The Ethics of Finding an Injured Bird

Published Feb 13th 2000 in Wildlife

The snowstorm in December of 1998 brought nine to twelve inches of wet snow that soaked the soil, stimulating germination of a respectable showing of spring wildflowers. We have not gotten such a snow this year.

Even so, a late winter or early spring snowstorm may still bluster in, catching us unaware. An old saying often heard on the Llano Estacado -- “when the mesquites leaf out, there will be no more freezes” -- does not always hold true. Several times in the last three decades, snow has fallen after the mesquites have leafed out.

Have you heard the old stories, such as the story of the blizzard of 1886 killed 99 percent of the cows from here to Canada? A person could nearly walk across the Panhandle on the backs of dead cattle. The blizzard of 1983 lasted almost as long. In a span 200 hours only one hour rose above freezing. Snow remained on the ground for ten days.

Modern society suffered with the breaking of frozen pipes and fender-benders from slick roads, but not much else. We are insulated and spoiled. “Ooooh, the windchill is below freezing!” as we run for the house. Isn’t civilization wonderful? We do not have to suffer.

Naturalists are curious. How do animals survive cold fronts, cold snaps, blue northers, and blizzards? Venturing out into the cold, risking frostbite and hypothermia, the naturalist out adventuring encounters the unexpected: the confrontation of moral quandaries in addition to the dangers.

Nearly thirty years ago, two young men birdwatched during a snowstorm. No one told them that the Audobon Christmas Count that had been planned for the day had been cancelled due to the bitter below-zero windchills.

At places where birds were likely to seek shelter, they hopped out of the car and took a walk, kicking brushpiles and weedthickets trying to scare out a bird or two. The two young men did not see many birds.

They did see an incredible sight: three Tundra Swans sailing down out of the falling snow to land in steaming water. Hey, so what if it was the Midland Sewer Ponds, it was still beautiful!

At a caliche pit, they noticed a small creature scurrying away as they searched the crevices for a Rock Wren. Both young men ran after the creature, a few minutes later catching a Western Meadowlark with its wings frozen together.

American culture celebrates the individual. Every individual enjoys not only the right to survive but also the right to want and expect the best possible life. Political and religious movements have been built on this basic tenet. Their impulse to catch it was motivated by this concern for the individual.

The two young men brought the bird back to their pickup, cranked its heater up full-blast, and held the Meadowlark in their hands. They watched as the ice melted and pooled on the floorboards below. The bird shivered uncontrollably from cold and fear. As young men are wont to do, they discussed the morality and significance of their actions.

“The bird would have died if we had not found it,” said the first one.

Playing Devil’s Advocate, the second young man countered, “It does not matter whether this individual lives or dies. The species will continue. The natural world is based on species survival, not individual survival.”

“It is in our hands to do something for this individual, though. We would be wrong to cast this creature back out into this storm.”

“It is illegal for us to take this bird home and keep it alive until the weather warms up. Now that the ice is melted from its wings, let us dry it off, and let it fly away.”

The two young men sat quietly, contemplating what each had proposed. The bird quit shivering and began struggling to escape the hand that held it.

“Which is better? Freedom and its consequences, or safety in a prison it does not understand? If the bird understood the choices, which would it choose? Which would you choose?” The second young man opened his door to force the issue. The sub-zero wind blasted into the truck, as the bird broke free of the first young man’s hands, crashing into the lap of the second young man, before plunging outside.

The bird continued frantically, only half flying. It was obvious that a wing had been injured. The first young man cried out in anguished tones, threw open his door and ran outside to catch the bird again. The Meadowlark was too fast, however, and though the first young man tried to capture it for another ten minutes, he finally returned without success to the truck, shivering.

This story has haunted its participants ever since that day. They still chat about it when other subjects have been thoroughly discussed. They still speculate about whether the Meadowlark eventually died from the cold, or whether a predator found it first. The tale makes very clear the struggle of survival in the natural world.

We humans are usually far removed from that struggle. Many hunters point to that distance as a reason to explain why they hunt: it is their way to learn the ethics of death in a tangible way. Others, seeking to understand the senseless violence in our society, wonder if neglecting to teach our children the power of death is to blame. Originating from the innately human sense of curiosity, a story such as this can cause discussions about the moral issues surrounding death.