in which witness is borne: birds, politics, fiction and critical art theory

Troubled Thrush

Wednesday, August 16, 2006
So on my way back to my car from an errand this morning in Evanston, I heard a distressed, loud, robinlike PEEK! coming from the sidewalk. Just past the hood of my car, standing on the pavement, there it was: a small thrush. I'm now fairly certain it was a WOOD THRUSH, something we don't get all that commonly around here. The bird PEEKed again, and looked right at me. Neither of us moved. A feeling began to brew inside me that something was wrong here: the bird wasn't hopping or attempting to get away from me at all.
And then I noticed it had no tail. None. Where a tail ought to have been, there was a perfectly horizontal line of short feathers poking out from its butt area--but these in no way constituted an actual tail. My mind reeled: what could have caused this? Was this bird a mutant, a genetic anomaly of some sort? Had it been attacked by a predator? How had it lost its tail so neatly?
And more urgently, why wasn't it flying? Did it have a balance problem because of the lack of a tail? It seemed to be a young bird, so I stepped back to observe for a minute. I looked up and noticed that the building abutting the sidewalk had a glass exterior wall all the way around the first floor. The bird could have smacked into it and gotten temporarily stunned or hurt. But it was on its feet, and as this thought floated across my brain, the bird hopped up onto the windshield of the car next to mine. Great. Now it was on someone's car. Was I going to have to bag it and bring it to the wildlife rescuers? At eight months pregnant, I'm about as likely to accomplish this as to win a figure skating competition. The bird PEEKed again and hopped/flew up to the next car, a tall SUV, where it could see over the tops of people's heads. I cursed, pulled out my phone, and dialed 411 with the intention of looking up the wildlife rescue team for our area. But I couldn't remember their names. Nor was I certain that intervention was the correct route here.
It was one of those standstill moments, where you are alone with the chaos of things and have to decide what you are going to do about it. Was this bird going to be able to fly again?
And again, as the question floated up, the bird answered me. It flew quickly and quietly across the street to a young gingko tree, where two other birds awaited it and began to chatter. Happy that I wasn't going to be called upon to save a life, but troubled that I really hadn't wanted to save it in the first place, I got in the car and drove away.

What do we do in the face of an individual nonhuman life in need of help? If the bird had been motionless or bleeding, I'd like to think I would have bagged it and called it in. But then what? And is it really worthwhile to try and save an individual of a species like that? Or should we limit our concern to problems that impact birds at the population level? This remains a troublesome and unresolved issue for me.
12:27 PM :: ::
  • I understand how you feel. Not that long ago I saw a house sparrow in distress and felt terribly guilty that I didn't do anything. Just a common bird, but it was trying to survive, just like the rest of us.

    By Blogger Eva, at 10:43 PM  
  • Some strict evolutionary biologists would argue that you shouldn't interfere at all, that what you may be watching is an act of natural selection -- if the bird has some genetic defect that prevents it from flying (either because it's missing feathers or is "stupid enough" to fly into windows), then it shouldn't live to mate and propegate those defective genes (or, more neutrally, genes that do not confer benefit in this environment).

    Of course, we humans are already "intefering" in a myriad of ways: building glass buildings, introducing predators, changing resources, global warming, etc. So by the time you get to the bird...

    I don't know what the answer is. You could take the perspective that all life is intrinsically valuable and we should protect what we don't need for sustenance (just try defining that though). Or you could think, just one bird in the entirety of the universe, and only one of me...

    I think Annie Dillard wrote something about this. I will investigate (but after Monday, when I'm taking my oral exams).

    By Blogger libbywiz, at 11:17 PM  
  • I don't like to promote my book (well, I do, but not when inappropriate), 101 Ways to Help Birds, but I do get into a long discussion about the value of individual birds vs. populations in it. In part, I write: "Rehabbing birds does more than restore thousands of birds to the wild each year that were harmed by windows, cats, pesticides, automobiles, oil spills, and other human-caused mishaps. It also gives us important insights into avian physiology and behavior and opportunities to develop techniques that can then be used to help endangered species. And rehabbers provide invaluable one-on-one educational services."

    The book talks about what to do when you find an injured bird, both in your backyard and on the road. Though it's trickier when you're on foot or a bike and don't have anything with for retrieving or transporting the bird.

    By Anonymous Laura Erickson, at 11:51 AM  
  • Save - always save. Why rationalise it - just go ahead and do what you can...

    By Anonymous charlie, at 1:18 PM  
  • The bird didn't need help. It was a normal fledgling American Robin, just at the stage when it would normally leave the nest (with stub tail), attended by its parents to whom it was communicating with a typical juvenile contact call. You did the right thing - nothing.

    By Anonymous Nuthatch, at 2:43 AM  
  • Yay, thanks Nuthatch! I feel a lot better now about my "decision" to walk away, although it's doubtful I'd have been quick enough to catch it anyway. And i'm sort of glad it was a young robin--although it would have been cool to see a wood thrush in these parts.
    Glad the post generated so much discussion.

    By Blogger mar-mar, at 9:14 AM  
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