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Hope Is a Calf, Hope is a Bird

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Beeches dance in the greening woods. Their leaves are frozen as if being blown by an invisible west wind. On the east slopes where they get some sun, their leaves are still russet; deep in the hollers they have bleached to ghost white. That doesn’t make sense to me, but it’s what I’m seeing. Sometimes the things that don't make empirical sense are the interesting ones. 

Not the cattle I was watching, but I found this photo from April 30, 2015, that shows those fresh calf-whites so beautifully. Oh, I love seeing little calves pop against the spring grass! 

In one of the games I play to keep my brain moving forward, I’m gunning for 7 woodpeckers today.  I’ve got pileated, red-bellied, red-headed, yellow bellied sapsucker, hairy. The sapsucker and the red-headed are real scores. I identified both by their sounds: the sapsucker drums an irregular staccatto tattoo that no other woodpecker does.  Tak-a-tak, tak-tak, tak...The red-headed yells QUEERK!! like no other woodpecker. And now all I need is downy and flicker to complete the complement of 7 possible species here, or in Ohio overall. Unless I'm forgetting one, those are all the woodpeckers possible in my state, and I can get them all on one hike from door to door! Nerdy? Maybe. I prefer to think of it as "tuned in." As the day wears on, I'll eventually get the downy and flicker right in my yard, but it would be cool to get them all here at the overlook, about 3/4 mile from my house. SEVEN WOODPECKERS IN ONE WALK.

 I stand for 15 minutes watching, through binoculars, a dot that is a black cow lying in a still,  seemingly morose heap on a distant hillside--one I really can't reach from my high hilltop perch. I know she must have a calf to be lying down like that. By angling around I finally spot a little black bundle with a snow-white forehead lying behind her. That's the calf. You'll never see white like that on an adult cow unless they've just been shampooed for the county fair. But the freshly laundered whites of calves are unmistakable. The tiny calf is motionless, lying on its side. 

My worst self immediately leaps to the small rock of possibility that the calf was stillborn, and, my mental state being what it is, and being a writer after all, I cook up a tragic scenario. The bereaved mother might have cleaned her calf's little body and, with nothing more to do, lay down next to it to grieve. My better self argues No! it’s only sleeping, you ninny! The business of being born is hard work. I keep watching, and listening for woodpeckers. Finally, after I’ve counted all the woodpeckers there are to count, (stuck at 5) and walked back and forth along the fenceline, shifting my gaze from side to side, looking for any movement, the calf raises its  head, revealing an orange plastic tag in its left ear. Not only is it alive, but the farmer has already met it, pierced its ear, proclaimed his ownership. The calf is not dead. The cow is not morose. There is no mission for me here. I can now get on with my life, and my springtime walk. 

The mother cow no longer looks sad to me; she is Easter itself. All that, from the waggle of a little calf’s head. 

I’m a fixer, for better or worse, a helper. As I paced back and forth at the overlook, I was already sketching out a plan of action to see if I could help the calf. Why can’t I just look and not touch? I pondered this as I hiked the rest of my loop, the hike that kept me sane while my kids were babies, the hike that still sets me right in the morning. 

As I drew close to the house, already thinking about the mile long to-do list I was about to tackle, I saw a little figure on the porch. I recognized it as the same American goldfinch I had spotted last evening, huddled on the back patio near the sliding door. Last night, I had crept up to open the patio door from inside, hoping to capture it, only for it to fly away, weakly.  If they can get away, they don't need you yet.

Now, here it was on my front doorstep, and it was breathing so hard I knew it was actively dying. Over the course of the winter I’ve seen six such goldfinches in my yard. This was the seventh. I’d been able to catch two, and both died within hours of being taken in for treatment—wasted to skin and feathers and bone. I don’t know what they had—I was guessing salmonella—but the antibiotics I’d tried hadn't worked. There was no eye swelling that might have indicated Mycoplasma, the awful house finch disease that had me nursing 30 goldfinches back to health last winter. So I'd never tried Tylan on them.

Here we go again, I thought. You’ve come to both doors, as plain as pleading for help. What is it that makes a bird do that? Is it knowing where to come? Figuring that the human who lives in the house and puts out the seed every morning might know what to do? I think back to last spring, when not one but two blinded goldfinches fluttered down to the patio on different mornings while I was having breakfast there. They landed right in front of me and Curtis, seemingly waiting for us to take them in. We did. They lived to fly again, after three weeks of rest, abundant food, and the antibiotic Tylan. 

I made a little video of the goldfinch so you can see what sad shape it was in. If you can see a bird breathing, it is in extremis. There is a video going around on the Internet of a hummingbird asleep and "snoring." Isn't that cute? To someone who knows birds, an audibly breathing bird, one whose bill is opening with each gasp, is in a heap of trouble. It's neither cute nor sweet nor charming. It's sick. So goes cute stuff on the Internet, sometimes.

I've perfected a move I call The Gentle Cobra. Here it is in action. Very slow, soft, and silent, until the final grab. Boom. Bird is yours.

I took her right inside and gave her Tylan with a dropper. I kept her in a small plastic Critter Keeper while she was so weak she didn't need to move around. She seemed a lot better by nightfall. The next morning she was so much livelier that I fixed her up a hospital cage in the foyer.  Here she is about midday the next day, just before she went into the cage. I gave her another slug of Tylan with a dropper, and of course put it in her water dish. Tylan-laced water will be her only water source for the next three weeks. 

I still don't know for sure what she has, but it's extremely responsive to Tylan (my drug of choice for Mycoplasma). It makes me wonder if she and all the other six goldfinches that have turned up sick in my yard have had Mycoplasma, but it's just not manifesting in swollen eyes this year. If that's the case, that could be why I can't even begin to catch them until they're literally dying--because, weak as they become, they can still see to get away from me. 

That said, her right eye was slightly inflamed. I strongly suspect Mycoplasma gallinae, just presenting differently. Her miraculous recovery argues for that as well.

On this, her fourth day in treatment, she is ricocheting around the cage like a completely wild and well goldfinch. Just 17 more days of treatment, and then she gets to go back outside. By then, it'll be spring for sure.

Hope is a calf, hope is a bird. 


Such wonderful stories! Hope, indeed for all of us. Thank you

I think it's wired in our DNA that we can't NOT touch or not help! I, too, have my head on swivel when out and about, and when I see an animal in what seems to be distress, my DNA tells me GO SEE. We had a Blue Heron come to OUR FRONT DOOR, years ago (we live in a subdivision, for Pete's sake) and my Hubs and I ran out, and she let us catch her. Her lower beak was broken off, she was quite skinny. We got a crate, got her in it, made the 2 hour drive to U of I in Champaign to their wild animal clinic, and they took her in. Even though she did not make it, we do believe animals know where to come for help, and at least she didn't die alone or was eaten by a predator. She died warm and safe. Sigh.

I identified so strongly with your "There is no mission for me here...". I get myself in the same place so often. Watching some critter and wondering what I should do, worrying, checking, checking again. And then sometimes there is that realization that everything is OK and I can turn off that thing in me that needs to save and help. And then there are the times that, just like with you, the little goldfinch turns up on the doorstep and something must be done. SOOOO thankful for wildlife rehab people like you.

I'm so grateful there are still Watchers in the Woods like you, keeping an eye on the small wild things. I wonder how they're ending getting sick.



Ah, the wonderful capture and save Your hands were made for that capture technique. Love the name of it! Kim in PA

Breathing that fast is just not normal, at least not when it’s that obvious, for any creature. I am stunned that she was able to respond so well to you grabbing her! Hoping for her full recovery.

So glad for a happy ending. Long may she fly and long may you nurse back to health.

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