Friday, February 5, 2010

Wild what chase?

As I've mentioned in a previous post, since they retired, my parents have become licensed wild animal rehabilitators. What this means for the rest of us (that would be me and my brother), is that we can only visit at certain times of the year - when there are no baby animals. Otherwise, my mother is too busy feeding babies and doctoring injured adults to even speak coherently. She wears herself to the bone, and my father is just as busy going out on calls to pick up injured adults or more baby animals and taking many of them to one of several (wonderful) vets in the area that will administer to wild animals for free. My parents still end up spending A LOT of their own money on medical supplies, housing and food.

Other implications: They always need food for the carnivores. My father actually drives to a nearby state to pick up dead rats from a research facility. Once I was with my father and we passed a recently dead squirrel. My father slammed on the brakes, reached under the seat, pulled out a plastic bag, and handed it to me. I didn't even have to ask. I just jumped out, ran back and picked up the squirrel (first making sure it was really dead and not just stunned-I didn't really want to be bitten by an angry squirrel), got back in the car, and we sped off. At least my parents draw the line at dead skunks. I think.

A few years ago, my father picked me up at the airport, and we were dragging my luggage into the house. My mother met us at the door, gave me a hug (we only hug now that we live in different states and don't see each other more than about once a year - we're still British, you know), and said to my father, "We got a bird call while you were gone. You've got to go and pick up a Turkey Vulture." My father looked at me and raised his eyebrows. I said, "Sure, I'll go! Sounds like fun!" My father threw a large dog crate and a couple of big nets into the back of his Chevy S10.

I've had some experience with vultures before, actually. I volunteered for a short while at the Raptor Center at UC Davis, and the Turkey Vultures were everyone's favorites. They are highly intelligent, and when we went in to feed or clean out their cages (talk about stinky), some of them were tame enough that they'd come over and untie our shoelaces. They may be lumped into the raptor (birds of prey) designation due to superficial resemblances, but there is genetic evidence that vultures aren't really raptors, but are far more closely related to storks. This also makes sense if you look at their feet. They don't have the grasping talons of hawks and owls, and so can't pick up their dinner and carry it away, or even catch it in the first place.

This particular fairly young vulture had been hiding out in a culvert near a harvested corn field during the day. In the afternoon, he would cross the road and go up to this family's porch where they were leaving out hot dogs and steak for him. He then spent the nights on their porch, fairly safe from predators. After a few days, they finally realized that he couldn't or wouldn't fly for some reason and wasn't going to go away, so they got in touch with my mother. My parents do not recommend feeding your friendly neighborhood vulture hot dogs, by the way. They're about as good for the vulture as they are for humans. However, hot dogs can fill in in a pinch if you don't happen to regularly collect roadkill like SOME people.

My father and I arrived, and the woman told us that he was probably across the road in the culvert where he had been spending his days, so we grabbed our nets and marched over. As soon as he saw us, the vulture took off running, with me and my father in hot pursuit. At the time, my father was still playing soccer regularly (he played until he was 66 or 67 and his knees finally gave out on him), so he was in pretty good shape. This vulture obviously couldn't fly for some reason, but he sure could run, especially when he used his wings to give him a boost. The recently harvested corn field was mucky and uneven, and the vulture just ran circles around us. At one point my father almost had him, but tripped and fell (actually injuring his knee). I would try to cut the vulture off, but he just veered off in another direction and stayed well ahead of me.

Finally, he got tired of running and decided to make a beeline for the house across the road, where there was more cover, and he had been safe on the porch. He was far ahead of both of us, and I was freaking out in case he got hit by a car as he crossed the relatively busy county road. He ran up to the road stopped and looked both ways and ran across. Yes. I couldn't believe my eyes. I yelled to my father, "Did he really just look both ways?" My father saw it, too. This Turkey Vulture was smarter than most 10 year old humans. In his many trips across the road, he had obviously had a close call or two and learned from them.

We chased him around the farmyard, and eventually managed to trap him up against a fence. My father grabbed him, and turned around and handed him to me so he could talk to the woman. I put my arm around this very large bird, pinning his wings, while my father told me, "Keep his head up! Keep his head up or he'll vomit on you!" Thanks Dad. NOW YOU TELL ME. I quickly grabbed the vulture's neck and lifted as he tried to lean down to retch - mouth open, tongue out. I carefully kept his body pinned against mine and gently, but firmly held his head up, while he panted at me and looked in my eye - promising to vomit if I allowed him the slightest opportunity. Great. He was also more than a little smelly.

We eventually stuffed him into the dog crate and drove home. This was a while ago, and my parents get so many animals each year that they don't remember what happened to this particular vulture. He was possibly released. If not, all their unreleasable vultures have ended up in either zoos or nature centers.

This is Dexter, one of their more recent Turkey Vultures. Aptly named, but I'm pretty sure my parents don't watch the (really good, but more than somewhat gory) Showtime series. My father said he got the name because his left wing is injured.

It is illegal for most people to do what my parents do. My mother has federal and state licenses and is fairly strictly regulated. If you do find a sick, injured, or baby wild animal, call your state Department of Fish and Game/ Department of Natural Resources. You could also try a veterinarian or web search to find the number for a local wildlife rehabber.

Why was I reminded of this particular Oh, right. I was listening to The Carpenters today in the car...


Brother Phil said...

Wow. I think you've been attacked by a blog comment posting web bot from China! If it is a bot, how did it get past the word verification? If it isn't a bot, why did it post a bunch of links in Chinese?
If it isn't a bot, it would be able to have a conversation with me in Chinese. Let's test it!

你好。我是工呈师。 我姓韩,你呢? 你叫什么名字?

Laurie said...

Si. Figuré que fue tu, así que yo lo ignoré.

Laurie said...

Ooookay. I actually clicked on one of those links. The comment has been deleted.....

Lesley said...

Dude. I am more than a little in love with your parents. (And you: I don't know a single other person who would run out in the middle of the road to pick up a dead squirrel and put it in a bag.)

Is the vulture vomit some kind of defense mechanism or something?

I love these stories. I hope you'll continue to post more!

Laurie said...

It is definitely a defense mechanism. Woulda worked on me! I would have dropped that vulture like a hot potato (actually, probably not. If I'm not grossed out by semi-squished squirrels, I probably could have handled vulture barf).

I guess I'll have to go and visit my parents soon, just for new blog material. I still haven't posted a picture of their handicapped cat.