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Forcing Avis

Friday, June 30, 2006

Avis, after medication, feeding, and a face-wash, June 29. Her eyes are bright, she's getting stronger and more uppity all the time, and that's what counts.

June 29 (Thursday). I've been force-feeding Avis since midday yesterday. She's had two doses of Zithromax, some leftover antibiotic from one of Liam's bouts of pharyngitis. I kept it in the refrigerator thinking I might get a bird that needed it this summer. Forcing this little spirit to eat and drink is horrible. She's all mucky looking and hates being handled. I hate handling her, so we're even. I'm working in the studio around noon when I hear a small thunk, and I peek over to see Avis pecking a mealworm out of her dish. It's the first food she's taken of her own volition since the night of the 27th. Left to her own devices, she'd be dead now. For whatever reason. I may never know. But I have a suspicion that whatever is wrong with her, it's addressed by the antibiotic.
It's possible, I suppose, that she wasn't really ready to be released, and lacked the instinct to hunt on her own, and just got run down. But I can't reconcile that conclusion with her behavior in the fledging tent, which was to catch everything that flew by and eat mealworms from a pie plate. Why would that behavior cease when she was released? (Luther did regress, but not to the point that he lost interest in food. No, Luther's REAL interested in food. He just wants me to pop out of the house and administer it every couple of hours.) Maybe she had something bugging her on a low level, and when she was released, the stress and night out in the cold without much food to burn left her vulnerable to it. She had had a bout of anorexia as a young nestling, which I treated with a single dose of Zithromax--not wanting to burn out her digestive tract. She picked right up after the one dose. In retrospect, talking with my rehab-whiz friend Astrid, I probably should have given her a full course of antibiotics. Maybe it was festering the whole time, and took release time as its chance to strike her down. Dunno. Dunno nothin'. All I know is that I won't let her die, no way, nohow.
And so now it's June 30, noon, and Avis is still in the pet carrier, facing out the studio window so she can watch for Luther. The window is open so she can call to him, and he to her. I have mealworms and water in there, and I'm watching her papers to be sure that she's defecating regularly, for that's how I'll know she's eating. She's just had her third dose of Zithromax. I have no idea what the proper dosage of this drug would be. Let's see. Liam weighs 49 pounds and he gets a teaspoonful. Avis weighs what? An ounce? Two? So how do I divide a teaspoon into a portion that tiny? I just get the smallest drop I can in a dropper and pump it in. And it seems to be working. She's bright-eyed, perching well, not trembling, hard as hell to catch even in the carrier; she slips out and zooms around the little aviary and I catch her in midflight like a cat swooping a butterfly from the air. Not so fast, Missy. You have some more R & R coming your way. I'll watch her, give her a fourth dose in the morning, and turn her out into the fledging tent to try again. She's improved immeasurably in the time she's been confined. Now to see if she'll feed herself in the fledging tent, and then work on a re-release. I know Luther is going to be happy about that! Thank God I'm not traveling this month!Luther comes in for subsidy, June 29. I had a hand-raised hummingbird named Adventure Joe who used to sit on this very plant support. I'm flashing back! Photo by my darlin' hubband.

Meanwhile, Luther is having a ball out in the big world. I awoke at 5:15 this morning and went out to see where he might be roosting. I called softly and heard an immediate answer from a tall ash tree by our driveway. He wouldn't come down. An hour later I went out, called his name again, and received a chip in response, followed by a begging call. It's uncanny--I have only to call Luther's name, and he answers back exactly as a young bird would answer its mother's location call. I call, he chips--and I locate him, just as his mother would. He flew down to my hand, accepted a mealworm, and went about his business. When he lands on my hand he's so light I can hardly feel him. And my heart is so light it floats on air.Luther opens wide! Photo by Bill "Shutterbig" Thompson, III.

Post-Fledging Update

Luther sits on a poke leaf. I love the perches baby birds choose.

Luther's first flight and taste of the outdoors.

If I were you, I'd be absolutely dying for an update on the twin phoebes. How did the release go? Well, I've been a bit too busy living it to write about it. But the morning of June 28 did bring a pair of phoebes, chipping and talking to us as we groggily emerged from the house just after dawn. They were as glad to see us as we were to see them. Luther landed on my hand and gobbled down a good breakfast. Avis was happy to fly close and chat but wouldn't eat. And therein began a big problem.
A newly released bird should be ravenous and screaming for food, as was Luther. Birds I've raised and released go through a period of regression when they figure out that they aren't on Easy Street anymore. From being aloof and flighty in the tent, refusing to be hand-fed, they turn back into begging juveniles. Just the sound of my voice brings them swooping in. They shadow me around the yard, just as they would shadow their parents. Needless to say, this is my favorite part of raising birds--having these free-living birds hanging out, playing, foraging, learning fancy flying techniques, yet still coming for regular visits with me. I watch for them to catch their own food (Phoebe saw Luther smashing a beetle, then eating it yesterday). As they get better at it, I cut back on the mealworms, and there comes a day when the bird comes in to chat but won't take any food. That's a beautiful thing, and it's what I work toward. But it should not happen the morning after release.
I watched Avis closely that morning, and was disturbed to see her looking increasingly lethargic. No amount of tickling her rictal bristles would induce her to snap at a mealworm. Uh-oh. Along about noon, I found her back inside the tent, whose flaps I'd left open in case the phoebes felt a need to return. Smart move, Avis. Maybe you came in by accident, and maybe you knew you were in trouble. I zipped it closed and watched her closely. Luther sat just outside in a birch, separated by thin netting, as close as he could get to Avis. They were both obviously upset to be separated, so I brought Luther in to keep Avis company.
I mixed up some fresh baby formula and began to force-feed Avis. It was no fun having to capture this dear little bird, pry her bill open, and feed her the messy, loose formula, but I felt I had no choice. She continued to weaken, trembling as she tried to perch. Double uh-oh. How could we come this far--30 days old, apparently in the pink of health when she was released--only to fail?
All I knew was that I was not going to let her die. In mid-afternoon, I caught her for the last time, and put her in a pet carrier. I'd feed her formula every hour and see if I could turn her decline around. Poor Avis. She hated being force-fed (who wouldn't?); I hated having to do it. She would try to shake her head and get rid of the food. Her feathers got messy, I washed her and kept her as clean as I could. This was awful. I emailed my friend Astrid McCloud, who has raised just about everything, and is my first resort when I'm stumped. Astrid suggested that Avis might have eaten a lightning bug, which could have made her sick. I had seen her catch one in the tent a couple of days before her release, but she took it back to the perch and released it, doubtless because it tasted bad. Maybe she ate one. Maybe not. As she continued to decline I decided to start her on an antibiotic, just in case she had something infectious that might be addressed. I figured it was better than standing around watching her go downhill.
Meanwhile, Luther was blazing new trails outside. The morning of June 29, I awakened to the sound of a phoebe, singing in the lilac (yes, that lilac) just outside our bedroom window. Three times, Luther sang, a hurried, high-pitched, imperfect baby song. I didn't want to wake Bill, who was breathing deeply beside me, but I lay there listening, grinning from ear to ear. Phoebe Linnea had guessed Luther's sex right!
In the next three days, Luther would do all the things a phoebe should do. He investigated the eaves and awnings, instinctively drawn to their cavelike structures.
He ranged farther and farther afield, hanging out in the thick pokeweeds for a siesta.
Perhaps most intriguingly, he figured out how to come back into the open tent for food and water. The titmice quickly robbed all the mealworms from his dish on the joint compound bucket outside the tent, and I figure it won't be long before they learn to come in the tent, too. But for now, it's working well. I smile every time I see Luther in there, reminiscing about his pre-fledging days.

The Strawberry Baby

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

In honor of my new nephew,William Daniel (Will) Salter, 5 lb. 10 1/2 oz., 20" long, perfect, with light brown hair, a powerful sucking mechanism, and a lusty cry, born in Providence, RI on June 19, I post this:

This is what happens when monkeys get ahold of your camera. Phoebe found a strawberry that looked like a baby. She did this photo essay for my edification. It's nice to find things like this, little surprises, on your camera when you download your photos.The strawberry baby. Waah! Waah! It even has a green, leafy bib. How cute!Oh, noooo! They eat their young! Nice hair, Phee. Is that an ivory-billed woodpecker behind you?
Remorse. Only a stained receiving blanket to remind her of her strawberry baby. Would she be judged insane at the time of the murder? Would she be acquitted?

Sweet little nephew, you have a twisted cousin, and your new aunt is even worse. We will be looking for a strawberry that looks like the Blessed Virgin, Mother Teresa, or Bill Pullman. There is money to be made.

Not Saying Goodbye

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Living free at last, but seeing no reason to leave.

I've gotten such a smile out of your comments about the phoebes' release. It's a story I couldn't wait to tell. It isn't really good- bye when we open the tent. The best thing about releasing young birds is that they rarely leave. They hang around the yard like dirty shirts. After all, I'm their momma, and the living is easy with Mom around. Phoebe was all in tears (well, so was I!), Liam was loudly professing his sadness, and Bill was a little choked up too as they made their fluttery way out of the tent. Luther went first, of course, being the smarter, more adventuresome one. Avis got all flustered and couldn't figure out how to get out (you have to fly down to go out the doors.) Luther circled back and clung to the netting, chirping to Avis. They got quite frantic before Avis finally made her way out.
Phoebe fretted and sniffled, worrying that they wouldn't find each other. But find each other they did, and Phoebe even got to feed them some mealworms and crickets by hand before dark. We put their dish of mealworms out next to the birch clump where they settled, and checked on them every now and then. They played with the leaves and preened and relaxed. At nightfall they were gone, doubtless hidden in some high, thick vegetation. We'll see what tomorrow brings. Methinks 'twill bring a pair of phoebes, chipping for their breakfast.

It's Time

Avis, top, and Luther, bottom, June 27, Day 29. Just about full-grown.
June 27 2006. It’s time. They don’t want anything to do with us. I put a light in their tent all night and in the morning it’s full of craneflies and moths, gnats, mosquitoes, millers and fireflies. And that’s what they want. I zip it closed before dawn, get the phoebes from their safe harbor in our stairwell, and release them to the feast. I tickle their bills with mealworms and they seem taken aback. Why would I want that? they seem to ask, then flash away on agile wings. They land, tails bobbing, looking at me balefully. Go away. We’re feeding ourselves now.
Avis is hard to approach. That's how phoebes should be. They are the antithesis of pets.
I watch from the kitchen window as they whirl up after all the flying insects. One dips down and grabs a mealworm from the Pyrex pie plate, takes it back to the perch, bashes it and eats it. Luther bashes crickets until the legs fall off. They pile into a shallow bowl and bathe, preen, shake their feathers, and bathe again. Yes, it’s time. They’re 29 days old. Their parents would have quit feeding them by now. They seem too proud to beg even when I know they’re hungry. Their tails are almost full-length; their gape corners shrunken and almost gone. The soft phoebe chip has largely replaced the cricketlike begging calls.
It rains and rains. I hate to let them out when it’s pouring. So I hold them, hoping for a break in the weather, some sign that it’s OK to open the flaps. I guess I’m hanging onto them. I think I’m going to draw and paint them some more. I try to find the time to do that. I have to take the kids to a dental appointment; I have to do the grocery shopping; there’s a book the library is threatening to make me pay for that I must find and return. The vacuum cleaner is worthless, needs to be returned, our closet shelves have fallen down with all the clothes on them. My car needs an oil change. A hummingbird plate is due in four days. Good thing it's not a grouse plate. The kids fight incessantly. Oh. It’s lunchtime. They’re hungry, that’s why they fight. I miss my husband. There’s band practice tonight and tomorrow, a gig Saturday. We’re so rusty. How will we get up on stage? I have to dream up dinner. One more load of Bangor laundry. I want to take more pictures of the birds. There’s no light; it rains all the time. And so my mind chatters and my days piss away and the phoebes grow and whirl and hit the sides of the tent. It’s time. I have to let them go.

Yes, It Hurts

Monday, June 26, 2006

So read the sign on a tattoo parlor Bill and I passed once. Zick art has appeared in many situations, from the expected to the strange. I've done art for books, magazines and posters; for feeder packaging, mailing labels, jackets, sweaters, tote bags. My drawings have shown up on dog collars and leashes. I have painted the head of a bass drum for a band, and done CD liner art. I have painted a Jersey cow on an old milk can. I have yet to do a toilet lid.
A couple of years ago I did a series of detailed drawings that were engraved on a green marble headstone. They were of the woman's cats, and they had to look EXACTLY like Tiggy and whatsername. Many adjustments later, the client was happy.
And now I have done a drawing for a tattoo.
Kestrels have always been special birds for me. Here's a youngun that was abducted from its family two summers ago. By now you'll recognize the setting--my drawing table, locus of all living things on Indigo Hill. They all end up here, getting their pictures made. It took about seven phone calls and a day and a half for me to track down exactly where he was picked up, but I did. I drove up the driveway of the place, and immediately saw an adult male kestrel feeding two babies exactly this one's age. I walked over to the tree where they were sitting, kissed the abductee on top of his dear little head, and put him on a low branch of the same tree. Dad gave a shrilling call of welcome; I got in the car and left, feeling very good indeed. Kestrels should be raised by kestrels.
Now, I watch a pair of kestrels at our Kroger parking lot. This is the female, a shot taken right after she mated. In afterglow, I guess. I don't know where they're nesting, but I saw two fresh fledglings in the same parking lot a couple of weeks ago. Yayy! May they dine on house sparrows and starlings, as well as mice, rats and voles.
So when I was asked by a friend who shall remain anonymous, in deference to the privacy of her spinal zone, to design a kestrel tattoo, I leapt at the chance. Here's the drawing.

I did a cleaner version of the drawing, as well as a colored one, to guide the tattoo artist. Who did a very nice job. Here's the final version. Dang, that's nice, and it's six inches across:She said it hurt like the dickens, but she's very stoked to have a kestrel hovering on her spine. Skin: my newest medium. I especially like alabaster skin.

Virtual Garden Tour

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Things are beginning to color up around here. Bill and I spent a lot of time weekend before last sprucing up the gardens and trees, trimming and weeding and pruning, in honor of a visit by the Marietta Garden Club and the Barlow Bluebells. Love that name! It's a good thing to do, we decided, becuase it gives us an excuse to get the house and garden ship-shape. It's easy to let windows go unwashed and clutter accumulate. But when you know about 30 pairs of sharp, appraising eyes are going to be roaming over your house and grounds, it is a serious motivator. Luckily, I'd been home enough this spring that the gardens were in really good shape.

I couldn't help thinking, as the crowd descended on Indigo Hill at noon June 20, how much I'd like to have some of my readers in the group--you who share so much with me, every day. The gardens are just coming into their own, slowed by a cool, wet spring. The first coneflower is starting to color; the liatris is still in bud. But there's a lot blooming, and it's sooo beautiful right now. So, since you can't leap out of my computer, I'll show you what the garden clubs saw.
The phoebe tent was a big draw. They were charmed by my tail-bobbing fairies. One of the women asked why I was the only songbird rehabilitator for at least three counties around. Bill piped up, "Who wants to feed birds every half-hour?" True enough. Much easier to throw a frozen rat in front of a raptor and be done for the day. You don't have to take your redtail to the movies and grocery store with you.
This huge bromeliad, supported by the arms of one of my "liberated bonsais," drew a chuckle from the group. What better place for it, in the light dappled shade of Japanese maple leaves, living in the canopy as it would in the wild. I have two Japanese maples that were a bit too rangy to be good bonsai subjects. They live in the yard now, taller than me, and happy, too. I've had this bromeliad species for years--Vriesea "Splenreit." In midwinter it sends out three or more swords of flame-orange, lighting up the foyer. Its zebra leaves are beautiful all the time. It loves its summer vacations. I've given many a pup away from this plant. It splits like an amoeba and I get to spread the joy--one of the things I love most about gardening.
This year, I've decided to add interest to a forgotten part of the yard by making "shade stations" under the birches. We have so little shade here on the ridgetop, and it's all taken by hostas, columbines, hardy fuchsias, ferns and the like. So I'm using containers under trees as spots of alluring color, destinations to get us out the side yard. It's working! I've got to get out there to water them, and while there I enjoy the birches and pines.
These containers are going to be stunning in about a month. Gotta love this fuchsia with its red hat lady flair. I have to say these colors look better on a fuchsia than on a zaftig woman. But that's just my opinion. Beneath it in the blue pots is a more modest upright fuchsia called "Gartenmeister"--ever a favorite with hummingbirds and Zicks.
The garage beds are a wild tumble of volunteer daisies, lavender, snapdragons, pink hibiscus, hollyhocks, Rudbeckia, tall ironweed, coreopsis, and cactus. Missouri primrose is the pink mass at left. These beds are alive with bees and skippers, who love lavender as much as I do.
Much of what's cool here has volunteered. This is my fritillary and monarch ranch--common milkweed, barely kept in check by patio and pond. Those are great spangled fritillaries , drunk on the blossoms. When it finishes blooming, spreading its honeyed scent up to the bedroom windows, I'll cut it to the ground. The shorter new shoots that come up in late July will be dotted with monarch eggs and chewed by caterpillars, and I'll be able to see my pond again. The monarchs are delighted to find new shoots in July, when all the rest of the milkweed around is so grotty. It works fabulously: I've had as many as 26 monarch caterpillars on this small patch at once.
A glimpse of the pond, which lies directly behind the milkweed ranch, framed in larkspur. This is where my famous bird-eating frog, Fergus, once lived. The big hanging basket, with trailing snapdragon "Sultan," a mini variegated alpine geranium I can't live without, Calliphora "Rose Star," and Lobelia "Laguna Blue w/Eye." These are plants that get greenhouse space all winter so I can have them always.

A particularly successful combination of Osteospermum "Yellow Sonata," Calliphora "Hot Tamale," and fancy geraniums "Mrs. Cox" and "Frank Headley." Fire and ice. My favorite pot of all. Color. I eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

All This Bull----

Friday, June 23, 2006


Luther pants in the muggy heat inside his tent. Day 24.

June 22. Luther is 24 days old. While Shila and I watch, open-mouthed, he launches himself from his perch, grabs a little white miller off the tent wall, returns to his perch, masticates it, and swallows it. We cheer and whoop. I kiss Luther atop his head. I can taste freedom, theirs and mine.Avis pecks the lens. This behavior is very Avis. She is a stinkpot. She pecks Luther and me, too. They don't call them tyrannid flycatchers for nothing.

This morning, Phoebe took a dish of mealworms out and put it atop an overturned joint compound bucket where the young phoebes could easily land and pick them up. Each bird ate ten worms from the forceps. So we know they like them. We'll see what happens. If we can get them feeding themselves, maybe we could, um, go to the grocery store? Go out to dinner? Ride the bike trail? See a movie? Just get in the frickin' car and drive?
This is why I am not a full-time wildlife rehabilitator. I have waaay too much living to do, too many other people and too much else to care for, to devote my life to nestsful of baby bunnies that need to be fed every two hours all night. There are women who do that, and I am deeply grateful that they do it, but I am not one of them. I will gladly give a month of my life to baby hummingbirds, phoebes, chimney swifts. But I won't raise baby house sparrows, starlings or grackles. I'm in this for what I can get out of it, and I'm not ashamed to say that. I'm after birds that are, quite frankly, worth my time, birds that can become part of my life's work. My vision for our future does not include acres of cages, teen-age volunteers, or Boy Scout troops coming to look at all the busted birds. It fiddles with, but skirts around burnout. I tell people who call with baby bunnies or squirrels or coons that I don't deal with mammals. I'm happy to field calls, but most of the time I tell people to put the bird or animal right back where they found it, because they've unknowingly abducted it from its parents. I admit that I have an aversion to hearing the phone ring in June and July.
(Unless it's my darlin' on the other end of the line.)
And yet...I know I'm in deep. I've been told as much. Someone who has known me for years once spent some time at our house, and witnessed first hand the whirl of work and activity that sustains the arksworth of life forms here at Indigo Hill. He sat me down, and with real concern, incredulity and conviction, said, "Julie, why don't you get rid of all this stuff? It's bullsh-t! All that writing, that painting... You don't need all this! All these plants and birds and turtles and fish, the bonsai trees, the gardens, all this stuff you take care of, it's all bullsh-t! Get rid of it! Just take care of your children!"

I stared back at him, thankful that he hadn't thrown Chet Baker into his carpetbag of what constitutes bullsh-t. (That could have gotten ugly.) For once, I took the time to collect my thoughts. I was astonished, taken aback, more than a little angry, and thoroughly unrepentant. I chose my words carefully.

"All this bullsh-t is what makes me who I am." Raising the nurturing fist. Photo by Shila Wilson.

"And being raised by a mother with a lot of outside interests makes my children who they are. And I happen to like the people we are."

Arizona, 1990

From an old sketchbook
Another life and lover
The owl's fire undimmed


He drew flowers here
The rain made short work of them.
I'll keep him in chalk.

Phoebes Growing, Phoebes Learning

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Luther, June 21. 23 days old.

Avis, June 21. 23 days old .
Avis, top, and Luther, June 20. 22 days old.

Like the White Rabbit in Through the Looking Glass, I'm always running, always late. I'd love to give you daily updates on the phoebes, but I'm too darn busy feeding them and taking care of my family and houseguests. The phoebes are growing, flying, learning new things every day. We have a routine; I take them out to their fledging tent at dawn, feed them every hour until dusk, and bring them back inside, locked in a pet tote, for the night. I put them in a dark stairwell so they won't flutter and fuss; they hate to be put in the tote. But raccoons and black rat snakes, as we all know, are ever vigilant. I looked out just in time to see a coon peering into the tent yesterday afternoon. Now that they're flying so well, there's little chance it could catch one, but dang! I'd hate to lose them now.
Today, June 22, they are 24 days old. Little things tell me their brains and neural connections are maturing. When a baby bird grabs a moth from a forceps without having it stuffed down its throat, that's progress. It's a mental leap from being fed to feeding itself. Moths prove irresistible to these birds. They already know what they like.
On June 20, day 22 of their short lives, they started to process their food, beating crickets against the perch. They get better at it every day. They aren't able to knock the legs off them yet, but they will get there.Today, Luther, the smaller, sweeter one, whirled out, grabbed a housefly off the tent wall, brought it back to the perch, and released it. Well, he's getting the idea, anyway! My heart sang. They're acting like phoebes. They sit on high perches, bobbing their tails, sally out after nothing in particular or perhaps to peck at a moth, then return to the perch. They're flycatchers at last.
We've got maybe another week of this hourly feeding, until that magic day when they fly down and take crickets out of a dish. I did my huge weekly grocery shop at 5:30 AM today, so I would get back in time to put them in the tent and feed them at 7:30. Grocery stores are weird places at dawn. You do what you have to.

Solstice Reverie

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

These summer evenings are so luscious, I can't wait for Bill to get home so we can lapse into our chairs, share the events and conversations of the day, and breathe the sweet, moist air. Sometimes we cook out; sometimes I have something ready so we don't have to mess with it. A little wine, a beer, the kids playing in the yard, a little wiffleball, our sweet Phoebe smacking the ball farther and farther, reveling in her newfound strength. Barn swallows skimming the air and chattering on the wire, a prairie warbler teasing Bill from a birchtop, Bill cussing and scrambling for his scope and camera. Oh, there's nowhere else I'd rather be. These are the sweetest days.

No one else I'd rather be with than this dear man, drawing flowers in chalk . He's got a lot of what they call The Most.
No sky I'd rather gaze up into than this one, amber clouds swimming in turquoise. My favorite shirt has a prowling tiger on it, seal brindle just like Chet. Summer is the time for Leos: heat, passion, fervor and sweat; strength in the sun and the coiled green spring. Warm days and soft nights. Solstice, everything coming back into perfect balance, equilibrium.

We stare out over the meadow until the lightning bugs start to blink. Heat lightning plays along the southern horizon. This landscape has grown around us, and we have grown into it. We have given it gardens and bluebirds; it has given us everything. B, this one's for you, a taste of home.

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