I was busy this morning — forgot that Monday’s my gym day. “Oh well,” I thought, “I’ll do something else that’s physical. I went to the shed and opened a bag of topsoil. I’d walk our half-acre, and fill “ankle breakers.”
Ankle-breakers are a hazard of living in the country. Dogs and raccoons dig in the yard. Rabbits leave scrapes. Gopher tortoises desert holes. Low spots catch rain water. Eventually, these areas need to be filled.
I’d checked the cardinal nest earlier in the day. The remaining chick was sitting on its edge, trying to get the courage to fly. But now as I worked, I heard fluttering in the bushes. I stepped quietly over, to see whether the fledgling had just taken its first awkward flight.
The baby wasn’t there, but the mother bird was cheeping frantically. It wasn’t me she was upset with. She’d dismissed me as a threat days ago — unless I was about to step on her child! I looked at the ground. A foot away was a four-foot-long, writhing black snack. I leaned toward it. In its jaws was the chick’s head.
The baby was breathing, and I felt myself torn. Deny the snake its meal, or rescue the chick? There wasn’t much time. The baby, much of its head gripped in the snake’s mouth, was having its air supply cut off. I reached into the bag, and sprayed the snake with a fistful of dirt.
It dropped the chick and raised its head high. When it saw no immediate threat, it cautiously retreated into the bush that held the cardinals’ nest.
The chick lay panting. One wing was outstretched, its legs were slayed, and its eyes looked cloudy. Had it been blinded?
Birds tend to go into shock quickly and die, or spring suddenly back to life. The chick was doing neither, but the fact that it continued to breathe was a hopeful sign. I reached toward it, to scoop it away from the bush. The branches by my hand rustled and swayed, and I jumped back.
I threw more dirt between the branches, and then stepped toward the garbage cans. I took one of the lids, and used it to shield my hand as I attempted to pick the baby up. But the bird’s eyes flew open. The little one screeched and scrambled into the yard. The parent birds jumped and chirped excitedly. Celebrating, or now afraid that I was the enemy?
I followed the baby. It panted, but nothing appeared broken. There was a bit of blood at the side of its bill, but that could have been from the snake’s teeth. One eye was bright and alert; the other still cloudy. I reached toward it, and it scrambled quickly away again, its parents following it to the safety of a different bush.
I hope it lives — hope that I don’t find a patch of little gray feathers in the road. Or a skinny gray leg. Because it’s been my experience that when a wild creature like this escapes fate, death soon returns to try again. I’d guesstimate that, of all the little creatures I’ve helped, two-thirds succumb to something else — the dogs, a hawk, a car, or a severe rainstorm. Only a third survive for any length of time and live long lives. So why try? Because each time I’m called upon to help, I don’t know which third this survivor belongs to.