Columns 2008

A farewell to One Wing

My sister is not exactly a bird lover. She lives across from a migratory bird sanctuary but over the years some birds decided to build nests in her front yard instead. Daphne Duck returned annually for about five years. She’d lay her eggs and then defend her clutch against anyone trying to get up the front stairs. Having a cool summer drink on Judy’s porch while watching the sunset on the bay took on a whole new meaning when accompanied by a mad mama duck trying to attack you.

This year, a robin chose to build a nest in a tree planted close to her front door. Judy has to use her back door now because approaching her house from the front leads to an attack from a tiny but furious mother robin.

And in what has to be the crowning moment in Judy’s relationship with birds, she has had more seagulls poop on her while she walks the Boardwalk in Atlantic City than anyone else I know. I tell her this is karma because the birds sense her antagonism towards them.

My feelings about birds are quite different.  I don’t know why I have such a passion for them. As a youngster, I had exactly two connections to birds – the seagulls on the Boardwalk mom used to let me feed, which constituted my weekly contact with nature; and the pigeons my grandfather tried to grab in parks and bring home on the trolley for my nona to cook. Yet somewhere in there I fell in love with birds and the freedom they seemed to embody.  Maybe it has something to do with my childhood fixation on being able to fly like Mighty Mouse. Is it really such a big leap from a flying mouse to an eagle?

OK, maybe it is. But however I got to where I am, here I am, doing volunteer shifts every week at Bird TLC, our wild bird rehab center in Anchorage. I feel privileged each time I enter a mew with an eagle and stand so close to such primal power. Being next to such a magnificent creature brings me closer to the wild nature that is still humanity’s heritage than I ever thought possible. I know that eagle could take me down in a second. But it doesn’t. It eyes me warily and gives me the benefit of the doubt.  Well, the fact that I’m carrying dinner might also have something to do with its tolerance. 

One of our eagles, One Wing, died last week after almost twenty years in residence with us. Most people in Alaska, and many people around the country, know One Wing’s story.  A victim of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, he ended up spending the rest of his life teaching us how to make lemonade out of lemons.  A tragedy took his wing, but it couldn’t take his spirit.

So every Tuesday I would search through our freezers for a special treat for him and his mate, Old Witch.  Maybe a rabbit one week, a squirrel the next, a turkey after that. Each week I tried to put some variety into the daily ration of salmon that nourishes our eagles most of the time.

Eventually Old Witch lived up to her name and got old. When we knew she couldn’t make it through another winter, we set her free to fly again in a better place. One Wing was now alone. I spent time with him when I could, talking to him, listening to his replies – which mostly ranged along the lines of “Where’s my rabbit, woman? Now get out of my mew and let me eat in peace.”

We didn’t know we’d be saying good-by to him so soon. One Wing is flying free with Old Witch now. Bird TLC volunteers appreciate how privileged we were to get to know a spirit as amazing as his. Walking by his empty mew will always make us a little sad.  We know, though, that he’s happy now, happy and free and as light as a feather, memories of an oil spill that crippled him faded into the past.  That takes some of the sadness away, but doesn’t stop the ache in our hearts for the eagle that stole them so many years ago.