The Birdman and the lucky thrush

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This column is about a lucky thrush. They say cats have nine lives; this little bird has at least two.

I first met the bird when a neighbor rang my doorbell. I found her standing there with a white bakery bag, rolled closed at the top.

“My cat just caught this bird,” she told me. “I think it’s all right; I didn’t see any blood.”

I peeked into the bag. The bird was active. It looked to me like a Swainson’s thrush. They migrate through here in the spring on their way to their nesting grounds in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

The Swainson’s thrush is related to the robin (also a thrush), but it’s smaller and gray-brown with prominent spots on its chest and a buffy eye ring.

I was concerned that the cat had broken the bird’s tail feathers or pulled some out, which could be deadly.

The July–August 2007 issue of Audubon magazine reports on work by Wisconsin wildlife biologists Stanley Temple and John Coleman. They estimate America’s cat population is 60 million and that the average outdoor cat has up to 28 kills per year.

My neighbor swore to me that she’d never have another outdoor cat after the two she has now go off to that great litter box in the sky.

I carefully put the bag and its fragile contents into a box and headed over to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic in Roseville. Back at home, I sent an e-mail to the clinic’s Info Line, with the date, bird species and my name so they could let me know the status once they’d examined the bird.

A few days later I received an e-mail that said the bird was doing well and they expected it eventually could be released. My neighbor was concerned when she heard that news.

“They wouldn’t release it back here, would they?” she asked. She didn’t want to risk one of her cats taking another shot at it.

No, I explained, they don’t have to release it back where it was found, though they often do so if they can.

Two weeks after the bird had been admitted to the Rehab Center, I received a call from Phil Jenni, the director. He had seen the Swainson’s thrush on the list of birds ready to be released.

He thought it looked like a pretty special bird and decided to pull its file and learn more about the circumstances that brought it there.

That’s when he saw my name and gave me a call. Would I like to be involved in the bird’s release?

Well, of course I would!

My wife, Jean, and I went to the Rehab Center on a Friday morning and met Phil there. He said the bird didn’t appear to have any wounds or injuries, and was active and responsive from the moment it was admitted.

But after “cat exposure,” as they call it, they prescribe antibiotics to fight off the possibility of infection.

Phil took us back to see the flight room, where the thrush and other birds were exercising their wings and building up their muscles to return to the wild.

We also got a tour of the avian nursery — tiny robins and northern flickers huddled in plastic margarine tubs, like surrogate nests, with their mouths ever open waiting for the volunteer to come by on her eternal rounds.

Phil says it’s like washing windows on a skyscraper: Finish one side and you just move on to the next, round and round, squirting little shots of mashed baby bird food into the gaping maws.

As the birds grow, they move to juvenile cages so they can socialize with their peers. They finally graduate to the flight room, where we watched a volunteer net the thrush and put it into a small box.

Phil transferred the bird from the cardboard box to a pair of small plastic mesh baskets clamped together top to top. Then he covered the basket arrangement with his sport coat to reduce the bird’s stress.

We substituted a towel for Phil’s jacket and took the baskets out the door and up the path toward the neighboring Harriet Alexander Nature Center.

We picked a spot under a large pine tree, set the baskets on the ground and removed the towel. The bird began nervously hopping around in the baskets. I removed the upper basket and it flew to a limb just over our heads.

Jean was able to get a quick photo before it flew to another tree and disappeared into the foliage. My hope is that although this thrush had a two-week interruption in the middle of its migration, it was able to resume its trip and get up to the Boundary Waters.

It may arrive later than its peers, but it will have stories to tell its buddies about escaping from a cat and the time it spent in recovery with the nice folks at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.