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Authors: Suzie Gilbert

Flyaway

BOOK: Flyaway
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Flyaway

How a Wild Bird Rehabber

Sought Adventure and Found Her Wings

Suzie Gilbert
With Illustrations by Laura Westlake

TO JOHN, MAC, AND SKYE
AND TO ED STOKES

Contents

1
A Second Chance

2
The Serpentine Road

3
Problems and Solutions

4
Genesis

5
The One Exception

6
Quandaries

7
The Other Exceptions

8
Cooperation, and Lack Thereof

9
Predators, Guardians, and Grubs

10
Tweezers

11
Backing Toward the Cliff

12
Daycare

13
Momentum

14
Inclusion

15
Claws

16
Songs of Joy

17
Graduation Day

18
Why We Do the Things We Do

19
Songs of Inspiration

20
Summer's End

21
Branching Out

22
Diving In

23
Looking Up

24
Solidarity

25
The Thanksgiving Guest

26
Strange Alliances

27
Peyton (Pigeon) Place

28
Traveling Feet

29
Signs of Spring

30
Torrent

31
That Strange Chirping Sound

32
The Lucky Ones

33
Songs of Grief

34
Understanding

35
Turning Leaves

36
The Quiet Season

37
Unraveling

38
Hope

39
Dusk

40
Shades of Gray

41
Break of Day

42
Songs of Redemption

Chapter 1
A SECOND CHANCE

The morning sun shone across the Hudson Highlands as I climbed a small wooded hill, dressed in faded jeans and an old shirt and carrying what appeared to be an enormous butterfly net. I carefully scanned the bushes, and within moments found what I was looking for: a large dark bird, one wing hanging haphazardly, huddled next to an old iron fence.

The bird stiffened and eyed me suspiciously. My best chance was to lunge forward and drop the net over his head before he had a chance to run, but before I could do so a small and angry voice cut through the springtime air.

“What are you doing?” it demanded. “What are you going to do to that…that animal? Do you have a license?”

I turned to find a diminutive elderly lady standing behind me, her clenched hands on her hips. She was quivering with indignation, and her blue eyes bored into mine.

“I do have a license,” I told her, lowering my voice so as not to alarm the bird still further. “I take care of injured wild birds. One of your neighbors called and told me there was one here with a broken wing. I'm going to catch him and take him to the vet and see if we can fix him up.”

Undecided, she continued to glare at me; in return, I gave her a genuine smile. I love people like this. Ninety pounds of outrage, she was ready to go to the mat for an injured creature, even though she wasn't exactly sure what it was.

“He's a black vulture,” I continued. “He's a cousin to those big turkey vultures, the ones you always see circling above town. Vultures are great birds—I'm happy to take care of him while he recuperates.”

She stared at me doubtfully, making up her mind. “Well,” she said finally, “just don't hurt him. Remember—I'll be watching you.”

As it turned out she wasn't the only one; by this time four neighbors had gathered behind us. I started toward the vulture, hoping he was tired and hungry and would stay crouched in the leaves so I could net him quickly and efficiently. But according to Murphy's Law of Wildlife Rescue, this only happens when no one is around to admire your skill. Whenever there's a crowd, whatever bird you're after will spring to life and lead you on a chase designed to make you look like an incompetent fool. Naturally, that was what happened here.

Most people don't think of vultures as being particularly nimble; but in reality they can run like jackrabbits. Trailing his broken wing he sped around the fence, only to come face to face with an impenetrable tangle of barberry. “Excuse me!” I called to the four neighbors. “If he comes toward you, block his path!”

I lunged toward my quarry and brought the net down, but the vulture was no longer there. Having feinted right, he ducked left and raced toward the neighbors, who scattered like confetti in the wind. Triumphantly, the vulture slipped by and hightailed it down the road. I let out a whine of dismay and glanced at the elderly lady, who scowled at me disapprovingly. Clutching my net, I ran after the bird's retreating form.

I spent the next half hour running through what seemed like every backyard in the small river town. Had the circumstances been different I might have enjoyed seeing its variety: the small 1950s houses and the stately restored Victorians, the perfectly tended gardens and the areas of cheerful chaos. I kept careening around corners, gasping for air, just in time to see the disappearing edge of a black tail feather. At one point the vulture tore through an alleyway and I took a swipe at him with the net; beak open, one long black wing
fully extended, he leaped upward and landed on a stairway railing just as the lady of the house opened the door. Letting out an ear-shattering scream, she threw herself back inside; something breakable crashed to the floor, and I staggered on.

The end of the line came in a surprisingly large, almost empty backyard. By this time the two of us must have looked like the fox and the hound in the old cartoon, where the chase continues even though both are so exhausted they're walking instead of running. As the vulture made a final sprint across the lawn I dashed after him, extended my net, tripped, and fell forward through the air. Hitting the ground with a thud, I looked up to see the bird safely, miraculously, enclosed in my net. We both lay on the grass, our sides heaving, listening to the crows screaming above us.

Finally a man's voice made me look up. “Excuse me?” it said. “Do you need some help?”

I gazed at him for a moment, sorely tempted to say something ungrateful. “Thank you,” I said instead. “I have a red Jeep parked down on Violet Street. There is a pile of towels in the back—could you bring me one?”

“Sure thing,” he said, and jogged off.

The air was fragrant, the late spring sunshine warm. I sat up and regarded the vulture encased in my net. If the fracture was in the middle of the humerus, the large wing bone closest to the body, odds are it would heal well and he would eventually be released. A fracture close to the joint would be more difficult, the prognosis unclear. A fracture involving the joint usually means the bird will never fly again. But whatever the outcome, at least now he had a second chance.

I felt a creeping sense of well-being. I wasn't a conquering hero, but I had saved this bird from a sure death by either starvation or predation. I would return to my car, mission accomplished, and perhaps the assembled crowd—if they were still there—would feel a new appreciation for the wildlife around them. My helpful friend returned and, smiling, handed me a towel. I extricated the big, dark bird from the net and held him briefly, allowing the man to see
the obvious bond between the avian world and me. The vulture looked me in the eye, opened his beak, and with a master's timing, regurgitated the contents of his stomach onto my lap. I looked up; the man was no longer smiling.

Vomiting as a defense mechanism makes perfect sense for a vulture. Vultures are nature's clean-up crew, and their insides are a marvel of engineering: they can actually eat a victim of hog cholera and not get sick. What goes down the hatch isn't normally all that appealing, and when marinated in those formidable gastric juices and hurled back out again it's even less so. The product doesn't actually have to touch you, either—just landing in your general vicinity is enough to make most normal creatures respect the vulture's wish to be left alone. There hadn't been all that much in this vulture's stomach, but what there was was especially aromatic.

“Jeeeeeesus!” the man burst out. “He sure loves
you
, don't he?”

I wrapped the bird in the towel like a large papoose and carried him back to the car, where a small crowd waited. As I approached their noses began to wrinkle; looks were exchanged. Standing to one side was the elderly lady, arms crossed. When I stopped in front of her she squinted at the vulture, her face twitching slightly; she took an almost imperceptible step backward.

“I got him,” I said. “I'll take him to the vet and she'll set his wing, then I'll take care of him until he recovers. If he can be released I'll bring him right back here and let him go, okay?”

“Well,” said the lady with a small smile. “Maybe not
right
back here.”

Chapter 2
THE SERPENTINE ROAD

My mother fed the wild birds. She filled our feeders with seed and hung blocks of suet from the maple tree outside the kitchen window, hoping to coax the cardinals and the woodpeckers into view. When I was twelve I combed through the Nature section of the local library and discovered the British book
Hand-Taming Wild Birds at the Feeder
. Inspired, I began setting my alarm for 6
A.M
. As my father left for work he would find me standing motionless beneath the maple tree, seed-filled hand outstretched, waiting for a stouthearted chickadee or titmouse to dart across my palm.

I found that if I relaxed to the point where I was barely breathing the birds became more confident, and in time they would perch on my finger and even stare into my face before snatching a seed and flying away. They were nearly weightless, and unlike my dogs and horses, gerbils and rabbits, geckos and guinea pigs, there was nothing that bound them to me. They could abandon me at any moment, a realization that left me both disturbed and exhilarated. Domestic animals were familiar and dependable; wild birds were their opposite: mysterious and otherworldly, and my ability to call them down from the trees was an unexpected and thrilling feat of sorcery.

Unfortunately, my magical powers did not extend to convincing the chickadees to accompany me to boarding school, where I routinely snuck away from the suffocating company of other teenaged girls and hitched a ride to a nearby
stable owned by a former jockey. Gray-haired, chain-smoking, crippled by a long-ago fall, Sam would wait until everyone else had gone home, then pull out two glasses, a bottle of Seagram's and a can of 7-Up, and mesmerize me with fast-paced tales of honest horses and crooked bets. Filled with whiskey and camaraderie, I'd climb onto one of his rangy jumpers bareback while he limped out to the main ring and raised the fences. It was foolish and dangerous, but faced with a wall of gaily colored rails, the horses rose into the air like birds in flight—as if they were in on the game, as if they had no intention of being part of a limp, a scar, or a career left in pieces.

Eventually I had to leave them all behind. I bounced from college to college, sometimes leaving by my own free will and sometimes not. I traveled from country to country and job to job, educated and socially adept, but far from where I could call the birds down from the trees or count on the kindness of horses. By my mid-twenties I'd decided to buckle down and get a real job in New York City, until it became apparent—time after time—that I was incapable of sustained office work. There was my typing, which was slow; my dictation, which was nonexistent; my attitude, which I was told was poor; and my “problem with authority figures,” which, first noted by a boarding-school headmaster and repeated by two college deans, was then echoed by a long succession of bosses.

Finally abandoning the idea of an office job I started walking large packs of dogs, a successful niche halted by my first marriage. Faced with a new life of shopping and decorating I retreated to the northern end of Central Park, the dumping ground for unwanted dogs, where I would catch a glimpse of the gaunt and shadowy creatures before they disappeared into the woods. If I sat still for long enough one would eventually make its way toward me, hostile and haunted, used to abuse but desperate for food, willing to risk human contact for a pocketful of kibble. Sooner or later it would accompany me home, and the apartment slowly filled with stray dogs, all but one en route to permanent homes.

Not surprisingly the marriage failed, and an old college friend invited my
one remaining dog and me to live with her on her farm in Maine. I'll come for the weekend, I said, and I stayed nearly two years, tucking myself in, safe among the farm animals and finally free to walk the empty, overgrown fields. After the din and turmoil of the city the small farmhouse was a refuge, entering the quiet hay-filled barn like meditation. In winter the snow rose outside the windows and slowed the pace of the day, enveloping the house in a pale and protective silence.

The spring after I arrived my dog, a big husky/shepherd mix, heard the call of the wild. I spotted him through the kitchen window, a white wolf with blood-soaked jaws, running down a sheep while three others lay motionless nearby. I loved the sheep even though I knew they would eventually end up in someone's freezer; I loved my dog even though he had committed what was, at first glance, a terrible act. That night I agonized over his aggression, yet I remembered when he had savaged a man who tried to attack me in Central Park and I called him my hero and bought him a steak dinner. A New York City official would have condemned him to death for attacking a person; a Maine farmer would have praised him for defending a family member, but shot him for killing the sheep.

It all reinforced my belief that humans were perverse and their decisions arbitrary, that animals were always true to themselves but at the mercy of a species not qualified to be in charge. I replaced the sheep, chained my dog whenever the farm animals were in the field, and made sure that his reputation as a livestock killer went no farther than our front door.

I might still be in Maine if it weren't for John Horgan, a New York–based science writer with an adventurous spirit and a dicey résumé, who managed against all odds to entice me back to the city. But when I returned, New York seemed even larger and more oppressive than when I left. My beloved killer dog died at the relatively advanced age of thirteen, sending me into a storm of mourning that John tried to assuage with the gift of a young yellow-collared macaw. It was a thoughtful and effective gift, but it opened yet another can of worms. We moved to a small town in the Hudson Valley, where I landed a job
in an animal hospital, and before long started bringing home abused and unwanted parrots. The small rented house echoed with jungle shrieks and John started to crack.

“You're killing me,” he said. “I'm going deaf and they're chewing the house to pieces. Just find homes for these last few and then wait until we move into our own place, okay?”

We bought a house sitting alone on the edge of a 1,200-acre rarely used state park. On our first visit I glanced around the interior and then went back out the door, walked down the first hill of the long dirt driveway, crossed a wide barberry-choked field, and plunged into the woods, which were filled with towering trees and rocky outcroppings and streams that wound their way down to the Hudson River. According to my map, the woods went on for miles. There were no neighbors. It was perfect.

Soon a friend who knew of my interest in birds sent me to the Hudson Valley Raptor Center, at that point a rehabilitation facility for injured birds of prey. I hovered outside a huge outdoor flight cage filled with red-tailed hawks, awed by the regal, lethal creatures who seemed unbowed by their encounters with humankind. But in the clinic was an owl who had been poisoned, an eagle who had been shot, a vulture who had been hit by a car—each crouched and subdued as it struggled to survive. I felt a familiar rush of sympathy mixed with anger. Despite the two-hour round trip, I volunteered at least once a week for the next eleven years, during which time I somehow ended up having two children.

My friends and family were shocked. My only explanation was that, like the falcons and the vultures and the harriers, I eventually bowed to the biological imperative. Children had always filled me with alarm, a reaction that escalated after the birth of my own. Far from friends and family, alone with two young children and clueless as to how to raise them, I lived in fear that they would somehow discover that all I wanted to do was flee. But we muddled through, mostly thanks to the twice-weekly daycare that allowed me to return to the raptor center. My chore of choice was maintaining the outdoor enclo
sures; equipped with rubber gloves, a rake, scrub brush, buckets of water, and a wheelbarrow filled with defrosted rats, I'd spend hours alone with the birds who had entranced me, my stress and fatigue draining away.

Ninety-five percent of the injuries suffered by wildlife are the direct result of human activity; the trouble with working at a wildlife rehabilitation center is that you get to see the unending parade of damage firsthand. After several years I decided to try to help prevent the breakage, not just pick up the pieces. Fresh from creating the center's newsletter, I contacted several local newspapers to see if they would be interested in publishing an environmental column written by Elizabeth T. Vulture, an ornery, unreleasable turkey vulture who actually resided at the raptor center. I supplied a head shot of Elizabeth, several columns, and a list of potential topics. A small chain of upstate papers took the bait, and Elizabeth—snide, sarcastic, prone to black humor, and unimpressed with the human race—had a monthly column.

Elizabeth ranted and raved about pesticides, poisons, outdoor cats, habitat destruction, electrocution of raptors on utility poles, pigeon shoots, predator control, real estate developers, right-wing congressmen, and Wise Use movement members; during lighter moments she included feather-wearing in women's fashion, those who use dissected animals to create “art,” and PMS (pre-migrating syndrome). The real Elizabeth became a local celebrity, turning her back on those who tried to photograph her and snaking her bald head through the bars of her flight cage in an attempt to bite her fans. Things went swimmingly until the owner, a good liberal environmentalist, sold the newspaper chain. Soon after, I received a call from the editor.

“Listen,” he said. “Elizabeth is going to have to…uh…tone it down.”

“What?” I said. “Why?”

“It's the new owners,” he said. “Now we have a legal department. They said they're afraid that if they print that last piece you wrote, Monsanto will sue them.”

“You're not serious,” I said.

“I am serious,” he replied.

“They're
afraid
Monsanto will sue them?” I burst out. “They should
hope
Monsanto will sue them! A mother of two who lives in the woods and takes care of hurt birdies and writes as a vulture for a tiny chain of newspapers gets sued by the huge evil chemical conglomerate that brought us Agent Orange and Frankenfoods and DDT? The company that nearly caused the extinction of our national bird? Are you kidding me?”

“I know, I know,” said the editor. “If it were up to me…”

“What do they think they are, the
New York Times
?” I railed. “I'll tell you what—you convince them to print it, then I'll send it to Monsanto myself with a cover letter saying ‘Go ahead and sue me, you bastards! I can't wait to see a head shot of your CEO next to a head shot of Elizabeth! Who do you think will win this one?'”

As it turned out, Monsanto won. The new owners insisted that the company would sue them, not me, and said that if I wanted to continue to write for them I had to be “nicer.” There went the writing gig.

I contacted a New York agent, who read a stack of clippings and said she could get me a weekly column. It was a hard decision. I might be able to foam at the mouth entertainingly, but I preferred to sit alone in a flight cage filled with birds of prey. I wanted to spread the environmental word, but I was afraid a weekly column would take me away from my children—both of whom, I was still convinced, were doomed by having me as a mother. I put the column on hold for my family, whose personalities seemed to grow more extreme by the day.

There was John, who wrote deliberately controversial science articles, then chortled happily over his resulting hate mail, and who explained being fired from
Scientific American
magazine after the publication of his book
The End of Science
by saying, “I guess the marketing department didn't think it was funny.”

There was our son Mac, who by age six had an almost mystical connection with birds and liked to sit cross-legged at the local Buddhist monastery, yet who was obsessed with machine guns and ceremonial swords. There was our daughter Skye, seventeen months younger, who would careen through her
days at the speed of sound, ripping cabinet doors off their hinges, launching herself from the tops of bookshelves, and during the occasional meditative moment, absently chewing on electrical cords. There was Zack, the swaggering little yellow-collared macaw, who would bite our guests, then laugh uproariously in a voice suspiciously like mine. And there was Mario, the recently rescued African grey parrot, who would soar through the house whistling old Motown songs, searching for wallets and important letters he could chew to pieces. Encircled by this daily maelstrom, I was even more grateful for my quiet and solitary moments with the wild birds.

But all nonprofit organizations, especially those run almost exclusively by volunteers, are subject to fluctuation and change, and often philosophical differences can be solved only by a parting of ways. After I left the organization I went through raptor withdrawal, staring longingly at the occasional hawk soaring over my head, knowing the nearest alternative raptor center was over an hour and a half away. The solution came in a phone call from a local lady who had heard that I worked with birds, who called to ask if I could help two swans imbedded with fishhooks and trailing fishing line. Later that day I sat on my deck—scratched, bruised, exhausted, covered with marsh muck, and speckled with ticks—and thought: this is great. I'll rescue and take care of injured wild birds at home. I'll set up a small, local one-person operation and my bird world will be steady, self-contained, and completely under my control. All the decisions will be mine, and mine alone.

It seemed like a plan.

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