Background Switcher (Hidden)

What Happened Next

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

47 comments

I'm not good for much today but burning trash and doing laundry, of which there's always a lot. A lot has happened since my last post thanking everyone who donated to the Zick Health Fund. This whole bat experience has been like riding the Wild Mouse, with sudden jags left, right and backward. I'll be honest: having it unfold publicly has been painful. There are many things I'd rather do than tell this story to thousands of people. But doing what I most long to: suddenly going offline, crawling in bed and pulling the covers over my head for oh, say a week-- isn't an option either, especially when my readers are offering up their good wishes, love and support.

So here's what happened. On February 13, I took in another bat from the same living room where Dee Dee was found. It was a male, smaller and more delicate than Dee Dee. He looked and acted healthy, except for a large swelling on the right side of his face that involved his cheek and ear and almost closed his eye. It looked like a bite, perhaps, something that isn't unexpected in a bat colony. It scabbed over and healed, but the ear was permanently damaged. In this photo, taken March 28, 2010, you can see that there's a big chunk missing from the lower border of Darryl's ear, and his tragus is shrunken to just a little nubbin in the lower ear.

In the photo below, you can appreciate his good ear. The tragus is the little fingerlike projection in the lower outer ear. The tragus and all the delicate ridges and folds of the bat ear help channel ultrasonic pulses to the inner ear where they need to go. Like all wild things, a bat must be virtually perfect in order to survive in the outdoors. That's a lesson that wildlife rehabilitators, me especially, have to learn again and again. You might recall Avis, the hand-raised eastern phoebe who didn't make it. I sure do.

I didn't find out until yesterday at the Ohio Wildlife Center that a damaged ear renders a bat, which forages and gets about using echolocation, permanently unreleasable. So hold onto that thought, bummer that it is, because it will help with what comes next.

I put Darryl in with Dee Dee and they got along great. It was so nice to know they could be together, to wait out the rest of the winter. I had visions of releasing them together. I had visions of bat children, especially when I saw the towels rocking rhythmically the first night they were together. That's bats for you. They're the sexy little beasts.

Some bats in captivity feed themselves out of dishes from the get-go, like Dee Dee.

And some, for reasons unknown, never get the hang of crawling down to their dishes for food and water. After about five days it became apparent that Darryl wasn't eating --he became torpid and unresponsive. Once I got his little engines up and running again, I tried to teach him to self-feed, with little success. He reached out and grabbed a couple of worms on his own, but he clearly preferred catered meals. We went to school, but Darryl decided not to graduate.

So I finally gave up and began feeding him by hand, something we both enjoyed. I really dug communing with Darryl every afternoon. I had to feed him before it got dark, because he got really jiggy then, being a bat and all. Uppity. Squirmy and snarly.

photo by Shila Wilson.

Bats are messy eaters. They make a lot of noise crunching down their mealworms, and mealworm heads and tails fall from their tiny jaws. They're also messy drinkers.

Because Liam loves to get in and help, and because he adored the bats, for several evenings I let him help me feed Darryl from the end of a long bent tweezers. He never touched or handled Darryl; he just fed one mealworm after another into that little mouth while I held the bat, and he was really good at it, better than I was. He could get them lined up just right and knew just when to release the tweezers.

photo by Shila Wilson

Along about St. Patrick's Day, Darryl spluttered while I was giving him water out of a dropper, and a droplet of water landed on Liam's cheek. At the time, I quizzed him sternly on where the water had gone, checked for any abrasions, began to worry, and the more I thought about it, and the more I learned about bats and viruses, the more troubled I became. Liam said that only one droplet landed on his cheek, and nothing went in his mouth or eyes (he wears glasses). We needed to be sure that none of Darryl's saliva contacted a mucous membrane. But we couldn't be sure. We could never be sure. Maybe there was a tiny droplet. And maybe Darryl was carrying rabies. And I didn't sleep much from then on. I'd look in the mirror in the bleary mornings, and I couldn't recognize myself. Even my hair was different--sticking up and out in all directions. Who is this puffy haint, staring back at me with red-rimmed eyes?

I thought that quickly getting both me and Liam pre-exposure rabies vaccinations would protect us, so I moved rapidly down that path. I asked you for help, and you responded magnificently. But that turned out to be a blind avenue. I am very grateful to virologist Tim Winship and faithful friend and veterinarian KatDoc "I hesitate to ask this, but why..." for gently helping me understand what I really needed to do. In a situation like this, friends like Tim and Kathi are beyond value. What happened to Liam constituted a potential exposure to rabies virus, so he would need post-exposure shots (much more expensive and involved than pre-exposure vaccinations) should Darryl test positive for the rabies virus. Oh, dear. Oh, no. And by the way, so would I. At that point, I was well past caring about me. I'd gotten us into this terrible mess; I deserved whatever awful thing happened. I could only think of my little boy.

I couldn't put our sweet Liam through those shots needlessly. They can be painful, and they're terribly expensive ($12,000). Problem: You can't test a live animal for rabies. You have to look at its brain tissue for the virus.

I will condense the heartache, worry and agonizing process of coming to the decision to euthanize and test Darryl so we'd know for sure if those post-exposure shots were necessary into two words: pure hell. When the Lord handed out reverence for small lives, he dumped the whole bucket into my heart. As my dad always said, "You've got your priorities backwards." Being built backward, it took me a weekend to get my priorities straightened out, and take this little animal I dearly loved to Columbus to be put down and tested for rabies.

If the bat tested negative, Liam wouldn't have to get ANY shots. If Darryl was rabies positive, well, we'd cross that bridge when we came to it, because we'd have to figure out who else might have had even a trivial exposure. Bill, Phoebe, me, Liam; others in Bill's family, all of us perhaps slated for post-exposure prophylaxis at $12,000 a pop. Can you take a chance that you didn't somehow inhale something as you were peering at the cute little bat you didn't know was rabid? Rabies is unforgiving, unequivocally fatal. I couldn't sit around with my head in my hands. I had to act, and act fast.

So on Monday, March 29 I packed up Dee Dee and Darryl and a sharp-shinned hawk who couldn't fly and drove my odd little ark to Columbus, to the Ohio Wildlife Center, to have Dee Dee and the hawk taken into their capable care. They also did me the service of putting Darryl down.

I sat in the OWC's tiny reception area for the better part of an hour, desolate, and watched through tears as a parade of citizens came through with animals and birds, to be met by kind volunteers and staff. A couple with a road-killed red-tailed hawk. Too beautiful to leave on the highway, I guess. Another couple with a fox squirrel contained in a trash can, its hind legs dragging behind it. Too sad to leave crawling about under the feeder. A nice woman with a hopeful smile and a wingless, tailless cardinal that she'd doubtless pulled out of a cat's jaws when it already constituted a meal. Too dreadful to leave to the cat to finish. A couple of raccoons bundled in towels. Who knows what their story was. I was staggered by the seemingly endless supply of sad cases and nice hopeful people, by the kindness of the OWC staff and volunteers. I was hit hard by the reality that I, with my two bats and my grounded sharp-shinned hawk, was just one of far too many desperately needing their immediate, free help.

I am so very grateful that OWC exists and cares and works around the clock to try to get some good out of all the sad carnage people, their machines and their pets visit on wild animals. They've taken in and cared for over 36,000 creatures since 1984. The Ohio Wildlife Center is 2 1/2 hours away from me, but it is my closest and only option when a creature needs surgery or I need expert advice on its care. I have leaned on them too many times.

Director of Animal Care, Lisa Fosco, looked at Darryl's ear and matter-of-factly declared that with impaired echolocation abilities, he'd be unreleasable anyway, which made me feel just a little bit better about the decision I'd had to make. She left the room and after awhile came back with a little Ziploc bag with Darryl wrapped in paper towels inside it. I filled out a possible rabies exposure report form, put it in the bag, and drove it to the Columbus Department of Health's laboratory outside Reynoldsburg. As I circled around the compound of imposing brick structures, I saw a man with a cattle car and asked him if he knew where the rabies lab might be. He opened the trailer door, revealing a dead cow, and said, "I hope this is it, because I gotta get this cow tested for rabies." Eep, eep, eep.

Cows, I understand, come down with rabies more than you'd think because when they see an animal in distress, say a bat crawling through the grass, they get curious and often sniff or lick it, getting bitten in the process. Bless their hearts.

Reeling a little from that encounter, I drove away and finally found a promising looking door. I rang the buzzer and a thin man appeared and led me, still carrying my little bag, to a lab covered with biohazard signs. The heavy steel door opened and a very large man with latex gloves, a shaved head and a black goatee nodded and took my little bag. "Got a bat there?" He told me that if all went well I'd hear from him the following afternoon. Which is today, as I'm writing this, the phone inches from my hand. I've tried, but I can't do anything else but write this and wait for the phone to ring.

And it just did. Darryl's test came back negative for rabies.

Good night, sweet leather-winged boy. I will hold my Liam all the closer for having loved you.


This afternoon, I start my pre-exposure vaccinations, because fools like me need more than angels, virologists and veterinarians to look after them.

We Did It!!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

10 comments

FUNDRAISING ALERT: We are THERE, as of 8:20 pm Sunday March 28, 2010. And I am amazed and grateful. And you are beautiful, and I am thankful to have you all in my life.

THANK YOU!! The shots will be ordered Monday morning, and Liam and I will get our first of three on Wednesday afternoon. We'll let you know how it goes. Katdoc says they're no big deal, no worse than any other vaccination she's had. We'll pop an ibuprofen before we go.

And there will be many more bat posts, I promise. Dee and Darryl had a lovely shoot with me just this afternoon! They're total dolls about posing. And we also have the release to look forward to. Please, just cross your fingers that Dee Dee holds on to her babies until we can release her! I don't want any of you sending in baby bat booties. They're so hard to fit.

Ring of Fire

Love is a burning thing
And it makes a fiery ring
Bound by wild desire
I fell into a ring of fire

I fell into a burning ring of fire
I went down, down, down and the flames went higher
And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire
The ring of fire

The taste of love is sweet
When hearts like ours meet
I fell for you like a child
Oh, but the fire went wild

I fell into a burning ring of fire
I went down, down, down and the flames went higher
And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire
The ring of fire

"Ring of Fire" by June Carter and Merle Kilgore
Recorded by Johnny Cash March 25, 1963--47 years ago almost to the day!

For the past few weeks I feel as if I've been neck deep in a big black cauldron, a slow woodfire getting hotter beneath me (I have a vivid and politically incorrect Looney Toons image in mind of the little grass-skirted cannibals with bones in their hair dancing around me). As you may know, I generally write my blog essays well ahead of actually posting them. It's mostly a temperamental thing, a perfectionist's way of making sure that what gets posted is close to what I really wanted to say. But I also post ahead because life is strange and it takes lots of twists and turns, and I don't want to write about an event before I know how it turns out.

Encyclia cordigera bloom spike, taken March 11, 2010. It's three times that long now.

I have a draft post waiting on an orchid that I started writing in January, when its bloom spike first appeared, and now the spike is over a foot long and the buds are still weeks from opening, and you just never know. Maybe all the buds will drop off tomorrow or I'll close the brittle spike in the Venetian blind, as I narrowly avoided doing this morning, and I won't have a story after all, or I'll spin it into an even better story about how you can hope and wait and care for something for a long time and be rewarded only with disappointment. That's writing. E.L. Doctorow said, "Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."


And that's life. Living is like driving at night in the fog.

Perfectionists don't like to admit they're not perfect. Leo perfectionists really hate admitting it. Worse than admitting it is plainly demonstrating it. I've done all that and more lately. I've had to surrender control and let my own ignorance wash over me like a big wave, and I've posted about every stage of that process here, for everyone to see. I got caught up with these little bats (yes, there are two now, and I haven't even gotten to THAT part of the story) and I fell in love and we all know that love is blind. Love is blind and dumb, excitable and heedless and love, in its giddy, wonderful way, can trample all over life.

In my own lame defense, bats are a special case. Bats are magic animals--smart, funny, weird and insanely lovable once you get over the eeps. It took me about four hours to get over my trepidation and walk right into the ring of fire. And I was there, cooking away, and I didn't even know it. And that's where the special case part kicks in, because bats, alone among any animal with which a Science Chimp could fall in love, can kill you without your knowing it.

Oh, I could probably love a copperhead or a lionfish, but I'd know how to keep it from killing me. You stay away from the fangs and the spines and you're good. But bats...bats. A bat can kill you without meaning to, because bats can have and transmit rabies without showing that they're ill. You stay away from the teeth and claws, OK, I've been successful at doing that, but can you stay away from the saliva when you've got a bat you're giving water to spluttering and cussing in your glove? Can you say for sure that a microdroplet hasn't landed on your lip or in your eye? Well, no, you can't. And can you say for sure that that bat isn't shedding rabies virus without cutting off its head? No, you can't. I didn't know that, and volumes of other things about bats and rabies, when I took them in. And now, thanks to the information provided by concerned readers and my own rooting around, I know more, enough to be deeply uncertain and troubled.

I know in my core that these bats are healthy. At least, they're healthy right now, and they've been healthy for the ten and six weeks, respectively, that I've kept them. They're gobbling down their food and preening and cuddling with each other. That's good, and every week that they're under observation helps. But we simply don't know enough about latent rabies in bats, about the incubation period of bat strain rabies in bats (which is highly variable, and can be weeks to months...or can it be years?), OR about just when and how they shed the virus, to say for certain, even though nobody in my house has been bitten or scratched, that we're safe.

All the studies about incubation period of rabies in bats has been on bats infected in a lab situation with the canine strain of rabies. And in those studies, the bats trace a typical mammalian arc, falling ill within a few weeks, and dying about a week later. But we don't know about the incubation period of the bat strain of rabies (and there are several), and it only makes sense that the particular genius behind viral evolutionary design might engineer a bug that can lie latent and infect other animals while keeping its host going strong for as long as possible. Whoever He is, there's ample evidence that the Virus God is not a benevolent one.

Speaking of benevolence, your generosity has been overwhelming, and the hot stew I've been sitting in has been seasoned with tears as the electronic transfers and now the mailed checks arrive. I'm deeply moved by your commitment to this weird and, I hope, unnecessary cause, by your willingness to send money to try to build rabies immunity in my blood, an imperfect hedge against a dreadful disease. Before this story fully unfolded, my animal-loving Liam helped me feed the bat off the end of a long tweezers, and because his dear little face was at the splutter level, he and I are going in together on Wednesday for our first shots. You've donated enough to cover me, and I'm going to cover him. If you wish to help, know that I am not yet cried out of grateful tears. Almost, but not quite. See the little bat button in the right sidebar if you wish to donate to the Zick Health Fund. Two courses of the vaccine will cost $1,230.00, six shots at $205/shot.

What looks like Liam's hand in this photo is actually a beige washcloth. No touching!

Tomorrow, I will load the bats in their deluxe tank, and a lovely adult male sharp-shinned hawk with a broken wing, into the back of my car and spend the day driving them all to Columbus, to the Ohio Wildlife Center, the only facility that will receive them and, in the case of the hawk, repair it. Bill of the Birds helped me see that the broken sharp-shin was a messenger for change, to tell me it was time to surrender the bats. The bat caretakers at OWC have already been vaccinated, and it only makes sense to lessen our risk by giving the animals over to them. I will miss the bats terribly; I look forward to our every contact. I'm choosing to look at the next month as their stay in a spa that has an exercise room. If all goes well with flight conditioning (which will start in mid-April), I may have the chance, come mid-May, to don my gloves yet again and hang the little couple high on a tree right near the house where they were originally found. Happy tears? Oh, bet on it. And by then, Liam and I should have enough antibodies coursing through our blood to blow them a goodbye kiss.

Thank you good readers, good people.

Dee Dee (left) and Darryl. Dee is cussing me out.

Bat Reproduction, and an Appeal

Thursday, March 25, 2010

30 comments

Dee Dee the big brown bat is a silky burnt sienna brown, and her fur is so soft you almost can't feel it. When I first got her she smelled terrible--a skunky foxy musk that apparently emanated from facial glands. I wondered if I'd be able to stand the stink. Now she's almost odorless, just the faintest sweet peaty scent that's quite pleasant. I didn't understand why that would be until I frightened her one day recently by surprising her when I lifted her towel. She must have been deeply asleep, maybe dreaming of summer evenings and tender moths. She chittered, gaped at me and emanated an incredible wave of musk. Oh! That's why she stank when I first got her--she was afraid. Poor little thing.

Needless to say, I am no longer afraid of her, either. Maybe I stank to her when we first met. But now we understand more about each other.


Chances are very good (probably 90%, based on current research) that DeeDee is storing sperm from an autumnal mating in 2009. Big browns mate before going into hibernation, and the female can store viable sperm for up to four months. One source I found says they store the sperm in the uterus. Birds store it in little side pockets of the oviduct, and then release it to fertilize an egg. Bat babies in Ohio are born in May or June. Here are some photos I found on the Net from a study of big brown bat maternity roosts. Here's a bat carrying a single fetus:



and here's a girl carrying twins.


Both x-ray photos from the Fort Collins Bat Project

I found myself very moved by these photos; they somehow erased the differences between us, and united us as mammals. Perhaps it's because they remind me of my carefully-saved sonagrams of Phoebe and Liam in utero, those perfect skulls, those perfect beaded spinal columns, the sheer wonder of being a live-bearing mammal, being able to have a being within a being.

Now you try to build a sentence that uses "being" four times.

If all goes well, DeeDee will be taken to Columbus for flight conditioning in mid April, and when the weather is warm enough, released right outside the house where she was found, long before she needs to find a maternity roost and give birth to her pup or pups. She knows the neighborhood; she may have lived there for 20 years, for all we know. She'll go back to her life, find a maternity roost with other big brown bats, give birth, and leave her newborn young in a cluster of other babies when she goes out to forage. (I had always thought they somehow flew with the baby clinging to them, but they don't. Catching flying insects is a flip-upside-down, sudden-change-of-direction proposition, a highly acrobatic endeavor, and a new baby would probably go hurtling off the first time Mom caught a moth.)

As much as I'd like to see a baby big brown bat, I absolutely do not want Dee Dee to give birth in a 20 gallon fishtank with a screened top. Please hold onto that sperm for awhile, Dee. Wait to start gestating until we can get you outdoors where you belong.

Brace yourself for teh OMG:

This is a baby big brown bat that has gotten sand stuck to it. It's being given a drink by a rehabilitator. From bestfriends.org

There's something about this baby bat that makes me want to give a long, drawn out squeeeee!!! Kind of a mix of wanting to take care of it and flipping out at how weird it is.


If we can get her to a maternity roost before she delivers, Dee Dee will find her baby by crawling about and listening for its voice among all the other squeaks. She'll lick its face and muzzle before taking it to nurse and sleep with it. Within three or four days, its eyes will open, and in about three weeks the baby will be flying itself. I doubt anyone knows whether Mom brings it insects, the way many songbirds do, for weeks after it starts flying. These are the kinds of things I wonder about bats, coming from my birdy background.

There are other things I wonder about bats. I wrote that line, "Needless to say, I am no longer afraid of her, either" before I heard from several readers, well-informed, virologist/veterinarian readers, about mysterious and apparently magical means of rabies transmission--aerosolized urine? By simply having a bat in your house or bedroom? By having a bat touch but not bite you? Whaa? How exactly does that work? Doesn't an actively rabid animal have to chomp down on you to transmit rabies? Well, nobody really knows. And when you're talking about a disease that's 100% fatal once contracted, who can afford to question it?

Having had bat pee rain down on me in both Guyana and Brazil, it's a wonder I'm still alive. And I think about all the people who live and work in places that have bat colonies--barns and warehouses and churches...spelunkers knee-deep in bat guano...I dunno. The bat seems perfectly healthy, eating well and acting normal. I've taken every precaution, always wearing gloves and long sleeves, keeping the bat tank scrupulously clean, banishing everyone else from the room when I'm handling it, and yet last night I dreamt that Liam chased a couple of kids down on the playground and bit them. I woke with a start. It was horrible. I lay awake each night thinking about it all, wake up feeling tired and punky. I reach for my water glass, wondering if my throat is going to suddenly close up and my fever is going to spike and that'll be it, folks, because by the time you show symptoms of rabies you're already dying.

Dying. Nobody wants to die, and I'm one of 'em. I have a lot to do, a lot more to learn, a lot more to teach. The world is just so wonderful, full as it is of miracles and marvels like these little winged mammals, and I want to show it all to you, to everyone. I wonder if it's all worth it, worrying like that just so I can help a bat.

I should go get the shots. I should scrape up $700 and go get the shots. Chances are, I'll get more bats in future years, and it just makes sense not to have to live in fear. Here's the hard part: I would like to ask for your help. It's probably obvious from the virtually ad-free template that I have resisted any temptation to commercialize this blog, but this feels like a special case. I took on the bat because I wanted to be able to learn about it so I could write about it and share that with you all. I came within a hairsbreadth of punting the animal to someone who knew what they were doing and already had the pre-exposure vaccinations. But I wanted to write about bats. I wanted to understand something more about them. I figured out what I'd gotten myself into well after the fact, and once again you, my readers, informed me, not the other way around. I get just as much out of this experience as you do, and its richness continues to amaze me.

If you would like to help (and any amount would help, and be much appreciated), here's the address:

Julie Zickefoose
Indigo Hill
Whipple, OH 45788

If you prefer PayPal, scroll down to the "DONATE" button at the bottom of the page.

Though the admittedly cryptic address is good (I checked with the Whipple postmistress), I don't know if this appeal will work. I humbly thank you in advance for anything you're able to come up with, and I promise I'll let you know when to stop.


The Truth about Bats and Blogs

Sunday, March 21, 2010

17 comments

When I was a freshman at Harvard, a wise alum gave me a piece of advice that I have carried with me throughout my life. "No matter how much you think you know about a subject," he warned, "someone who knows a whole lot more about it may be standing right behind you." For someone who's outspoken and loves to pronounce upon what little she knows, that's a potent life lesson, one that I learn again and again and again. Lest you be tempted to think it happens more at Harvard, I can attest that there are experts lurking in every corner. Here's a letter I got from Dr. Timothy Winship, who has been quietly reading my blog, but who couldn't get past Google's comment guard dogs to post this comment:

"As a professional virologist, with a background in animal viral disease, I appreciated your post about rabies in bats which contained a great deal of accurate information. A few points to clarify, though: the figure of 0.5% for rabies infection incidence in bats is cited quite a lot, but in fact this is based on a very limited sampling (it's surprising how little research on infection of bats with bat strain rabies viruses there is!). It probably isn't true, but what you must bear in mind is that 0.5% is NOT a low incidence given the number of animals we are talking about. That's one in two hundred animals, or 5 in 1000, or 50 in 10,000 and so on.

Because bats may roost in colonies of hundreds or thousands, this presents a problem. Dr. Winship continues:

"Also, most of the information we have regarding the pathology of rabies in bats is from laboratory infection of bats with canine strains of virus. Under those conditions bats develop a fairly typical pattern of disease seen in other mammals. However, very little is known about what happens when bats are infected with bat strains of the virus, and in particular how bats infect other bats. Your statement about not knowing the incubation period of the disease in bats is quite true but covers a lot of unknown ground! The actual level, or potential for asymptomatic carriage, of bat strain virus in bats is not known, i.e. I can't find any evidence in the scientific literature that anybody can tell you that an asymptomatic bat can't transmit rabies. Certainly these kinds of viruses, under the right conditions, can establish very persistent latent infections. I personally don't agree that we know that an asymptomatic bat cannot transmit the disease.

And as I think about it, who knows enough about normal bat behavior to say what's normal and what might be abnormal? Not me! Bats are bizarre little things.-JZ

Dr. Winship continues:

"The evidence from bite exposure records held by the CDC is disturbing--most cases are not from animals aggressively attacking and biting humans, i.e. acting rabid... You are right about health department records of bat testing being skewed towards unhealthy animals, but the statistics do tell us something about the geographic distribution of the disease, at least. If you haven't already seen it, here are the numbers and distribution of animal found in Ohio last year. It's also important to bear in mind that while the number of human rabies cases acquired within the US yearly is very small (averages something like one per year) the number of exposures is quite a lot higher (last I saw about 50 per year in Ohio). And, last I looked the cost of post-exposure prophylaxis was on the order of $12,000 per person. (Which makes the $700 pre-exposure shot series sound cheap). Anyway, I'm glad you're being careful. I enjoy your blog greatly and want to keep doing so for a long time! Thanks again--sorry this was so long-winded. "

This letter, like so many of your comments and emails, hit just the right note. I'm grateful to have knowledgeable and caring people reading this blog, and I'm doubly grateful when they speak up and add their own experiences to the discussion, holding up a light for us all to see by. That's one of the big reasons I can't seem to give it up--I learn so much.

Spurred by Dr. Winship's letter, I rooted around a bit to find out more about a case I'd heard about, of a Missouri man who'd had a bat get into his home in the Ozarks in October 2008 and gotten bitten by it. It's always tempting to think that someone dumb enough to handle a bat somehow has it coming to him if he gets bitten, but watching this video should persuade you otherwise. Here was a bat (the video shows file footage of a little brown, but it was more likely a big brown) that got into the living space of a home, acting normal. In the course of dealing with it, this good, intelligent, caring, wildlife-loving person allows it to climb up his coat. (Sound like something the Science Chimp might do?) It gets up next to his neck, he turns his head, hunching up his shoulder as you would; the bat gets frightened, squeezed by the coat, and nips him on the ear. Concerned, he keeps it around for a couple of days, but it acts normal and he decides to release it. His family is concerned, too, even teases him about getting rabies, but it just doesn't seem possible that anything bad could happen. It's just a bat, and people get all hysterical about bats.

Five weeks later, he falls ill, and dies painfully--all the more tragic, because his death could have been prevented by a series of injections administered immediately after the bite.

Here's the deal. If you get bitten by a bat or other rabies-vector species, you MUST get it tested and see a doctor immediately. Its brain tissue must be examined for the telltale ovoid bodies of the rabies virus. If it tests positive, you'll be given a series of shots, and you won't die. If you don't get it tested, and decide to take your chances, your family could be talking about you on a heartbreaking video like this one.

So, as enamored as I am of Dee Dee, and adorable and apparently healthy as she is, her welfare and her life is distinctly secondary to mine and my family's. The possibility that she may have a latent infection is small, but it's present, and we simply don't know enough about bat strains of rabies or normal bat behavior to say with any certainty that an asymptomatic bat is safe to handle. It's not. So if I mess up, and Dee Dee bites me, that's it. She dies, that I may live. Long sleeves and gloves for me, always, and nobody else handles her, ever.

Dr. Winship left me with a link to a terrific U.S. Geological Survey publication, available free and readable as a pdf file, that he describes as "the very best review of bat rabies I have ever found, and...recent as well." I concur wholeheartedly. Despite its foreboding title, Denny Constantine's "Bat Rabies and Other Lyssavirus Infections" is a great read.

Download it here.

Thank you, Dr. Winship, for bringing this issue into crystal-clear focus for me and my readers. It's good to have people like you, standing right behind me.

Bats and Rabies (What You've All Been Wondering)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

22 comments
ZICK ALERT! I'll be giving a free public lecture tonight, Thursday, at Jefferson Middle School, 21 Moffett Street, Pittsburgh, PA. Come see me! It'll be fun!


Is that a Pez dispenser, loaded with mealworms, or a bat in your glove? Nom nom nom.

All right. On to the health issue. According to the Organization for Bat Conservation, started by my friends Kim Williams and Rob Mies, I have a better chance of winning my state lottery jackpot or being murdered by my husband than dying of rabies from a bat bite. I just love that pairing of statistics.

Given my propensity for messing around with wild things, I suspect my chances of being murdered by my husband are better than average. I'm thinking of the time I promised him a turkey vulture wouldn't vomit if we drove it to Columbus in the Bird Watcher's Digest company van. And then, whoops, it did. So I'm not sure I like those odds.

Arming myself with information, I have taken a course in handling and keeping rabies vector species and learned a lot about the disease, its course in wild animals and humans, and its prevention. The course is required by the State of Ohio to get a certification to handle these species, which appears on my rehabilitation permit. The instructor of the course told me that, given the probability that I will be handling only one or two healthy bats each year, the rabies prophylaxis shots, while recommended, are neither required nor particularly warranted. If I were taking in a whole bunch of bats, coons, foxes and skunks, doing that as a full-time thing, it would be wise to get the $700 series of vaccinations. I wish it were as cheap to protect myself as it is to protect Chet. However, if I do happen to get bitten by a bat, even one that appears healthy, I'm required by law to have its head removed and sent to a state lab for testing. That's the cost of flying without a net. Obviously, my motivation to prevent myself being bitten is extremely high. I wear gloves and long sleeves, period. No one else in the house is allowed to handle the bat.

I know there are those who, reading this, will be afraid. Afraid for me, afraid for my family. I offer this: Yes, bats can get rabies. But they are not passive carriers of rabies, as I had always erroneously supposed. In fact, when they get rabies, they show symptoms and die from it, like any other mammal. Once a bat starts showing symptoms, it will be dead within a week. And only a bat showing symptoms can transmit rabies in its saliva, for the virus has to have infiltrated the brain both to cause symptoms and enter the saliva. We don't know the incubation period of rabies in bats. That would be a good thing to know. It's quite rapid--about a week to ten days--in most furbearing mammals, although one fox was known to have developed the disease 15 months after being exposed. Eep.

The percentage of wild bats with rabies is approximately one half of one percent. I was surprised to learn how low the incidence is. The percentage of bats (often visibly ill) which are brought to health departments and test positive for rabies is approximately five percent. Bats that are compromised enough to be grounded and captured are obviously a sample skewed toward sick animals.

My nephew named her Fledermaus, but I call her DeeDee. Middle name: Marie. And I am grateful that she has come into my life. It's like having a teacher in all things bat-related staying for a little while. And I can already tell that our time together will be too short.

Bat Care

Sunday, March 14, 2010

22 comments
The bat my mother-in-law found in her living room is a big brown bat, Eptesicus fuscus, as evidenced by her long, foxy muzzle. Little brown bats look kind of smoosh-faced but not in a cute, Boston-terrier like way; more in an otherworldly way. Their faces and muzzles are furry, not naked like the big brown's. Here's a photo of a little brown bat from batguys.com. I could definitely love a little brown bat, but it isn't as sweet and familiar looking as the big brown bat.


Little brown bat, Myotis lucifugus. Photo from batguys.com

Big brown bats are irreproachably cute micro foxes. And they're only big in comparison to pipistrelles and little brown bats. They're about 4 to 5 inches long, with a 11-13 inch wingspan. They weigh only 1/2 to 5/8 ounce. They don't have hollow bones or air sacs like birds; their flight is the feat of an acrobat who must flap continuously to stay aloft.

The vast majority of bats found in homes are big brown bats. They seem to be better (or worse, depending on how thrilled you are at finding one in your kitchen) at getting into the occupied parts of houses.

Care of overwintering bats is not difficult, because they sleep all day and almost around the clock. I can change the papers, food and water in her tank without ever disturbing her as she hangs on the sidewall, hidden in her toweling. She eats live mealworms, which are fed my new favorite nutritious substance, chick starter, with carrots for moisture. This is called "gut loading." The idea is, if you feed the worms good stuff, the bat or whatever eats them gets good stuff, too. I can attest that mealworms grow like Topsy when kept in chick starter. It would seem to me to be a good idea for anyone feeding mealworms to wild birds to keep them in chick starter rather than plain old fashioned oats. But then I'm all about taking care of wild things, and I'm thinking a lot more about nutrition these days, having had some evidence that we can hurt the things we love most with the wrong foods.

When the towels get soiled, every four days or so, I gently fold her into her dirty washcloth and place her in a lidded Tupperware. Then I thoroughly clean the tank and gently transfer her to freshly-laundered towels on the tank wall. That's my favorite part, because I get to talk to her and transfer her from one towel to another. At first I had to unhook her feet from the dirty towel, but now she scuttles up onto the clean towel as soon as I open my hand. Bats learn fast.

Routine care doesn't make her mad any more. I get just a little whiff of musk from her facial glands, a pleasantly skunky waft, a desultory chitter. And her fur is smooth and shiny, not all rumbly like it was when I first got her. She's been preening. I can see the towels shake as she rearranges her fur. Sometimes I see her licking her hooks and feet and armbones like a cat. She can scratch her head and neck with her hind feet. Having always thought of bats as kind of bound up in their own wing and tail membranes, I'm pleased and surprised to see how flexible and mobile they are.

I risk a stroke toward her back end as I hold her head and wings securely in the glove. It's amazing. Her fur is so soft you can't even feel it. She doesn't so much as turn her head, but she kind of shrinks in when I touch her. Her whole being vibrates, and I imagine she is talking, saying something about my temerity for daring such a thing.




She hangs there all day, sleeping and preening and scratching, folded into her towels. She much prefers dark colored cloths. She's become so tame that it's hard to get her to chitter and cuss at me now. I wish I had taken photos of her teeth when she was just captured--they are impressive! Edges like a pinking shears, oversized for her tiny mouth, and strong--she would bite the tweezers and nearly twist them from my fingers, clang!! No wonder I was a little eepy about her.

Here's the not-so-easy part of keeping a bat over the winter. It needs to be released when the weather warms reliably in spring, when the nights stay in the 50's. And several weeks before that, it needs to have a heated place where it can exercise and get its muscles conditioned for flight. And there's the rub. I have a tent made of nylon screening that would be a fabulous flight space, except for the fact that any big brown bat worth its salt would be outta there in two minutes. They're escape artists par excellence. At the Ohio Wildlife Center, they have to roll up towels under the flight room door, for goodness' sake, because the bats will go out that tiny space. Smart, smart, smart. And tiny, tiny, tiny, and endlessly flattenable, like flying Flat Stanleys, bats are. So I'll have to head to Columbus for flight conditioning several weeks before release time. And pray that Dee Dee doesn't have her bab(ies) before she's released near her maternity roost.


All right. I've made some of this bat care thing sound easy. But I have to tell you that you MUST have a permit from your state to keep any wild animal, and for a rabies vector species like a bat, you must also have a RVS certification on that permit. This is for your own protection as well as the bat's. They're not pets. They do a good job of looking like them on my blog. But I don't cuddle them and I handle them as little as possible. They're wild animals and they're destined for release.

The day my permit came in the mail with the rabies vector certification on it, I decided that I wouldn't trade it for a diamond ring. What can you learn from a diamond ring?

Big Brown Batgirl

Thursday, March 11, 2010

28 comments
Big brown bat, Eptesicus fuscus

Fasten your seatbelts. I'm gonna go all bats on you. And you're going to love it. Bats are pretty much my favorite animal now, right after ligers. Which, as you probably know, are bred mainly for their skills in magic.

Back to bats.

It's a late winter Wednesday. My mother-in-law, Elsa Thompson, notices a bat flying around in her living room and kitchen. While most people would scream and dive for cover, Elsa takes mild note of the event and hopes she will eventually find the bat where she can catch it. She's done this before. And she is not your garden-variety mother-in-law, being co-founder of both Bird Watcher's Digest and The Marietta Natural History Society.

Friday. Elsa opens the basement door and sees a bat roosting in the jamb, near her pegboard full of pots and pans. She captures it in a towel and installs it in a glass vase with a towel in the bottom and colander over the top. Later, she adds a ball of raw hamburger and a cut-up grape. She calls me and tells me she's seen the bat tugging at the grape. What else should she offer it? That evening, I swoop in on my way to the movies and give the bat a dozen mealworms off the end of a tweezers. Thank goodness I always keep mealworms on hand in a couple of plastic shoeboxes, where they reproduce and offer themselves up to save whatever foundling I have on hand, even in January. The bat is very hungry and thirsty, having expended valuable energy by flying around a warm house for three days. It's evidently found its way downstairs from the cold attic, where it should be hibernating.

While we're holding the bat in a towel, it squirms around and gets away, making loops around the living room. It vanishes and I stand stock-still in the living room, looking carefully. I find it resting atop a warm DVD player, and pick it up in the towel to continue feeding it. I will not realize until much later how lucky I was to have relocated that animal.

Sunday. I pick the bat up in the evening. Elsa's been ably caring for it and feeding it in the meantime. I've called the Ohio Wildlife Center and found out that protocol for a healthy bat found in a warm house in midwinter is to keep it until it can be released outside in spring. Oh! My! That sounds like a job! Thank goodness I'm permitted and certified by the State of Ohio to handle and keep rabies vector species like bats. Even so, I make plans to have Bill transport it to the OWC clinic in Columbus in the morning, where they are hosting eight overwintering bats in just the same straits. He's on his way to the airport anyway. You see, I am just a little eepy about handling and keeping a bat in my house. I am thinking rabies and disease and gloves and towels and guano and kids and eep eep eep.

Who are you, little one? You're so foreign to me. I have no mental template for how you should look or behave. I need to know you.

Something happens to my brain (not a dread viral disease, but a chemical shift) between Sunday night and Monday morning, and I decide not to unload the bat on OWC just yet. I've been researching bat care online. And I want to make sure it can feed itself from a dish. I want to make sure it's in top condition before I fob it off on anyone else. I want to get to know it better. And I have a small suspicion that I'm falling out of fear and into love.


It's a female, and she seems thin and ribby to me, maybe a bit dehydrated. She chitters and cusses at me in an ultrasonic voice when I handle her. She sounds like an angry hummingbird, bzzbzzbzzzbzzbzzzbzzbzzz! For the next two days, I hold her in my glove while I feed her crickets twice a day. I can feel her voice vibrating even when I can't hear her. Then I find a good piece online, written by Susan Bernard of Basically Bats, called Bats in Captivity, which warns that hand-fed bats might not take food again on their own. Uh-oh. I decide to offer mealworms and crickets in a little shallow dish, and water in another as they suggest, and quit handling her to feed her. It seems a better solution all around.

By now the bat is installed in a plastic pet carrier meant for small mammals and reptiles. I've got a washcloth doubled and draped down the side where she can hang upside down in comfortable darkness. The food and water dishes are on paper towels below her. Since she'd be hibernating anyway, she doesn't need to fly around, and she's perfectly still and sleeping all day. The next morning, the mealworm dish stands empty. Well, that was easy. The next night, I creep in with a little flashlight cupped in my palm so only a tiny ray of light sneaks out, and I catch her elbowing over to her mealworm dish, which she lustily empties. I let a little more light fall on her and she glares at me and retreats into her washcloth roost, a tiny, deeply offended Dracula, fleeing the dawn. By now I am completely in love. I'm glad I don't have to handle her and stress her, and she is, too.

Maybe I can do this bat care gig. She's a whole lot less trouble than a macaw. And she is really, really adorable.

I'll be speaking about this little messenger from above (and a bunch of other stuff) starting at 5:30 PM tomorrow night, Friday, March 12, at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, for its William and Nancy Klamm Memorial Lecture in its Explorer series. There will be live music, refreshment, exhibits, a book signing, Phoebe and a very excited, dino-crazy Liam in attendance. I've spent the week tearing my Letters from Eden talk all to bits as only a crazy Mac Lady can. It's all new. If you're anywhere near Cleveland, I'd love to meet you. Remember to blurt "BLOG!" You can register here.

If you miss the Cleveland talk, come hear me at nearby Black River Audubon's "Outstanding Speakers" series the very next night, Saturday, March 13, at 7 pm. It'll be at Lorain Co. (Ohio) Metroparks' Carlisle Visitor Center. Details are here. Another big weekend!

And on Sunday I'll tell you more about the big brown bat. There is a lot to tell.

Zick Dough, Improved

Sunday, March 7, 2010

50 comments
photo by Mary Ferracci

I've borrowed this wonderful photo from Mary's View. It's a bluebird from her yard in North Carolina who is hooked on Zick Dough. See anything wrong with this picture? It jumps right out at the Science Chimp. He's not putting weight on his left foot, and the toes are swollen. He's in pain. And it's all my fault.

I've been quietly working this winter, learning about bird nutrition, perfecting a recipe, trying to right some wrongs. I've posted before about the joys and drawbacks of feeding the homemade suet dough that a lot of people are calling Zick Dough. And I've said before that I feel a little squeamy about having my name on that recipe, even moreso since I figured out that it can give birds who eat too much of it a painful case of gout. You can read about that in the original posts, "Uh-Oh, Zick Dough" and "Crack is a Better Name for It." If you're just joining us for this story, I'll recap:

I've been feeding homemade suet dough for years. The basic recipe has always been:

OLD ZICK DOUGH

1 cup peanut butter
1 cup lard
2 cups yellow cornmeal
2 cups quick oats
1 cup flour

And the birds in my yard have gobbled it up, everything from chickadees, tits and nuthatches to woodpeckers, cardinals, sparrows, towhees and bluebirds. Bluebirds are the biggest fans of Zick Dough. And therein lies the problem.

As I've explained, eastern bluebirds are the ultimate addictive personalities. Given an easy food source, they will exploit it to the exclusion of almost everything else. If you stop and think about it, the recipe above is anything but a complete diet. It's fat, some limited protein, and carbohydrates, and it's really rich. It's kind of like living on, well, oats, lard and peanut butter.


Here is the foot of a female bluebird who gorged on Zick Dough all winter and into the spring of 2009. She can't put weight on it. It hurts. She's got gout. Or metabolic bone disease. Or something bad. And I strongly believe it was due to an improper diet, and I felt, and still feel, terrible about that.

The short-term answer was to suspend all feeding of Zick Dough. And her foot recovered, sort of. The swelling went down, but she had a permanently stiff middle toe, as if she were giving me the finger for feeding her low-value food. And I deserve it.

That bluebird disappeared sometime in the fall of 2009. I don't know what happened to her, but I'm sure that if she could come back to my feeder, she would have by now. I have to think that having a stiff foot was a handicap, and I'm ready to take the blame if she died before her time. I'll never know. All I know is she was here for years, and now she's gone. Maybe she was really old, and that's why she ate so much of the easy stuff.


photo by Mary Ferracci

I don't think it's a coincidence that a bluebird in North Carolina who also gorges on Zick Dough has the same problem. And that's my problem, and that of anyone who feeds this stuff to their backyard birds. Maybe that's you, too.

So. I'm cruising along early this winter, feeding my first batch of Zick Dough, enjoying my bluebirds and all the others, and so glad to be able to help them through the worst winter in memory. I didn't start feeding it until it got really cold--Christmas, for goodness' sake--and I planned to suspend feeding it the moment it got reliably warm. My suspicion is that feeding this rich food in warm weather is what got Gouty into trouble. So feeding it only in really cold weather was my interim answer to the problem.

One fine morning I get a Google Alert for Zick Dough (it's really out there on the Internet.) It's a piece written for the Maryland Bluebird Society's "Chatter" by Felicia Lovelett.

I devour it with great interest. In it, she cites my post, "Uh-oh, Zick Dough" in which I describe possible gout in my bluebird visitors. And she points out that suet dough mixes are very low in calcium, high in phosphorus, and "contain proteins that are relatively low in biological value." Further, she suggests that "Gouty" may have had Metabolic Bone Disease. Well, whether it was gout or MBD, there's no doubt she was all messed up, and I had good reason to suspect it was the steady diet of Zick Dough that messed her up. A male bluebird in my yard, also a heavy imbiber, had the same problem. And both recovered when I withheld the Zick Dough.

Ms. Lovelett suggests basing suet dough on a "formulated diet that provides adequate calcium, high quality proteins and other essential nutrients." And she mentions unmedicated chick starter as a base. Chick starter is an extruded pellet that crumbles easily. It's formulated to encourage growth and strong bones in young domestic chicks, kind of like puppy chow for birds. It's got a lot more nutritional oomph than yellow cornmeal, oats, peanut butter or lard.


My very next trip was to the feed store, where I bought a small (20-pound) bag of DuMor unmedicated chick starter. (You definitely want to check the label--the last thing we want is to give antibiotics to wild birds!) I spent some time fiddling around with proportions and finally came up with this:

NEW ZICK DOUGH: SMALL BATCH

Melt in the microwave and stir together:
1 cup peanut butter
1 cup lard

In a large mixing bowl, combine
2 cups chick starter
2 cups quick oats
1 cup yellow cornmeal and
1 cup flour

Add melted lard/peanut butter mixture to the combined dry ingredients and mix well.

I made a small batch first, and laid out two piles of Original Recipe and New Improved. It was a gas, watching the birds sample both.


Yes, it looks different...Some, like the titmice, tried the new but preferred the old mix. One female cardinal stuck to the old mix. The other cardinals preferred the new recipe.

Of my pair of bluebirds, the female liked the old mix, and her mate liked the new.


Importantly, they all accepted it immediately, and the switch to the new recipe was seamless and instant. I really hadn't expected it to be that easy. I figured out that the tufted titmice just like bigger chunks to carry off, and the new mix is more crumbly, so they can't find a big wad as easily with the new recipe.

All the birds are perfectly happy with the new mix, and everyone is eating better this winter.

While I'm at it, I'm going to pass along my secrets for mixing Zick Dough in large batches. Here's my quintupled recipe.

NEW ZICK DOUGH: BIG BATCH

5 cups (1 40 oz jar) peanut butter
5 cups (1/3 of the 64-oz bucket) of lard (Wal-Mart, in the Shortening aisle)
10 cups chick starter (available at any feed store)
10 cups quick oats
5 cups yellow cornmeal
5 cups flour

Measuring peanut butter and lard by the cup is a pain in the butt. Instead of measuring, I just use a bowl scraper to empty out a 40-oz jar of PB into a medium-sized mixing bowl. It takes up half the bowl. Then, I fill the rest of the bowl with lard. This saves a lot of time and mess in trying to stuff peanut butter and lard into a measuring cup. There's no way to do that without getting it all over you.

Put the bowl in the microwave and melt the mix down (about 5 minutes on High). Stir it together.

Have all the dry ingredients--chick starter, oats, cornmeal and flour--well blended in a lobster pot before pouring in the molten peanut butter/lard mixture.
Stir well with your heaviest spoon, making sure you get down to the bottom. I finish by working it with my hands. I sit on the floor with the lobster pot between my knees and Zick Dough up to my elbows, but I will spare you a photo of that.


The great thing about chick starter is it keeps the mix from getting so gummy and ensures a lovely texture to the final product. And it nourishes your birds. It's a win-win all around.

Mmm, good enough to sample. And yes, I do. I like to make sure it tastes good.


Disclaimer: Even New Zick Dough is too rich to be fed once the weather warms up. The birds will still beg, but please suspend feeding once it warms up and send them off to get the live insect protein they need. Here's Gouty, about three weeks after I suspended feeding Zick Dough. She's using both feet, and looks a lot better, no?



The last thing I want to do is pretend I have the final answer here. Like life, the Zick Dough recipe is a work in progress. I'll be watching to see how my birds fare this spring, having had a winter's worth of New Zick Dough. If your birds are hooked on Zick Dough, please find a feed store and pick up some chick starter--one 20-pound bag should last you all winter--and mix up the new recipe. It's easier to mix, smells lovely, and offers better nutrition to the birds we all love so well.


Thanks to Mary Ferracci for her photos and her friendship. And to Felicia Lovelett, for the chick starter idea. Answer my email, willya?

Challishing* in Whipple

Thursday, March 4, 2010

27 comments
I'm sitting at a table alive with daffodils and bicolored tulips in vases. I had to buy those. Two huge appleblossom pink amaryllis tower over them. Those, I grew from babies. Outside, the ground and sky are stubbornly, resolutely white. It was a weekend. Friday afternoon Bill and I hand-carried a ton or so of music equipment up a snowy hill in a blizzard to the van, because we couldn't pull down to the basement door. Loaded that. Bill, the kids and I drove in two cars to Columbus in a three-hour, white-knuckle nightmare of slush and overturned cars so we could play our Swinging Orangutangs gig for the Ohio Ornithological Society. The other Orangs made it, but everyone was hollow-eyed and shell-shocked by the time they staggered in. Something about seeing trucks losing control in front of you takes the shine off winter driving.

The people who were able to get there at all enjoyed it, and so did we. The band busted down the doors and had a great time, ate fire-hot chicken wings and drank bad margaritas at midnight and then flopped in our hotel. That was nice. I drove home with the kids on Saturday afternoon, ran out of gas, coasted down the providential exit ramp, walked to a station, bought a $9 one-gallon gas can, and spent twenty minutes just trying to figure out how to assemble the childproof nozzle and cap so I could put the damn gallon in my dead car. By then it had started snowing again, and I resumed my death grip on the wheel to guide us home. The roads were lousy; our driveway was very nearly impassable. Another foot. Another freakin' foot of snow. What is going on??

Sunday morning I shoveled leaden wet snow for two hours, and practically had to call a Whipple Township trustee meeting to get our driveway plowed out so we could have 19 people over Sunday afternoon for an early birthday celebration for Bill of the Birds, who was still in Columbus volunteering for the OOS event (he's the emcee with the mostest). I had raided my favorite stores in Columbus--Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. I bought the biggest fattest Whole Foods spears of Mexican asparagus that you have ever seen; I was making sweet potato hash, baby Swiss quiche and slow-roasted baby back ribs for 20, and in my book having all that fabulous fresh food and an impassable driveway is an unqualified Domestic Emergency. Luckily the trustees agreed, at least in theory, and a huge tractor with a blade showed up to deliver this resolute foodqueen from disaster in her snowbound castle. The dinner was a smashing success. If I had had my choice, I wouldn't have started a full day of heavy cooking with several hours of shoveling wet snow and finding someone to remove same from a quarter-mile-long driveway. But this winter, at least for me, is all about having no choice. I feel like a feedsack full of boulders today.

Any more, our house feels like McMurdo Station, the outside having changed from my second home to an inhospitable, barely-navigable place that makes me miserable. The snow is a mess to walk through, all crusty and bumpy. The idea of taking a hike in it is about as appealing as pounding my shins with a hammer. Chet and I have grown fat and lazy in our enforced confinement. There was one day--one day--when we saw a few bare patches of grass, but by nightfall it was being covered up again, and within two days we had another foot of it on the ground.

After my shoveling and plowing adventure, I decided that I had one good thing to say about the latest foot of heavy wet snow. You can grab handfuls of it and scrub the starling sh*t off the bird feeders.

There. There's your silver lining.

Hence the vases upon vases of daffodils and tulips, the blooming amaryllis, the orchids. I am challishing**, and these are the decorations in my hospital room.


a detail of a new Guatemalan quilt I just broke out for the occasion.

My neighbor Beth said she saw a woodcock wandering along the side of our road. Poor thing. He should have been singing, displaying and mating for two weeks now. Instead he ekes out a living on almost nothing. I don't even want to think about what happens to woodcocks who arrive on schedule to find more than a foot of snow on their lekking and feeding grounds. I can't imagine what they find to eat. Maybe they go into the woods and poke around in the unfrozen parts of streams.

We're out of sunflower seed. Again. Gotta buy another 150 pounds of seed next trip into town. Gotta make another sextupled batch of Zick Dough. Gotta keep those bluebirds going. Gotta get another 40 lb. of corn for the four whitetail fawns who are losing all fear of me, the Good Corn Fairy. Gotta toss out the old pork roast for the three crows I adore, who will now come up right under the studio window and cock their bright eyes at me. If I look directly at them they turn their backs and wigwag away, arms crossed behind their backs, as if the last thing on their minds was begging, but they're begging, make no mistake. I've got them right where I want them, and they've got me. I love, love, love my crows.

I stick my nose into the daffodils and breathe deeply of their polleny yellow scent. The tulips, fainter but sweetly heady. They keep growing in the vase, their long stems twisting like curious necks. I don't know how they do that, grow with no bulb or roots as fuel, but I'm glad they do. Something has to be growing in this wasteland.


Never have I been so winter-weary, so thoroughly pummeled, pounded and beaten by a winter. I can't remember what it feels like to take the wheel of a car and not worry about the road conditions. I can't remember T-shirts or a warm breeze lifting the downy hairs on my arms. I can't remember going outside without a hat and parka.


So I fill the vases with storebought spring, and wait.


** a lovely Yiddish word meaning, "to die slowly, inch by inch."
[Back to Top]