Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Encounter: How Harley The Brave Took a Piece of My Heart

Harley came into our lives on one of the hottest days of the summer. The heat was almost unbearable and we were out on the balcony enjoying the afternoon breeze when our landlord arrived home. While trading greetings his gaze feel upon Harley's tiny fluffed movements there in the middle of the drive. The tyres of the car must have just missed him. Not skipping a beat our Landlord scooped him up, handed him to us and said matter of factly, "Well, better keep him with you and away from the dogs."

And with that, we were on a journey.

We weren't sure just what kind of bird he was and it was a few days until we realised he was a White-Rumped Swift, one of the world's fastest fliers and one that migrates between Europe and Africa each year. From his weight, just 20 grams, we guessed from internet research he might be 10 days old, a good few weeks away from flying.

We considered the options - most resources advise you to find the nest and simply put him back. Easy peasy. Except in Harley's case the nest had been broken down, somehow. No one knew for sure, and there was only one option - to care for him until he could fly.

We searched for information on what to feed him and so on, and were soon frustrated by conflicting information on the internet. We tried to keep his diet as natural as possible - insects - which meant a daily excursion during the sunny afternoon into the nearby fields on the farm where we were living, swinging a butterfly net borrowed from the Landlord, chasing down unsuspecting locusts, grasshoppers and crickets. Ants were on the menu, too - collected at a crack in the wall that must have led to their nest and, as they spilled out of it we would squash them with our fingers, putting them into a container until the bottom was covered in a black mass.

At feeding time two or three of the poor insects would be executed, pulled out of the container by the scissors that we would summarily use to snip off their heads, legs and wings, saving only the soft thorax for Harley. It was disturbing work, especially when the body would go hopping about while the head lay wriggling on the plate, but we put this thought out of our minds in favour of the hope that Harley would fly. The bodies were ground into a sticky paste, along with a few ants, and smeard on tiny bits of scrambled egg.

Helpless as he was, he wouldn't eat this food on his own. We had to feed him. In the early days he would gape whenever he was hungry. It is an odd feeling to have a tiny creature willingly shove their throat around your finger, to feel each tiny muscle working to accept sustenance, the pink of his neck visible through the fluff of feathers.

Day after day the routine continued and Harley was full of spunk and fight, letting us know when he was hungry, which was nearly every hour at first, then every two, even overnight and knowing he needed us if he had any chance of survival we tended to him at all hours. I watched the clock nonstop - paying attention to feeding time and not leaving the house for too long at a time. Harley needed us.

Things were on the up - his energy increased as he got used to flapping his wings and exploring his little space, his talons became sharper, his wings less fluffy and more smooth, and his white markings developed, especially on his rump and along the tips of his shoulders at the start of his wings. He gradutated from a shoe box, to a packing box, and eventually to a small enclosure that allowed him the space he needed to move around in.

I spoke to him every day - telling him how brave he was, and that he needed to stay strong, and to eat more, and that before he knew it he would be flying the world's skies and back with his other bird friends.

After two weeks his weight had gone up to 36 grams and we knew he would be flying soon. I even worried that I would miss him when he was gone traveling to another hemisphere, and mused that perhaps he would come back next year on his annual migration, and how maybe, just maybe he might perch nearby and remember us.
But it wasn't meant to be.

He stopped gaping for food and never seemed to be hungry. Then the rain came. For three solid days there were no fresh insects. He seemed listless. He lost a few feathers. His weight evaporated, back down to 20 grams. Frantically we searched for ways of feeding him, finally resigning to force feeding with the use of a tiny syringe. It was horrible but at least we knew he had eaten. Eventually the sun came out again so we could hunt for his natural diet, running through the field with the net in one hand and a container in the other, trying to catch as many calories as possible.

Things started to improve. His weight was unchanged but he was energetic again - running on his tiny little feet, spreading his wings and flapping even more than before and it seemed he was on the mend.

The last night the cold front hit us. I feel asleep with him in my hands and at some point woke to put him into his bed, worried I might roll over onto him. During the night my partner checked on him, placing him inside the nest we had formed for him out of tea towls and a plastic container, trying to keep him warm. I woke before sunrise- it was 5AM. I found him lying very still and when I picked him up he tweeted, but ever so faintly.

I held him in my hands, trying to warm him but he became more and more still until there was nothing left. I held him close, crying over him, but it was done. It was 3 weeks and one day since he came into our lives. The heat had delivered him from his nest into our hearts, and the cold took him away.

I wrapped him in a cloth and placed him in a wooden box. Together we pulled at the earth and placed him in a small grave, under a tree, overlooking the sea. His tiny body is there now but his spirit is free and with it, is a part of me.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful effort that you two went through to save his little life. I'm sorry for your loss.