Earlier this summer my wife and I were rounding a corner on an old forest service road when we saw a vehicle approaching from the opposite direction. A bird fluttered up from the gravel in front of the vehicle, and the vehicle’s occupants stopped briefly to admire it as it alighted on a nearby tree trunk. After a few seconds they continued on, giving my wife and I the familiar “Did you see that too?” look as they passed our car before disappearing around the corner that now lay behind us.
We continued forward and came to a stop next to the tree to which the bird was still clinging, and we both immediately knew something was wrong. The bird on the trunk was a male Northern Flicker, and if he was healthy, there would have been no way he would have allowed us to be this close to him. Tail feathers soiled by his own excrement further betrayed his condition even as the bird did his best to appear as if he were not in distress, knowing instinctually that to do otherwise would quickly attract the attention of predators.
We exited our vehicle to take a closer look at the flicker. Even when we approached to within 10 feet, the bird did not flee. He was gorgeous, as all flickers are, but looking more closely we could see more tell-tale signs of illness in his slightly misaligned feathers and generally disheveled appearance.
When the bird closed his eyes, any doubt that he was in serious distress was eliminated. To lower his guard that much with us in such close proximity likely meant the flicker was at death’s door.
My wife and I are both former wildlife rehabilitators. We didn’t even need to communicate to one another about what was going to happen next. I slowly approached the tree and gently plucked the flicker off of the trunk. He was far lighter in my hand than a healthy bird of his size would have been.
I did a thorough examination of the flicker but could find no signs of injury. He was extremely thin though, so whatever was wrong with him seemed to be chronic rather than acute.
We placed the flicker in a box and as soon as we were back in cell phone range my wife and I looked up the nearest wildlife rehabilitation center. Unfortunately, the flicker died at the moment we pulled into the parking lot of the center.
As we left the body of the flicker with the rehabilitation center staff, I thought about the other couple that had seen this bird earlier in the day. They had experienced a close encounter with a beautiful, wild creature and then gone on their way with that happy memory. Although I know that the bird was in the final moments of his life, they never will, and there is some satisfaction to be found in the fact that, even as he was dying, this amazing being was able to create some joy in the world just by being himself. We should all be so lucky.