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  • Prey Animal
  • Emily Pittinos (bio)

The director of the songbird hospital refers to the kitchen’s freezer as The Morgue. The hospital is a tidy operation in a converted, rural house. The front desk has two phones for receiving reports of injured birds and giving advice to the Midwesterners who discover them. There is a small area for triage, a metal table surrounded by well-labeled containers of syringes and swabs and medications, the purposes and names of which I do not yet know. The bald and hideous hatchlings are kept in buckets inside an incubator and fed every fifteen minutes with droppers full of mush. I’m told that once they grow strong enough to perch on the edge of their buckets, they are moved into larger cages in the nursery with the adolescents. Once they fledge, they are considered adults and are soon released.

A bird’s neck has between fifteen and twenty-five vertebrae, and as the woman training me fidgets with the cadaver pigeon, every one of them droops to the side. Under the plumage, a pigeon’s skin is purple, like a full-body bruise. She shows me the keel, the extension of bone that joins the spine to the tail. She explains the crop, a muscular purse of seeds and stones stored at the base of the bird’s gullet to aid digestion. If the crop is punctured by an animal attack, it is impossible to repair. We test this by guiding a dropper of water through the mouth and into the crop, and if the skin of the throat springs a leak, it’s too late. She shows me an image of pigeons splayed on the ground with handfuls of seed leaking from their necks. Bird as torn sack; bird as one long gash.

At the end of my initial volunteer training, the woman running triage says, “If you want to work in our ER, I have to ask you up front: would you be comfortable euthanizing birds?”

“Yes, sure,” I say, nodding too vigorously, too eager to please. I want to be the best at saving, whatever that means.

“We don’t like to, of course, but many of the birds who come to us are just too far gone.”

“Yes, of course I can.” This may be a lie. I’ve never killed, though I have watched a thing die. [End Page 86]

I am told to beware of masking, a term for when an obvious minor issue camouflages a serious injury. The lazy diagnosis. The hope for a quick fix. The assumption that there is only one problem to solve at a time. The daze brought on by dehydration may make diagnosing a head trauma more difficult. Head injury may distract from a crop punctured by the claws of a cat. This phenomenon can occur in humans as well. When my father broke his ribs by falling on black ice, his pain and exhaustion may have distracted doctors from the liver failure that quickly killed him.

Many humans are incapable of caring for the weak. They do not do their research. They birdnap fledglings whose mothers are chaperoning their first flights from above. They find hatchlings on the ground and feed them wet dog food. They force juice into the crops and stomachs of young pigeons with droppers. One woman offers a baby cardinal her own breast milk. They often do these deeds to encourage their own offspring, girls and boys who want to crush baby birds with love between their palms. “Just put the bird in a shoebox and keep it in a dark room,” I say again and again through the phone. “No. Please, bring it in. Do not try to save the bird on your own.”

Songbirds are prey animals. Prey meaning they’re at the bottom of the avian food chain. Prey meaning in a choice between fight or flight, they choose flight every time. But when the birds are injured and trapped by the monstrous grip of a volunteer, fleeing isn’t an option. This triggers panic in the birds. Panic so severe that it can stop their hearts. Imagine: a bird dying of...


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pp. 86-92
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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