“Is this the bird rescue place?” said a woman’s voice. “My son just saved the life of a big white bird, but it’s hurt and we need help. We have it in a cardboard box.”
“What kind of bird is it?” I asked.
“It’s a big white one,” she replied.
It was near the end of a long summer, and, like most wildlife rehabilitators, I was bone tired and fed up with my own kind. 95% of wildlife injuries are the direct result of human activity. Most of the time it’s unintentional; many times, it is through carelessness or ignorance; but occasionally the damage is done on purpose. The last one – a goose deliberately run down by a man on a jetski – had tipped me over the edge. I could care less about the heroics of this kid with the big white bird, I thought as I watched a car come up my driveway. He can’t undo the damage already done, or make me think any better of the human race.
A woman stepped out of the car, followed by her teenaged son. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Helene, and this is Nate – he’s the rescuer.” They followed me as I carried the box into the garage and closed the door. I opened the top, expecting a gull; instead I found a snowy, spindly heap collapsed on the bottom of the box.
“It’s a Great Egret!” I gasped.
Egrets are statuesque, long-necked, dazzlingly white waterbirds that resemble herons, and are often seen carefully stalking fish along shorelines. They are tall, but delicate and extremely shy. I had never had one before.
“Go ahead, go ahead!” Helene urged in a loud stage whisper. Nate shrugged; his mother gave me a big smile.
“Nate here is sitting on a bench in Logan Park – you know where that is? – and that bird right there is walking along the edge of the pond. And suddenly – out of the blue! – it looks like something is towing the bird right through the water. Like it’s waterskiing! Right, Nate? And then the bird starts going under. So Nate runs to the edge of the pond, and there’s this gigantic snapping turtle that’s got the … the … what is it again? The egret …by the foot, and that monster snapper must be dragging it down to the bottom of the pond to eat it, so Nate jumps into the pond and wrestles the egret away from the snapping turtle! And then he runs out of the pond and stands there, all dripping wet and wondering what to do, because once you’ve got a hold of an egret, what the heck are you supposed to do with it?”
“Get out!” I cried, eyes wide. “How big was the turtle?”
Nate silently formed his arms into a very large circle. I looked at him in disbelief. “The bird was in trouble,” he mumbled.
“That’s my son,” said Helene, giving him a punch in the arm. “Anybody’s in trouble, and Nate is right there to help them out.”
Egrets have three toes pointing forward and one, the hallux, pointing backward; the turtle had bitten through the egret’s hallux as cleanly as if it had used a carving knife. The wound was brand new and the egret was otherwise in good health, so my job would be to make sure the fragile, stress-prone creature survived captivity while her foot healed, and then to get her back to her home as quickly as possible.
Luckily, the egret was cooperative. She put up with her daily bandage change, and ate her live fish as soon as I left the room. As I cared for her I found myself thinking more and more of the tall, quiet teenager who had rushed toward the type of turtle from which I’d seen grown men run away. Two days after the egret arrived, the phone rang.
“Hi,” said the male voice. Silence.
“Hello?” I said. “Who is this?”
“Nate,” came the reply. For a moment I couldn’t place the name, and silence resumed. Finally, the voice returned. “The egret,” it said.
“Oh! Nate!” I said, and delivered a detailed report. When I finished, there was another moment of silence. “Thank you,” said Nate, and hung up. Within a week, he’d called twice more.
Eight days later, the egret was ready to go. Normally I would have taken her back to her territory and released her with minimal fanfare by myself, but this time I called Helene.
“Helene,” I said. “I’m going to release the egret, and I’d really like it if you and Nate would come. Nate can open the crate and let her go.”
They met me on the grassy area in front of the pond. Nate opened the door and the egret rushed out, a slender blizzard of feathers, and launched herself into the air. She extended her wings, rose higher and higher, circled once, twice, and the next instant she was gone.
“Whoa!” Nate burst out. “Did you see that? Did you see how she flew? She learned her lesson – she’s not going near that pond again! What a great bird – she’s so smart!” He gave me a huge grin. “This was so cool.”
I grinned back at him. “So are you,” I said.
Second and final photos by Brenda Hiles; third by Suzie Gilbert.