Sunday, July 17, 2016

Swallowed Off More Than We Could Chew

Still Pond, Maryland

Dear Ms. And Mr. Barn Swallow,

I am humbly writing to you about your children, whom you must be frantic about.  They are safe, but not anywhere near you, I’m afraid. 

When Craig and I arrived back to our boat in Pasadena, Maryland from Canada last Thursday after midnight, we had a lot on our minds trying to get the boat ready to leave the next day.  We were on a fast track to get up to Ontario from just outside of Baltimore where we would leave Alberta Crewed for the rest of the summer.  As we scrambled around provisioning and cleaning on Friday, we saw one of you perched on our lifelines but didn’t think much about it.  All kinds of birds like you perch there off and on.  We managed to leave the marina at 5:00 pm to get a few miles behind us and were at a quiet anchorage by 7:30 PM in Still Pond, Maryland.  We had crossed the Chesapeake Bay in light winds although a few boat wakes rocked us around. 

We were hot and tired so decided to go for a swim in our still bay, even though the water was only waist deep.  We measured 6 inches between our keel and the sandy bottom.  As Craig checked the anchor, he yelled up at me, “Hey, I see a nest under our foredeck.  And I can hear chirping.  I see a head!”  Ms. And Mr. Barn Swallow, I know what you were thinking when you built that nest.  Quiet boat, end of the dock, hidden from other birds of prey.  Perfect.  

It didn’t work out how you wanted it to, but many things worked in your children’s favours.  The strength of your construction meant that the nest and babies survived that rocky Chesapeake Bay crossing.  The anchorage water was shallow so I sat on Craig’s shoulders and chiseled the nest off of its perch.  I could see how the nest would have held through all kinds of rocking around with its hard mud mixed with dense grasses and twigs, and long tentacles of mud attaching it to the hull shelf.  When we set it into our basket, we saw your four chicks with mouths open.  We were awestruck and somewhat bewildered as to what to do and hoped there had only been four to start with.

Feeding seemed to be urgent but we had no idea how to care for them.  Luckily for your little ones, my sister Colleen is good friends with Erin whose mom runs the Medicine River Wildlife Centre in Caroline, Alberta so I put in an emergency call.  I knew about this Centre through Colleen’s stories of rescuing owlets, moose calves, and baby beavers.  I went with her once to release an owlet who had recovered in Erin’s Calgary basement.  They are a fiercely dedicated group and have saved thousands of animals. 

While Colleen tracked down information, I did some google searching on rescuing wild chicks, with some websites telling me to forget it, since most birds don’t make it to their first year under normal circumstances.  What could we do while floating in a boat without access to any supplies?  We were determined not to give up.  Ms. and Mr. Swallow, your babies were loud and strong. 

Colleen called back within a few minutes with the following information:
-       The priority is to keep them warm. 
-       Using an eyedropper, get water mixed with honey into them to rehydrate.
-       Feed cat food to them with tweezers every half hour, putting it into their throats.
-       Keep their beaks clean, as they are prone to infection from food left on their beaks.
-       Their chances of survival are greater with four of them.
-       They poop in a sac and the adult birds take these away so we would have to do the same.

With those directions from Erin, we layered our propped-open cooler with towels, and put warm water into our water bottles and Ziploc bags under the towels.  I didn’t have an eyedropper but just a spoon worked and they sucked on it to grab the water. 

I softened dry cat food in warm water and began the feedings (we will replace it Rusty, I promise).  I couldn’t find our tweezers so just pushed the food in with my baby finger.  Truthfully, we weren’t sure they were going to make it.  They had some downy feathers but were very tiny. 

As feedings went on, we learned the following:
-       there is a short window with mouths open, usually as soon as the cooler lid opened or I moved my hand in.  They then dozed off immediately so sometimes I opened the lid a few times to get them to feed.
-       the nest and birds were covered with mites.  I knew this from nests we’ve had around our house but they crawled up my arms every time I fed the birds.  The babies crawled out of the nest and I threw it out but kept everything outside.
-       We had to work to keep them cool as much as to keep them warm.  Our daytime temperatures were over 90 degrees and they were in our cooler so we kept it propped it open with a light breeze getting in as the day heated up.  The hot water bags cooled it down.

I got up a few times in the night, expecting the worst but all four mouths gaped open.  We laughed when the first pooped out a white sac of feces.  With the nest gone, we lined the basket with paper towels and added layers every hour.  I picked up the birds in a heap, added the towels, and set them back in.  It didn’t have the drainage capacity of that terrific nest you had built but Erin had said to keep their heads elevated and the paper towel could be shaped properly.  There was a smaller baby on the bottom of the heap that needed prodding to eat and drink but we kept on this one and it stayed with us.  We wondered if it was getting weaker but every once in awhile, its mouth would burst open and we were ready with food and water. 

We pulled anchor on Saturday morning to head to Cape May, expecting to take our new guests all the way to Canada.  We moved the cooler to our upper fly bridge as feedings continued while underway.  Your babies seemed to keep up their energy, sleeping in between feedings.  They opened their eyes when we looked in.  I wondered what they saw.  Mid day, I got a call from Kathy from the Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge in Medford, New Jersey.  Erin’s mom had connected with her, and she happened to have a home in Cape May.  Kathy called a friend to pick up the birds for transport to the Wildlife Refuge.

Mom and Dad Swallow, we were ecstatic and only had the Delaware River to motor to get your babies to the ambulance.  We ended up with a quiet day, feeding and watering, changing paper, and watching temperature.  Smugly, we entered the Cape May canal with four thriving birds.  If you don’t know anything about boats, they hate smugness and slap their crews hard when they smell it.  The narrow canal was filled with weekend pleasure boats who refused to slow down and several times, rocked our boat to the point where things flew, including us and the birds.  One huge wave knocked us so hard that I slid to the other side of the fly bridge on my face, the cooler knocked over, and the babies tumbled out.  Craig and I wept as we gathered them up, cursing the rotten eggs on the other boats. The birds sat still in the basket for a few minutes but eventually popped open their mouths for food and water.

At the marina, Warren and Claudia, avid bird watchers and experts, collected our charges and whisked them away.  The fed them mealworms, and reports from the Center tell of lively and healthy birds.

The bonus for us was an evening with Warren, Claudia, and their friends at a fundraiser for the New Jersey Audubon Nature Centre of Cape May.  Ms. and Mr. Swallow, your babies are now infamous, and we wish you and them good health and long lives.  Thank you for your lessons.

Love Laurie and Craig

PS: We are awed by and tremendously grateful for the work of the Medicine River Wildlife Centre, the Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge, and the New Jersey Audubon Nature Center of Cape May.  Ethics of care for and reverence of the natural world drive their work, and they are relentless.  Warren and Claudia, as you said Claudia, we now have two new friends we have known all of our lives.  See you in the fall on our trip back.  


Fundraiser for the Nature Center

New Old Friends