This is an e-mail I received from my uncle who is a great story-teller. I think I need to encourage him to get some of these published: akind of Vinyl Cafe thing.
Peter Karsten showed me how to band baby birds.
We sat on a bench in his aviary, in the sunshine, surrounded by cages and cages of singing birds. He brought two of his seven-day old chicks from their nest in a small bowl, covered by a napkin. Under his careful tutelage, I smeared their toes with Vaseline and slipped a tiny blue band onto each leg. It was a little tricky, I admit. Their bones are so small and my fingers are so clumsy. It gave me pause to hold what is surely the ugliest and most fragile of all of God¹s creatures, and a sense of accomplishment to have learned this small skill. I wasn¹t prepared for what came next: Peter announced he was going to Germany for ten days, and he wanted me to band the chicks in cage number two. Peter is the ex-Director of the Calgary Zoo, and a world authority on raising Pekin Robins. Last year there were nineteen Pekin Robins born in Canada, and eleven of the nineteen were hatched in Peter¹s back yard on Denman Island. Banding is important, because Pekin Robins are protected under the United Nations Convention on Endangered Species, and an unbanded Pekin Robin is illegal.
Pleased to have been asked, I agreed without hesitation. Peter thought
Sunday was the right date. Band too soon and the chick stands a good chance of being tossed over the side by the parents. They are fanatical about keeping the nest clean, and they react to the band as if it was trash to be thrown away, no matter that a chick goes with it. Band too late, and the leg joint is too big. It¹s a small window, and day seven is the day for Pekin Robins.
On Sunday morning I was ready. I had gone over all the moves in my mind when I woke and the game plan was in place. I had Vaseline, bands, toothpicks to separate the toes, a bowl, a napkin ¬ I was ready to operate. I approached the cage carefully. At the last minute, Peter had off-handedly said that the parents would be in the nest area during the proceeding. I was to just get in and get out, and all would be ok.
I spotted the nest behind a clump of bamboo, and sure enough, there were two chicks and two parents. The chicks were gazing at Mom, who had some delicious looking worms in her beak. Dad stood by, the picture of paternal pride. When I opened the cage, all hell broke loose. Mom and Dad squawked with astonishment and alarm. The chicks immediately hunkered down out of sight and Mom came at me with claws outstretched screeching with anger, while Dad ducked around behind and came at me from the rear.
“Just get in and get out. All will be OK,” I mumbled. Did I forget to
Say it was raining? There was no bench to sit on? I was a little surprised when the chicks had flight feathers. The birds I banded before were naked and hadn¹t yet opened their eyes. These two looked at me as if I was a great giant hairy unfeathered beast threatening to tear them out of the only nest they had known. The fact that they were right is beside the point, they had their eyes wide open and they saw trouble. I delicately reached under the first one, careful not to cause any damage to her bones, and cautiously untangled her feet from the nest lining. Her brother took one look and bailed out of the nest headfirst. He hit the ground with a thud.
“Gee whiz,” I said, or maybe it was “Gosh, darn,” I forget. The floor
Of the cage is covered with wet plants, mostly English Ivy. Buster disappeared under the Ivy so fast you¹d think he was green instead of blue and yellow. I knew I had to find him fast or something horrible would happen, like Peter coming home from Germany. I put the little female into the bowl, covered her with a napkin, and headed for the floor. She beat me to it. “Golly,” I said, or maybe it was “Holy cow!” as she headed in the opposite direction from her brother. This was looking rehearsed. The parents, who had been watching all of this closely, went nuts. Every Ivy leaf I lifted up had a parent tugging on the other end of it, saying something nasty about my flock, but since I don¹t speak Chinese, so I¹m not really sure.
I found her under my foot. Better to band the one in hand than have two in the bush. I smeared her toes with Vaseline, over Dad¹s strident objections, and slipped the band onto the big middle toe. She flicked it into orbit. Lucky for me, it was covered in Vaseline and stuck to my glasses. I tried again, and although she was a little blurry through the Vaseline smear, the band slid over the toes and onto the leg. To our mutual astonishment, Sis was wearing her first jewelry. You¹d think Mum and Dad were fashionistas, the way they carried on. Wiping a little sweat from my brow, I put her back into the nest, and started looking for the little male. The bush in the corner had not yet been examined, and it looked a likely spot. It was under an overhang from the cage next door, and I had to get down on my hands and knees in the mud and feel under the far edge.
The first thing I felt was an immense great bloody wet snake, maybe a garter snake or maybe some horrible crushing black widow pit viper fang thing from the lagoon. You just never know, do you? The snake had a pleased look, as if he had just risen from a delicious meal. I¹m sure I saw him wipe feathers from his chin, but Marion says I¹m just imagining things since vipers don¹t have wipers. I banged my head as I reared back to save my life, adding some blood to the sweat and Vaseline stinging the eyes. Staggering backwards, escaping from certain savage death from something or other, I stepped on the little guy. Miraculously, I was ok. I smeared some of the Vaseline from my glasses onto his toes and slipped on the band. Just before I worked it over the joint, a point of no-return, he flicked the band away. Good thing he did, since he was a she, and she already had a shiny new blue band I had missed in my Vaseline obscured gaze. Sister had leaped from the nest again and I had just about given her a second piece of jewelry. You’d think most girls would be pleased neither she or her Mom thought it was funny.
I put Sis back in the bowl, covered it with a napkin and a shoe, and again started looking for junior. I found him in another corner, cigarette dangling, baggy pants, and a Come-And-Get-Me-Copper expression on his face. I can't go into it further, much too painful. It seemed like hours before the whole capture the toes, smear the Vaseline, flick the band, start over again routine was complete and the band was in place. Actually, it was hours. By the time I put Junior back into the nest, Sister had taken the big jump for the third time in her short life and was on the ground helping Mom and Dad. When Junior joined the rest of the family headfirst, landing with a thud, I backed slowly out of the cage feeling somewhat sorry for the snake.
I was at home for a couple of hours breathing deeply before I remembered my shoe.