Friday, February 13, 2009

Fly away home, Big Bird

Big Bird is back in flight following a near-death experience. Photo taken by Pat Maloney.

Rescuing animals has found its way into my heart for many reasons, not the least of which is a family matter.

There are dedicated animal lovers on both sides of my family -- parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. One great-grandfather was even the state veterinarian for Zimbabwe back when it was still called Rhodesia. Relatives who were gone before I was born are posed in old photos holding beloved dogs and cats. Their animals were important enough to be included in the black and white shots long before digital cameras stored thousands of pictures with a few clicks of a button. Back then, setting up a photo was an ordeal.

But no family member loves animals with the passionate fervor of my mother. She carries cat food and a dog leash in her large purse in case she comes across strays. She’s trapped feral cats to spay and neuter, and reported dogs locked up in hot cars to the authorities.

And she doesn’t just help companion animals. She rescues wildlife facing danger, too. Near her place in Florida, she’s pulled her car to the side of the road to pick up wayward turtles and help them safely cross the road. She’s cordoned off burrowing owls so people won’t threaten them while they are vulnerable in their habitat, which consists of a shallow hole dug in the dirt. She even makes sure the runners on her windows are gecko-free before she shuts them to avert tragedy.

The latest recipient of her creature compassion is Big Bird, a great blue heron who had nearly met his demise by the time she spotted him. Poisoned and confused, he was flying “as if he had lost his GPS”, Diana Maloney said.

She quickly got in touch with a local rescue group who agreed to come right over and try to catch the bird. Diana was “absolutely gobstruck” watching Dan the Bird Man at work, and she writes about his techniques in her story below.

“He just dove on it,” she said. “At one point I looked away. I couldn’t bear to see. I was expecting to see a squished bird, but he actually dove onto his elbows and knees. You only get one shot at it.”

The situation was dire. He couldn’t miss. If he did, Big Bird wouldn’t survive one more night of a cold snap in usually sunny Sarasota. The temperature had dipped below freezing several nights in a row. Herons are skinny birds without much meat on their bones to begin with, and this one was significantly underweight.

But in an update I received today, I found out that Big Bird wasn’t fully cognizant of his near-death experience. He showed zero gratitude towards his captors, who helped save his life by warming him up in their toasty intensive care unit and nursing him back to health.

“The girl phoned me from the rescue center and said this is one pissed-off bird,” Diana said. “He is so mad. She went in with the fish, and he puffed out all his feathers and he put out his wings, and he charged her.”

Below, I've posted the story she wrote on the rescue.

Diana Maloney prepares to release the bird she rescued. Thanks to her quick thinking, he won't be getting his angel wings just yet.

We are privileged to look out over a fairly deserted beach. Deserted but for the wildlife that abounds there, both on the sand and in the water. Arriving home, I looked up and was horrified to see a beautiful great blue heron fly straight into our building. And then plummet to the ground. He stood up but didn't attempt to move. I went inside to observe "Big Bird" from the foyer. My fear that he was in trouble was confirmed when he staggered away, turned, and flew back into the building again.

A call to the Wildlife Center of Venice brought us the help we urgently needed in the form of Dan, a volunteer from Bradenton. I don't know exactly what we expected, maybe the use of a tranquilizer, but we were definitely not expecting what followed. On arrival, Dan quickly jumped out of his truck. We pointed out where Big Bird was hiding between some bushes and the property fence, with just his head showing. Dan ran back to his truck, grabbed a large net, attached the pole handle, and went into predator mode. Crouching low to the ground, out of sight of the bird, he scurried towards him like an animal hunting prey, poised to pounce. He made only one downward motion with the net. It covered and encircled the bird. He seemed to almost drop to his knees and elbows and cover the bird. By this time, Big Bird was squawking loudly and not happy.

When Dan emerged from the heap, Big Bird was safely tucked under his left arm and his right hand held the bird's neck just below the head. The net had done its work and lay on the ground. Before placing Big Bird in the rescue carrier, Dan carried out a deft cursory check for injuries. As he held the bird tucked under his left elbow, and held the head with his left hand, his right hand moved quickly over the top of the bird’s outstretched wing. And then the same procedure on the opposite side. No palpable injuries. He checked the eyes – membranes were all open, a good sign. A closed membrane could mean he had suffered a concussion.

But Big Bird was not acting normally, Dan told us, and so would need further examination by a vet.

Today, I was contacted by the rescue center. They believe this bird is less than a year old. Through a process of elimination, it appears that he may have botulism poisoning from ingesting dead or contaminated fish, or even cigarette butts. He is underweight, which indicates he may have left the nest too early and not yet be proficient in the art of hunting for food. His treatment will include flushing the toxins through his body repeatedly, maybe administering sub-cutaneous fluids, and possibly feeding him intravenously until he is well enough to be released back to this area.

Here’s a closing thought. Wouldn't it be great if instead of taking the youth of Sarasota on a hunting trip, as is happening this weekend, they were taught the art of capturing wildlife in the manner that Dan demonstrated? This skill could save a creature's life, rather than ending it.

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