Slapped by a pigeon! Twice!

This pigeon clearly did not want to be handled. It wing-slapped me – twice – as I went in to capture and hold it gently for meds and tube feeding. You may think it was just coincidence.

Sure, pigeons flap and try to get away when someone is too close for comfort. But this was clearly deliberate. This pigeon was not panicked, it looked at my hands coming toward it, and it slapped by hand down with its left wing. And when I tried again, with perfect aim and clarity – it slapped my hand again.

I had to laugh and give it credit. And then of course I gently captured it, held it up for the intern to give it medication and food, and then I returned it to its enclosure.

Pigeons are definitely underappreciated, highly intelligent birds. (More on that in a future post.) One of the interns told me she was a not a fan of pigeons before working at TWC, and now they are her favourite bird.

They are sweet tempered, smart, and their plumage is beautiful. I held 6 pigeons this evening, to be given medication or tube-fed. I reach into their enclosures, cover them with a pillowcase, and gently bring them out into the room. I often have to do the first part one-handed as I am holding the top of the enclosure open. It is heart wrenching when they cry out and try to hide in a corner. So scared.

As I hold them, sometimes they shake with fear. Literally vibrate. Their head is gently covered with the pillowcase to reduce their stress, but I can feel their little heart racing. I try to give them part of my hand or a finger to hold on to with their feet. Holding on, as if perched on my hand, seems to make all kinds of birds feel a little more secure.

Pigeons are considered to be one of the most intelligent birds on the planet, able to undertake tasks previously thought that only humans and primates could do. They are of course well-known for their ‘homing’ superpowers and their history of carrying messages over long distances to accurate destinations. It’s also been shown that pigeons can also recognize their reflection in a mirror, and can be trained to recognize all 26 letters of the English language. In scientific tests, pigeons have been able to not only differentiate between photographs, but even differentiate between two different human beings in a photograph.

All of our feral city pigeons, a.k.a. rock pigeons, are descendants of domesticated rock doves.

Image: ©Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark

How do you keep a snapping turtle from biting you?

How do you keep a snapping turtle from biting you? With a face-plunger of course.

I have held painted turtles before and its not difficult. Hold them gently and firmly on either side of their bodies, letting their legs and head be free. But a snapping turtle is another thing altogether.

They are large and they are strong. And they have a painful bite. Their bite cannot take your finger off or snap a broom handle, despite the myths, but it would hurt. Their beaks are made to cut their meals. Sharp and powerful.

So to pick up a snapping turtle to move it, one hand is at the base of the tail, where the tail meets the body, and the other hand is slipped underneath the carapace – from behind, with the turtle facing away from you.

And when you have a turtle that needs an injection of antibiotics, it works very well to gently but firmly place the face of the turtle in a clean animal-use-only toilet plunger. (Not a sink plunger. Sink plungers are often red, with an umbrella-like bell. Toilet plungers are often black and have the wide bell  and a narrower tube-like part that is at the bottom underneath the bell.)

Once the turtle’s strong beak and head is in the plunger, it can’t see and it can’t bite. But it can breathe just fine, and there is space between its head and the plunger. Clearly, this is just for a minute or two, and does not hurt the turtle. And this way, the people around it remain unharmed too.

Encounter with a baby vole

It was a beautiful evening, and my huzzbind Jeff and I went for a short walk in Tommy Thompson Park. On our way back to the car, we noticed up ahead that a bunch of people had stopped and were looking at something… it seemed like maybe an animal. I turned to Jeff and said whatever it is, I just hope they leave it alone. As we got to where they had been, a tiny, tiny little creature was at the edge of the path. A woman was gently trying to encourage it to go back into the weeds rather than be exposed. Apparently it had gone back in to the grasses and wildflowers, but was coming back out again.

The woman thought it was a mouse or a mole, but when I saw it I knew right away that it wasn’t either. But I didn’t know what it was! It was dark brown, very round, and very very very tiny. About the size of a cotton ball, with a short tail, almost invisible legs, and small ears. It was not very afraid of humans (not a good thing) and I was able to easily pick it up gently. I carried it about 5 feet into the weeds and gently set it down in a place that was away from the path and well-hidden. It was a tiny furry velour-like ball of life and I had hoped I had helped to protect it from humans.

When I got home I looked it up – a meadow vole! I would never have thought of that. But I learned that it is one of the most common mammals in North America. Apparently meadow voles are most active at dawn and dusk. We were there just before dusk, to walk in the cooler air. 

And I wanted to kicked myself. I realized that I should have taken a little more time watching to find out where it was trying to go. If it was following its mama across that path, it will continue to go in that direction – and I just made it more difficult for the little one. In that case, it would have been better to carry it across the path and place it in the tall grasses and wildflowers on the other side.

Next time I will pay better attention to where any creature I am trying to help is actually trying to go – to truly help it to be safe, and not set it back, making it even less safe. Especially because he is not only vulnerable to humans but is a likely dinner for the owls, hawks, snakes, mink, and other creatures in the park. An important part of the ecosystem. But I hope that little baby vole is ok. 

Great horned owl is aptly named

Tonight I was able to hold a great horned owl to be given medication. I was warned that it is like catching and holding a red tailed hawk, but owls are stronger. Thank goodness a little calmer, too. This one hissed at me as I opened it’s enclosure. All fluffed up to be scary, it is extraordinary. Beautiful. And the eyes. Oh my goodness, the eyes. They are round and bulgy like a muppet, with bright, bright yellow iris and black pupils, and eyelashes. And a creamy-opaque membrane that blinks over them.

So when the owl is looking at you with the huge beautiful eyes, it’s hard to remember that it’s terrified and trying to scare you away! But those talons are a reminder that it’s a predator. Strong large claws, larger than the hawks I’ve held. The owl has shorter thighs, where I hold it from, its back against my chest, so it is a little easier to ensure that the claws are firmly held downward so they don’t injure the staff person giving the medication. The front of my shirt was covered in tiny owl down for the rest of the night!

Image: ©Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark

Raptor Season

The city of Toronto was crazy for Raptors a couple of weeks ago, when the basketball team won the NBA Championship. It seems to be raptor season at TWC, too.

There’s nothing quite like holding a red-tailed hawk, firmly by its thighs, using your thumbs to point its talons downward, as he is fed. Gorgeous powerful bird, alert to every sound and movement.

This hawk got tangled up in a soccer net and had to be cut out. Now he isn’t eating on his own and needs medication and treatment for his injuries. I held him against my chest, sheet around him for extra support in keeping his wings closed against me and to cover his head and relieve some of his stress.

His eyes are light chocolate brown with black pupil in the middle. He blinks with an opaque lid that quickly covers and uncovers the eyes, like a moist skin membrane.

The other thing that is amazing is his little barbed tongue. Pink, like most creatures, but the hawk’s tongue, about halfway back in its thick downward-curved beak, has prongs facing backward. Like it’s hinged and has two parts – the front part, long narrow oval shaped with its barbed back end looks almost like it’s attached on top of the rest of the tongue.

I’m grateful to have had the chance to hold him as the intern hand-fed him with long metal foreceps. When I was putting the hawk back into his enclosure, I noticed a piece of cardboard under him, and wasn’t sure what it was at first. The intern explained that it is to protect his tail feathers while he’s in the enclosure in ICU.

In any case, once I got him returned as safely and gently as possible, he was not happy. Really not happy. He turned his head, fluffed up his feathers, especially on his head like a fanned crown and looked at me like he was thinking “how dare you.” He stayed like that as I covered his enclosure.

Today was the first time I’ve seen kestrels. A kind of small falcon. Beautiful orange-brown chest and wings with distinct black spots, an alternating black-white-orange around its neck and face. They are not much larger than an adult robin, and rounder. The two that are at TWC were eating and were very agitated when I opened the door of their room to check on them and the state of their enclosure. I always keep as low-key as possible, since I am all too aware that human presence is not a good thing for any wild animal.

Image: ©Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark

What has blue eyes, warm feet, and is sleek black?

The beautiful baby crow who stepped up calmly onto my hand and looked around, spoke to me in quiet baby crow sounds, and pooped politely away from my arm or head.

It was the end of the night, the end of a long day for many people at the TWC. I had changed from my scrubs to street clothes. As I was leaving, I walked by ICU when two of the nursery volunteers, a woman and a young man, were holding a black bird perched on their hand. I stopped outside the room and watched a moment. It being ICU, I didn’t want to disturb them or any other the other patients in the room. But she generously beckoned me in, crow sitting on the back of her upstretched hand.

It turned out to be a beautiful baby crow, calm and happy in peoples presence, with light blue eyes and a sweet yumyumyumyum sound when the young man fed her by taking bits of fish or fruit in his fingers, showing it to her and when she put her head back and opened her beak, placing the food deeply in her beak. Yumyumyumyum. Then preening her feathers.

I would have not known it was a baby, no fledgling fluff here, just shiny black feathers with white downy under-feathers. When the nursery volunteer asked me if I wanted to hold the baby crow, of course I said yes please! I just held my hand up to its chest and it calmly stepped up onto my hand.

This crow had been hand-raised in captivity. That is why it was so calm and comfortable stepping up onto a person’s hand. We quietly chatted with each other and the baby crow for a few minutes, talking of how smart they are, the differences between crows and ravens, how crows can use tools and get people to drive over nuts to crack them open, and generally marveling and admiring this beautiful baby.

The crow then decided to sit for a while on the woman volunteer’s head, calm and happy the whole time. It was only when it came time to put it into its enclosure that it squawked and flapped bit. I don’t blame it, as I would too. What a special moment at the end of the night.

Book Mark: Author Lyanda Lynn Haupt

This site is not associated with Lyanda Lynn Haupt or her book The Urban Bestiary: Encountering The Everyday Wild (Little, Brown Spark, 2013), but I want to give a special shoutout to her. Lyanda’s writing is wonderful and knowledgeable. She is particularly expert about birds. In fact, one of her other books, Mozart’s Starling (Little, Brown Spark, 2017) is my favourite of her books I have read so far. It is a heartwarming and charming account of how she saved and adopted a female starling, which she named Carmen, to better understand what it might have been like for Mozart to live with such an intelligent and musically adept creature. Haupt does delve into researching Mozart and even goes so far as to visit his home (turned into an odd museum), and gently informs the reader of various facts and histories about the bird, but the book’s charm is in her everyday life with Carmen. I think the next book of Haupt’s that I will read will likely be Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from The Urban Wilderness (Little, Brown Spark, 2011). When I do, I’ll let you know about it! 

What sound does a bunny make?

Like the toddlers game – what does a cow sound like? Moo. What does a cat sound like? Meow. And so on. But what about a bunny? They are quiet creatures out of survival necessity, but the cry of a baby bunny will rip out your heart. Especially a terrified baby being picked up by a huge scary human and carried way above the safe ground to be stimulated to pee and poo, before being tube fed.

Waaah!  Bunnies are fast and their cry is loud. “I’m scared! I’m not happy!” Put me down!”

It turns out that most bunnies in the TWC have been attacked by cats. One in there now has wounds all along is underbelly and is not eating – you can feel its vertebrae through its skin. The others in care are doing better – more fat and muscle on them, faster. All are bright eyed and alert.

There’s often a shortage of fresh greens for the bunnies. So I weeded my yard for the first time, and brought a big grocery bag overflowing with huge healthy thriving dandelion greens. And my yard looks better, too. (Finally found the right motivation!) But those lasted about half an hour since so many creatures need greens, and found myself out hunting the fresh-cut grasses of the industrial complex for dandelion and clover. I lucked upon an area behind an industrial building where there were large clusters of clover. Fun fact: even wild bunnies are inclined to use a litter box. At TWC, we put straw in a large plastic container in the enclosures and they use it naturally.

Image: ©Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark

First Time Catching a Gosling

There were 6 large goslings with their mom in one of the large outdoor aviary enclosures. The mama goose was doing such a good job protecting her babies, hissing at the human intruders and herding babies away, despite being and having an eye infection. Staff member “C” invited me to help her with goslings so their feet could be cleaned and treated for an infection.

Mama goose was covered in a blanket and held gently but firmly by an intern as C treated her with ointment for her cloudy eye, tube-fed, and her feet cleaned with antiseptic. We kept her head gently covered as we caught each one of her babies. Can you imaging how awful it would be for her to be restrained and watch as humans catch her babies. So she remained calm under the blanket as the intern demonstrated catching a big gosling.

They still look like chicks with yellow fuzzy feathers, but they are now much larger – about the size of a duck or pigeon. The intern made it looks easy. When it came to my turn, I chased them into a corner of the wooden enclosure, but these little ones are fast and wily when they want to be! I lucked out with my first one – caught it fairly quickly. When catching a goose or bird that size, the idea is to gently and firmly catch and hold them like a football, one hand on each side of their wings, holding their wings to their body and leaving their chest, head, and feet free. The other 4 I caught using a bed sheet to throw over their heads. That would have been easier in a smaller space, but this was like herding a small herd of terrified creatures who could run in any direction to get away.

In any case, I caught each of them, and they had their feet cleaned and treated. I put each one in a kennel cab when they were done, until all had been treated. By then I was covered in baby goose poop – I’m pretty sure that every single one of them pooped on me as I was holding it for treatment.

The mama goose was released from under her bedsheet and babies were let out the kennel cab to join mum. Later that night I cut up lettuce for them. Wow, do they get excited and forget some of their shyness when there are greens! One of the babies willingly came almost right beside me to get at the greens as I was emptying a big salad bowl of lettuce for them. Maybe I can use greens to help me catch them more easily in the future.

Hello world!

Welcome to the bestiary! This is a space where we’ll get to know the wild creatures in our laneways, neighbourhoods, and cities. The animals and the issues related to urban wildlife in the big city.  I’m just getting things set up, so please sign up for Urban Bestiary email updates and stay tuned!