Faith Gong: The bird that lived


It began on what I hope was the final snow day of this winter. 

Snow days in our house begin with joy, as the teenagers realize that they don’t need to leave for school and can sleep late, and the younger children realize that their older siblings will stick around all day. But by the afternoon, with the seven of us ratting around the house, we’re usually a little stir crazy.

So on this particular afternoon, even though the snow was still flying horizontally, everyone went outside. The younger children grabbed their sleds, and my husband and I grabbed the dog for a walk — or an arctic stagger — down the driveway. 

We’d just reached the mailbox and turned back towards the house when, through the swirling snow, we saw our eldest daughter coming out to meet us.

“Sooo, I was heading out to take a walk,” she began, “and when I opened the door Hermes ran in with something in his mouth. I couldn’t stop him.”

Hermes is our cat. Five years ago, our daughters discovered him and his four brothers in a dollhouse in their piano teacher’s attic, where they’d been stashed by their mother — a stray cat the piano teacher had taken in. Our girls, who felt a proprietary interest in these kittens, lobbied hard to adopt one. That’s why, despite two confirmed cat allergies in our household, we brought Hermes home. Those cat allergies are why Hermes became an indoor-outdoor cat. 

But Hermes had never brought any animals into our house before. My husband and I walked back through the snowstorm as briskly as we could. The two main questions running through my mind were:

What KIND of animal was it? And was it still alive?

When we reached the front door, we were greeted by various hysterical children demanding immediate answers. We reassured them using our best in-control parental voices, then entered the mud room. Hermes was nowhere to be seen, but we heard movement from the guest room above the garage. 

“I’ll wipe the dog’s feet if you want to check it out,” I said to my husband, hiding behind a routine domestic chore to avoid being the first witness of the carnage. 

After wiping off the dog and closing her in the main part of the house, I called upstairs to my husband.

“It’s a bird,” he said, “and it’s still alive. It’s pretty cute.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. Based on the evidence in our yard, Hermes catches far more rodents than birds — which is one reason I justify letting him go outside. I am not a fan of rodents, and I’m happy for Hermes to practice rodent population control so long as their bodies stay outside the house. I’m a huge fan of birds, however. I didn’t mind a bird in the house, and I felt a strong responsibility to help it. 

Once we’d separated cat and bird, my husband and children got the bird settled in a box in our heated garage. The guest room was a mess, with feathers everywhere, so I tried to redeem my initial wimpy-ness by serving as the cleanup crew. Only after extensive vacuuming was I able to look at the bird.

She was a mourning dove — a species to which I feel a particular attachment due to memories of their soothing coos echoing through my childhood neighborhood on long, golden afternoons after school. She sat, stunned, blinking and breathing steadily. She was missing feathers on her back and there was some blood where Hermes had bitten her. 

My daughter Georgia took immediate action: She looked up information from the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation on the website of the Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS.) We were not supposed to give the bird food or water. Because cat saliva contains a toxin that can be fatal to birds within 48 hours, we needed to get our bird to a wild bird rehabilitation professional as soon as possible. 

The problems were that:  a) VINS was closed for the day, b) it was dinnertime in a household with five children, and c) the snowstorm was still raging outside. The bird was still alive when we went to bed, but to be honest, I wasn’t optimistic. Having raised poultry for seven years now, we’ve seen a lot of birds die, and this bird had had a rough time of it. 

But she was still alive in the morning and had even flown out of her box. Once we got her settled with a lid on top, Georgia prevailed upon me to call VINS. Thus began hours of back-and-forth with a very kind VINS wildlife keeper named Kylie. The first thing I learned was that VINS was the closest wild bird rehabilitation center to us. As VINS is a 90-minute drive over the mountains, the snowstorm was still winding down, and I had three children with me, this was not good news. 

Once Kylie understood that I could not drive the mourning dove to VINS, she tried to contact one of VINS’s bird transporters. Apparently there are lovely people who volunteer to drive injured birds to VINS, but they were all unavailable. 

I was putting our toddler down for an afternoon nap when Georgia barged in waving my phone. 

“It’s VINS again!” she cried. 

Kylie still hadn’t been able to find a bird transporter and VINS was about to close for the day. 

“So I’m going with my last resort, Plan B,” she said. “There’s an independent wildlife rehabilitator in your area named Juliana….” It turned out that Juliana was in Addison, a mere 20 minutes from our house. Without taking time to wonder why I wasn’t given this number hours ago, I called Juliana’s dispatcher. 

Things moved very quickly then. The dispatcher told me to give the bird food and water immediately, and put me in touch with Juliana’s daughter, Sophia, who handles the wild birds. Once my husband got home from work, my two youngest daughters and I piled into our minivan with the bird in its box and drove to Juliana’s house to deliver it into the hands of professionals. 

Two days later, with some trepidation, I checked in with Sophia. She replied, “I’m actually slightly surprised given the extent of her injuries, but she is still with us and recovering. It’s amazing what those gentle little birds can go through and survive. She’s a fighter! And her wounds are beginning to heal. So glad you found her when you did.”

This news filled me with an upswell of joy and wonder. Joy, because our bird was alive! And wonder, because life is so precious. It was like the wonder I felt as I watched my 3-month-old son struggle for breath in the PICU, or my 104-year-old grandmother take some of her final breaths in hospice: Living things want to live.  And we want them to live. 

In the middle of a March snowstorm, a lot of people put a lot of effort into saving the life of one mourning dove. And while no happy ending is ever guaranteed and death comes for everything in the end, that one mourning dove lived another day. 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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