Coming To Terms With Battered Birds

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I love the beauty of wild birds, but when they are injured I’m disturbed by their fractured limbs and bloody gashes. However, it’s something with which I’m learning to cope.

Bloodied Birds
Royal terns are large with bright orange/yellow bills and are hard to miss. The one at which my wife and I are looking has blood on its white breast. We look closely. The bird moves well and doesn’t appear injured. The blood is not the aftermath of eating a fish. I don’t want to believe that the blood is from a skirmish with another bird that pierced its breast and almost its tiny heart. I’d like to believe that it’s a fish’s blood. Who am I kidding? That would be on its bill and face with perhaps a drop elsewhere. My wife who has a more realistic view shows me that the blood narrows to point deeper into its feathers. The tern is one of the walking wounded but moving fine. Would I have recognized the truth if I were by myself? No. I probably would not want to. Why?
A few years ago I was walking this beach with an environmental biologist who was monitoring birds nest sites. We came across a laughing gull with blood quite visible on its breast. I was startled and saddened by the sight. However the bird was moving well. When we came back the bloodied bird wasn’t there. Out of sight, no problem. I’m hardly a squeamish person but I don’t want to see sick or wounded birds. It hurts.

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The Walking Wounded
A laughing gull walking on the sand seems to be missing part of its right foot. A closer look shows that the whole webbed foot is there but that it’s turned perpendicular to the left foot. When the gull lifts the right leg, it’s held gingerly off the ground. Poor guy. This injury may have been caused by a monofilament fishing line and initiated by the gull as laughers are the most aggressive birds around food. The tentative way this bird is walking makes me think that the injury is a recent one. Will it heal? Will it heal enough for the bird to be mobile? This bird can fly which means it is on its own. I don’t want to think about it.
There is another laugher that I’ve seen here this winter. It’s right foot is neatly severed and it gets around on its one good leg and the stump of the other. At first I found the bird to be a painful sight but on several occasions I’ve seen this laugher getting around on its “peg leg.” It took a while but I was able to accept it as part of the walking wounded.
The more I’ve watched birds the more that I’m able to notice small injuries. A few years ago I was easily photographing a willet. Then I saw why. It had an injured leg. I immediately stopped. In doing so I was inadvertently taking advantage of its limited mobility and perhaps stressing the bird. A few days later I saw the bird seemingly walking better and hoped it was healing. Last winter I saw a snowy egret that had a “hitch” in its movement. The injury was subtle but nonetheless there. I frequently saw the bird all winter and only once was the impediment to its mobility quite noticeable. The snowy could hunt for fish and stayed on a seawall where fishermen were active and may have gotten an occasional throwaway. After a while I stopped thinking of it as injured. The bird had made a sensible choice and was making out OK. I was beginning to accept the walking wounded.

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Coming To Terms
One morning while I’m watching some lesser black-backed gulls, a Scottish woman, who has a sharp eye for birds, tells me that one of them “mugged” a royal tern in the water which had a fish. She was afraid that the gull would drown the tern but it only wanted the fish.
Such thievery is reasonably commonplace among gulls and shorebirds. It’s a Darwinian world. Frankly, watching such larceny at times makes birding dramatic.
Several years ago I watched a great blue heron near a group of fishermen on the beach. Herons and egrets like fishermen because sometimes they get their throwaways. This great blue had lucked out and was holding one in its bill attempting to position the fish to swallow it. However several brown pelicans also there had their eyes on the prize. In the avian world it’s not first come, first served. It’s every bird for itself. Who got the fish? I don’t know as I was too busy photographing the blue and never stopped to think about it.
I’ve made a deal with myself over the years. If an injured bird can fly, it’s a poor candidate to be rescued. As I don’t see injuries often, I accept them as a part of birding. I’ve also got a “friend” who’s been very helpful in this regard. It’s a one-legged herring gull which I first saw on the beach four years ago when it was a juvenile in brown plumage.
It’s left leg was and still is a stump which is difficult to get around on. However, the gull could stand as ably on its good right leg as it might on two. It’s agility still amazes me. Last winter its adult gray all but covered the juvenile brown color. I felt like a neighbor who noticed that the boy next door had become a teenager. Somehow I think that this beach is “imprinted” on him. When I saw it last winter I silently greeted my old friend. Of course the bird doesn’t recognize me but I’m cheered to see it doing so well. If he can, why not the others? That helps me a lot.

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Michael Givant
Michael Givant is a columnist for Anton Media Group. His column A Bird's Eye View is popular among local birdwatchers and photographers.

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