Ken and I watched an episode of “North America,” the local version of “Blue Earth,” narrated by Tom Selleck. Two segments stayed with me. One showed the annual bloom of May flies somewhere in the Great Lakes region. When the water temperature reaches 63 degrees, these aquatic nymphs morph en masse into flying bugs with only 24 hours to hook up and mate before they die. The insect equivalent of speed dating?
Next, the program featured a mother peregrine falcon and her two hatchlings ensconced on Southern California cliffs high above the Pacific. Ms. Falcon gathered and delivered dinner for her ever-hungry brood, again and again. Then, without pausing, she dive bombed a snake slithering up the rocky face toward her babies. The free-falling reptile plummeted to the beach hundreds of feet below. Wouldn’t surprise me if Mom was humming I Am Woman.
Imagine my delight upon arriving at Clear Lake a few days later to discover the recent heat wave had given rise an infestation of Rice flies, also known as midges, cousins of that sex-crazed May family. I grew up calling these pests “Dumb Bugs” because they land on you and wait to be squashed. Droves race inside whenever a door opens. Hoards cling to windows and walls. As we ate dinner, I applauded a red-winged blackbird eating its way down a row of Rice flies queued up on the window sill.
Shadow and I walked once the evening cooled. A friend joined us and we ladies chatted as Shadow smelled every rock, weed and bush we passed, discovering which of her guys had passed that way since our last visit. When she stopped for the umteenth time, a mile from home, I tugged on the leash without looking back.
Shadow’s weight became an anchor. I turned to see her nudging a lump in the dirt with her nose. I tugged again. She resisted. I approached the lump.
A baby bird, naked but for a hint of downy feathers, stretched its yellow beak open as I bent down. Its sibling lay inches away, a victim of the fall from their nest hidden in the branches above. A car sped by, a few feet from the unforgiving avian landing pad.
Shadow is mostly Labrador retriever and a bird-dog through-and-through. But this baby bird, which could have easily fit in my rescue dog’s soft mouth, didn’t ring her instinctive bells. My girl was curious, nothing more. Paying her rescue status forward, perhaps.
A quick check of our surroundings revealed a discarded Styrofoam burger box, just the thing for transporting the young survivor home. Thank goodness for litter.
“Look what Shadow found,” I said, opening the lid to give Ken a peek.
“What are you going to do with it?”
“Keep it alive overnight and then find a wildlife rescue center in the morning.”
Simple enough. Or so I thought.
I headed to a neighbor’s landscaped yard and dug around looking for worms. No luck. Then inspiration struck. Rice flies! I grabbed a small plastic tub and headed back outside. In minutes, scores of crumpled Dumb Bug corpses rested in the container. The back of a fork mashed the bodies and I added a few drops of water. Mmm, mmm, good. My new buddy devoured the snack and screamed for more.
The hunt for the next of what would become many courses began. Archie (short for Archi-BALD) grew stronger and more insistent with each mouthful. By 10:00 he had consumed more than 100 Rice flies. His birth mother wouldn’t approve of him staying up so late, so I covered him with a tissue, turned off the lights and wished him sweet dreams.
In my dreams, his feathers all grew in while we slept. In the morning, the bare truth proved his tissue-blanket wasn’t a good substitute for Mama’s warmth. I could see he was breathing, but he wouldn’t open his beak and only managed a single breathy “peep.” I cursed myself for not rising with the early birds.
Ken suggested Archie might be cold, so I carried the refugee out into the sunshine in my cupped hands. He began to move, and then to peep. His talons gripped my finger. Not exactly like an infant holding its parent’s finger, but I’d be lying if I claimed there wasn’t a connection. Time for more Rice flies.
Shadow was the second family member to be fed. Then Ken and I downed some eggs. (The irony was not wasted on me.) After Archie’s fourth serving of flies, the last of which was seasoned with one small spider and a mosquito, I called the SPCA. The woman there referred me to the Clearlake Veterinary Clinic.
Archie serenaded Ken and me with a steady stream of peeps during his first car ride. The motto on the sign outside the clinic read, “Compassion and Integrity in Practice.” Reassured, we presented our featherless friend to a vet tech. She cracked the box, ooo’d and ahh’d, and transported her new charge to the office’s inner sanctum.
The receptionist handed me a government form to complete. Much to my amazement, the Feds keep track of how many and what kind of animals are taken in by wildlife rescue groups. Much to my delight, the Clearlake Veterinary Clinic wanted as much detail as possible about where Archie was found. They will release him close to home when he’s ready to fledge. Our paths may cross another day!
I called the next morning, anxious to hear if Archie was thriving. He was. The vet determined the chick is a robin. Nice. I’ve always been partial to robins. Life is good.