Times Past, Pausing to Remember


The Bird came into my life one day when I went over to the shopping center to feed the pigeons and the sea gulls who are always waiting there for a handout. They learn fast, those critters, and are quick to spot the arrival of someone who frequently feeds them. They knew my car and would flock around even before I could come to a complete stop. My routine was to scatter cracked corn for the pigeons (which the gulls wouldn't eat) and throw bread in all directions for the gulls. To make sure everyone got a meal, I usually had about five loaves to distribute.

In the midst of this enterprise one day, I noticed a sea gull not coming to eat. She was way over near the edge of the parking lot, crouched down, watching me. I walked slowly towards her, expecting her to take flight. She didn't. In fact, she couldn't even get on her feet.

I looked at her. She looked at me. I thought about the dreadful heat of that June day and the lack of shade or shelter where she was lying. I thought about the distance she would have to go to get any kind of water. Even the dirtiest puddle was too far. I thought about a dog finding her and her inability to escape. I thought about her utter helplessness.

I don't know what she thought about.

And I thought about my choices. There weren't very many and only one was acceptable. After what was less than one minute of contemplating this situation, I got in my car and drove the half mile to where I was living. One more minute and I was headed back to the shopping center with the biggest cat carrier I owned. The Bird was not going to die of heat and thirst in that dirty, noisy place, and she was not going to be ripped apart by predators. If she had to die, it would be in a cooler, cleaner, and quieter place where water would be available, if she could drink.

I assumed The Bird had been injured somehow. When I picked her up to put her in the carrier, I saw no obvious wounds, no blood, nothing to say what had happened to her. She protested feebly but was too weak to escape. During the short drive back to my home, she was quiet. I was sure she was near death, which was true, but she was alert and aware. That is what had nearly broken my heart. Had she been a person, I would have said she was resigned to death.

That was the summer I had taken an apartment about one mile from my parents' house. They needed me near them, and I needed my own place. The apartment was decent, in a nice neighborhood, and it had two bedrooms. The guest room became The Bird's room, after I laid plastic tarps down over the carpet and layers of newspapers over the plastic. A big bowl of water completed the accommodations. I lifted her out of the carrier, offered her food, which she refused, shut the door, and left her alone. I was sure she would be dead by the next morning.

The Bird survived that first night. And the next. And the next. And the next. She drank some water but refused to eat.

By the fifth day, I was tearing my hair out, trying to figure out what I could offer her in the way of food that would get her eating again. But I knew two things that I hadn't known before. She was not one of the flock of sea gulls that frequent shopping centers looking for bread and other baked goods. Those are ring-billed gulls. The Bird was a herring gull. Her home, at least during the summers, was at a place in Syracuse called Webster Pond. It is a wildlife sanctuary, full of all kinds of water fowl and other birds.

The other thing I knew was that The Bird had not been injured. She was suffering from botulism. Because of the dreadfully dry spring, Webster Pond had become poisoned by over growths of certain kinds of algae and other organisms. Birds there were dying in large numbers and wildlife organizations were very worried. Once a bird is poisoned with botulism, that is the end of it. It dies.

But The Bird wasn't dying. Weak, without food for more than five days, afflicted with the worst looking and smelling diarrhea that you can imagine (don't try), it wasn't possible for her to be alive. She was a terrible mess. Because she could not get up on her feet, she was in a continually crouched position and therefore covered with her own rank droppings. I was changing those newspapers continually. You haven't lived until you've housed a very large sea gull with diarrhea in your guest room.

I researched sea gulls, and particularly herring gulls, as to their preferred diets. I haunted supermarkets to collect together every type of seafood I could find. Then I would tear home and make my offering to The Bird. No. Won't eat that either. That week, my cats thought they had died and gone to heaven. They didn't care that dinner was stuff The Bird disdained. It was seafood, and seafood put up for human consumption at that. Shrimp, scallops, tuna, haddock, herring (of course), mackerel.........what else is there? What can I tempt The Bird to eat?

Towards the end of the fifth day, I went into The Bird's room with a dish of salmon. I put some on a spoon and held it near her face. She didn't like me coming too close and especially didn't like that spoon in her face. Unable to move around, her only defense was her bill. She gave that spoonful of salmon a mighty whack, and salmon went flying everywhere.

But something else happened. Some of the salmon ended up on her bill. She looked surprised, tasted the stuff, and then began to get interested. Don't ask me how a seagull looks when it is interested; I couldn't explain it. But I was getting to know The Bird really well. She wanted that salmon! Immediately, it was I who thought she had died and gone to heaven. There was nothing in life that I wanted at that moment more than I wanted The Bird to eat. I set the dish down in front of her and left the room.

The rest of the story of The Bird goes fast. Up to a point. Then it stalls.

The next morning, she had eaten her salmon. Better, she was able to stand. I knew we had turned the corner and were on the road to recovery. That's two cliches in one sentence, but you know what I mean. She was going to survive, against all odds and all expectations. First order of business, however, was a bath. And nobody wanted her to have a bath more than The Bird herself. Animals like to be clean. They MUST be clean to avoid predators who can sniff them out. I took in the largest tub I had in the house and filled it with gallon after gallon of water. Then I left her alone with it. Pretty soon I checked back. Water EVERYWHERE. She certainly had taken a bath. Empty the tub and carry the water out, a little at a time, refill it, another bath, empty the tub...........

The Bird lived in my guest room another ten days and then graduated to my parents' back yard, which is fenced. I visited her when I visited them--every day. The food she liked was salmon, tuna and shrimp, so that became her diet. Her favorite thing, though, after she had eaten, was her bath. I bought an even larger tub and filled it from the hose twice a day. Splash, splash, splash.

I waited for her to fly away. And waited. And waited. And finally became worried. Had she been injured as well as sick and would never be able to fly?

Her problem with flight was nothing more than extreme debilitation from the botulism, dehydration, and starvation. There simply was not enough muscle tissue left to get her off the ground. She knew that. I never saw her even test her wings for six weeks. After eight weeks, she could get about two feet off the ground. Every day when I visited, I expected her to be gone. Then, one day about three month after I found her, The Bird was gone. I searched the yard and the yards of all the neighbors. She was not lying dead or injured somewhere. She had truly flown away.