On a recent drive down a county highway, I saw something that made me think my imagination was working overtime. Near a bridge lay a dead possum. While flattened possums aren’t unusual sights on rural roads, the bird dining on his defunct carcass was. Who knew bald eagles had a taste for possum?
You might think, as I first did, that the eagle was young or injured. But no, he or she (hard to tell) was fully mature, white of head and tail, and flew off on powerful wings when my car neared.
I have two regrets. I was too astonished to document the sighting with my camera, and my husband wasn’t along for the ride. Ray loves raptors! Long before our community boasted an organization that rehabilitated wildlife, one man — mine — attempted to fulfill that need for injured birds of prey.
My first clue was when he carried home a baby kestrel after a bad storm apparently blew it out of a nest. The young bird was unable to fly, and when Ray couldn’t find the nest, he assumed the role of parent. He named the bird Baron (we later learned it should have been Baroness, but again, hard to tell), gave her our big screened-porch and fed her chicken hearts. Before long, Ray was buying tiny frozen mice for Baron and trying to teach her to fly. Teaching a kestrel to fly is hard work for a man, and I was resigned to calling the little bird Cetan Wakuwa Mani, which means Walking Hawk in Sioux.
Ray eventually was successful in teaching Baron to kill her own mice AND to fly. He accomplished the latter feat by holding Baron in his hand and launching her into the air from increasing heights. Once Ray considered her competent, he released her. Although she embraced the wild, Baron was a frequent return visitor, perching on our clothesline. I like to think she was grateful.
The Baron Experiment didn’t prepare me for the Hercules Sequel. Herc was a full-grown, great-horned owl who flew into electric lines and badly burned his left wing and leg. Ray brought him home in a gunnysack, housed him in a large rabbit cage and called a veterinarian for advice on treating the bird’s burns. The vet said to cover Herc’s head (Ray used a small wicker basket) so he wouldn’t bite and apply antibiotic cream on the burns. Ray used a roll of gauze to bind Herc’s left wing to his body.
I’m sure grocery checkers wondered why I was buying mass quantities of beef kidneys (Ugh!) but were too polite to ask. Herc ate the kidneys with gusto sans gratitude. Whenever Ray approached with food, Herc came at him talons first, beak clacking.
After a week, Herc chewed off his injured leg. The vet said wild critters often divest themselves of useless body parts and told Ray birds had been known to live in the wild with one leg. However, a week later, Herc chewed off his wing. “That does it,” I said to Ray, “if he could fly, he could only fly in circles!”
The vet suggested euthanization, but Herc’s appetite was unimpaired, and Ray cannot kill any animal that is trying to live by eating. Herc stayed with us another year and consumed $300 worth of kidneys before dying on the Fourth of July.
In addition to birds of prey, Ray has a fondness for pelicans who frequent Clinton Lake during seasonal migrations. The first year they came, Ray spotted them and — shocked into inarticulation — sputtered, “P-P-P-PENGUINS!”
“Penguins?” I asked.
“No,” he corrected excitedly, “PELICANS!”
My great fear is that Ray may find an injured pelican and try to nurse it back to health. But that probably won’t happen because, as fond as he is of pelicans, he thinks their fish-breath would stink. Hard to believe that could be worse than Herc’s kidney-breath.
— Marsha Henry Goff is a freelance writer in Lawrence whose latest book is “Human Nature Calls.”