Friends of a feather

“You wanna hear a crazy bird story?” asks Chuck Brodsky.

Almost everyone loves a tale about wild things. Indeed, we kind of crave them, even though we may not like to admit it. And while asking why is too big a question to tackle here, the answer to Brodsky’s original query is yes, Chuck, yes.

It goes like this: When the celebrated musician returned home from Texas’ prestigious Kerrville Folk Festival earlier this year, he discovered a new birds’ nest at the bottom of his roof.

“For three or four days, the ma and pa birds sat on the eggs, and they hatched,” Chuck relates by phone, from the porch of his mountain cabin near Weaverville. “They had three little chicks, and the birds would bring the babies bugs nonstop, except for when I’d come out [here] to smoke a cigarette.”

Chuck would sit in the chair that he’s talking from now — a good 25 feet from the birds’ home. “And it disturbed the ma and pa,” he continues. “They’d sit five feet away from the nest, on the railing directly below it, and not go to it, hopping around and chirping a little bit frantically, telling me, y’know, ‘Take a hike.’ And I’d hang out here, and try to talk real calmly to them, saying, ‘I’m trying to make you guys welcome. You have nothing to fear. And you need to accept me being here, ’cause I live here.'”

But Ma and Pa Bird weren’t buying any of it.

Three days later, Chuck noticed that the chicks were gone. Sadly, he chalked it up to a snake or some other predator.

But that same day, he also discovered more than 30 fresh bird droppings right around — and only around — his chair (including two or three direct hits). “Which makes me wonder,” he muses, “[if] Ma and Pa Bird think that I had something to do with the demise of their kids, and was that an act of retribution?”

He doesn’t expect a response. I mean, who understands wild things?

Chuck knows the answer to that one: His friends Mike Grooms and Kathy Riggin-Grooms come about as close as you can get.

Mike and Kathy run the Second Chance Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Whittier (near Sylva). And the name of the place pretty much covers it: Fix ’em up, then — if at all possible — let ’em go. A second chance for abandoned baby owls, auto hit-and-run hawks, trap-mangled bobcats, poacher-shot eagles.

Kathy’s work as a veterinary technician (unlicensed) at the Sylva Animal Hospital taught her to handle everything from X-rays to certain blood work and surgeries. “That’s helped so much in the rehabilitation,” Mike notes, “because most rehabilitators have no medical — no veterinary — background.

And yet, most veterinarians just don’t deal with wild things — though that didn’t stop people from routinely bringing in baby possums, owls and other undomesticated critters to the Sylva vet’s office. Where else could they take them?

Kathy’s earlier experience rehabilitating a couple of screech owls on her own led her, inevitably, to taking such wayward wildlife home with her, where she and Mike would feed and care for the animals, then set them free.

At first, the couple only had to deal with orphans. But the wounded weren’t far behind.

“I can honestly say that 95 percent of the animal injuries we see are caused, directly or indirectly, by man … and his pets, his windows, his automobiles, his pesticides,” Mike explains. “Both eagles that are sitting here now are here for gunshots.”

Once people learned that someone at the Sylva Animal Hospital could care for wild animals, the need for a place like Second Chance grew. Fast.

The center opened in March 1994. “And within a month,” says Mike, “we were bombarded.”

Every assortment of claws, fur and teeth now finds its way to Mike and Kathy’s door: The frequent possums and the fairly rare bobcat; the squirrels, turtles, rabbits and foxes (both red and gray).

Even the occasional beaver.

Whew!” Mike exclaims. “Those are rough.

“Kathy was carrying one once in a big, green, Rubbermaid container in the back seat of [a] car. And they’re about halfway home, with only about five miles to go. And she said that, all of a sudden, these big, long, 3-inch yellow teeth rip through the side of the container: Panic City.”

But mostly, the ailing arrive at Second Chance wearing feathers.

Indigenous songbirds are routine customers. And then there are the mysterious arrivals: a black swan, for instance. Or the swallow-tailed kite — native to the Gulf of Mexico — found on Fontana Lake.

And let’s not forget the beaks. And the talons.

The red-tailed, sparrow and Cooper’s hawks, for instance, or the screech, great horned and barred owls. Or the bald eagles.

“The first time I had to get ahold of a wild eagle and restrain it for Kathy to work on, that bird awed me; it humbled me,” Mike remembers. “I got her by the legs, and she put out her wings and they came up over me. And she’s glaring down in my face and snapping at me.”

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