It happens all too often this time of year. A student runs in, breathless: “Emily, there’s a hurt/dead bird!” A crowd has likely already gathered around a tiny still figure. Or maybe it’s still fluttering a bit, but its head is cocked awkwardly to one side, one eye barely open. Usually it lies beneath a window. Today, there were two casualties, a junco and a cardinal. Sometimes I bag and label birds that die and put them in the freezer with the frozen mice. I pull them out when we are learning about bird adaptations, and we compare feet or bills or plumage. Or we may bury it, its grave marked with an elaborately decorated stone.
Other times, it is just a scattering of feathers that we find, the plucked remains from a hawk’s meal. These feathers usually make their way into someone’s fort collection, become decorations, or are attached to a whittled arrow.
A pileated woodpecker with a neck injury appeared mysteriously on the soccer field after a game recently. No one saw it land there; it was seen struggling to get upright, and was brought to the science room. It was eventually taken to a wildlife rehabilitation center. No word has yet come as to its condition; we expect it did not survive.
There is something especially poignant about bird strikes, especially when they are committed by an invisible, deadly barrier. Adaptations to aerial predators are no match for glass.
At the end of the day during aftercare, someone came running, shouting my name with such urgency that I was sure a child must be hurt. Instead, it was “Snake! Eating something!” I followed him to the pine woods where a ring of kids had formed. In the middle, writhing slowly among the leaf litter, a garter snake gripped the posterior end of a large toad. The snake’s mouth was already distended, as if it had been working on consuming this meal for some time, yet the toad moved only slightly, holding three of its legs (the fourth wasn’t visible) firmly planted as it faced forward with an incongruously placid expression. There was blood, and what might have been intestines leaking from a wound in the toad’s belly.
I braced myself for the kids’ reactions; this is about as grisly as it gets, and there was something so pathetic in the toad’s utter calm, its bright eyes, its living consumption. But there were no squeals or gasps of horror, no begging to help the toad or to force the snake to let go. There were questions: “Is it using venom to kill it?” “How long do you think it will take to swallow it?” “Is that the same toad that we found last week?” “Could it hurt us?” I wondered at the kids’ apparent acceptance of this process. Was it because they have helped me feed mice (frozen and thawed) to classroom snakes, and we casually talk about which end gets eaten first, and how fast they get to “the spaghetti part,” where just the tail is sticking out of the snake’s mouth? This protracted live-toad-eating seemed very different to me somehow. After we had watched for a few minutes, it was time to leave for carpool. I followed them out of the woods and saw several relating the snake-toad tale to the other teachers. “Oh no, how terrible!” one exclaimed, to which a child responded, “Well, snake’s gotta eat.” And another added, “Yeah, it’s kinda gross – but also kinda cool. Mostly cool – at least for the snake.”