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Wednesday, May 06, 2015

The Tale of a Rail

During bird migrations some individuals will occasionally turn up in unexpected places and for a variety of reasons. In my 22 years as a NYC birder I've learned that one species stands out as particularly unpredictable in its choice of places to seek refuge in our concrete jungle. It is for that reason that I shouldn't have been too surprised by the call I received from my friend Joe on April 25th.

My friend Heydi and I had been birding around Green-Wood Cemetery and decided to head up to "Reservoir Hill", the highest point in the cemetery, for some hawk watching. We had just settled down on top of the hill and began scanning the sky when a call came in from a number I didn't immediately recognize. I let it go to voicemail. Thankfully, I decided to listen to the message a moment later and heard Joe's voice saying, "If you're anywhere near Green-Wood Cemetery there is a Virginia Rail sleeping next to the main entrance." We were only about 500 yards from the entrance, so grabbed our gear and bolted over to meet Joe.

We spotted Joe leaning against the driver's side of his car, which was parked along the road on the east side of the main entrance's gothic revival gateway. He explained that he had just parked to use the restrooms and upon exiting his car noticed the small rail sleeping in the shade of a juniper shrub:

The Virginia Rail is a bird of freshwater and brackish marshes. The individual at the cemetery was resting in an area best described and a "manicured" landscape. The closest thing to a wetland in his vicinity was a tiny puddle formed at the base of a water spigot a few feet from his roost. This was not the only time I'd learned of this species showing up in an odd place. The first story goes back to Sept 24, 2000 when one wandered into a wedding reception being held in Prospect Park's Picnic House. It was captured and released near the park's ponds. My friend Jerry once spotted one at his sports club in Brooklyn. More recently, Gabriel Willow picked one up that was wandering the sidewalks of downtown Brooklyn. I posted a collection of stories several years ago here.

As we watched this individual, however, it became apparent that he was more than just confused. When he woke up and began to move about he had a very pronounced limp and favored one leg. We called a local wildlife rescuer. Unfortunately, the rescuer was overworked and understaffed, couldn't leave and wouldn't guarantee that he would be able to come by and pick up the rail that day. He suggested we capture it and transport it over to his facility. Easier said than done. This bird's small size and strategy of remaining close to the edge of the dense shrubs made it impossible to catch him. There were five of us working on helping this bird and we all agreed that stressing out an already unhealthy bird was a bad idea.

I ran the water from the faucet next to the shrubs to create a small watering hole. He quickly took to it, both drinking and probing for food in the mud:

Bobbi offered to run home and bring back some mealworms that she had been keeping in her refrigerator. It should be noted that mealworms aren't normally on her grocery shopping list, they were just left over from a previous "project", but that's a story for another time. Anyway, she returned with the food and generously spread them around the shrub and around our makeshift "marsh". When a few starlings flew in for a bath and drink of water were were concerned that they would eat all the mealworms. Fortunately, it turns out that mealworms are probably the only thing that they don't eat. After a few minutes the rail hobbled over to the mealworms and began to eat them:

For whatever reasons, the rescuer was never able to make it to the cemetery. Over the following few days, however, Bobbi, Joshua and others checked in on the rail, refreshing the water puddle and leaving more mealworms. My friend Sean reported that it appeared to have stopped limping and even stood, resting, on the bad leg. I joked about the magical, healing power of mealworms. We all thought this small rail, who I referred to as "Vera", was getting better and would take off on the next south winds. On Thursday, April 30th, Bobbi and I did what we thought was a thorough search for the rail. I layed down on my stomach, lifted the shrub's lower branches and ran my hands through the leaves beneath the junipers. He appeared to have taken off.

I believed that this was the happy ending to one rail's bad experience in New York City. Millions of birds migrate through urban landscapes twice a year, battling a gauntlet of dangers from colliding with glass windows and searching for suitable habitat to rest and refuel to attacks from feral and free-roaming house cats. I've rescued birds entangled in discarded fishing line or impaled by carelessly dumped fishing lures. It is a never ending battle for wildlife and a Sisyphean task for the rescuers attempting to help our animals. On Sunday I was in Green-Wood Cemetery and while near the main entrance noticed something that made my heart sink. In the middle of the road, near the juniper shrubs was the Virginia Rail. It was dead, apparently hit by a car. Heydi picked it up and tucked it into the leaf litter under the shrubs. I reluctantly gave Bobbi the bad news. She was devastated. We all were.

It has been taught to us all our lives and in dozens of ways that we have a responsibility to protect animals and nature, and not just because they are necessary to our long term survival. It is morally and ethically the right thing to do. Two small steps would be to tread lightly and support local conservation efforts. Here is a short list of a few national organizations:

American Birding Association
American Bird Conservancy
National Audubon Society
The Sierra Club

1 comment:

yojimbot said...

you could've rehabbed it in your bathtub. I share your sadness...this is after all the 6th great extinction.

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