When millions of years of evolution aren’t enough

Yesterday on my way into Boulder on Highway 36 I noticed a person with a net looking through deep grass off the road’s shoulder. I figured she was looking for an animal of some sort, so I stopped to offer my help.

And there was my friend and fellow advocate, Nicole. And sure enough, she was looking for animals – specifically, ducklings. She had been on that stretch of road earlier in the day and saw a mother with eight or nine babies, walking along the shoulder. By the time she could turn around and get back to where they were, the mother and several of the babies had been hit and killed.

Nicole, at the incident scene.
Nicole, at the incident scene.

Like so many thoroughfares, Highway 36, which links the Colorado cities of Denver and Boulder, becomes a gauntlet of death for wildlife each spring and summer.

No safe wildlife crossings are to be found, and those who attempt to cross must navigate 4-6 lanes of incessant traffic. Even birds and foxes and other nimble animals who have adapted to high speed vehicles are likely to die when faced with the reckless driver traveling 20 miles per hour over the speed limit.

At this time of year especially I try not to schedule anything that absolutely positively requires me to be on time. This allows me to keep my eyes open for anyone who has been injured or is trapped along a median, and to stop and try to help when needed.

The Young Housewife poem, William Carlos Williams
This incident brought to mind this poem, for its indictment of silent violence. [Emphasis added for effect.]
I’m not virtue signaling. I don’t relish this in the least. I hate that animals who have evolved over millions of years – even dinosaurs, for Christ’s sake – are getting violently injured and killed by the millions on our roads each year. I hate that their deaths are barely noticed, if noticed at all, by their killers and by passersby. I hate that the person who hits a deer is more concerned about the damage to their vehicle than the pain, the death, the injury they caused, or the fact that the mom or dad or sibling or friend who went out that morning will never be seen again, leaving at best an emptiness that humans can and should understand – and at worst dependent young, robbed of their birthright and sentenced to a frightening and protracted death.

I hate that humans have normalized being in a hurry and that our own evolution has led to an insane separation from nature and an all-costs pursuit of comfort and convenience.

duckling survivor
One of the four survivors, safely away from the road.

Millions of years of evolution will not prepare a vulnerable animal for an encounter with an uncaring human.

Nicole was able to save four of the ducklings, delivering them into the good hands of a nearby wildlife rehabilitation center. Because she cares so deeply, she had returned that afternoon to see if she could find any others who may have survived. After a thorough search, she was packing up when I arrived. She hadn’t found any more ducklings, but she wasn’t leaving empty handed, as she’d picked up some recyclables, likely tossed from vehicles by uncaring humans.

Here’s to you, Nicole, and to all with wide and welcoming circles of compassion. You are this planet’s hope.

Notes
If you encounter a wild animal who needs your help or if you have a “conflict” with wildlife at home or work, use Animal Help Now to find the nearest assistance.
It’s always smart to have a box or carrier of some sort in your vehicle. Click here to see what Animal Help Now recommends for a full rescue kit.
To support Animal Help Now’s work, please visit www.AHNow.org/donate.php.

 

Leave injured wildlife alone?! On what planet???

Two writers for the Dear Science section of the Washington Post stated today that injured and “lost” wildlife should be left alone. The authors correctly write that many young animals who appear to be orphaned are simply being left alone while Mom is out getting food or distracting predators. They also correctly state that helping distressed wildlife can be dangerous and should involve professional help.

But somehow they convince themselves that a bird hitting a window is part of a natural process. Their conclusion references a quote by Don Despain, a retired National Parks Service ecologist. Here the authors liken a typical human urban environment with the relatively intact Yellowstone ecosystem:

In nature, an injured animal — say, the bird in your back yard with a broken wing — will become food for a predator — perhaps an owl. The remains that the owl doesn’t eat will go on to feed microbes that fertilize the soil, which in turn gives rise to new plants, which will feed the insects that become a meal for future birds. This whole system is the “wildness” that Despain speaks of. It’s worth thinking about the next time you come across an injured bird.

Rescue scenario of bird injured from window strike
                          Let him suffer and die? No!

Actually, it’s not worth thinking about. That’s time wasted that could be spent trying to save the bird’s life. Here’s our response, published in the comments section:

Dear Science, we couldn’t agree more about the dangers of “kidnapping” young wild animals whose parents are simply out of sight. And we couldn’t agree less about the conclusion you’ve come to regarding letting nature take its course. Prof Daniel Klem states in peer-reviewed literature that about one billion birds are killed by striking windows in the United States each year. Prof Klem estimates that another billion are injured. That’s 30 per second killed, and another 30 per second injured. Surely nature can’t be so out of balance as to benefit from this anthropogenic disaster. Another billion small mammals are killed by cats in this country every year. Two billion birds. And another 500,000 animals are killed in the U.S. every day by motor vehicle strikes. So we should let the millions of survivors suffer and die? No! We should try our best to help them. This country has an amazing network of wildlife emergency professionals who can help us. As you rightly point out, it’s very important to bring them in as soon as possible on an emergency. To help you find them, our nonprofit humbly suggests using our website (AnimalHelpNow.org) or our phone app.

The authors downplay the value of helping individual animals and instead regurgitate the tired assertion that conservation is about populations. Yet we all should know the unfortunate truth that a species’ long-term chance of survival usually depends at least to some degree on a human or group of humans ascribing value to it. Welcome to the Anthropocene, Science.

A Tale of Two Rescues

Your first clue that a bird in the road is alive is she’s moving or upright. Last week I was traveling with a friend on a highway in northeastern Iowa. I saw that dreaded “object” on the shoulder ahead, and as we approached I discerned a bird, and then I saw she was upright, just a foot or two from the road.

We pulled over, and with t-shirt in hand I approached her, positioned myself between her and the road, and quickly captured her. A cardinal. Beautiful, she was, with her telltale tuft.

Open your app, I said to my friend – an AHNow supporter. But he had removed it, so we opened it on my phone. The nearest help was across the Mississippi in Wisconsin. The person who answered the phone said she couldn’t accept birds from across state lines.

I examined the results. The nearest Iowa rehabilitator was an hour-and-a-half drive in the wrong direction. The nearest Minnesota rehabilitator was two hours in the right direction. We got back on the road.

And then I noticed the spot of blood on the t-shirt. She was bleeding slightly from her mouth. I googled “emergency vets” but the nearest one was a half hour away, in Minnesota. I called. The receptionist said by law Minnesota veterinarians cannot accept wildlife. We kept driving, unsure of our next move.

IMG_8388o
For more about cardinals, click here.

But then the bird went limp. Her eyes showed no life. She was dead. We pulled over, and I placed her beneath a tree away from the road.

What was her story?, I wondered. Did she have a mate? Had they been together for a year? Two years? Five? Did she have dependent young in the nest she’d built with him? Was he still alive, or had he also been killed on that treacherous path?

And what to make of the experience? Well, first, the Animal Help Now app takes up about as much room on a phone as a few photos do. (My friend had removed the app in a misguided effort to save space. He has since reinstalled it.)

The incident also further confirms what we already know:

  • The world needs more wildlife rehabilitators.
  • States prohibitions against transporting wildlife across state lines should be re-examined.
  • Minnesota should allow veterinarians to treat wildlife (if in fact that’s not already the case).

It’s probably also true that several people chose to drive by that helpless bird, feeling they probably could do nothing. I’m not certain that my intervention didn’t add stress to the bird’s last half hour of life. I can only hope she sensed my intentions.

Less than a week later I had a very different experience. Driving in Colorado Springs on busy Delmonico toward busier Rockrimmon, I noticed a tiny bird in the middle turn lane of the five-lane road. Again, this bird was upright, meaning I should act fast.

I stopped my car, grabbed a cloth napkin that just happened to be within reach, got out and walked carefully toward the little bird, approaching from behind. Somehow all five lanes were quiet. I dropped the napkin over him, picked him up, and walked toward the nearest trees.

He seemed OK. Just young. No sooner had I set him down on the grass a safe distance from the road than his father appeared, landing right next to us. I backed off quickly, seeing his mother also alight as I did. If he can just fly, I thought, things are going to be fine.

(c) Kelly Colgan Azar
The rescued bird was a fledgling yellow-rumped warbler. Photo of adult male, courtesy Kelly Colgan Azar.

I scooted back to my car to get my phone for a picture, but when I returned – not 20 seconds later – everyone was gone. Just a little talk from the trees was all that remained.

It was the perfect rescue. So very very different from the likely outcome had an observant and compassionate person not come along. I didn’t need Animal Help Now on this one. But I probably will on the next.