a world without walls is the infinite number of textures waiting to be investigated at length with their sensitive forepaws.
Even before the raccoons leave their transport carrier their paws stretch out through the open door to grab every twig, leaf, rock and fern frond within reach. Each object the paws encounter is thoroughly rolled, rubbed, crumpled and pressed between those two dark, five-fingered information gathering devices. When they exit the carrier it often appears as if their senses are all working independently of one another. The paws continue to grab nearby objects and feel them while the eyes, ears and nose gather information from a greater distance than the paws can manage. Occasionally what the paws are feeling warrants further inspection by one of the other senses, and the nose and/or eyes are momentarily brought into play before the object is either discarded or popped into the raccoon’s mouth.
Eventually the urge to explore takes hold on the raccoons and they set off in whichever direction they have decided is most inviting. Usually this means heading towards the water’s edge where they will find even more tactile sensations to experience, but they take their time getting there. The slow progress of the raccoons can easily be followed even after the animals themselves have disappeared into thick cover. They cannot resist touching everything they pass, and their movement in a given direction can be tracked by the spasmodic movements of the tops of plants, the textured stems of which are being enthusiastically experienced by the unseen raccoons below.