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Wednesday, 14 November 2007 00:00

Avian rescue at Central Elementary

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It’s a little unsettling to hear your kindergartner’s voice when you answer the phone at midday. But I could tell immediately from Izzy’s voice that she was OK — just a bit excited.

“Umm Dad, we were outside and Mr. Hightower had this box and he just whammed it down over this little brown bird. He said he thinks it’s some kind of duck. We don’t know what it is and, umm, we were wondering if you come look at it. Ms. Wilhelm has it in a cage in her room.”

I believe the day was Wednesday, Oct. 7, and we had had showers the night before. I told Izzy’s teacher that I would come by a little early to pick her up and we could go look at the bird.

I picked Izzy up and we walked to art teacher Nicole Wilhelm’s room where, in a milk crate converted to avian holding pen, was an adult pied-bill grebe.

The pied-billed is a small (about the size of a mourning dove) chunky, brown grebe with a whitish rump. It has a thicker bill than most grebes. While the grebe is almost exclusively aquatic, it doesn’t have webbed feet. Instead, each toe is lobed and when the feet are pushed backward the lobes open up like sails, propelling the bird. When the feet are drawn forward the lobes collapse. A grebe’s toenails are even flattened making them like little paddles. And a grebe’s legs are placed far back on the body.

The placement of its legs and a little misjudgment are probably what got this bird in trouble. The bird was likely migrating Tuesday night and sometimes in rainy conditions, shiny asphalt can look like the surface of a lake or pond to tired waterfowl. By the time this grebe skidded to a stop on terra firma it was too late — it was land locked. Grebes, like loons and coots and some other waterfowl, have to kind of taxi across the water’s surface to get airborne.

While certainly a “duck out of water” on dry land, the grebe is happy to spend most of its time on the water. The grebe can stay submerged for nearly two minutes and cover lots of territory underwater. It’s penchant for diving rather than flying when approached has led to a couple of common names — die-dipper and hellbender. Around it’s nest, when a grebe feels threatened it will sink slowly underwater leaving its head up like a periscope to keep an eye on things.

The grebe’s adaptations have suited it well. There are fossil records dating back 80 million years. The pied-billed is the most widely distributed grebe in North America. It breeds from British Columbia and Nova Scotia southward to the northern tier of states. It is a common visitor here, at Lake Junaluska in winter and during spring and fall migration.

This was a lucky bird. Fortunately Mr. Hightower found it rather than some four-legged critter, and once it was boxed it was safe until Ms. Wilhelm could release it at Lake Junaluska later that afternoon.

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