Wednesday, June 17, 2009

First Official Rescue

May 18, 2009

With the coming of spring, my volunteer work for the Northwoods Wildlife Center in Minocqua is supposed to be picking up. I have been officially taught the proper technique to use when capturing various types of raptors. My title is Raptor Rescue Driver. The title is nice, but I was disappointed to find out that the job does not come with a uniform, badge, and flasher bar or siren for my truck. I even have to provide my own transport box, which is nothing but a 20 gallon plastic tote with some breathing holes in it and a piece of remnant carpet in the bottom. Oh, well, I figured that it would still be interesting to be called out to rescue wild birds. It would be a good way to see new and beautiful nooks and crannies of the countryside.

A few weeks ago, my first call came in. It was from the staff at the Rehab Center. "We received a call from a person in Rhinelander who says he has seen a pheasant roaming his yard and the adjacent area for the past few days. He can't tell whether it is hurt or not, but is worried that it might be."

"But, wait a minute. I didn't think that there were any pheasants up here in the North Woods."

"There aren't, but we try not to argue with our concerned citizenry. Maybe it's a grouse or a turkey. Who knows? Would you be willing to go and check it out? Let us know if you catch it so that we can prepare a place for it."

So I tossed my tote in the car along with the other stuff that I needed and went to find the address.

The place turned out to be an old trailer home in a pretty run down area with lots of junk around. When I pulled up and knocked on the door, a younger man came out and started explaining where the pheasant was last seen and which way he was last headed. We searched and walked and looked in, under and around all of the old buildings and junk cars and trash piles, but no bird.

"Are you sure that it was a pheasant? There are no pheasants in northern Wisconsin. Maybe it was a grouse or a turkey."

"Turkey? That was no turkey, and it was too big for a grouse. What do you take me for, anyway? Nope, it was a pheasant all right. It was a beautiful bird with a brilliant red chest. Where the heck could it have disappeared to, I wonder?"

"Pheasants have an amazing ability to lay low when they want to. Hunters nearly step on them before they take wing. I'll tell you what. We've been at it for more than an hour now. If you see it again, now I know where you're located. Give me a call, and I'll come again."

That was the last that I heard from the guy, but it sure made me curious to know what in the world he may have seen. Then, in one of those mid-sleep epiphanies, it came to me that he had probably seen someone's domestic Chinese pheasant that had escaped. They are the only pheasant-sized birds that I know of that have a brilliant red chest and are strikingly beautiful. We had a neighbor that had one once in with her chickens. They can be purchased from poultry hatcheries and delivered anywhere by mail. That had to be it.

Which begged the question: what was I supposed to do if I was called out to catch an exotic species?

"Nothing. We're only licensed to take wildlife," they said. I wonder if that is how exotic, invasive species have such an easy time of it sometimes.

My next call came about a week and a half later. Someone had spotted a limping Sandhill Crane grazing out in their field and was worried that it would be easy prey.

This time the place really was one of those beautiful nooks and crannies that I had imagined that I would have a chance to see. It was a home on the headwaters of the Wolf River with an open back yard full of a herd of about 10 wild deer when I drove up. The owners had bird feeeders all over the place and were treated to a steady stream of wildlife grazing and browsing through.

The man was an older gent who had obviously grown up in the North Woods. He came out to show me where he had last seen the crane. As soon as we walked out behind the house, the deer scattered, but one of the mated pair of cranes remained behind casting a wary eye in our direction and slowly strutting away while giving its primitive sounding pterodactyl call to its absent mate. We walked around the woods surrounding the field until it was getting too dark to see, but couldn't find where the injured bird was hiding. The uninjured mate continued to stay close, but gave no clue as to where its partner might be. Again, I left my name and number in case they saw it again.

Early the next morning they called, so I hopped in the truck with my stuff and headed out. This time the only thing in their field was the limping crane. They were right. It was obviously injured and was not bearing any weight on that leg.

With cranes and herons, you don't have to worry about being pierced by talons, but our trainer recommended that at minimum some sort of eye protection, and optimally a full face shield be worn because when you get within striking range, the likelihood is that cranes and herons will go for the eyes with their long dagger beaks. So I donned my cheap pair of sunglasses.

The next piece of essential capture equipment is a sheet to drape the bird with. Most birds, when their heads are covered will calm right down and are much easier to pick up. So I grabbed my sheet and set off.

I sent the old guy out around through the woods to cut the bird off in case the crane decided to perform its woodland disappearing act again. It was a good thing, too.

Slowly I crept. Step by step. Inch by inch. Tiptoeing so as not to make a sound. And the bird kept hobbling further off into the underbrush. Eyes shielded and sheet held out in front of me, I continued my slow stealthy approach.

In the meantime, the owner came trundling through the woods at a rapid, noisy ground covering pace. I tried to whisper to him as loudly as possible to hang back so that I could proceed. But he was making so much racket that he apparently didn't hear me. Well the bird heard him, swung around on its good leg and tripped over a log, spread its wings out on the ground, and the guy just walked up and grabbed it by the beak. So much for all of that training and stealth.

I then walked up, put the sheet over the bird and gently folded the neck, wings and legs up into a compact, turkey-sized bundle and tucked it under my arm to carry it back to the truck. In the front seat of the truck, I had my tote ready and open. I gently lowered the bundle into the box, lowered the lid, and then made my mistake.

I did not want to transport the bird the hour and a half all the way to Minocqua wrapped in the sheet, so I cracked open the lid and slowly pulled the sheet off. And you guessed it.

Start singing with me: "All around the cobbler's bench, the monkey chased the weasel. The monkey thought 'twas all in fun. Pop goes the weasel!"

Out popped the crane, banging its head on the roof of the cab. First, I felt a flush of heat from the back of my neck turning red from frustration, panic and embarrassment. That was rapidoly followed by the feeling of a cool spray from the old guy's Pppppt, Pppppt, Pppppt --- a barely suppressed, tight lipped laugh behind me.

Geez! This time I wasn't quite so slow and gentle when I reached down, to bend the crane's good leg with one hand while cramming down the head with the other and attempting to close the hinged lid with my chin. I've gotta get a bigger box!

I finished up by gathering information and filling in the requisite forms for the Wildflife Center and promising the guy that if the bird recovered from its injuries we would release it back onto his place to join its mate. All the while the box was dancing around in the seat of the truck, and it was only after I settled into a steady speed on the highway straight-away that the bird seemed to calm down.

I finally reached the Rehab facility only to find that the main man who assesses the injured wildlife had left on an errand and would not be back. So I relased the bird into a holding facility and left.

A few days later, I phoned to see what the outcome was, and unfortunately, the bird's bad leg had been so shattered that it was irreparable, and they had to put the bird down. They did determine that it was a male.

I am really hoping that the bird's injury was that way from the beginning and not from my handling, but I'll never know. It gave me pause, though.

When I first saw the bird, it was definitely limping, but it was busy grazing and was apparently getting by out there with its mate. Neither the old guy nor I had ever seen the bird fly, so I don't know whether it could or not. I do know that it did not over winter here, and that it had to have flown in not so long ago. With the bad leg, it may well have fallen easy prey out in the woods, but it would have died a rapid death and would have been terror stricken for only a few minutes. As it happened, it was in terror for hours and hours, and I am not sure that I did it any favors. The staff at the wildlife center said that sometimes you are performing the rescue more for the benefit of the concerned citizenry than for the benefit of the wildlife. You never know.

What do you think?

P.S.: The wonderful photos in this blog were downloaded from the Internet taken by unsung photographers with far more skill and better equipment than I will ever have.


  1. Oh what a fun job you have. Grandma loves those herons.. She is kind of a bird watcher. They live in Wisconsin too. A little town called Reedsburg, it is near Wisconsin Dells. Everyone seems to know where that is.. Mom and Dad both grew up there. They have a dream to retire there on a small farm and run a rescue shelter.. Come on retirement...

    Big Sloppy Kisses
    Gus, Louie and Callie

  2. we had some baby geese that were definitely hurt and I was afraid something would eat them so I called someone and they took them to the vet in the area and they lived but were not happy to be away from their mother.

  3. Last winter I transported an injured barn owl to REGI in Antigo. A client called it in to the clinic and I was having a quiet day-so what the heck! What a great place!
    It was very un-nerving to walk up to an owl and just lift it off a low branch. It did well and was eventually released.

  4. GL&C: You tell Mom and Dad that when they are ready, there may just be a farm available a little farther to the north than the Dells. We'll keep it in good shape for you and them until then.

    Funny bone: I'm glad to hear that the geese fared well. Snappers and northerns and muskies can play havoc on baby geese in lakes.

    hickchick: I haven't been to visit REGI yet. Antigo would be almost as close as Minocqua (not to mention Antigo's Fleet Farm). Do you work in a vet clinic? Small vs large animal? I tried rescuing a great horned owl this winter that was killing our chickens. It didn't make it, though. I'll post about that some time, too. You are right. Handling live wildlife can be unnerving, yet like a special privilege at the same time. I still haven't forgotten your request for a story on how this PhD ended up living randomly, either. Someday...

  5. Egg--I gather your spouse is involved in the 4H horse project-will she be at the 4H show in Antigo this weekend? Have her look for little red head on a big black horse :)
    I work at the Wittenberg Vet Clinic--just cats and dogs. Kris

  6. hickchick--That was an earlier chapter of our farm life. Have a ball at the show, though.

  7. Well would you not feel differently if they were able to help the crane? So I guess it is a 50/50 deal. Maybe half the time the birds recover and half don't. I guess I would favor the help side of the equation.

    I was so wondering how the heck you would get that thing into a container. They are tall and you'd need a tall skinny box for them. But you are in for some adventures never the less with this new rescue "job."

  8. What an adventure! Thanks for sharing.

  9. Julia: My experience with four attempted rescues so far has been four birds being put down. So far it has not been anywhere near 50/50. The rehab center does have a lot of success stories, though, and I will keep at it as long as I am asked for help. It all drives home to me how incredibly fragile birds tend to be.

  10. I was so wondering how the heck you would get that thing into a container.
    Getting a Payday advance is just a few steps away