Any day now, a little grackle is going to lift from Julianna Parker’s hands in her backyard in Addison, Vermont and fly away, its long black tail creased in the center into a small V. The creature probably won’t be squawking – before or after liftoff – the way many grackles do, because it’s not a big talker. Excuse me, squawker. But it is very smart. No birdbrain, this one.
I’m telling you about this “Born Free” moment because my wife found this grackle last month when the bird was older than a baby but younger than a fledging, its head caught between two ground-level branches of a lilac in our front yard here in Lincoln. One of our five cats was deciding whether to torment the animal some more or finish it off. Fortunately, our cats are sluggish about food that doesn’t come from a can, and so my wife was able to rescue the bird before the cat could resume its attack, and I drove the terrified creature 15 or so miles west to Julianna.
Julianna is one of 17 wildlife rehabilitators licensed by Vermont’s Fish and Wildlife Department. She grew interested in rehabbing as a student at Cornell University.
I had no idea whether the grackle would survive, but it seemed to have a fighting chance. The bird had a wounded right leg – that, fortunately, would not turn out to be broken – and a laceration under its right wing. “She presented as an animal who had been attacked,” Julianna told me a few days later, when she was updating me on how well the bird was doing. Julianna treated the bird with antibiotics, but she did not need to splint the leg or the wing. She did, of course, have to feed her a lot in the beginning, because the bird was too young to feed itself.
A day later, Julianna added in an email, “She is the most unusual grackle. She still doesn’t bark – but the big news is that she suddenly started very competently self-feeding! I have never raised a grackle who started self-feeding so early and with so little fanfare. I am so proud of her!” I tried not to take any parental pride in this, but it sure made me smile. That’s what I mean about the bird’s intelligence.
The grackle was one of over 50 birds and small mammals that Julianna told me she was caring for the Sunday I brought the animal to her home. She is often assisted by her 16-year-old daughter, Sophia. When I asked, I learned that under the pair’s wings were blue jays, pigeons, woodpeckers, tree swallows, ravens, and a slightly older grackle. They also mentioned chipmunks, cottontails, and even a baby weasel. Julianna has dedicated different rooms in her home to animals in different stages of recovery, but she also groups them in some cases by how likely they are to get along as they mend. The grackle I brought her wound up rehabbing with a fledgling blue jay that had been hit by a car and a slightly younger grackle that had been caught by a dog. “The three of them snuggle together. They perch together. They are a very sweet extended foster family,” Julianna told me later.
On any given afternoon or evening in the spring or summer, Julianna, whose husband is Mac Parker, is likely to get a dozen calls a day. Given her caseload and the feeding demands of a baby bird, she doesn’t sleep much this time of year. She chops up a lot of watermelon for the creatures. She dices a lot of grapes. She mixes together a great many mealworms, bloodworms, calcium, and vitamins for the birds in her care. But she wouldn’t do anything else with her life.
“I love what I do,” she said. “It’s such a privilege to be intimate with these different species.”
I asked her if she feels any sadness when the birds fly away from their makeshift nests. “I love releases,” she answered. “I love getting them through so they can have a wild life.”
And in some cases, those birds come back. “I had a blue jay with a broken wing,” she recalled. “People said he should have been euthanized. But he’s been free for two years now, living wild. He has babies of his own, but he still returns to the apple tree to eat peanuts out of my hand.”
His wing, she says, droops a little. But his spirit? I believe it soars. And when I think of one little grackle that Julianna saved, my spirit soars, too.
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To find the wildlife rehabilitator nearest you, visit www.vtfishandwildlife.com and click on “Wildlife Rehabilitation.”
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on July 6, 2014. Chris’s new novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” goes on sale wherever books are sold this week.)