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A Second Chance
The morning sun shone across the Hudson Highlands as I climbed a small wooded hill, dressed in faded jeans and an old shirt and carrying what appeared to be an enormous butterfly net. I carefully scanned the bushes, and within moments found what I was looking for: a large dark bird, one wing hanging haphazardly, huddled next to an old iron fence.
The bird stiffened and eyed me suspiciously. My best chance was to lunge forward and drop the net over his head before he had a chance to run, but before I could do so a small and angry voice cut through the springtime air.
"What are you doing?" it demanded. "What are you going to do to that . . . that animal? Do you have a license?"
I turned to find a diminutive elderly lady standing behind me, her clenched hands on her hips. She was quivering with indignation, and her blue eyes bored into mine.
"I do have a license," I told her, lowering my voice so as not to alarm the bird still further. "I take care of injured wild birds. One of your neighbors called and told me there was one here with a broken wing. I'm going to catch him and take him to the vet and see if we can fix him up."
Undecided, she continued to glare at me; in return, I gave her a genuine smile. I love people like this. Ninety pounds of outrage, she was ready to go to the mat for an injured creature, even though she wasn't exactly sure what it was.
"He's a black vulture,"I continued. "He's a cousin to those big turkey vultures, the ones you always see circling above town. Vultures are great birds...I'm happy to take care of him while he recuperates."
She stared atme doubtfully, making up her mind. "Well," she said finally, "just don't hurt him. Remember...I'll be watching you."
As it turned out she wasn't the only one; by this time four neighbors had gathered behind us. I started toward the vulture, hoping he was tired and hungry and would stay crouched in the leaves so I could net him quickly and efficiently. But according to Murphy's Law of Wildlife Rescue, this only happens when no one is around to admire your skill. Whenever there's a crowd, whatever bird you're after will spring to life and lead you on a chase designed to make you look like an incompetent fool. Naturally, that was what happened here.
Most people don't think of vultures as being particularly nimble; but in reality they can run like jackrabbits. Trailing his broken wing he sped around the fence, only to come face to face with an impenetrable tangle of barberry. "Excuse me!" I called to the four neighbors. "If he comes toward you, block his path!"
I lunged toward my quarry and brought the net down, but the vulture was no longer there. Having feinted right, he ducked left and raced toward the neighbors, who scattered like confetti in the wind. Triumphantly, the vulture slipped by and hightailed it down the road. I let out a whine of dismay and glanced at the elderly lady, who scowled at me disapprovingly. Clutching my net, I ran after the bird's retreating form.
I spent the next half hour running through what seemed like every backyard in the small river town. Had the circumstances been different I might have enjoyed seeing its variety: the small 1950s houses and the stately restored Victorians, the perfectly tended gardens and the areas of cheerful chaos. I kept careening around corners, gasping for air, just in time to see the disappearing edge of a black tail feather. At one point the vulture tore through an alleyway and I took a swipe at him with the net; beak open, one long black wing fully extended, he leaped upward and landed on a stairway railing just as the lady of the house opened the door. Letting out an ear-shattering scream, she threw herself back inside; something breakable crashed to the floor, and I staggered on.
The end of the line came in a surprisingly large, almost empty backyard. By this time the two of us must have looked like the fox and the hound in the old cartoon, where the chase continues even though both are so exhausted they're walking instead of running. As the vulture made a final sprint across the lawn I dashed after him, extended my net, tripped, and fell forward through the air. Hitting the ground with a thud, I looked up to see the bird safely, miraculously, enclosed in my net. We both lay on the grass, our sides heaving, listening to the crows screaming above us.
Finally a man's voice made me look up. "Excuse me?" it said. "Do you need some help?"
I gazed at him for a moment, sorely tempted to say something ungrateful. "Thank you," I said instead. "I have a red Jeep parked down on Violet Street. There is a pile of towels in the back...could you bring me one?"
"Sure thing," he said, and jogged off.
The air was fragrant, the late spring sunshine warm. I sat up and regarded the vulture encased in my net. If the fracture was in the middle of the humerus, the large wing bone closest to the body, odds are it would heal well and he would eventually be released. A fracture close to the joint would be more difficult, the prognosis unclear. A fracture involving the joint usually means the bird will never fly again. But whatever the outcome, at least now he had a second chance.
I felt a creeping sense of well-being. I wasn't a conquering hero, but I had saved this bird from a sure death by either starvation or predation. I would return to my car, mission accomplished, and perhaps the assembled crowd...if they were still there...would feel a new appreciation for the wildlife around them. My helpful friend returned and, smiling, handed me a towel. I extricated the big, dark bird from the net and held him briefly, allowing the man to see the obvious bond between the avian world and me. The vulture looked me in the eye, opened his beak, and with a master's timing, regurgitated the contents of his stomach onto my lap. I looked up; the man was no longer smiling.
Vomiting as a defense mechanism makes perfect sense for a vulture. Vultures are nature's clean-up crew, and their insides are a marvel of engineering: they can actually eat a victim of hog cholera and not get sick. What goes down the hatch isn't normally all that appealing, and when marinated in those formidable gastric juices and hurled back out again it's even less so. The product doesn't actually have to touch you, either...just landing in your general vicinity is enough to make most normal creatures respect the vulture's wish to be left alone. There hadn't been all that much in this vulture's stomach, but what there was was especially aromatic.
"Jeeeeeesus!" the man burst out. "He sure loves you, don't he?"
I wrapped the bird in the towel like a large papoose and carried him back to the car, where a small crowd waited. As I approached their noses began to wrinkle; looks were exchanged. Standing to one side was the elderly lady, arms crossed. When I stopped in front of her she squinted at the vulture, her face twitching slightly; she took an almost imperceptible step backward.
"I got him," I said. "I'll take him to the vet and she'll set his wing, then I'll take care of him until he recovers. If he can be released I'll bring him right back here and let him go, okay?"
"Well," said the lady with a small smile. "Maybe not right back here."Flyaway. Copyright © by Suzie Gilbert. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.