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.
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.