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.
It’s been a week, and I am still scratching the chigger bites that I got hiking around Soldiers Delight NEA last week. Throughout the broiling summer, I would head out to this favorite spot clothed head to toe in tick and chigger-proof gear, spray my ankles and shoes with repellent, and jump into the shower as soon as I returned. For the most part, I survived these outings unscathed, but I detested being out in the woods wearing chemical armor and didn’t feel like lingering to look around. So last week, I went out sleeveless in shorts and sandals. The butterflies popped out of the bluestem, lit on boneset and ironweed, nectaring long enough for me to slowly approach through waist-high grasses. I spent hours out there relishing the solitude, the slight breeze that picked up a lone monarch and carried it to a patch of bright purple blazing star. The scent of joe-pye weed rose along a grassy stream where I crouched, lifting rocks one by one – here a young dusky salamander, there a tiny coiled water snake.
The chiggers accepted my invitation to dine. Their bites, swaths of vivid red welts against my pale midsection, will slowly fade. Chiggers are invisible to me when I am out photographing butterflies. I am searching for the bold, the lovely, the striking, the remarkable, while being consumed by creatures tinier than a pinhead. Also consumed by the need to know more, I have just learned that only the juveniles feast on me, and that at this stage their legs number 6 rather than 8. Their digestive enzymes dissolve my flesh while forming a feeding tube in it. No animal remains in or on me – only the rankling itch.
My skin still holds the faint scars of last year’s chigger feasts, etched by the elders of this year’s youngsters. I am tattooed with reminders to pay attention, to keep watch for what I haven’t yet learned to see.