by Fred Dickey Published July 30, 2012
This is a story about a big bird and a little lady with a pan full of fish.
It began last November when a motorist in North County was startled by the sight of a huge bird alongside the road, in obvious trouble. It was a great blue heron, the largest of its kind in North America. The bird had been nailed by something because it appeared stunned, but with no visible injuries.
Project Wildlife, a rehabilitation nonprofit, got the call and picked up the bird, then had to decide what to do with it. Had he not been rescued, he (they’re pretty sure it’s a “he”) would in short order have been bumpered into oblivion by an auto or become a meal for a lunch-hunting coyote.
Over time, it was learned that a wing or back injury prevented normal flight. But that wasn’t the worst of it. A more serious injury would soon reveal itself. And beyond that, his close call with death was replaced by an even graver threat. Everyone knew that, before long, the bell would probably toll for one unlucky bird.
The heron got a trip to the La Jolla home of Meryl Faulkner, a woman often seen walking around with a pan full of fish (very smelly fish, let it be said).
Faulkner is a trained rehabber for Project Wildlife. She’s a 69-year-old native of Wales who, after a 40-year absence, retains a soft accent. She’s a retired lab technician, and her manner is one common to science types: low-key and friendly with a polite I’ve-got-things-to-do tone.
Her love of birds has turned into a love for birds. Her garage has several cages filled with fowls recovering from injuries mainly suffered while trying to survive in a human world, which is a tough-enough job even for humans. The wooded slope behind her house holds large cages for the big guys, such as the blue heron. Currently under her care are about 50 birds, including snowy egrets, other types of herons, a grebe, gulls and a sprinkling of small land birds. Some are injured, and some are orphaned chicks.
Our bird is estimated to be the age equivalent of a teenager. He stands approximately 4 feet and weighs about 6½ pounds, with a wingspan of about 6 feet. The thing to avoid about the blue heron is its bill: That’s a killer. It feeds by standing quietly in shallow water, waiting for a fish to meander along and … Wham!
The bird’s sharp bill impales the fish, which it then swallows whole. It also won’t pass up a meal of frogs, insects, gophers or mice wandering by. A human handling the bird must be careful because a stab by the bill could blind or even kill if struck in the head.
Faulkner got involved with Project Wildlife back in the ’70s as a transporter of injured birds. One day Martha Hall, co-founder of the charity, asked her to take care of some rescued sea birds in her home. “My husband was not too enthusiastic about that idea, because Martha suggested I could keep the birds in the bathroom,” Faulkner says.
Over the years, she has probably rescued enough sea birds to populate Mission Bay.
Well, a compromise for the garage was soon found, and her commitment grew with more and more birds. She speaks fondly of the “discussions” she and her late husband, John Faulkner, had over the arrangement. At the time, he was a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
“He was a good guy. Yes, we had altercations about the number of sea birds in the garage because he didn’t like fish, so that was a bit of a problem. But at least the birds were in the garage and not in the house.”
(I stop trying to get my head around the idea of an oceanography prof who didn’t like fish, and return to our blue heron.)
Once the bird was safely in the outdoor cage, Faulkner observed that “it didn’t eat for the first few days, and when I fed it after that, it was able to pick up fish, but I noticed that it didn’t appear to see anything.” When she dropped fish in the bowl, it would walk over and find its meal by touch. The bird was functionally blind. “He wouldn’t last a week in the wild,” Faulkner said.
Given a federal dictate that wild birds that can’t be salvaged must be destroyed, this bird was running out of time. Federal regulations allow only a few months for rehabilitation, and then a wild animal that can’t be healed and released must be euthanized — that’s “killed” in real-world language. An exception is made for an educational bird or one that is housed in an exhibit.
Faulkner says the problem with finding a home for a blue heron is its size and also its propensity for killing other birds in competition for food. Not many aviaries or zoos want to risk losing valuable birds because a great blue heron wakes up in a bad mood.
The phone calls and emails from Project Wildlife and Faulkner herself started going out, but finding a home for the bird was about as easy as asking your wife to allow a buddy to sleep on the couch, for “just a couple nights.”
Project Wildlife discourages giving names to rehabilitation animals, thinking that might suggest it could become a pet. However, the fate of this bird generated so much concern that it gradually acquired a name, something we insist on bestowing on all manner of creatures that don’t require it and almost never answer to. The heron became Big Blue.
So, though Big Blue isn’t in the endearment class of Feathers, Tweety or Oscar, it’s the best a rehabbing bird can expect.
Though one of the sad but necessary tasks often facing Faulkner is euthanizing birds, she is matter-of-fact about that dark job and uses an inhalant that acts instantly. “If you’ve got a bird that comes in with a badly broken wing, you feel as though you’re doing it a favor.”
The difficult ones are the birds that have hung around for a while — like Big Blue — and for which a fondness has developed. It’s also tough emotionally to euthanize chicks, for reasons quite apparent.
The upside of Faulkner’s job, and the motivation, is to open a wire door and see a restored bird launch from its cage, catch an updraft, then soar toward the ocean, a diminishing silvery glint in the open sky. At that moment, the pan of fish seems easier to carry (but not less smelly).
Now, we need a happy ending. And just as in the movies when the red phone on the warden’s desk rings at the last minute, Big Blue won a full pardon. The California Living Museum in Bakersfield was willing to provide an exhibit area of 40 feet by 70 feet containing a pond for Big Blue. Plenty of wing space for the big guy.
Today, Big Blue is enjoying his new pad in Bakersfield, which, granted, isn’t La Jolla, but it’s hands-down better than the alternative.
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