one thriller wouldn't kill you

Bird Work

Rehabing birds, to witness their sharp awareness, reminds me again and again of how, as humans, we’re the blunter instrument.


With my friend Coba, a spectacled owl. Woodland Park Zoo. Seattle, Washington. 2009.

While living in Manhattan in the weeks after 9/11, I’d begun frequenting an exotics store in the West Village, just north of the towers, where I became fascinated working with large special-needs birds.  Most of the Macaws, Greys and Amazons in that store suffered Post Traumatic Stress due to noise and vibration during the attack.

To sooth those startled creatures helped me, I think, as much as it helped the birds. Sort of an externalized version of the just-less-than-visible trauma all New Yorkers shared during those days.  And I’m sure the birds were picking up on that from humans as well.

The birds were not a new interest.  I had picked up, those fall and winter months, an old thread, and one that led to my owning a large Macaw — and later, in 2009, to learning how to handle Falcons, Hawks, and Owls at the Seattle Woodland Park Zoo where each day I would weigh and feed each of twelve birds, deliver extemporaneous monologue about bird conservation to the public with one of our raptors “on the glove,” and assist the keeper in daily flight shows.

With my friend Maya, a Camelot Macaw.  Seattle, Washington.  2012.

Going in for a smooch from my friend, Maya, a Camelot Macaw, which is a stunning second-generation hybrid of a Catalina Macaw and a Scarlet Macaw. Seattle, Washington. 2012

Handling large birds can be high stakes.  A large Macaw’s bill can sheer through a Brazil nut, or pinch a sizable chunk from a hunk of a two-by-four.  An Owl or Falcon on the glove can crush one’s finger bones with strong feet and sharp talons — while their beaks can make short work of the face.

Neither class of large bird has much patience for sloppy handling. Both pick up on anything going on with the handler – as well as other environmental factors, such as a wild eagle perched in a distant tree.

Bailey, my editorial assistant, a Red-fronted Macaw I adopted. 2013.

Bailey, my proofreader, about to pop open a file — a Red-fronted Macaw I adopted in 2013.

During long central Massachusetts winters, wild birds were a stand-in for television (the real one, a Magnavox black & white, was only allowed on for a half-hour per evening, after homework was complete).  Each first snow, the duty fell to me to create a grotto of evergreen boughs atop our picnic table outside the kitchen window, a refuge and feeding place for songbirds. I can remember counting more than a hundred gold finches some January mornings.

Summer vacations on Cape Cod I was introduced to raptors, at the old Otis Air Force Base, where local falconers showed up to eradicate the countless starlings that nested within the open hangers, a hazard, when in flight, to the lives of jet pilots taking off and landing.

Something about the falcons impressed me.  A power, an electricity about them; even hooded, ardent, always scanning. And then, unhooded the bird exploded off the handler’s glove, attending to business so perfectly, as with any top of the food chain species — except maybe humans.

It would not be until my late forties that I would have the privilege of working with these amazing creatures.  I found the challenges to be many, the inspiration Divine, and the rewards immeasurable: at once humbling and exalting.  And to watch them fly, proof of some greater form of Intelligence at work.

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