A Bird’s Tale, in Reverse

Kate/ April 12, 2012/ birds, blog

Kate and the Great Blue Heron

Kate and the Great Blue Heron at John Heinz Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum

Chapter 3, in which I cause a ruckus

Yesterday afternoon I stood on a chair in a library in West Philadelphia, flap, flap, flapping my wings and croaking like a heron for the kindergartners and first graders of the Charles Drew School. If you know me, you know that nothing delights me the way performing loud, ear-piercing bird calls do. You also know that I am quite good at this, even if you don’t personally have a taste for this talent.

How did this awesomeness happen? A few months ago I received a very special invite from a Mr. David Florig of the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children (WePAC for short). David kindly emailed and asked if I would be interested in reading a children’s book to students in one of the school libraries the WePAC has opened, re-opened, or staffed in the area, in celebration of National Library Week. I said “Yes! As long as you don’t mind that my book is unpublished.” David said “No problem, kids would love to see your work in progress,” or something like that. I said, “Awesome! Let’s book it.” Or something like that.

First Steps (Time to Fly)

First Steps (Time to Fly)

Just like that, I unknowingly joined the fancy ranks of some famous authors and illustrators who also live in the eastern Pennsylvania region, and agreed to read for WePAC, including: David Wiesner, Gene Barretta, Dan Gutman, Lisa Papp and Robert Papp… wait a minute. Do I get to claim membership in the same cool club as this bunch? That’s right, I already do. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

After weeks of preparation, over-thinking and editing my manuscript, scrutinizing my sketches, and fact-checking my bird’s tale, Time to Fly, I threw my heart into the moment on Wednesday and totally got down like a Yellow-Crowned Night Heron. “Flap, flap, flap,” “Eeek! eeek! eeek!” and “CAWK!” echoed through the halls of Charles Drew for nearly 3 hours. I bet you a nickel that no library on Earth has ever witnessed such a wild, silly ruckus. Score one, two, and three for the birds.

Bald Eagle Wingspan

Bald Eagle Wingspan, John Heinz Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum

Chapter 2, in which I receive a prize

In the same week I accepted my library reading invitation, I did another brave thing—I applied for a scholarship to the 20th Annual SCBWI Pocono Mountain Retreat. I sent my Time to Fly manuscript in consideration for the paid-in-full weekend getaway with art directors, editors, and agents, as well as other hopefuls in the kid lit business. Not even a week later I was notified of the results—I won! All expenses paid. I’ll be sharing a room with my co-winner, which is especially cool because I always attend these kinds of workshops solo.

The Poconos may not be my beloved Rockies, but yay! Mountains! Score! The Shawnee Inn does eerily resemble my favorite literary landmark, the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. I wonder if it’s even a smidge as haunted?

Yellow-Crowned Night Heron adult and chick

Yellow-Crowned Night Heron adult and chick, Avalon, NJ

Chapter 1, in which I save the birds

Coinciding with the bird book events above, I discovered a new muse: Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research in Newark, Delaware. I began volunteering as a bird rehabber in March, though I had been contemplating it for over a year. Tri-State was a first responder in the BP oil spill in the gulf, and rehabilitates thousands of birds a year with all sorts of maladies, from broken wings to abandoned babies. The oil spill specialists have even travelled to South Africa to de-oil Jackass Penguins. Sign me up!

So far in my first month of training, I have learned the special dietary needs of five species of raptors, three songbirds, two gulls, and one very great Great Blue Heron. Needless to say, this involves some rather unsavory food prep, including the butchering and preparation of dead mullet fish, mice, rats, chicken, and venison, and collecting live mealworms…

Watercolors and reeds

Watercolors and reeds

I fared rather well in every department but poultry. It may seem to be the tamest from the list above, but imagine, if you will, that it is 8:45am when you are asked to halve a whole, feathered chicken (complete with head, beak, feet, and all innards intact), stuck to a tray coated in its own pink, rotten leakage. “With what shall I halve it?” you ask in your most impressive volunteer voice, expecting some fine piece of butchery equipment to appear. No no, sweetie. This is a non-profit. You are directed to go find the saw. Yes, that dull one.

Despite this scenario, in which I had to leave the room after just one pass of the saw, so far I have exceeded my own expectations in dealing with the unpleasantries of the circle of life. Perhaps I could have, or still could, pursue a career in the natural sciences. The payoff of caring for an injured wild bird—even a turkey vulture—is far greater than any discomfort in serving its carrion. That vulture was released to the wild one week later. Score.

Ishta at Tri-State Bird Rescue

Ishta the Peregrine Falcon, permanent resident at Tri-State Bird Rescue


It’s a beautiful mid-March day, and I have chosen to spend a few hours of it painting outside, on the marsh surrounding the Wilmington waterfront. Just as I am about to pack up and leave for home, I see a Canada Goose approach the tidal gate, swimming against the current. Trying to paddle his way through, only to spin and drift backward again and again. What’s that around her neck? It’s a white plastic six-pack holder. It’s woven so tightly that she cannot do the things a goose should do, such as dip underwater, tip down for feeding, look left or right, or reach her preen gland. Her beak is a dull grey, as are her eyes.

Canada Goose, entangled neck

Canada Goose, entangled neck

To get around the tidal gate she scrapes her way onto land, and waddles slowly around it to the calm tidal pool. She wades into the water and floats in the shade of the boardwalk. I call the volunteer inside the education center. She contacts Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research. They ask us to determine if the goose can fly. No. She does not flush when approached. The closest volunteer won’t be there for another hour or two. I am not sure the bird has that long, but I cannot wait around. I have my last art class scheduled in 2 hours and cannot be late.

Before heading home I visit Tri-State’s website and peek at the calendar to find the next volunteer training date. Wouldn’t you know, it’s this Saturday. I have no plans. I’ve already completed an orientation. I call. “Please let me know if there are any spots open for training this weekend.” 10 minutes later I receive my answer. “Yes.” Sign me up.

During training my group is shown the admissions log at the front desk. My Canada Goose was the last bird admitted, the same day I found her. In the status column are the letters, “DBA.” I ask our trainer what DBA means. “Dead Before Arrival.”

Canada Goose with 6-Pack Holder

Canada Goose with 6-pack holder entangled around her neck

The following week, during my “shadow session,” I ask my trainer, “is it possible to find out how an admitted bird died?” I share with her my goose story. We find her chart in the “recently deceased” file. It reported that the stress of her capture and transport to Tri-State caused her to seize. When the staff attempted to move her into the safety of a playpen, she seized again and died.

I cannot get this goose out of my mind. She couldn’t fly. She pushed herself hard to get to that still tidal pool to die in peace. I couldn’t save her, but I can save others. I can help broken birds fly again, and abandoned birds fledge. Flap, flap, flap. It is time.

Snowy Egret pair

Snowy Egret pair

About Kate

Kate Garchinsky illustrates and writes children’s books and educational media in her studio in the woodlands near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her debut picture book, The Secret Life of the Red Fox, written by acclaimed wildlife author, Laurence Pringle, received a starred review from School Library Journal. Kate Garchinsky received a grant from the Eckelberry Fellowship at the Academy of Natural Sciences, where she has been researching and illustrating extinction stories about North American birds such as the Passenger Pigeon and the Carolina Parakeet. Prior to creating children’s books, Kate designed lots of fun things like toys, birdbaths and trail maps. She lives with her husband Brian, Julia and Spencer the cats, and her one-eyed beagle, Maggie May. Kate recently signed on to illustrate two more “Secret Life” narrative non-fiction picture books with Boyds Mills Press—The Secret Life the Little Brown Bat (2018) and The Secret Life of the Skunk (2019). While drawing foxes and bats, Kate also began work on Belle’s Journey, a middle-grade non-fiction chapter book by ornithologist and osprey expert, Rob Bierregaard (Charlesbridge 2018). Get to know more about Kate Garchinsky at http://KateGarchinsky.com (aka PenguinArt.com).