Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker
Photo: Inge Curtis

Downies are the smallest and cutest of eight species of ‘peckers in south-east Virginia. Inge captured this picture of a male downy at a food bank. It hammered suet, nuts and seeds into a cavity of a bough. We don’t expect different species to be deliberately cooperative, but so it seemed. Like visitors at a community bank, a Red-breasted Nuthatch and Tufted Titmouse also deposited titbits while two other species came to check it out. All the depositors returned for withdrawals, the female downy taking more than the rest, perhaps for her nestlings. But an open safe at a bank is a temptation to bandits and along came a squirrel to steal everything.

The Kindness of Rehabbers

In a week bringing news about grey wolves shot and poisoned in Idaho and a naturalist attacked and left for dead by badger baiters in England, I have also seen love and devotion for helpless Virginia wildlife. The human spectrum that arcs from cruelty to altruism is astounding, if all too familiar.

I write about rehabbers. They are AWARE volunteers, mostly women, trained and licensed to help injured and distressed wildlife. They care for road casualties and orphans in the breeding season, besides all the accidents that can befall wild creatures, potentially any with a backbone (arthropods can’t repair broken parts and starfish need no help to regenerate an arm!).

Corn snake

When an animal is rescued, it is triaged to weigh its chances of recovery. Pro bono services from veterinarians provide advice, medication and surgery as necessary for repairing a broken wing, healing the stump of an amputated leg, nursing concussion, etc. Too often, euthanasia is the merciful decision.

Although they might wish otherwise, rehabbers can’t accept all-comers because each chooses to focus on particular groups of animals. The national status of Bald Eagles requires sending to one of the wildlife hospitals in Virginia. Recently, I heard of one given chelation treatment after eating carrion contaminated with lead shot, but unfortunately too late to save it.

American Kestrel

The ultimate goal is to rehabilitate animals so they can be returned to nature. This brings relief and satisfaction, although sometimes a bittersweet parting after weeks of intimacy with wildness. Some patients restored to health are still too disabled to survive on their own, yet often have long lives with their carers as ‘ambassadors’ for the education program.

On the day I attended a demonstration along with other master naturalists we saw a box turtle and corn snake (pictured), two owls, an American Kestrel (pictured), Red-shouldered Hawk and Osprey, two vultures and several bunnies and nestlings. All in a day’s work as they say! A long day when chicks need a special diet fed by hand every 45 minutes until sundown!

Volunteers set aside part of their property to accommodate patients and year-round ambassadors. They pay out of pocket for expenses not covered by donations or fees from education. Other family members and friends touched by the plight of vulnerable animals and seeing the labor of caring for them offer helping hands. We mostly have only fleeting glimpses of wild animals, who have little reason to trust us, but here is an example of the kindness of strangers, whose hearts are kinder than in the famous play that coined the cliché.

Listen to a Rehabber:

Next Post: Northern Parula

The Berkeley Thanksgiving

It will be missed by no one on this side of the North Atlantic that Thanksgiving Day 2016 falls on Thursday. Yet, some Virginians mindful of another tradition already had their Thanksgiving a fortnight ago. They resent the hegemony of Massachusetts for the celebrated day because historical records prove they have precedence.

Thanksgiving memorial plaque
Thanksgiving memorial plaque

The claim originated in a 1619 voyage of 36 men onboard the Good Ship Margaret out of Bristol, England. It was a tub of only 35 feet, somewhat shorter than twice the length of my office at home, and yet it sailed across a stormy ocean for ten weeks to the Chesapeake Bay. After the last storm had flung itself on the vessel, the exhausted mariners steered it into the King James River to anchor off the appointed land, which became known as the Berkeley Hundred and is today the Berkeley Plantation.

The ship’s master, John Woodlief, had returned to England after surviving the Starving Times of 1609-10 at Jamestown Fort, some 25 miles downriver. It says something about him that he left home comforts to go back to the Virginia wilderness, and when he

Berkeley Plantation House
Berkeley Plantation

returned he was wiser than on the 1607 voyage which conveyed a mixture of idle gentlemen and press-ganged paupers, neither of whom were well-prepared for the rigors ahead. He recruited craftsmen with skills needed in the fragile colony they would help to build. His ship was filled to the gunwales with clothes, kitchen utensils, tools, weapons, Bibles and beads to trade with Indians, and a great many groceries—8,000 biscuits and loaves, 160 lb butter, 127 lb bacon and horsemeat, 60 bushels of peas, 20 bushels of wheat, 6 tons of cider and 5 ½ tons of beer (healthier than water).

The sponsors in London instructed Woodlief to hold a solemn service of thanksgiving as soon as they arrived at their destination. The prepared formula read: “We ordain that this day of our ships arrival, at the place assigned for plantation, in the land of Virginia, shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

Another Good Ship Margaret arrives November 6, 2016
Another Good Ship Margaret arrives November 6, 2016

A manuscript recording their voyage and first thanksgiving was lost until Dr. Lyon Tyler of the College of William & Mary rediscovered it in an old archive called the Nibley Papers in the New York Public Library. Virginians like to point out not only their claim for primacy, but that Thanksgiving Day was first instituted as an annual religious observance, unlike the one-off feast enjoyed by the Pilgrims at Plymouth, MA, with their new buddies from a local Indian tribe. Unfortunately, the Berkeley rite stopped after an Indian Uprising in 1622 until 1958 when the current owners of the property reinstated it.

The Berkeley Thanksgiving was celebrated this year on Sunday November 6. Large numbers of families spent most of the day at the estate under blue skies because the Indian summer was pushing back the advance of fall. Below the old plantation house in a

Re-enactors who struggled to sound English

meadow that rolls down to the waterside, there were games for families, food and craft stalls, replica encampments, a corn maze, candle dipping and doll making, parading and dancing, music and magic. We watched a re-enactment of Captain Woodlief and his men landing from a replica of the good ship and giving thanks for a safe passage. Nearby, Indians cheerfully stomped a Friendship Dance to the rhythm of drums, although I wondered if their ancestors were horrified to see Englishmen on their turf. The crowd joined in the Pledge of Allegiance (hand on heart), sang the National Anthem and, finally, the history of Berkeley was retold by the present owner and one of Woodlief’s descendants.

Even a cynical observer of seasonal festivals would agree this was a happy scene of people united in pride for their country and history. Who could imagine under that blue sky there were dark thoughts lurking behind smiles? But soon after we went home we cast votes in the General Election, which beat down memories from two days before and replaced beautiful unity with ugly partisanship. Something to think about when I say: