Speaking of Nature: Martin’s broken wing
With the arrival of fresh snow last week, I decided to give my Environmental Science students a challenging assignment; something a little different from the standard, “read a paper and then tell me what you think” kind of work. This time, I handed each of them a guide to the tracks of the mammals of Massachusetts and told them to go out into their yards and see what they could find. I think it’s very important for young people to shut off the electronics and wander out into the sun every once in a while.
I expected them to come back with sightings of squirrels, rabbits, dogs and cats, but I also told them to keep their eyes open for unusual tracks that might have an interesting story behind them. Anything that was peculiar should be photographed or drawn for the group discussion to follow. This seemed pretty straightforward to me, but I had no idea that I was about to have my own tracking mystery.
So it was with some interest that I noticed a very peculiar set of tracks next to my driveway on Friday afternoon. The snow was deep, but it was very fine grained, which allowed for exceptional details to be recorded. These were exceptionally strange tracks.
Based on their size and their depth into the fresh snow, I hypothesized that they had been made by a bird. But the peculiar thing about them was the set of parallel lines that followed along one side of the tracks. Something was clearly being dragged along the surface of the snow. This single set of tracks led into a small stand of white pines, so whatever the bird was, it had walked into the trees.
There are only a few birds that normally walk, so I started to think I was looking at the tracks of a turkey, a grouse, or possibly a quail or pheasant. Perhaps these were the tracks of a bird that had been winged during the hunting season but had somehow managed to hold on this long. Again their size suggested something smaller than a turkey, but the snow was deep enough to prevent an examination of an individual footprint. I went inside curious, but content that I would never really know what had happened.
Saturday morning turned out to be much more exciting that I would have imagined. I awoke to a dazzling sun shining out of a brilliant blue sky. The sun was still low on the horizon, which meant that any tracks in the snow would be particularly well lit for photography. So I gazed out the windows that look into my back yard and I was amazed to find a huge collection of tracks.
There were clear signs of deer visiting the apple tree. There were equally clear signs of rabbits that had been galloping all over the yard. I have a lot of rabbits and they seem to delight in exploring every nook and cranny of their habitat. My porch is large enough to keep a fairly sizeable patch of grass free of snow for most of the winter, so the rabbits often visit.
But then there were those odd tracks again. And not just a single set of tracks either, but an entire series of comings and goings. Whatever was being dragged was leaving very consistent marks, which meant that I would be able to determine the direction of the tracks if I could figure out which side the drag marks were being made on. Quite the mystery indeed!
I had just made my beautiful wife some homemade chicken soup on Friday night, which meant that I had an entire pot full of chicken carcasses that had been boiled and strained out of the stock. This, combined with all of the livers, necks and gizzards, is always put out for the crows on weekends. I have a long relationship with these birds and they perch in the cottonwood tree to the west of my house and wait.
So, I put out my offering of delectables and they came down almost as soon as I walked back into the house. I decided to take some photos of the crows selecting choice morsels from the buffet, so I was standing with my camera resting on the top of the refrigerator (I’m quite tall after all) when the maker of the mystery tracks finally appeared. It was a crow and it appeared to have a broken wing.
Like the other crows, this particular bird dove right into the food with gusto. The raw necks and livers seemed to be the most interesting to all of the birds and the injured crow was quick to claim first dibs. I think the suspicious and cautious nature of crows was alive and well in this particular bird, but the injured wing prevented any flighty retreats from the food. Thus, the injured crow actually had an advantage; getting all of the best stuff while the other birds spooked each other.
Then, right before my eyes, the injured crow took a big beakful of food and marched up the driveway. I was struck by the idea that I was watching a little kid headed off to the bus stop with his lunch box in hand. The crow paused for a moment, then jumped up onto the deep snow and plodded into a thicket of sumac and honeysuckle bushes.
Just a short time later the injured crow ... think he needs a name don’t you? Just a short time later, “Martin” came walking down the driveway to get another helping of breakfast. The first batch had obviously been hidden in the thicket for later. Crows are classic food cachers and the injury to Martin’s wing had not injured his instincts in the slightest. A crow is a crow.
On Sunday morning, I went out to deliver more food for the crows and to take photos of the new tracks that had appeared overnight. The deer had come to the porch to eat sunflower dropped by the goldfinches. The rabbits had been galloping around the yard again and one had even come up onto the porch and paused by the door, as if it were peering inside and taking notes on the humans. A little rabbit naturalist perhaps?
Then, to my delight, I saw Martin walking down the driveway. He approached the pile of corn bread crumbs and wheat bread pieces that I had put out and he went for the corn bread; a crow after my own heart. Then he hopped up onto the snow and walked to the stand of pines that I mentioned earlier. These are young trees with branches at ground level and Martin hopped up into the tree one branch at a time. Martin was safe, fed and he could see his family during the day.
I was concerned about Martin’s wellbeing. So, on one of his visits, I took an experimental step out onto the porch and he took off at the best speed he could manage. His wing was injured, but he was very healthy and there was little chance of me catching him without possibly causing more trauma to his wing, or to my relationship with the crows in general.
I’ve also worked as a wildlife rehabilitator long enough to recognize an untreatable break when I see one. I don’t know how Martin broke his wing, but I am sure that Martin will never fly again. If he is to survive it will either be as a permanent prisoner in a cage, or as a crafty, adaptable animal that receives regular help from me. As long as he has some pep in his step, I’ll let Martin stay outside with his family. If he gets really weak, then I’ll try to catch him. I’ll keep you posted.
Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com