An excerpt from a forthcoming memoir about the sanctuary’s first decade.
They arrived by night. Two ducks, six ducklings, four hens, two roosters and one very terrified turkey huddled in plastic pet-carriers in the back of a pick-up truck. They’d all been living together in a tiny shed until the Delaware family who thought of them as pets could no longer afford their upkeep and took them to a livestock auction. Luckily, a friend of feral cats happened to be there and offered to feed the birds until a good home could be found for them. Several frantic phone calls and one long drive later, Eastern Shore Sanctuary became that good home. [Originally called Eastern Shore Sanctuary, VINE began as a refuge for chickens in a region dominated by the poultry industry.]
As we heaved the heavy carriers from the truck to the barn, Miriam and I whispered our worries about the turkey. She seemed so scared! And she had a terrible infection in one eye. She’d need to spend her days in the heavyweight hen yard, where the birds were all drinking medicated water because a new group of hens had come in half-blind from eye infections caused by the noxious air of the factory farm on which they had been confined.
The next morning, I planned what I would do for the new birds as I mixed up the medicated water and let the heavyweight hens out into their yard. In the big barn, I went to the turkey first. Wrapping my arms awkwardly around her ungainly body while whispering soothing sounds, I lifted the large bird out of the carrier and into the yard. Taking a deep breath and holding her a little tighter, I climbed up onto cinderblock steps and over the fence that separated the main yard from the small “misfit yard” devoted to birds who didn’t fit in anywhere else. Starting to stagger, I made my way across that yard and stepped over the low fence between it and the yard devoted to heavyweight hens, where I set the turkey down with a sigh of relief.
She was not relieved! Fluttering and crying, the young bird stalked the yard, unfamiliar with her new acquaintances and unaccustomed to so much unbounded space. She was panting with thirst but couldn’t settle down long enough to take even a sip of water. Her panic alarmed me, but I couldn’t think of what to do to soothe her. Distracted by that problem, I wandered back into the big barn to let the other new birds out of their carriers and make sure they found their way to the food and water in the main yard. I opened the large carrier in which the ducks had spent the night and then turned to the smaller carrier containing several incredibly tiny roosters and hens.
The six ducklings stepped out of the barn in unison, trilling to one another in melodious tones that seemed like those of songbirds rather than ducks. Turning to listen, I noticed that I wasn’t the only one enchanted by their singing. The moment that the turkey heard the ducks sing, she stopped crying and started trying to find a way to get to them. Frustrated by the fence between the heavyweight and misfit yards, she stood at the corner closest to her friends, craning her neck to try to catch sight of them.
Now I knew what to do to soothe the stressed turkey—she needed to be near her friends! There were only three roosters in the misfit yard, which shared a fence with the main yard. I could give the turkey half that yard for the ten days she’d need medicated water. I’d have to carry the turkey in and out of the yard every day, but I was going to have to handle her twice each day anyway to put ointment in her infected eye.
As soon as I moved the flustered turkey into the misfit yard, she ran to the fence that separated that area from the main yard, where her friends were investigating their new surroundings. Two of the tiny hens immediately went to the fence and seemed to greet her, as did a couple of the ducklings. Since she seemed so popular and was obviously devoted to her companions, I decided to call her Cara, which means “friend” in Irish.
Everybody was happy, or close enough. Now I could stop and have a good look at our newest residents. I’d never gotten to know a turkey before, so I was most fascinated by Cara. With her black and brown feathers and relatively slim body, she looked more like a wild turkey than the gigantic white birds favored by the poultry industry. Her head and neck were featherless, like a vulture. Her gawky gait, gentle energy, and delicate vocalizations combined to give her an air of awkward, endangered grace.
Moa. Dodo. Great auk. This long-legged, heavy-bodied, feathered creature nervously stalking the misfit yard reminded me of the the plight of flightless birds, so perfectly adapted to their habitats but so woefully unprepared to flee or fight back against marauding mammals with weapons. Kangaroo Island emus, Mauritius red hens, Hawaiian rails, and so many more: Despite all of the diversity engendered by biology and geography, the story always unfolded the same way. The sailors came and, finding the birds tasty, hunted them to the brink of extinction. The settlers came and razed the land, destroying the habitat of the few who remained. The colonists came, bringing predators and diseases, against which the native species had no defense. The hunters beat them with sticks, shot them with guns, or simply caught them by hand. The people prized or despised them, either way expressing that evaluation by killing them. Eventually, they were gone, leaving the people to fight over who discovered what and in which museum the bones and other relics ought to be housed.
Cara’s duck friends walked and talked like living repositories of evolutionary history, feathered reptiles from the days when lumbering brontosauruses munched on towering cycads. Muscovy ducks are biological offshoots, able and often eager to mate with other ducks but producing sterile offspring when they do. Native to South America, Muscovy ducks are so strikingly unalike other ducks that they are often bred as “ornamental waterfowl.” They are also exploited by industrial agribusiness, which uses them to breed “mule ducks” like our friendly foie gras factory refugees.
The gigantic Muscovy drake glared—or perhaps only stared—at me that first morning, when he caught me taking too close an interest in his ducklings. Waddling closer while maintaining eye contact, he stretched out his neck and hissed, his tongue flickering like a snake’s as the feathers on the top of his head rose to stand menacingly upright. The knobby red skin of his face and head reminded me of the thick hide of an alligator or iguana.
Since they hail from nowhere near Moscow, nobody knows how Muscovy ducks came to be so called. One theory holds that the name springs from a mispronunciation of the name of the Muisca confederation, a pre-Colombian aggregation of nations whose lands included some of those those to which this duck is native. Another theory looks to the Muscovite Trading Company, which may have been the first commercial concern to sell the birds in Europe. Yet another theory attributes the name to the particularly strong scent or “musk” coming from the particularly prominent uropygial glands at the base of these ducks’ tails. During preening, these glands release quantities of oil that help the birds to clean and waterproof their feathers. I can testify that, for Muscovy ducks, the preening process is a particularly “musky” process that doesn’t leave them looking or smelling fresh.
Unlike other ducks, Muscovy ducks often prefer to roost in trees rather than sleeping on water or in the brush. The alarmingly long and sharp nails at the ends of their webbed toes not only facilitate climbing and perching but also serve as formidable weapons capable of shredding the skin of any potential predator foolish enough to make any gesture that might be interpreted as menacing.
While Muscovy ducks in the wild tend to be dark-feathered, with wings that may shimmer like a greenish-black oil slick, those under the control of people have been selectively bred to be predominantly white-feathered, as were all but one of Cara’s friends. Miriam and I came to call the big drake “Billy Idol” because the expressive white feathers on his head reminded us of the bristling blonde punk-rock haircut of the snarling singer of “White Wedding.” I never tired of watching those feathers rise and fall as he hissed so significantly at me. What was he saying? I couldn’t begin to figure it out. He followed me around the yard, sometimes tugging at my pant leg with his beak. Visitors commented on how much he seemed to like me, but I had the distinct impression that he shadowed me in order to keep a wary eye on me. At the same time—much more so than with any other animal at the sanctuary—I truly knew that I didn’t know what he might be thinking or feeling. This animal felt alien to me, more like a snake or a lizard than a warm-blooded bird.
If birds aren’t dinosaurs, they’re at least close cousins. On this, evolutionary biologists agree. The increasingly dominant viewpoint, bolstered by recent discoveries such as Anchiornis huxleyi in China and Aerosteon riocoloradensis in Argentina, is that birds are dinosaurs, survivors of the mass extinctions of the Cretaceous Period. In this view, one branch of the dinosaur line—relatively small members of the Therapoda suborder that also included the massive T-Rex—continued to evolve, eventually radiating into the bird forms we recognize today. In other words, dinosaurs are not extinct: They live on at backyard bird feeders and on factory farms, circumnavigate the globe in annual migrations, flock refuse heaps from Mumbai to Montana, and forage in the garbage cans of Rome.
Like the birds of today, the therapod dinosaurs of the past had hollow bones, three-toed feet, and wishbones. Some had feathers, like the Anchiornis huxleyi dinosaur whose remains were recently discovered in China. Birds have air-sacs rather than lungs. So did the dinosaur known as Aerosteon riocoloradensis, recently discovered in Argentina. The earliest known bird, Archaeopteryx, lived in what is now Germany in the Late Jurassic Period and shares so many features with dinosaurs that it is widely considered to be the sort of transitional animal that people who doubt the truth of evolution are always demanding to see.
Some scientists do dispute the direct lineage of birds from dinosaurs, arguing instead that birds and dinosaurs evolved from a common reptilian ancestor. In this view, birds are the closest living relatives to dinosaurs, but are not themselves dinosaurs. All paleontologists agree that birds and dinosaurs evolved from reptiles. Nonetheless, some Christian fundamentalists have seized on this literally academic dispute as if it somehow threw the whole of evolution into question, vociferously arguing against the idea that birds are dinosaurs as if winning that argument would somehow demolish the diminishing notion that people are primates. One creationist website makes a hero of Alan Feducia, enthusiastically quoting his skeptical assessments of some recent fossil finds while neglecting to note what—in the same Discover magazine from which they cherry-picked those quotations—he went on to say: “These creationists are confusing an argument about minor details of evolution with the indisputable fact of evolution: Animals and plants have been changing. The corn in Mexico, originally the size of the head of a wheat plant, has no resemblance to modern-day corn. If that’s not evolution in action, I do not know what is.”
Maybe they’re right to see danger in the bird-dinosaur connection. If you admit that bluebirds and brontosauruses share a common ancestor, it’s kind of hard to argue that humans could not possibly share a common ancestor with monkeys. Me, I had no trouble at all envisioning the dinosaurs in Billy’s family tree, and that left me with an expanded rather than diminished sense of my own lineage.
Billy’s mate—who we called Mata Hari due to the fleshy mask around her eyes, which gave her the mysterious air of a spy—was so many times smaller than he that we first mistook her for the youngest of the ducklings, thereby mistaking Billy for the mother of them all. Among the anarchistic ducklings, the one with grey-streaked feathers on her wings stood out as particularly self-possessed. Perched on a fence-post, looking out into the distance, she reminded me of a gull roosting on a pier. So that’s what we called her: Seagull.
Seagull and her brothers grew and flew, seizing every opportunity to fling their youthful bodies into the sky. Soon all but Seagull would grow, like Billy, too heavy for true flight. The whole family liked to visit the creek running through the vacant field that abutted our property, where Seagull floated in the shallow water as her brothers dibbled among the cattails and marsh grass.
While closing the coops one late Autumn evening, I noticed that the family had not returned from their outing and walked down the road to find Billy and the boys pacing the banks as Mata and Seagull floated placidly in the middle of the creek, perhaps already having fallen asleep. Herding the drakes home, I felt my own panic escalating. I couldn’t leave them out there! They wouldn’t be safe. While foxes and other ground predators couldn’t reach them, their white feathers already shone brightly in the rapidly dimming light. They’d be floating targets for those owls I always heard hooting in the night. I pulled on my highest gumboots and waded out as far as they would take me. Useless. No matter which bank I started from or from which angle I approached in hopes of herding them to shore, the ducks appeared not to see me even as they glided further from me. The sun sank. The temperature dropped. I gave up and waded all the way into the waist-deep water. Useless. Muck sucked at my water-filled boots as the ducks floated further from me, heedless of my waving and shouting. What was I going to do? The owls would get them if I couldn’t get them inside. How could I make them understand?
“The owls will get you if you don’t go home!” I shouted. “Owls! You know owls—Hoot! Hoot!” The ducks looked up. I hooted again. They looked around. Positioning myself so that floating away from me would move them toward the bank closest to our place, I cupped my hands around my mouth and gave my best impression of the haunting hoots I heard every night. Unsettled, Seagull and Mata Hari moved toward the shore. Slowly, slowly, hooting and herding, I eased them out of the water—at which point they took to the air, gliding up the road and then curving into the coop. I sloshed up the road and heaved the door closed behind them.
Winter was hard, brightened only by birds. Cara grew larger and more dinosaurian, her graceful neck elongating as her body thickened. One warm winter morning, a presentiment of spring provoked the roosters into an especially rowdy round of crowing as they crowded out of the coops and into the yards, filling the air with their excited yodels. Suddenly, the skin on Cara’s head and neck changed colors, morphing in an instant from its usual dull pink to an almost-irridescent blue mottled with bright red and dusty white. The fleshy snood over her beak elongated and swung as she spread her wings and began to strut, parading herself—no, himself—before the eyes of hens and ducks who seemed as amazed as I by this prehistoric transformation.
Cara and her friends arrived at the sanctuary in 2002 or 2003. Cara grew very large but lived for several years before succumbing to heart failure. Seagull and her brothers Buddy and Junior, along with their father Billy, made the move to Vermont when the sanctuary relocated in 2009. Seagull, Junior, and Billy all still live at the sanctuary.