Monday, June 27, 2022
June 27, 2022

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Everybody Has a Story: Taking care of birds a treat

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Our family moved in 1956 from the small Wisconsin city of Waukesha to a new house my parents had built in a rural area of Waukesha County that was just being developed.

I was 10 years old, curious about the world and immediately interested in the plants and animals I found on and around our 10-acre property. Our house sat on a hill in what had once been prairie and then farmland, sloping down to a large pond, wetlands and woods.

Over the next few years, I tended not only the huge garden that my family planted, but also a serial menagerie of animals that found their way to us: kittens and cats, including feral ones lured in by the free handouts at the filling station where my older brother worked; rabbits, some of them wild, some raised for meat and none of them long-lived; and a tame raccoon our neighbors had grown tired of and that soon grew tired of us and disappeared into the woods.

We also had fish, notably a small bowl of goldfish that captured my rapt attention for hours (predicting my eventual career choice of fish biologist), and a variety of fish in our pond, including catfish introduced by a co-worker from The Waukesha Freeman newspaper, where my dad was managing editor.

I was 14 years old in June of 1960, when the county began work to widen the road near our house. The construction crews cut down several trees near our property. In one of them, they discovered a nest of three young sparrow hawks, a type of falcon. The workers placed the nest in a box and set it aside. At the end of the day, they knocked on our door and asked my mother whether we wanted three motherless baby birds they’d found. Fortunately, I was there and answered for her with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

I put the birds — round puffs of white down with large eyes — in an unoccupied rabbit cage near the back door. Sadly, one that had arrived with an injury soon died. The remaining two — a male and female I named Clem and Slider, respectively — thrived on bits of cat food I fed them several times a day, along with water from a dropper. I kept the cage door latched to keep them safe until they figured out how to fly.

Within a month or so, they had grown enough large feathers to practice flying so I left the cage door open. When I was outside, they would often land on my head and shoulders, and I quickly learned to wear leather gloves for protection from their sharp talons whenever I needed to handle them. They soon got the hang of regularly soaring over to our woods before returning to the comforts of the room and board I still provided.

My parents, older sister and I left on a two-week family vacation in late August, leaving my much-older brother, who worked at the gas station, with instructions to feed the birds every day while I was away. He promised me he would, but his job and social life apparently conspired to override any good intentions.

I was pretty upset, upon our return home, to find that Clem and Slider had permanently flown the coop, once the food service they’d enjoyed had come to an abrupt end. I looked for them in vain all around our property and never saw them again.

A few days after we returned, my dad was back at work and reading through the newspapers the Freeman staff had produced in his absence. There in a recent edition was a large photo of a young falcon perched atop the head of a cat, both animals being held by a young man named Gary who lived in the village of Dousman, about 10 miles west of our house.

The caption told the story of how the male falcon — my Clem! — had two weeks earlier attached itself to Gary and had been “his companion — in and out of doors — ever since.” It went on to explain, “The friendship is no strain on Gary since the falcon comes and goes as it pleases, catches its own food and is an unbeatable conversation piece.”

I soon was distracted from my bittersweet falcon experience by school, caring for my ever-growing rabbit population, acquiring more stray cats and enjoying the fish that filled our pond. However, the story of how two orphaned birds of prey came to be under my care one summer remains a favorite memory.


Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Send to: neighbors@columbian.com or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA, 98666. Call “Everybody Has an Editor” Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.

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