The headline in the morning paper read, Bird Whisperer covers up bird deaths and threat to public health. Mattie expected a reaction to Blake Chisholm’s story and thought she was prepared, but the maelstrom it released was intimidating. She was getting requests for interviews from media in every English-speaking language country in the world, two film crews were positioned at the gate to the property, and an overwhelmed inbox had crashed her email.
And it was only 7:30 a.m.
Negotiating the media scrum put Mattie behind schedule and when she arrived to deliver her lecture at the university, there was a crowd of students at the entrance to the amphitheater.
As she approached, they quieted and parted. All except five young women who blocked her entrance. Two were decorated as Blue and Gold Macaws with indigo hair, garish make-up, red vests adorned with fake feathers and black tights. They unfurled a sign between them that read, Re-Wild Pet Parrots, while one of their companions began videoing the confrontation on her cell phone.
Mattie could see two campus security guards jostling students as they hurried toward the demonstrators.
The leader of the group stepped into Mattie’s space. She wore an army surplus jacket festooned with buttons and badges declaring her affiliation with other animal rights movements. She began to read from a prepared text.
“We demand you release all parrots back into the wild before more die and–”
Mattie snatched the piece of paper from the woman’s hands, scrunched it up and tossed it on the floor. “I’m in no mood for this bullshit.”
The startled speaker took a step back. Mattie saw fear and was ashamed. Releasing parrots back into the wild sounded good, as did freeing orcas and dolphins, but it was complicated. You didn’t just open the cage or pen and let them go. They’d be free alright, free to die. But then they’d died in her care, so what was the difference? These women weren’t the enemy and maybe they could become allies.
The young women were standing their ground. Mattie respected their determination and courage. since her appearance was pretty scary these days.
“Look, I can have the security guards haul your asses out of the building or you can come inside and I’ll give you five minutes to speak civilly to everyone.”
The demonstrators quickly conferred. “Okay.” The woman who’d been reading led the way. The banner bearers were next, positioning themselves just inside the door, their message held high. Mattie and the rest of the assemblage followed behind.
The place was packed. Seats and standing room at the back were at capacity and still there were people hovering in the doorway and outside in the hall.
“You can sit on the risers and the floor at the front if you like,” Mattie said.
She waited until they’d all crowded in, many settling at her feet. She waited longer. The whispering stopped. Silence.
Mattie nodded toward the five women standing beside her. “Have at it.”
Mattie stepped back, and the speaker stepped forward with a new copy of the same document. Mattie thought she’d likely find another one of their manifestos wedged in her car door or pinned under the windshield wiper.
“Considering that parrots mate for life, that in the wild they fly up to fifty miles a day, and that they have a life span of up to fifty years, it is cruel and inhumane to keep them as pets, caged and isolated from their own kind for the duration of their life. We demand you release all parrots back into the wild now rather than have more die of disease in your sanctuary or be adopted out as pets and endure unnatural and unfulfilled lives in deplorable conditions.”
There was a smattering of applause from supporters in the audience.
“That’s it?” Mattie said.
The protestors looked at one another. They started to file out.
“Just a second. You just accused me of mistreating birds, of allowing them to die in my care. I’d like to respond.”
They stopped, shrugged, like Mattie could say anything that would make a difference. Tribalism, you’re either with us or against us, the facts are irrelevant.
“The birds I rescue have been companion birds, many probably born in captivity. If released into the wild without any conditioning or orientation, what they’ve learned living as pets would hasten their death rather than help them survive.”
“Try to imagine yourself being dropped into the jungle tomorrow and expected to survive,” Mattie said. “No wi-fi, no cell phone coverage.” She waited for the chuckles and asides to abate.
“You’ve never had to forage for food, build a shelter to protect yourselves against the weather, escape predators who want to eat you for dinner or learn to communicate and socialize with strangers you don’t understand and have nothing in common with other than you’re both human beings.
“You wouldn’t survive and neither do most of the parrots released without a well-managed re-wilding program.
“I don’t have the time or resources to establish such a program which, by the way, would have to be in the country of their origin. I thought I was doing something worthwhile by rescuing them from abuse and neglect here. Evidently, you don’t and maybe you’re right.”
Mattie turned to the protestors. “But I would suggest if you want to do something worthwhile use your energy to raise funds for parrot release projects like Ara Manzanillo in Costa Rica.”
Mattie faced the audience that looked down upon her from the elevated seats.
“If you came to cheer on your animal rights friends, they’ve had their moment of righteous indignation and you’ve dutifully captured it on your cell phone. You can leave now.”
A half-dozen people followed the protestors out of the amphitheater.
“Since I don’t recognize half of you here as my students, I don’t think you came to hear a lecture on Ornithology. That’s okay, because I’m in no mood to give one. I’ve had my lecture transcribed and photocopied and I encourage students registered in this program to pick up a copy from this pile on your way out. Your final exam is in a week and you’ll need to know this stuff.”
“So why did you come? Mattie moved around to the front of the desk, pushed herself up and sat on it.
“Maybe you came to find out what caused the rare bird mortality occurrence I attended? Was it a sign of the End of Days? Or am I a witch who confounds nature to enhance my power?”
Both these hypothesizes were popular threads on social media, the latter accompanied by a video clip of Mattie examining the dead birds on the road. One post suggested she was giving the victims their last rites. She had to admit it looked eerie; a woman kneeling over a dead bird, getting up and moving to the next one, and then the next one, and next one and so on all played out upon a bleak landscape and silhouetted by an apocalyptic sunset.
“Though I’m sure some people consider me a witch, I’m only the nasty kind and not one who has supernatural powers. If I did, I would have used them to save the thirty-nine exotic birds who died of West Nile Virus at the sanctuary I’m associated with. Perhaps that’s what you came find out about?”
Mattie scanned the eager faces.
“Answers are what you want, right?” Mattie said. “Answers and reassurance. It’s what we all want.” She shook her head. “I can tell you what happened. I can tell you how it happened. But why it happened?” Mattie smiled. “I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.”
She’d tell the truth. She didn’t care what they thought of her, she’d already been judged.
“On Sunday morning it was discovered a cockatiel being cared for at Saunders Bird Sanctuary had died. I investigated and with limited information made the assumption the bird had died as a result of being infected by West Nile virus.
“The West Nile virus is transmitted when an infected mosquito bites to obtain a blood meal. Mosquitoes, considered the principal vector, become infected when they feed on infected birds. Birds are both susceptible to it and act as the host.
“The virus circulates in the blood of infected birds for several days prior to the bird dying.
“The small birds, the parakeets and cockatiels, have no symptoms.” They reminded Mattie of candles, bright and flickering and then abruptly snuffed out. “The larger birds, the macaws and cockatoos, display symptoms. West Nile causes encephalitis, the brain swells causing lack of coordination, seizures, paralysis, then death.”
Mattie had the image of Manny fluttering in her hands, going rigid, then limp. The helpless feeling she had then came surging back, and she had to pause.
“Over the next two days thirty-nine birds died.”
Mattie got up and began to pace. She was distracted and those sitting on the floor scrambled to get out of the way so they wouldn’t be stepped on.
“I don’t have to tell anyone here it’s been unseasonably wet and warm. There’s lots of standing water, a big pond right beside the sanctuary, ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes.
“On Monday, while we were still trying to cope with the consequences of the virus, I received a call at the Rescue Centre about a multiple bird mortality occurrence. When I arrived on the scene, I found forty-two European Starlings dead or dying on a country road. A witness said the birds flew head-first into the pavement.”
Mattie paused and took a swig out of the water bottle she always brought to lectures. Nobody moved or spoke.
“A colleague of mine speculated the deaths were related to the starlings being malnourished and stressed from migration and the weather.”
Mattie shook her head. “But these birds were healthy, I examined everyone.
“As far as migration is concerned, at this time of year starlings are migrating from the lower mainland to the Okanagan. This is where they begin so they’re not exhausted, they’re fresh and strong. The weather that day was neither excessively windy, rainy, not too cold or hot. It was a normal spring afternoon.
“The necropsy done by a veterinarian pathologist with the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture found there was no evidence of underlying infectious disease or intoxication. The birds all died from blunt force trauma, broken necks and caved in skulls.
“The spokesperson from Environment Canada reported a witness as saying the starlings were trying desperately to avoid a predator bird.
“It’s speculated that’s why starlings perform murmurations; taking off simultaneously, wheeling and diving, bunching, streaming out and then landing in unison. But if that’s their natural response to a predator, something they do instinctively and have performed countless times, what happened this time?
“And who was the witness? I was there, I talked to everyone at the scene and only one person actually witnessed the event and she told me it looked like the birds committed suicide. She never mentioned a predator.” That was the X-File part of the puzzle that disturbed Mattie.
“As the old ChInese curse says, 'May you live in interesting times’ and we do, especially for birds. A virus first isolated in Uganda eighty-two years ago kills thirty-nine of them in a sanctuary 8700 miles away. A flock of starlings dive into the pavement at fifty miles an hour and forty-two die.
“And now the Amazon is on fire.
“The birds flee the smoke and flames and leave behind eggs and chicks. Even if they find a new home nearby, they have to compete with other birds, wildlife, and people already established in that territory. There is less forest, more competition and already hundreds of these species are stressed and endangered because of habitat loss.”
Mattie threw up her hands. “Why is this happening?” She waited. “Hey, I’m asking you?” She pointed to a South Asian student in the third row. “Sashi, any ideas?” The young woman shrugged. “Miller, can you provide some insight?” The young man squirmed in his seat. “Does anybody in this room have any fucking idea what’s going on because I sure don’t?”
Not a murmur.
“I guess the next thing you need to consider if you love birds, and I’m going to assume you all do, is what you’re going to do about it?” Mattie picked up her briefcase. She’d never even opened it. “I’m going to have a funeral.”
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