Jun 5, 2012

The perils of fort living

Living in Fort Sheridan is pretty comfortable and very safe for us humans, as long as you know how to navigate the unwritten rules and habits of the local community. The only danger for us is getting hit by a golf ball if someone is practicing his swing on the parade ground or gettingi nfected with West Nile (which has recently popped up in Illinois) or with Varicella suburbia, a nasty bug that has been around for a while, creating desperate housewives-like symptoms.

How different must this place be for smaller critters, like squirrels, chipmunks, toads and birds. The nearby nature reserve, lake and parade grounds make a nice habitat for them, but hawks are hovering high above during daytime, and and night we regularly hear the coyotes howling nearby. Add to that the occasional sighting of owls, and you quickly realize Fort Sheridan is a perilous place for our little neighbors.

That's why I was alarmed when during one of the evening walks with Ms. Ruba, I clearly discerned a small animal in need, scratching for its dear life. But even though I could clearly hear it, in the pitch dark it took a long time to locate it. It was all the way down on the bottom of a drain pipe, which around here are thick steel tubes poured into concrete in the pavement. So after some well intended attempts, with the darkness obscuring any clue of what my rescue strategy could be and with Ms. Ruba impatiently pulling on her leash, I could only give up and leave the little rodent to its certain fate. The only entrance to this trap is about 30 feet up in the roof gutter, so it must have been quite a trip down for whatever animal is trapped there (judging the sound of the scratching I assume a squirrel). I pondered about ringing the doorbell of the owners of that particular drainpipe, but what were they going to do? Probably call the cops on me as it was past 11 PM.

Next morning, after a somewhat restless night with haunting dreams, Ms. Ruba's routine took us right by the scene again. In daylight I thought to assess the damage, but to my surprise the scratching sound had not yet ceased. It actually stopped when I got close, and only then did I notice that whatever was in there could see the light of day.

This made it even more desperate, but it also helped me devise a rescue plan of brute force dislocating the drain pipe from the steel tube. Trapped in there was one of my favorite birds since childhood because of their amazing vocal repertoire and ability to imitate other species: a beautiful Sturnus unicolor, or black starling. Just like us, the starling is a relatively recent colonist in Illinois, introduced in New York's Central Park from Europe in the 1890s, or right around the time when Fort Sheridan was built.

This individual tilted its tiny head, peered at me distrustingly with a pitch-black eye and waited for at least 10 seconds before taking off to its freedom. Ever since, I'm convinced I hear its chatter during every daylight walk, and enjoy the absence of desperate scratching sounds at night. Delighted with the successful rescue, GABROEN can now focus once more on the treacherous navigation through unwritten rules of its two-legged neighbors.

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