swarmed by mites
Sunday, July 8 2007
This evening, some hours after showing its babies to our neighbor Andrea, I heard a persistent peeping coming from the Phoebe nest above the garage lights on the west side of the house. This nest is a new one built just this year, soon after the successful fledging of possibly four Phoebes from an old nest built above the lights above the east deck (on the other side of the house). I went to investigate and soon found an adult Phoebe, quite dead, lying on the ground just beneath the nest. I inspected its body for injuries, and though it seemed to be missing some tail feathers, it didn't have any obvious wounds. This doesn't mean it wasn't killed by one our cats (I'd seen Stripey - aka Julius - take an impressive leap at one of the Phoebe parents), but to me it looked more like it had dropped dead of an avian heart attack. This seemed to leave the babies without any network of support. I stood around looking for the other parent (though it's possible that only one of the parents cares for the nest in this species) and came up empty. Either only one of the Phoebe parents cares for the nest or else the other parent had already died. In either case, the babies were soon to die also. I knew I couldn't provide for a nest of hatchling songbirds, but I didn't want to do nothing. So I lifted the nest off the lamp and put it in a five gallon HDPE bucket that I suspended from the one collar tie in the laboratory (part of the solar deck structural system) so as to keep it away from dogs and cats. I knew that baby birds get all of their water from the insects they're fed by their parents, so I decided to feed the babies catfood kibble that I'd soaked in water. It was the closest thing to insects I could think of (and I didn't want to have to go around catching and killing insects, further tragedies to compound this one). The two nestlings, which were both still blind and about the size of a bottle of whiteout, readily gobbled down the wet kibble I offered them. Often they'd produce a white globule of feces (the size of a 1000 milligram vitamin E softgel) the moment they'd swallowed something.
It soon became apparent that these two weren't the only nestlings in the nest. Two of their siblings were also there, but they'd already died. They must have died recently because they weren't much smaller than the living ones. In removing the dead babies as well as in feeding the live ones, the tool of choice was a pair of needle-nosed pliers, the closest simulation of a pair of bird beaks I had available.
I continued feeding the babies well into the wee-hours of the night, responding any time they chirped. Later on they seemed to be huddling together for warmth, so I covered them with a piece of foam rubber. I didn't know if this was doing much good, so at some point I went to move the foam rubber and soon found my arm was crawling with tiny black dots, either mites or lice. These were each about one tenth of the width of the period on the end of this sentence, though they moved quickly in random paths, hoping (it seemed) to venture into new territories. It was the first time I'd been swarmed by mites since an incident in the barn at my parents' farm soon after we moved there in 1976. Once I knew they were there, I could see them moving across the beaks of the nestlings as well, though they seemed to realize that these were the least of their problems. Could it be that all bird nests are swarmed with tiny mites? Though there were scores of them rapidly spreading across the savannah of my arm, they were easily killed en mass by squishing, rapidly filling the queue at the pearly gates of mite heaven.
I stayed up into the wee hours of the night, finally making real progress on that promised content management system.
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