Tuesday, 30 September 2014

One little victory.

Wildlife rescue is not a feel-good endeavor. By the time a member of public notices an animal in distress and makes a report it's usually too late -- that animal is gravely injured or dying. There's little to be done besides giving it a peaceful, respectful exit from this world. Which Wildlife Victoria volunteers do, every day, with the assistance of cooperative vets.

So victories -- even ones as tiny as the Masked Lapwing chicks (look closely -- there's two) shown above that were rescued from a drainpipe on Monday -- must be savoured. There's no guarantee the chicks will survive but rewarding the sound of chirping coming from a dark place with daylight, with escape, with hope, is cause for muted celebration. Covered in dust, sore hands on the wheel, I delivered the plovers to Burwood Bird & Animal Hospital while the high-wire voice of Rush's Geddy Lee propelled a song called 'One Little Victory' through my brain:
The measure of the moment
In a difference of degree
Just one little victory
A spirit breaking free
One little victory
The greatest act can be
One little victory ......
The drama began at 12:30pm with an uncharacteristically panicky call from a WV emergency response operator (ERO). Understandable, given that back-to-back days of gale-force winds had fledglings and joeys flying like hungry confetti and EROs juggling dozens of cases. This one was urgent, as a rescuer was needed to meet a local council employee who'd provide access to the drain of an office building in Mount Waverley. ("But I've been told you CAN'T go in the drainpipe 'cause it's a HEALTH HAZARD." )
Mum giving me the stink eye. (The tin holds baby bird food.)

A half hour later I arrived at the Mt Waverley location to find a City of Monash council worker and crowd of office folk gawking at an exposed drain opening. Stepping from my car the first noise I heard was mum calling to her chicks in the pipe, and at least one chick 'peeping' in response.

Some background on Masked Lapwings: Like all birds who've adapted to urban environments they're tough and resilient but also remarkably reckless when it comes to nest placement. Last Friday I had a call for Masked Lapwing chicks seen walking off the roof of an 8-story building on St Kilda Road. I won't go into details because it beggars belief that any species of animal would nest in such an unnatural spot, but Masked Lapwings are notorious for plopping down anywhere, laying eggs, and setting forth with vulnerable chicks. I couldn't discern the state of the chicks trapped in this drain, but at least one was peeping noisily. A good sign.

Introduced myself to the Monash council employee -- his name was Richard -- and we assessed the situation. Thin drain pipe bent at a 90 degree angle running beneath a wedge of landscaping in front of an office building. Kris, a woman who worked inside the building and who reported the scenario to Wildlife Vic, said she'd pulled into her workplace's driveway that morning to discover the frantic mama plover squawking at the drain, meaning the chicks could have been trapped in there all weekend long.
View from a camera dangled inside the drain.

Using a mirror to peer into the drain we saw ... nothing (left). Richard invited me to utilise the hodgepodge of tools and detritus in his truck, so I did. Thinking the chicks could walk I created a ramp with spare wood, laying mushy bird chick food at the bottom. Nothing. Walked away from the drain to allow mum to squawk and harangue her young into marching up the ramp. Nothing.

Richard did some exploring and found a concrete slab about 5 metres from the drain opening. Using a heavy steel pick he pried open the slab, exposing a conjunction of pipes roughly a metre below. With the mirror he peered inside the drain but couldn't see the chicks. I took a look and for whatever reason immediately spotted at least one, not moving. Looking into a drain upside down made estimating the distance impossible, but the chicks had put some distance between themselves and where they'd entered the pipe. Still, we could see them, and that was progress.

What to do?

Went to Richard's truck and poked around. Found wood pieces half-buried in soil in the truckbed. Asked Richard if he had duct tape. (I was shamefully lacking. Never again.) Dropped the pieces of wood into the opening and, using space provided by the drain's continuation on the other side, started taping them together end-to-end. Raised myself from the hole to search for additional materials to duct tape while mama plover barked at me like an out-of-touch parent haranguing an umpire at a Little League game. ("What are you doing? What are you waiting for? GET MOVING, LARDASS!")
Richard refitting the slab afterwards.

Richard had a pair of devices used to pick refuse from the ground. I used one as the top piece of this drain 'spear'. Worried I'd poke an eye out so I taped one of the many towels I carry with me as a WV volunteer to its end. The plan? Construct something that ran the length of the pipe and push the chicks, as gently as possible, to the other side, where they could be plucked, as it were, from above.

All of this required agility and maneuverability I may have possessed as a young man but discovered I lack in 2014. Nevertheless, the spear took shape, and with Richard positioned at the other side and mama Banded Lapwing squawking away I pushed it slowly towards the chicks, all the while waiting for Richard to say he could see something nudging its way towards his end.

When he did notice movement on his end, how exactly did he phrase it?

"They're in a bad way, mate."

In freedom's bright sunlight.
I pulled myself from the hole, dusted off what were now a filthy shirt and shorts, and walked the five metres of ground my duct-taped spear lay beneath. Reached into the pipe and picked up the mottled mass that lay there. The chicks were dirty and small but they were breathing. With a little nudging one shook its wings and rubbed against its sibling, which barely moved but reacted to the touch. They weren't pictures of health but they weren't dead. Mostly, they were tiny. The mystery as to how they ended up in a drainpipe covered by a grate could be answered: Masked Lapwing chicks leave the nest soon after being born. These two weren't blown by the wind -- their tiny bodies had fallen through the grate probably very soon after they'd taken their first steps.

I wrapped the chicks in a towel, called Kris to tell her we'd gotten the chicks out of the drain and was taking them to a vet, and began returning the variety of devices I'd snatched from Richard's truck. He refitted the concrete slab to its proper place over the conjunction of pipes and we parted with sincere handshakes. The man's got a job to do and no doubt other responsibilities but never once appeared impatient or eager to leave. He was as eager as I was to get those little bastards out of that drain. Hope I can buy him a beer someday.

Believe it or not this rescue took over two and a half hours from start to finish. Driving to the vet it occurred that the solution was a simple one, yet when you're standing in gale force winds beside a busy thoroughfare with workers pulling in and out of a parking lot while the mother of lost chicks trapped in darkness harasses you ... nothing is simple.

I don't mean to sound morose, but there was an element of heartbreak to this rescue. Goes without saying I couldn't leave the chicks with their mum as the location was hazardous for ANY living creature, much less a pair of barely alive plover chicks. But this Banded Lapwing never left us as we worked to get her chicks out, and came within a few feet of my car as I drove away to take her babies to the best bird vet in Melbourne. I mean, she stared at me. How can you not feel affection for a parent that puts its own life in jeopardy for its young? I'm sure some people reading this will ask why I didn't simply put them back in her care, but I know those chicks wouldn't have lasted the day without immediate attention from a vet.

But it still broke my heart to turn onto the highway, mama Masked Lapwing watching me and her chicks drive away.

EPILOGUE: Took chicks to Burwood where they were incubated and given a feed. With the network of carers Wildlife Vic depends on to look after rescued animals swamped I called a carer legend named Michelle Phillips for advice on finding someone immediately. She unsurprisingly volunteered to take them under her proverbial wing. I drove back to Burwood at 7:00 pm and collected the chicks from a former WV volunteer named Kim who works there and who'd stuck around to make sure the chicks weren't left without overnight care. I brought the chicks to Michelle's place in Oakleigh South, where they joined her remarkable menagerie of young and injured birds and possums. Michelle texted me this morning to say they were eating well but still very weak.

They've got a chance. One little victory.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great work! Hope the chicks are doing okay