I earned my stripes as a Master Naturalist the other day. It might only be in the minds of my husband and I, but I definitely grew considerably, both professionally and personally.
My family and I are at my father's cabin in the Catskills for a week of vacation. We arrived a few days ago in the later evening, and were occupied with putting the kids to bed and then passing out ourselves, so exploring had to wait until the following morning.
After breakfast was finished and cleaned up, I heard “Wow”, from my husband out on the screen porch.
“What?”, Oldest son and I asked simultaneously.
Quieter: “Oh. Wow.”
Oldest son went over to investigate, and was shooed off the porch.
“You’re going to want to see this,” Obo said to me; but wouldn’t elaborate.
When I went onto the porch, Obo pointed at a hole in one of the screens that looked big enough for a football to have been thrown through it.
“Now look over there,” he said, pointing to the opposite corner of the porch. There lay a dead bird, small-owlish in size.
“Is it an owl?” he asked.
“I won’t know until I turn it over,” I responded.
The bird had landed face-down. But its tail feathers suggested that it wasn’t an owl – they had a fine barring on them that was more reminiscent of a game bird.
Oldest son and I went on a hunt for a pair of gloves and a box. I was hoping that the bird wasn’t long dead and might be able to be preserved for taxidermy.
I found some gardening gloves in the basement and procured a box and went with my Oldest son to check out the bird at closer range. I was determined to figure out its species.
**Warning – if you’re at all squeamish, stop reading now. Things get kinda gross from here.**
Oldest at my side, I donned the gloves and picked up the bird. It came off the ground with the sticky sound of wet candy being pulled off a table. And it was heavier than it should have been.
The bird’s neck had been clearly broken, either from the impact of going through the screen or from landing in the corner. I personally think it broke its neck going through the screen and landed dead in the corner. It had to have a pretty good velocity to punch a hole through the screen in the first place.
I moved its head a bit, wanting a better look to identify the species. That’s when I saw the hole in its neck… and the maggots. Gods, I hate that word – just writing it down gives me the shivers, but there they were, doing their job.
Now, my son is watching, and I’m still curious about the bird. There was a part of me – a very strong part of me – that wanted to fling the bird as far away from myself as I could, and run shrieking in the other direction. But, and this is where I earned my stripes, my curiosity was stronger, as was my desire to not act so violently to a natural process in front of my son. Despite my own aversion, there was a teachable moment here.
I made some involuntary noise of disgust at the squirming creatures inside the bird in my hands. Ugh, I was holding it.
“What is it?” Oldest son asked, in response to my reaction.
“Um…. well…” (me, still fighting the urge to chuck the bird away) “it’s um, not salvageable.”
“Well, you know how everything decays when it’s dead, and how important that is? Um, there are creatures (I just couldn’t say maggots yet - so gross) in this bird helping it to decay.”
This all said as I moved quickly to the door, had Oldest son hold it open for me, and hurried outside to put the bird down.
Now that I was no longer holding it, I was doing better. And I still wanted to know what it was.
Oldest and I peered down at it. “See how the feathers around the neck are moving on their own?” (Gross! Gross, gross, gross, gross!)
“Those are maggots eating the bird and helping it to break down and decompose”.
My husband came over with the camera and I updated him on the bird’s status.
“Oh well”, he said, and started photographing it.
I will spare you the dead bird photos. But after consulting a copy of Peterson’s Bird Guide, my best guess was that it was a Spruce Grouse. My father, hunter and outdoorsman, agreed with my identification when we later showed him photos.
Success! I not only faced my own fears of… squirmy creatures, but helped my son witness a natural process while managing to not scar him for life by completely losing my mind and freaking out over it. The power of education – it’s awesome.
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