Why I Don’t Do Mice

Ok, for the people who never quite understand why I don’t take in mice to raise.

Mice are a lot of work to raise, just like any other baby animal. Their mouths are tiny and hard to hit when you are half asleep (they eat every few hours) Their butts are very small and hard to wipe. You have to carry them everywhere with you and people freak out when you are sitting in the Goodwill parking lot, feeding them with a hypodermic syringe. Strangers run away screaming something about “Shooting up” and being a “degenerate”

Once the mouse is grown and weaned, they are unbelievably cute. If you release them they will have a half life of about three days. You can’t toss something that cute out in the cold. So you make it a rodent resort to live in. It and it’s partner (please God, let them be the same sex) live in it for months eating premium seed and fruit and nuts. They build a big nest and only come out to play when you are asleep. (so much for cute).
Eventually, they will learn to unscrew the little plug in their cage and you will feed non existent mice for at least three days. Now the mice are living free in your studio. The only evidence you see of them is the empty sunflower seed hulls in your box of silk fabric and the mouse poop in your coffee cup.

One evening, the cat is staring at a shelf in your studio. You stop and ponder and finally say “fuck it” and start hauling boxes off the shelf so the cat can get in. After a half hour of moving and emptying boxes, the cat finds the mouse. You are torn between cheers and tears. You start putting boxes back.

About the time the last box is back in the, previously inaccessible corner. The cat runs by chasing the mouse. It misses the mouse and you start moving stuff all over again. It’s now midnight. You move the last box and taaa-daa, the cat retrieves the mouse. It lays motionless on the floor. The cat does not want a dead mouse.

You sigh and put all the boxes, bags of litter, extra bags of seed, and the aluminum walker (don’t ask) back. You figure if the cat is not going to eat the damn mouse you will throw it away before it starts to stink. It’s not there. The cat is staring at another shelf now.

This time you say “fuck it” a little louder and go to bed.

You lay there thinking….The mouse was probably mortally wounded (not much survives a cats bite for long) and will now die and start to smell. You know you will probably have to tear the studio apart looking for the stinky mouse. Once you find it, there will still be the second mouse living in your studio (please God let it be a male). You fall into a restless sleep and dream of mice with fangs.

You wake up in the morning and there is fresh mouse poop in your coffee cup.

No, I’m sorry. I don’t take mice……well, at least not today.


A raven came in last week with a bad wing. Other than punching a talon through my little finger, he was amazingly gentle and calm. Ravens are sentient and have facial recognition and it was erie how he looked directly at me while I tended him. I put him in the fawn pen and by the time the snow started, there were three peacocks and a duck wanting to join him. I let them in and they all got along fine.

For a couple of days, I made him fried eggs and chicken, then when the sun was out, I opened the top door so he would have fresh air and not get to warm. I didn’t think he could get out of it. We ran to town and when I came back, no raven. I found him high up in the trees at the back of the yard, on the other side of the fence. He was quite content and eating buds, so I tossed some eggs and chicken over the fence each day. Since it is such a tangle of downed trees and brush, he moved about quite well, climbing through the trees.

Yesterday, I went outside and heard the rattle call of a raven, I looked up and there he was watching me. Today, as I cleaned the garden, I could see him working his way close to the fence. Sure enough, I heard the rattle call. I talked to him and went back to work after tossing a few more eggs. Later I was working in a diffrent area and sure enough, he appeared in a nearby tree. That was when I realised, that he makes the call for me and not Jimmy.

Before he escaped,I had intended to see if Wings of Wonder wanted him for an educational bird. I knew his wing would never heal and he’d spend the rest of his life in captivity. It wasn’t something I felt good about, but sometimes they bond with humans and do well.

He obviously, has chosen diffrently. He chose his fate and frankly, I would rather see him live free, even if he can’t fly. Evidently he is finding his way without the wing. He knows I’ll feed him and is fairly safe from preditors. His life may not be as long as it would in captivity, but he is free and sometimes, that is everything.

It’s amazing what we will risk for freedom. I know, I would choose the same. Don’t keep me safe and contained, let me face the consequences of my choices. I would rather live one day in the sun than a year in a cage.

November 18, 2015

How do you find peace in a troubled world? Tonight, it was easy. Someone called this evening saying that a baby squirrel had come down her chimney. She said it was weak and very quiet. I told her to bring it as soon as she could. (Of course she came as I was preparing dinner) I brought her in and opened the basket, it wasn’t a baby, but a beautiful female flying squirrel. Her eyes were dull from dehydration and she lay in my hand without struggle.

I love flying squirrels. They are beautiful and shy and most of us never know they are living among us. Usually the first people learn of them is when they invade a house or attic. I hoped with everything I had, that this beautiful girl would survive and return to the forest where she belonged.

I pretended dinner wasn’t getting cold and chatted with the woman as I gave the squirrel pediolite from a dropper. The squirrel drank greedily and I put her in the cage. We chatted about yoga and Tai Chi and I actually did forget about dinner. As we talked, I continued to give the squirrel fluid and I watched as her eyes grew bright and round. By the time the woman left, I was fairly confident the squirrel would be ok.

I finished dinner and checked in again with the little creature, it grabbed the dropper and pushed it aside, I offered some seed and kibble and it held each piece daintily in it’s paws as it ate. Each time I checked on her, she was doing better and now, she is washing her face and whiskers, snug and safe.

I can’t go and rescue refugees, I can’t comfort grieving Paris. I cannot overcome , nor change the hatred that so many hold in their hearts tonight. But I did this….I stopped my world to show someone that I cared as passionately about life as she did. I listened as she told me about her child and her love of Yoga. I took a helpless little animal into my hands and heart and will keep it safe till it can return to it’s home in the wild. This much I could do.

It brings me peace. It brings me hope. It gives me faith that there are humans who will stop to help that which can do nothing for them. I will hold that spot of peace in the troubled world and perhaps my heart will be peaceful too.


It’s 10:30 and I just got everyone tucked in for the night. I’m exhausted. It seems that the only time I leave the house is for a doctors appointment or physical therapy, then, while I’m out, it’s a rush to get groceries , supplies for the babies or other errands. It all has to be done within two hours unless I bring a basket of birds, then I have four. I smelled the bay as I drove by yesterday. I thought about packing up a book and a towel and heading for the beach, just for a little while, but there are mouths to feed and beans to can and currants sitting there with an accusing glare, wondering why they aren’t jelly yet.

This morning, I released the little robin who came to me, weeks ago, with a broken wing. Broken wings in birds are tricky and you have to set them just right and splint them for at least three weeks. If it’s a young enough bird, and you are very lucky, it all works out and the bird can fly, more often than not, they can’t.

Something happens to a bird when they can no longer fly. Unless it is a pigeon or such, who bonds with others or you, it may make it, but it will always look longingly towards the sky. Most lose heart and die. They know they were meant to touch the clouds and are never really happy bound to the ground.

sometimes, I look around and identify with that, especially in the midst of summer when it’s all work and I’m tied to the house for the babies.

So this morning, I held the bird with trepidation…would he rise and fly or fall to the earth. We went to the porch and held it in my hands as I usually to release. I let them leave gently. He is used to spending all day outdoors, but had always been caged. I think the lack of bars confused him. I pushed my hands upward in a gentle toss and the air caught his wings. He flapped a rose a bit, he felt the wind and pulled the air beneath him. I watched him circle the yard and alight in first one tree, then another.

I closed my eyes and breathed deeply of the morning dew….for just a moment….I had wings.

The moon is full tonight, a blue moon, a moon of magic. I can see it playing tag with the clouds. Come outside with me, raise
your hands, close your eyes, take a deep breath…..and fly.

The Compassionate Man

Today I was reminded, yet again, the many reasons I do what I do. I admit I was feeling a bit resentful. I’m exhausted and I ache from cleaning and building cages. Yesterday I had 18 calls, starting at 6:30 in the morning and going till 11:30 P.M. I smell like 9 kinds of poop and can’t finish something important to me that I’ve been working towards for 5 years because I simply don’t have the time and energy.

This morning, as I tried to work in the garden, the 5 birds I released yesterday, who started out fluttering around my head like the ones in “Snow White” suddenly turned into a scene from “The Birds” when I didn’t get them food. I was actually considered looking for a tennis racket, when the phone rang for the ninth time in two hours.

“Congratulations”, I said. “You are the ninth caller”. There was a long confused pause on the other end and I realized that they didn’t get the joke. “Hello?” It was a gentleman who claimed he talked to me last week or so, about a raccoon. I told him he’d have to be more specific. I talked to a dozen people about raccoons in the past few weeks. He continued and I realized that this was the man who had called about a weanling in the woods behind his house. I had given him instructions on how to put out a warm box for shelter and leave food far from the house so the coon would not get too used to humans. I explained to him that this bit of support for a few weeks would probably be enough to help the coon on his way.

He had ignored all my advice. He grandchildren were visiting and they took the coon in. The played with it, they fed it by hand (when it got here she had two marshmallows embedded in her fur). They named it Rocky. Good Lord.

Now the grandchildren were gone and this coon came running to him and followed him everywhere. It was becoming a real nuisance and he wanted me to take it. The last thing I wanted right now was another raccoon. Then he told me how he was a veteran and elderly and he just wanted the coon to be safe. So did I. I told him to bring him out and planned on giving him a piece of my mind about allowing his grandchildren to make a pet of this wild animal.

The morning did not get any less hectic. I needed to go to town to get a medical test at the hospital and needed food and supplies for the animals. I had prescriptions to fill and had been washing my hair with dish soap for two days because I was out of shampoo. Then there was the baby seagull that fell off the roof at the college that needed picking up. There was still a feeding to do before I left for town and one before I could go to Kung Fu class. If I planned it perfectly, I would have 2 ½ hours to go to town and get everything done. It worked and they even got me in early for the test at the hospital. I made it home with 15 minutes to spare. Good thing.

The man with the coon showed up early. I was rushing around feeding birds, squirrels, skunks, possums, fawns, coons and getting the seagull settled. I was trying to let him know that I needed to hurry so I could get to class on time. Then I shook his hand and looked into his eyes and everything stopped. His grip was weak and he seemed a bit feeble. He needed to hold the rail to manage the two steps leading from my studio to the back yard, but when you looked under the brim of his “Viet Nam War Veteran” hat, there were eyes of astonishing blue, filled with compassion and hope.

Nothing seemed important anymore, but this gentleman who had obviously given much to serve his country. I listened to him as I examined the coon for ticks and fleas. It was fat and healthy and other than the marshmallows, bath tub clean. He told me he has cancer (probably a side effect of the war), and spent his time visiting and helping shattered soldiers coming home from the wars we fight now for reasons no more clear that the one he fought. I owed this man a debt of honor. We all do.

He followed me about as I fed and settled. He told me how he taught Native People in Alaska how to fly fish. We even had a mutual friend in a DNR officer. He was just about to leave when I started fixing the bottles for the fawns. Those blue eyes lit up brightly. So we went to see the fawns and I helped him take photos for the grandkids of the fawns and Rocky in her new home. He told me that one of the most memorable and joyful times of his life was spending the two weeks with the coon and kids.He was happy and at peace with leaving the coon with me when he left.

I left for class a little later than usual, the required report on the human muscular system required for my brown belt still undone. While I was driving in the car, I realized….I don’t just help the animals, I help the people too…and they help me too.

The world has gotten to be a scary place. It seems as though people are all out for themselves and don’t care about anyone or anything else. We treat the environment as though it is indestructible and we trust very few. If the apocalypse that so many are preparing for actually comes, it will be every man for himself. Being a martial artist, I am prepared to confront the worst of humanity. Most of us see each other that way. We look for the worst and find it.

But then I understood. Even when people are being jerks and expecting the world from me, even when they demand miracles I can’t deliver, it’s all because they care about that animal, or turtle, or bird that they want so badly to help. Other people experience greed, or hate or inconsideration; I get to see the compassion. Every day, compassion. They go out of their way to help something that has absolutely no possible benefit to their lives, other than it is alive and all life is precious. Wow. How lucky am I?

I always felt that the true measure of a man is how he treats those who have nothing to offer. Great is the compassionate man, the man who extends a hand to the homeless, smiles at a child or pats the stray dog. I saw greatness today, greatness that I will long carry in my heart with compassion.


Sensless Beauty

The senseless beauty in my life is gone. It had no purpose, but to make me happy when I saw it… And it did….every time. I remember I was turning 50 when I asked for a peacock, it was my midlife crisis. I needed beauty without purpose. Instead, I got chickens. Chickens are practical. They give you eggs and do not sit in trees and scream….but my heart wanted peacocks.
Then one day, several years later, a friend died and my husband thought I was not recovering quickly enough. He took me for a ride. To my surprise, it was a farm with peacocks. I picked out three young chicks and began the long wait for my beautiful peacock with trailing feathers and voice like a bent tin horn. I had only seen a full grown male peacock once in my life. It was at a zoo and I was a child. It flew over me, proclaiming the pure joy of beauty as its tail feathers tickled the top of my head. I was smitten, and here, now, I had peacocks of my own!
Peacocks don’t get that magnificent train of iridescent feathers right away. It takes two long years for them to reach maturity. That first summer, he began strutting about the yard and fanning his stubby tail for his two adoring females. The second spring showed great promise of the beauty he would become. I was not yet to have my peacock though. A neighbor’s dog jumped my fence and grabbed him before we could intervene. Jimmy chased it all the way back to the MC Mansion where the dog lived, but by that time it was too late. The neighbor simply shrugged and said we should have higher fences.
The girls wandered around listlessly all summer, they weren’t quite sure what their purpose in life was. They knew they were not chickens and finally, one ran off with a wild turkey I had raised and released. I pictured him like the bad boy in leather on a motorcycle, coaxing her to run away from the dull life of domestication.
But that fall, a friend gave me a wonderful gift. He had one too many peacocks for his ears and offered me one. He was beautiful. He was everything I expected and more. (His voice was probably a bit more than the neighbors expected too!) It was a struggle to get him out of his pen and home to room with the chickens, but we did it. He would remain there until he realized that this indeed, was his home.
As winter wore on, he grew the most magnificent feathers I have ever seen. They trailed from the perch from the ground and shimmered with each shudder or breath of air. At last his confinement was over and we released him to the yard. His female greeted him with a loud “BEEP” and he answered with an even louder “Toot”. These became their names forever. He fanned his tail and spread his wings in a stunning display. His blue head shone in the sun and the crown upon his head made him look like the king he was. He danced and rattled his tail feathers like sabers. There was no doubt that he would rule the yard.
He also ruled the night. He picked a spot, high up in a box elder tree as his evening roost. Since his mate had already begun her nest, she would not join him. Every evening at dusk and every morning, starting just before dawn he would call for her. “HEEEELLLLPPPP!” it sounded like. “HEEEELLLPPPP MEEEE!” The neighbors called to see if something was wrong, obviously I must be in the back yard screaming for help. Thankfully mating season only lasts a few months or we might have been run out of town.
Beep sat her nest, (which took me over a month to find, a female peacock is the exact color of dirt and the asparagus hid her bright green head) Toot, meanwhile, took to strutting around the neighborhood and displaying for anyone he thought might be impressed. This could be anything from the little girl next door to the clothesline post. He wasn’t very picky. Soon many of the neighbors come to love his visits and put out treats for him. You could almost tell the time of day, by where Toot was visiting. He became known as the ambassador of Williamsburg. People would drive by, hoping to see him. Children would call out in hopes he would answer….and he usually did. The township even had a special meeting declaring him “Protected”. He was their boy and he loved the attention.
In the six years he was with me, he made many friends and one or two grumbling people who disliked his call. Mostly it was peace. He grew more magnificent each year. His train reached over six feet in length and when he went into his yearly molt, it was like a neighborhood Easter egg hunt to find his discarded feathers. Nearly every house had a small bouquet tucked by their door or mailbox. Each time a child would bring me an animal, I would make sure they would leave with at least one, peacock feather, often taller than them. He fathered many chicks that now bring joy to others.
I was the one who benefited most from him. There isn’t always a lot of beauty in my life. I’m not one for exquisite paintings or jewelry. My uniform of the day is usually bib overalls and muck boots. I’d be described as a bit plain, I think. There is a lot of ugliness and sorrow to what I do. Animals come in injured by cars or torn up by dogs. They don’t always survive and sometimes, I have to help them into the next world. It can get depressing at times and tiring, very tiring. Yet every time, I looked out the window or walked in the yard and that bird came up to me, it lifted my spirits in a way nothing else could. He was beauty, for beauty’s sake. Someone once wrote “There is nothing more useless than a peacock”, he was wrong.
The world needs senseless beauty. It’s those unexpected moments that take our breath away that make it all worth the struggle. Toot, was senseless beauty. There was no reason for his magnificence. Blackbirds get females attention with only a piercing trill and a flip of feathers. Toot didn’t need all those heavy feathers. He seemed to know this, but it never bothered him that so many people think him useless. He knew his place was to bring that moment of breathtaking joy for simply seeing such beauty. That he did. To everyone. Especially to me, even on my darkest days.
I suppose, we should have built a pen large enough to house Toot and his “harem”. I thought seriously of it last year when a bobcat took one of his hens and 5 chicks all in one night, but how could I keep such beauty hidden. How could I break his heart and not let him make his rounds of adoring fans. Many people will say I was negligent. Maybe so. I feel I was unselfish. I wanted to share his unexpected beauty in a dull world.
Two mornings ago, I didn’t hear him call from his customary branch outside my window. He didn’t follow me along the rooftop as I went room to room getting dressed for the day. It was a busy day, and I was gone from the house for most of it, but I looked again when I got home. Yesterday morning, it was again silent. I really began to worry. It was snowing and blowing in one of those depressing spring snowstorms we get so often here. Toot’s girls were tucked snugly in their pen where the whole group was free to come and go. Toot was not there. Nor was he there last night, nor this morning.
I got up early today and went searching. I knew he would call in the soft hours of dawn. I heard nothing. I walked the yard and most of the block. Not a trace of him was found. The snow had mostly melted, so I could not see any tracks. Toot was gone. His girls followed me for a bit, as if they knew what I was looking for. The called out a few times, bun no answer came. We all returned to the house, quiet and confused.
I suppose it was the cat. It took a full grown goose earlier this spring and even a full grown peacock, would not have been a match for a large bobcat. He may have taken him from his tree while he slept. If he did it was quick and silent and not a feather is on the ground. I hope it was that way.
He was my diamonds, my bed of roses, he was my view of a shimmering lake and my beautiful gowns. He took the sunshine and shattered it into a million colors, just for me. He took my world and gave it beauty so deep that it would stop me in my tracks and I would say, “I’m so lucky”. I was. Not everyone gets a peacock in their life.

Coming Home

Tonight, as I was sitting on the couch thinking of stuff I should be doing, a cat quietly climbed into my lap. Now, a cat on your lap is certainly not an occasion in this house, after all, we have four, but this was a special moment. Momcat was abandoned in our neighborhood about 6 years ago. She lived in the wild, under or in and shelter she could find. Twice a year, she had a littler of kittens. Few survived. I did what I could for her by putting out food and insulating an area of the porch for her. Gradually, she came to trust me enough to sit with her and occasionally touch her. You could always feel her ribs through her rough, grimy fur.

One summer, she showed up on the porch with two healthy kittens and one sickly one who was half their size. I fed them and talked to them and when I came back outside from a phone call, she had left the sickly kitten behind. I didn’t see her or the other kittens for weeks. I cared for the kitten and she became my beloved Bedbug.

It came to the point that I could no longer watch her have kittens and know that they would die or grow up to decimate the songbirds and baby bunnies. She needed to be spayed. We caught her in a live trap and soon realized that she was already pregnant again. I kept her in a large cage and tamed the kittens when they were born. Each went to a loving home and it was time to deal with Momcat….She was not happy and as soon as she could, she escaped into the wild again.

This time it was different though. She knew the house was safe and warm. Last winter, she would come in through the doggy door to eat and sleep and occasionally get a good scratch or pet. As soon as it warmed up, she moved back outside.

Winter came early this year and with the first snow, Momcat was in the house. But it was different. She started venturing past the laundry room and We would see her sitting in the living room staring at us. Then she started to play..with anything and everything. She horded the cat toys in places only known to her and would bring them out to play when she wanted. She was remembering what it was like to be a house cat, a pet, in a safe and warm environment.

That brings us to tonight. Tired from Kung Fu and a day of Christmas decorating, I was sitting on the couch. Momcat was on the arm of the loveseat staring at me. I raised my hand and wiggled my fingers in invitation and to my surprise, she came to the couch. I scratched and petted as she purred. Her fur is thick and you can feel no ribs. Slowly, she climbed into my lap and snuggled into the blanket, purring even louder. Occasionally, she would look up into my eyes as if she were saying “you’re mine”. I told her she was mine and I was hers and that she would never be cold or hungry again, but I think she already knew that. She is home. She is finally home.

I have the feeling that there will be four cats in my bed tonight instead of three. We’ll be warm and that’s the way we like it.

3:00 A.M.

For once, I was not upset at a middle of the night phone call. It’s by my bed and I grabbed it before the ring even finished. (I’m one of those odd people who come instantly awake). The young man on the other end apologized profusely about calling so late, but he had his a young skunk and it was injured. You could tell he was close to tears as he described the injury. It did not spray and the back legs had no movement or response, yet seemed to be in no pain. I talked him through a quick exam and determined that the poor little thing had a broken back.
He wanted to know if there was anything I could do for it with a cast or something. he listened patiently as I explained about nerve damage and the pain and problems it would face. He was willing to pay for veterinary care, but understood that it was futile.
I then told him how I believed that animals are all a part of a single spirit and move very easily from one life to the next. There is no attachment and no fear of leaving it. It’s simply a circle and revolves around and around. I even told him of the Mexican legend I was told as a child that every animal we are kind to is waiting at the river for us when we die and will help us cross.
I told him how great his compassion was and that the most compassionate thing he could do is to put the animal down while it was still in shock and not feeling pain. There was a pause and finally he said “It’s ok. I conceal carry, I can do it myself. I stayed on the line and heard the shot. I told him what a wonderful man he was and I hoped he had children some day so he could pass his compassion and thoughtfulness on. I told him to call 911 as soon as he hung up and report that he had fired his gun and where so the police would not have to make an unnecessary response to “gunshot in the night”. Again, he thanked me and hung up.
I lay awake a long time thinking about him and what he had done. Not only did he restore hope for the next generation, but also gave me insight on the type of people who carry guns and why.
This is why I do what I do.

The Terribleness of Zen

Had one of those terrible-beautiful Zen moments today. Most people associate Zen with sitting peacefully, staring at the back of their eyelids. Zen is supposed to make you feel at ease, let you face the world with a slight smile and a gentle heart. It’s not. It’s work to get the mind to that empty state. When it’s clear of the everyday clutter, the realities of life and death and rebirth slide into place. To be “One” with the universe can be beautiful…it can be terrible, but always, always, worth it.

I cleaned the tank where I normally keep the tadpoles I am raising for the goldfish pond. The wild cats and the blue heron have taken most of my frogs and I miss hearing them on summer nights. All winter I have been feeding these future frogs so they will be big enough to put in the pond without the fish eating them.

During all the grebe, blue bill, merganser and other downed duck crisis of the past month, I took to dumping the minnows I’d buy for them in the tank with the tadpoles, so I wouldn’t be trudging to the bait store every day. The ducks are gone and so are the minnows, but the tank was a mess. It was cloudy and green and I couldn’t even see my tiny tadpoles. I managed to drain most of it with a siphon, but the last 6 inches wouldn’t work. I used the carpet cleaner hose to finish as I added more clean water and stirred up the sediments to be sucked out. I was worried about the tadpoles, so I put a small net over the end of the hose. After the water was fairly clear, I started to clean up the mess.

First, I realized that there was more algae than ever, because of the fish excrement, second, I noticed that all the baby snails that had been cleaning up the algae were gone, because the fish ate them. Then I washed out the little net and to my horror I discovered two dead tadpoles stuck in the seam.

Suddenly I saw the sacredness of even the smallest life. I saw how interconnected every thing in that tank was. The snails ate the algae, the fish ate the snails, the birds ate the fish and in the middle of it all were these tiny little creatures that would one day be frogs and sing in my pond. I upset that balance. I interfered and life forms suffered needlessly. I was overcome with sadness and gratitude that nature is the great complicated circle of life and I am part of it. For a moment I could look at the remaining tadpoles in the tank and feel the spring that will come and release the sleeping creatures and plants imprisoned beneath the snow and ice. Closing my eyes, I could smell the softened mud as the turtles and frogs and yes, the tiny tadpoles crawl and wiggle forth towards the light. I could hear the birds sing for joy as they returned to their summer homes. Yes, I could even hear the frogs as they chorused in the goldfish pond.

Even in the grip of this long and brutal winter, I know that spring will come in it’s own time. The earth will bring forth in abundance once more. I just hope it will forgive me for the life of two tiny tadpoles, so carelessly lost.

Good Grebe!


During the brief thaws we have in the depth of Michigan winter, I am confronted with  a “griebeious” condition.

There is a bird, a waterfowl to be exact, that resides in the ponds, rivers and lakes of the area. It’s not actually a duck, though people confuse it with one and it isn’t exactly a loon either, though people will swear it is one, even though loons of the area migrate to warmer waters and are three times the size. It’s a Grebe, a bird that not many people have encountered close up, or often even heard of.

A Grebe is a smallish bird, shaped rather like a bowling pin with a beak…a very sharp beak, by the way. It has a grayish, black back with a white neck and breast and sometimes a poofy crest on it’s head. It has no apparent tail like a duck. One of its most striking features is that it has brilliant orange-red eyes. Its oddest feature is its feet. The toes are not webbed like a ducks, but separate from each other. They aren’t exactly like regular bird feet though; they have strange flat toes. It looks a bit like someone stepped on its toes and flattened them.  Then there is the angle of the legs. They sort of stick out at the sides, so everyone that finds one, insists that it is a loon with broken legs. I suspect you can’t quite envision this; it kind of has to be seen to be believed.

Anyway, these one to two pound birds have compact wings, held close to the body on land or above water. They actually look like normal ducks or loons while swimming about peacefully. You can be sure that one or the other of those red eyes is watching below the surface and it’s under the water that the true magic of this creature is exposed. They literally fly under the water using their semi-webbed feet as rudders to steer as they chase their prey. One moment, they are gliding along and the next they disappear below the surface with hardly a ripple. Their narrow wings propel them at tremendous speed and the tail and feet shift their direction at lightning speed as they chase minnows and small fish. They rarely come up with an empty beak. Often they will throw the fish up into the air to align it with their beak and throat and in a flash, it’s gone.

I absolutely love watching Grebes hunt or fly over with that peculiar whistle of their wings. Grebes  inhabit lakes rivers and ponds throughout the area. In the past decades, our winters have been rather mild and these waters don’t always freeze. The little birds swim and dive happily after fish, oblivious to the cold and snow. That is, until their water starts to freeze. The greatest flaw that was created in these birds is their inability to take flight without open water.  Swans are also this way and while I can understand a bird with the size and weight of a swan needing open water to run along like an overloaded DC10, I just don’t get it with Grebes. Regardless, if their water is ice, they are stuck.

Often, I get calls from people who have small ponds. They tell of these little birds swimming in ever shrinking circles as the ice closes in. If someone can’t get to them safely, I tell them to wait till the bird tries to walk out in search of open water. They aren’t hard to follow; they leave trails like mini snow plows as they scoot their way through the snow. Unfortunately, they tire easily, they get hungry quickly and a hungry bird is a cold bird. A cold bird is a dead bird. Too often, these charming little birds are in bad shape when I get them. And need days to weeks of care before they can be released.

An even stranger habit of these guys, is that they like to fly at night. When they are up in the air, they look for dark patches in the snow which would indicate open water to them. A wet pavement on a night with a bright moon is sure to lure unsuspecting Grebes to land, thinking they have found a river. Once on the ground, they are stuck and people will find them sitting or wandering along the road, trying to figure out where the water went.

Regardless of how it happens, each year I end up with a bumper crop of Grebes in the laundry room. Now, I don’t know how much you know about fish eating waterfowl, but there are two major drawbacks. They eat fish….They poop fish. Fish smell much worse going out than in.

Fish are also expensive,  one grebe can go through a dozen bait fish a day. When I’m lucky, I can talk the boys at the local fishing stores to save their dead minnows in the freezer for me. (They think I’m strange, but they do it anyway).  To feed them, I partially fill a large bin with water and toss in a few live fish. Add a grebe and you have the beginnings of a free for all. Once they grab the live fish, it’s easy to convince them that the dead ones are just as good. Part of this plan is that they will poop out the last batch of fish in the water. That part doesn’t work very well. It takes up to four air fresheners to ride in my car this time of year.

This has been a truly unusual winter and we are seeing birds that rarely come to our area. I’ve had calls and moved everything from the normal mergansers and bluebills, to arctic scup and tundra swans. But it’s definitely the grebes that occupy my laundry room the most.

Open water is getting harder and harder to find and one of the few dependable places is near the downtown dam. It’s right by the courthouse and police station. I used to walk the birds down to the water and gently place them in the river, but if I can’t get to the water, I just drop them off the bridge. After an incident last year, I use the bridge method almost exclusively now.

It was a wet February  and the moon had been bright shining on the wet roads each night. It seemed to be raining grebes.  I had been releasing grebes almost every day and this day was no exception. I parked my car near the police station where there was a walkway from some condos directly to the water. Rather than lug the cat carrier containing the bird through the deep snow, I just tucked him under my arm and went for it. The sun was out and was truly beautiful by the river. I tossed the bird in the water and watched as he dove and splashed. He was poking around the rocks under the boardwalk, looking for crayfish and I guess I must have been close to the edge looking down into the swift moving water. I heard a quiet calm voice behind me.

“Ummm mam?” It said gently. “Why don’t you just step back from the edge of the dock and we can talk for a while.”

I was still trying to see what the grebe was after and leaned a little farther. The voice took on a slightly frantic tome.

“Mam, please. Just take a step back. Nothing is too bad that it can’t be worked out”

Now he had my attention. I turned and said “Pardon me?”

It was a young police officer. In fact, I was surprised that they even come that young. He had an extremely worried look on his face and extended his hand to me. Then I got it. Here I was standing kneed deep in snow at the edge of the river, no boots and definitely not dressed like I was a winter walker. I started to laugh. Now he was the one who was confused.

“You think I’ going to jump?” I asked. “Are you nuts? That water is cold enough to kill you!”

“Well, isn’t that why you’re standing by the river?”

“Of course not. I just released a grebe.”

In retrospect, that may not have been the best thing to say.

“A what?”

“A grebe. You know, a bird that swims?”

He was reaching for his radio, I was beginning to get worried that men in white coats would show up with a net waaaaaay bigger than you would need for a bird.

“Really, just look.” I said and leaned back over the edge looking for that damn bird, who had conveniently disappeared.

The poor guy was  looking truly frantic now; I could tell he was already thinking how cold the water was going to be when he went in to rescue the crazy lady.

Just then the grebe popped up to the surface with a silvery fish in it’s beak.

“There!” I said, “There he is”

“Lady, that’s a loon”

“No, no, they just look like loons” I could tell who he thought the loon was around there, so I found myself explaining what makes a loon, a loon and a duck, a duck and a grebe, a grebe. We went through the whole wet roads and snow banks thing, but I still wasn’t sure he was buying it.

“He offered his hand again and I let him help me back through the snow and up the steps. I retrieved my wallet from the car and showed all the proper I.D. Finally he just shook his head and walked away. I breathed a big sigh of relief.  I could just imagine having to call my husband from the lockdown ward of the hospital.

I decided then and there, that the feathered little buggers could fly from the bridge from then on. I wasn’t taking any chances. I prefer coats that the sleeves don’t buckle in back.

There was vindication though.  A few weeks later I got a call from the dispatcher saying that an officer was bring me a bird he found in a snow bank…….guess who it was.