Distinctive notes shimmer through the sleepy summer trees. Grabbing my hat and camera, I call to my laddie: “I’m going on koel patrol!” Despite my regular surveillance, I still haven’t managed a good picture of the pacific koel, an oceanic member of the cuckoo family. Their calls lead me on fruitless expeditions through the neighborhood, craning my neck at silhouettes and leaf shadows.
Unlike many sexually dimorphic species, the male is the plain one, clad in a shiny black tuxedo like choughs and male bowerbirds. It’s the female I really want to photograph, with her lush coffee-colored plumage, but she’s even rarer to spot than her partner. In more than a year of bushwalks, I’ve only encountered one, snapping a single hurried photo before she flew. I’ve prowled the suburbs this past month in hopes of a second encounter.
I should be more careful what I wish for.
On a recent weekday, I ducked out of the office before lunch for a breath of unmasked air and caught a flutter of movement near the curb. A female koel lay on the drain cover, one wing splayed to the side.
“Poor girl! Did you get clipped by a car?” I murmured, creeping closer for a visual assessment. She fixed me warily with amber eyes, but didn’t flee. In another bird I might have suspected a diversion to lure predators away from her chicks. But koels are brood parasites, laying their eggs in the nests of friarbirds and wattlebirds who become unwitting foster parents. This was no ruse; she was genuinely hurt.
Now, I generally possess all the compassion of a mako shark, but when there’s an animal in distress (particularly as a result of human behavior) the drive to action consumes me. A quick call to the local wildlife hotline turned up a rehabilitator nearby, who could take the bird if I delivered. After freeing a snake from erosion mesh with a pair of nail scissors, a grounded bird should be an easy rescue. Dashing back to my cubicle, I seized my sweater and one of the ubiquitous cardboard boxes stacked by the printer. Early lunchers raised their eyebrows as I sprinted back across the business park: what is this crazy lady doing? I didn’t care what they thought. The only gaze that slowed my steps was that of the koel, still sprawled where I’d found her.
“OK, darling, I’m going to take you for help,” I crooned, slipping behind her. She floundered across the grass. Fearful she’d worsen her injuries, I tossed my sweater over her like a net and scooped her up gently in both hands. I’m always astonished at how little birds weigh! Even the light garment hung on her like chain mail; I quickly unhooded her, earning a reproachful look. My human instinct wanted to cradle the bird and stroke her feathers. But my wild core could imagine how such ministrations might seem from her perspective. Injury stressed her enough without the pawings of a giant gangly mammal enrobed in strange smells and hairy skin!
I set her gingerly in the box and draped the sweater over top, leaving a gap for light and air. Feathers whispered against cardboard. I maintained a soft monologue to soothe the koel—and maybe myself, too—as I nestled the box in my car’s passenger footwell and navigated twisty suburban streets to the rehabilitator’s address. Tucked behind a screen of trees, the worn but cheerful house evoked a hedge witch’s cottage from a folk tale. A wildlife rescue truck already stood outside. Its driver, a friendly older man in uniform, held open the screen door before I even knocked.
“Is that the koel?” he asked. “I was just dropping off a galah, and stuck around when I heard there was one coming in—I don’t see them often.”
“I’ve only seen one once before, and I’ve been trying to spot another all summer,” I replied, stepping around a laundry basket into the living room. “This isn’t how I wanted it to happen.”
The rehabilitator tucked back her long brown hair and laid the koel on her ironing board. “Let’s see what we’ve got here.”
I quickly explained how I’d found the bird while the woman examined her. “She had one wing splayed out, so I thought it might be damaged.”
“Nah. Wings are beautiful.” She held one out wide, displaying the speckled chocolate-brown feathers. The koel, which had laid mostly quiet with me, now kicked up a fuss. Colloquial Australian lingo calls koels “stormbirds” because their calls are most frequently heard before rain; this one earned the name with a squawking tempest. She clamped the rehabilitator’s finger in her hooked beak.
The woman only seemed charmed. “Don’t they look like little eagles?” she bubbled, letting the koel dangle from her hand. The dark cap of head feathers, spiked out in annoyance, did give the cuckoo a raptor-like edge. “She’s weak—she should be drawing blood. I know that shouldn’t be a good thing, but…” She chuckled.
I thought of the goshawk that had nicked my ear the month before and smiled. “Maybe she’s just dehydrated. Can you help her?”
I willed her next words to be “sure, a splint and some water and she’ll be fine.” My fiction brain sketched out a story where I became the rehabilitator’s apprentice, healed the koel, and adopted it as a feathery familiar that spiraled through the antipodean sky, scouting animals in need of aid.
But nature doesn’t always have happy endings. The rehabilitator laid the koel gently on her back and tickled the limp claws. “She’s not moving her legs. And look at her breathing.” She ran a finger down the bird’s cappuccino breast, tracing each erratic rise, and sighed. “It’s her spine.”
My stomach plunged into my dirt-streaked flats. “So there’s nothing you can do for her.”
“No,” said the two experts in unison, words fraying into laughter.
For a moment their reaction unsettled me. What was funny about a mortally wounded bird, flailing out its death rage on a singed floral ironing board cover? Awe at its wild loveliness mingled with pain at its loss. How could a few part-time nature nerds compensate for the ravages of their entire species?
Dark chuckles leaked from my throat as well. There was no other expression for such bittersweet futility.
The rescue worker placed the livid koel tenderly back in the box. “Best to let them have their last fight before they go,” he said in a sage murmur. Scraps of villanelle stirred in my brain:
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
…Rage, rage against the dying of the light.Dylan Thomas
Salt stung my eyes. I thanked the two volunteers for their time.
“I’m sorry we can’t give you better news,” said the rehabilitator.
“It’s not your fault,” I told her. “All you can do is try, right?”
Both agreed with bracing nods.
I drove back to work, suppressed tears blurring the road. Would it have been kinder to leave the koel where I’d found her, in familiar environs, rather than dying in a box or cage? Whatever the rescuers do with terminal patients had to be more peaceful than languishing on a curb, hapless prey for a cat or fox. I recalled my parents digging graves for dead birds discovered in our backyard, affording the creatures a modicum of dignity as they returned to the carbon cycle. Hopefully someone would be sentimental enough to bury the poor koel in a garden, to reappear in next spring’s flowers.
When I told a birder friend about the episode, he tried to console me by invoking the “circle of life.”
“But it’s not,” I protested. “I can handle a bird killed by, say, a raptor—the hawk chicks have to eat, too. But getting hit by a car?” Or having your habitat bulldozed? Or getting poisoned by runoff? That’s not nature. That’s human carelessness. As the koel’s haunting cries once heralded rain, her death warns of a more dire storm darkening our horizon. Human-caused disasters hurtle toward us like the car that struck her tiny spine, threatening to break the back of our civilization.
If a well-intentioned writer couldn’t save an injured bird, what can she do for an imperiled planet?
Since Earth won’t fit in that pilfered box, my rescue attempt takes the opposite approach, using the paper it once contained. I write climate fiction in hope my stories will help drive change. Perhaps it’s no more than I did to calm the koel, empty words to fill the encroaching silence.
But all I can do is try.