Mar 1, 2016

The heart of Rescue

By Rebecca Dmytryk

Photo by Kev Chapman

It was just before noon when a call came in about two birds tangled together by some sort of string, dangling from the eaves of a three-story apartment complex in San Jose. 

Larissa, the reporting party, first noticed the birds about an hour earlier and she'd been trying to find help ever since. She called the local animal services but they did not have a ladder tall enough to reach the birds.

Over the phone, I asked Larissa some questions to help me understand the circumstances - how high, how far from an open window, how long have they been struggling, what species, if she knew? All these things help a rescuer build an appropriate plan of action. Today, with the help of modern technology, rescuers can view the scene remotely through text and email - tremendously helpful. I had her text me a few.

Larissa's pictures and video were great. From the images, I knew our ladders wouldn't be tall enough. 

I thought to call on the local fire department, but would they be available, and would they make the effort for a pair of starlings?

European starlings were introduced in the U.S. in the 1890's when Eugene Schieffelin released 100 of them in New York's Central Park. Today their population is estimated to be about 200 million. 

Photo by Jean-Jacques Boujot
The starling is a stout bird, about the size of a blackbird. In spring, starlings sport beautiful black feathers that shimmer green and purple iridescence, but interestingly, towards the end of summer starlings become spotted. The white and brown spots are the tips of new feathers. As the feathers wear away, the dark color becomes dominant again. 
Some things about starlings aren't so pretty, though. In the U.S. they are considered an invasive pest species because of the damage they cause to agriculture; a large murmuration can bring down a plane, and they are known to compete with some native species for nest sites. It's a good thing starlings stick close to human development and avoid wild habitats, for the most part. 
To quote from a piece by Sue Pike, "they are good-looking, lively and intelligent, with big personalities. They can fly really fast (up to 48 mph). They are terrific vocal mimics. They are communicative and gregarious; often foraging with grackles, cowbirds, sparrows, robins and crows. They didn’t ask to come here, it isn’t their fault they are so successful."

So, I wasn't sure if I could get someone to help the poor birds, but, starling or not, I had to try. 

I placed a call to San Jose Fire Dispatch and was put on hold a few times as my request was considered... at least it wasn't a decisive No, right?

Just minutes later I was told Engine 10 was en route to check out the situation. 


I called Larissa back and told her the good news and for her to supply them with a pillowcase.

It wasn't long before I received a call from the Captain. I offered some instruction in case they were able to reach the birds... I suggested they lift a pillowcase up and around the birds so when the line is cut they'll fall into the sack. Once safely contained we can work out what to do next.

The crew first tried their tallest ladder but it couldn't get them as close as a ladder truck...

Yep, they called on Truck 14 to the rescue...

Once in position, Fireman Sam from Engine 10 climbed up to the frightened birds. He did exactly as we advised - he scooped the birds into the pillowcase and cut the twine. 

Back on the ground, the crew worked to untangle the birds' legs from what they described as some sort of thick twine, like threads of dental floss - maybe bailing twine... 

A huge THANK YOU! to Larissa for not letting these birds suffer and for placing that initial call for help, and an extra, extra huge THANK YOU!!!! to the San Jose Fire Department and the firefighters from Station 10 and 14 for their public service and their compassion and the heart that is such a part of being a rescuer. Thank you!!!!!

Check out the rescue captured on video:

Want to know more about starlings? Check this out: