Sunday, August 31, 2008

If it looks like a duck...

So Friday, a client comes in with a duck that she found. She found it alongside the road, and she saw that it couldn't get up, so she scooped it up and drove it to the clinic. On entering the building, she announced that she had found an injured duck, and would we take a look at it? Sure, she was told, we'd be happy to... at which time she more or less thrust the bird across the reception desk, clearly relieved to have found help, but wanting no further responsibility for it.

Dr. N brings the bird into the office. She has it bundled up in a towel, and is rotating one of its legs, frowning thoughtfully. "Are they supposed to rotate like this?" she asks me, demonstrating a nice 180 degree reversal of the leg, from pointing frontward to pointing backward.

"I think so," I say, "But I'm not 100% sure. It depends on the species."

"D'you think it's broken?" she asks. "I don't feel a fracture, but that looks pretty weird."

"Let's see if it can walk," I say, and she sets the bird down on the office floor and unfurls the towel. The bird lays on its belly and then does a sort of awkward forward lurch, launching itself half a body-length forward and thumping down on its breast. It repeats this maneuver twice. It does indeed look seriously crippled, but without the swaddling, the bird is recognizable (I think) as a juvenile red-necked grebe, a common water bird in this part of Alaska. If so, it's a bird that (to the best of my limited knowledge) lives its entire life on water or in the air, constructing floating nests near the shores of lakes and migrating to warmer climes in the fall, when of necessity our lakes get a bit solid and unwatery.

"Well, that looks pretty uncomfortable," I allow, in reference to the bird's awkward lurching, "but I think this is a species that can't stand or walk on land, because their legs are so far back on their body that they can't balance their weight. Let's do a swim test to see if he does better there."

Everyone agrees this is just a dandy idea, so Dr. N deftly scoops up the bird (who is not best pleased with this idea and begins peeping in an irritated sort of way) and we go back to our dog-bathing tub and fill it with cold water. Once there's enough water in the tub to float a bird, we place him on the surface, where he immediately begins to paddle around, scooping up a bit to drink, poking his head underwater to have a look, swimming along the length of the tub with his head submerged, limned in silver by the air trapped on the surface of his feathers, and looking generally relieved to find himself in a something at least a little more familiar to him than being carted around in Detroit's finest, and/or bundled up in a bath towel and paraded around the clinic, no matter how competently.

Help! I've been kidnapped and I can't get out!

Meanwhile, as we are assessing the grebe's (excellent) swimming skills, my nurse Jill has been on the phone to the local bird rescue people. "You're in luck," she says. "They're having a meeting tonight, and you can just drop him off to them. At Loon Attic," she adds, the irony clearly not escaping her. "Go upstairs and ask for Ken."

Well, this is just dandy, actually. Loon Attic is not even a mile from the clinic. I'm completely certain that the bird rescue people - who in this locale are capable, knowledgeable and very competent - are going to be much better custodians for this bird than I am. I'm not at all certain what grebes eat, and while the pointy beak suggests fish and frogs and snails and that sort of thing, I'm much happier to have the experts figure that out than trying to do it myself. The corvids are easy - they eat just about anything, and usually with good appetite - and I have a reasonable idea what the dabblers and insectivores will go for, but I'm not at all sure I know how to make grebe escargot. Nor am I sure I want to.

Dude! I don't make fun of YOUR diet, do I?
Now that I have a place to park our grebe, I am all relieved. It's 20 minutes to closing time and there's not much doing at the moment. I'm not 100% sure I've correctly identified our bird, so I take some pictures to compare with the bird book. The grebe, floating peacefully in the tub, doesn't seem particularly disturbed by this, so long as I am not so foolish as to put my hands in the water. THAT, I am given to understand (by means of gaping beak and little darting feints), is Really Not On.
You did NOTICE that pointy little beak, right? Grebe bites can be pretty naasti, yu know!
Meanwhile, once it's time to shut the clinic down and transfer our bird, I decide to drain the tub so I can scoop up our grebe in a towel (the most efficient way to ensure that neither of us emerges from this maneuver bleeding.) The grebe has Other Ideas about the advisability of me draining the tub. He expresses several opinions, none of which was "Go right on ahead with that." And, dang it, there IS blood on the scene, and it's mine. However, by means of using a hose to distract our erstwhile patient, I manage to snatch the drain out of the tub. This produces immediate consternation on the part of the grebe. He darts his head underwater, staring intently at the drain (which is, in the way of drains, emitting a gurgling, sucking sort of noise.) This is clearly Not All Right with the grebe, who paddles to the other end of the tub, pupils wide with alarm. There's little he can do about the draining of his personal wetlands, however, and before long he's stranded on the porcelain, where it's now a relatively simple matter to pluck him up and insert him into a cardboard cat carrier (brand new and freshly bedded with shredded paper for his sanitary comfort). I cart him to my truck (which move he protests by lurching back and forth in his box and making stabbing little feints though the air holes with his sharp little beak) and manage to settle him in without exposing any more of my skin to his tender ministrations. After a very brief drive to Loon Attic, I hand him over to the erstwhile and experienced Ken, who (wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a swooping raptor that says "Carpe Paradeum: Seize the prey") confirms that it is indeed a juvenile red necked grebe, and that grebes are in fact unable to walk on land. Then asks me where the bird was found (alongside the road near the grocery store), whether it had any wounds (none, apart from some scrapes on the bottoms of its little feet) and if it tried to escape the tub (not on your life). "Good," he says, after I answer his questions. "If he didn't want out of the tub, his waterproofing is probably good. If there are no wounds, it probably means he was driven out of the sky by a raptor or by ravens, but was found before they could finish him. They're never found on land," he adds, which only makes sense, given that whole "can't walk on land" thing. Ken assures me that bird rescue will double check for any wounds I might have missed, check him for parasites and treat him accordingly, and release him as soon as they're sure he's healthy.
So I guess this is where that saying about how "if it looks like a duck and talks like a duck and walks like a duck" gets tested. At least in southcentral Alaska, if it looks like a duck and talks like a duck, but can't walk like a duck, take it to your local vet clinic and see if they know what it is.


MaskedMan said...

Cute little guy!

I guess yu would certainly know grebe biites can be nasti.

Heck of a way to learn, though! ;-)

AKDD said...

It's just a flesh wound! Come back and fight like a man! Er, grebe!

It's really just a scratch. Well, two scratches, actually. But he was amazing fast with his little darting jab-and-grab, and he wasn't kidding around. He wasn't going down without a fight! Bless his little wild heart.

MaskedMan said...

Just be glad it wasn't the Grebe who says 'Ni!' Luckier still, it wasn't the Grebe of Caerbannog, either.

OTOH, a French Grebe would've been rather entertaining.


AKDD said...

A French grebe would just wave his private parts at our aunties.