Mourning Doves are plentiful in Maine. I saw fifty of them in these trees above a Phippsburg bird feeder.
Sadly, and sometimes annoyingly, we have a lot of bird strikes on our windows. At peak fall migration, it's not uncommon to have an average of six hits an hour. This is a lot to me, especially as my heart quickens each time I hear that dreadful thunk against the glass. Every time, I rush from whatever I'm doing to see who was claimed by a pane and what I can do for them if they weren't killed instantly on impact.
This year, there were so many strikes and so often that I kept a cardboard box in the living room, ready to receive the latest victim. I had it lined with soft, fluffy, comforting fabric. I'll admit, I'm not sure who the material comforted, me or the dazed birds. Strikes have included the smallest - hummingbirds and kinglets, to the largest - a Sharp-shinned hawk and every kind of bird in between. I have tried all of the solutions to stop this. I have moved bird feeders away, put decals on the windows, hung things on the insides and outsides of the windows, all to no avail. The only thing I haven't done is put up net barricades, nor have I moved out. Would the birds still hit the windows if I moved out of the house? If they hit the window anyway and no one was here to hear it, would it make a sound? That simpleton's philosophical question leaves me wondering.
Though I haven't managed to stop birds intent on suicide, I have become pretty adept at saving the ones whose plans didn't come together. My save rate is about 90%. This is my recipe:
(this is not medical, veterinary nor avian rehabilitation advice nor endorsement, just my recipe)1. Act quickly. Snatch the bird up the minute it hits the deck. This prevents predators from getting it before it sobers up enough to take off on its own. This also prevents hypothermia. Birds get cold quickly even if it seems warm out to you.
2. Do not hesitate. Move with a firm, sure hand. Usually, I put a towel over the bird then scoop it up in the towel. I think this reduces the bird's stress because it can't see me. I may only be fooling myself, however. This isn't science. It also stops the bird from struggling. I'm used to it, but bird's have sharp, pointed little claws and feet and it can startle the rescuer when they dig into the hand. It's not productive for the rescuer to drop the victim when this happens. A towel prevents that.
3. Keep the bird straight, so that if there is bone or joint damage, the rescuer doesn't worsen the damage.
4. Be prepared. Have a cardboard box at the ready, lined with something like a towel to keep the bird warm. Don't wait to build the emergency room after the victim has arrived. Be ready.
5. Close the box and secure the top. The bird may become active and ready to depart before you realize it. It WILL try to get out and WILL be able to open the box like a monkey from a cage. You would be surprised how a little crack of light will inspire them to escape. I have a lot of experience with birds flying around my living room. So, believe me.
6. Leave the victim alone. Do not look in the box. It's tempting. You want to see how the patient is doing, get a peak at it, coo a little to it. Don't. Your big, gruesome grinning face leering down into the box only terrifies the stressed bird more. Think back - a primal memory from before you had speech: You, helpless in your crib.....your wart faced, Aunt Esther hovering above you like the flaming Hindenburg. That's what you're doing to the bird by looking into the box. Resist the urge to give that gift.
When the bird comes around, it will start to make scratching noises in the box. When it begins to make enough of a ruckus, proceed to step seven.
7. DO NOT OPEN THE BOX! Take the box out of the house. Choose a location free of predators, make sure your dog is in the house. Make sure that you are in a place where the bird can fly to a safe branch if it's ready. Do not open the box while at the top of the Empire State Building or other high structure from which the possibly flightless bird will certainly fall to its death. A wounded bird can't fly any better than you can. Set the box on a table, the hood of your car or other stable platform. Open the box and step away. If the bird is ready to fly, it will zoom out of that box so fast you may barely even see it go. Rejoice and be thankful; you have done a glorious thing. Saving that life may balance out some of the really crappy, regrettable stuff you've done and will probably do another day.
8. If the bird doesn't take off, close the box and start over.
Note: Don't try to feed the bird. Don't put food or water in the box. It will just make a damp mess. A freaked-out injured bird isn't going to eat or drink your offering of love. The plan is that it will be well enough soon to go fend for itself in its natural environment.
A few weeks ago, a Mourning Dove hit the window. I sprung into action like a well oiled machine, jump starting my M.A.S.H unit into high gear. However, after faithfully completing the emergency protocol enumerated above, the bird did not fly. Nor did it die, so I called Avian Haven, the nearest wild bird rescue and rehabilitation facility. They told me to bring the bird to them forthwith and without further delay which I did. I was eager to rush my wounded bird to freedom.
Freedom, as it turns out, is a long ways away. Avian Haven is located in Freedom, Maine ninety-nine miles from my doorstep. I didn't hesitate to go, but it did take all day. Most working folks couldn't take the time. I pondered the gasoline cost. According to AAA, it costs about a dollar a mile to run a car. On the way, I stopped to use a restroom at a fast food establishment, using water and chemicals, paper towels and electricity. I got a cup of coffee in a paper cup. Most assuredly, the coffee beans were not shade grown. My expensive rescue mission prompted me to mourn more than my ailing Mourning dove; it had left a hefty carbon foot print and was expensive.
Mourning doves are plentiful in Maine. In other states, regarded as a nuisance and as game birds, they are shot for sport and out of irritation. Even the Avian Haven people weren't too choked up, though they did their jobs swiftly and caringly. Upon arrival, they whisked her away to intensive bird care, burning up more energy and resources to save her. They gave her a patient ID, "MoDo # 1000." They get lots of them there.
On the long, birdless trip home, I had time to think. Was it worth all of that to save a bird so common, a bird that wouldn't live more than a couple of years anyway - a bird that after release would get snatched by a cat or strike a window and die? What was the value of that life? Did I have a cosmic debt to the bird to save it because it's problems were caused by man, or woman's window? In a moment of enthusiasm, I had volunteered to be a future transporter to the facility for injured birds from far flung places. After all, Freedom is a long ways away. I decided that if I received the call, I would honor the commitment I had made, but I had doubts.
Only a few days passed before I was called to transport the Barred owl seen here. It had been ensnared in a driving range net at a country club, left to dangle in the dark over night. The golf pro knew only that it was an owl, though not the species. When I met him for the pick up, the bird was in a cardboard box with a towel over the top. Following my own protocol, I didn't look into the box. I put it behind me on the seat and headed north.
Tooling up the highway, listening to the radio, I sang along loudly to Aretha Franklin singing "Freedom"
while feeling pretty righteous about my part in saving this owl. I had nearly forgotten about the Mourning dove and my questioning of the reasonableness and sanity of these missions. It just seemed like such a great thing to be saving an owl!
Over the radio and my own voice, I started to hear the owl scratching in the box behind me. "Oh dear," I thought. "It wants to be free already." Suddenly, I realized that I had not checked to see if the box was firmly secured. What if it got loose in the car while I was driving at seventy-five miles an hour? That could be really ugly! Quickly, my imagination spun out of control. I could see myself in handcuffs splayed out across the hood of my car screaming at a cop,"Officer! I crossed the median when an owl was loose in my car! I swear!" Of course, the owl, being a wise soul, would have escaped the vehicle and left for the Great North Woods by then. "Don't crack wise with me, lady!" The gruff and burly officer would command. I pulled the car onto the break-down lane and jumped out to check. Of course, my camera was in the passenger's seat. It only took a second to grab it, just in case.
And that's when I did it, I broke my own rules violating article number six. I looked in the box just for a second. Well, maybe more than a second. Long enough to take a couple of hasty shots of its dear, little face and soulful, bottomless eyes. I felt like a bum, too. It was clear exploitation on my part. I couldn't control myself and had to see it, at its peril perhaps and I regret that.
In the end, "MoDo # 1000" and the Barred owl lived and were released. They are both out there somewhere being free, maybe even being stupid on a golf course or flying into a window, but they are alive and they are free. And, I helped. If the phone rings again with a call to carry a busted up bird to Freedom, I'll go and not question the comparative value of the life. Because, if I had done nothing, had I not moved out of my "house" or off from my position about the value of the Mourning dove, I would not have had the opportunity to experience the Barred owl. They might simply have died, each of them, without a sound.