Wednesday, April 22, 2015

*Walking On The Wild(life) Side

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published April 23, 2015] © 2015 

I was walking on a fairly deserted section of beach on a weekend day morning recently when I came upon what looked like a dead sea lion pup lying on the sand. But a few moments later, he half-opened his eyes and lifted his head toward me in an unspoken but absolutely clear message:  Please help me.
Local papers, including the La Jolla Light, have written a number of stories this year about the puzzling increase in beached sea lions: according to the L.A. Times, more than 2,000 along the California coast in the first three months of this year. But the sickly little guy I was looking at didn’t care about statistics; he couldn’t move another inch.

A recent Light article had advised people not to call 911 if they encountered a beached pinniped and instead listed the number of the Sea World Rescue Hotline (800-541-7325) which I had added to my phone. A few months ago, I had come across a large injured shore bird on the beach and didn’t have a number to call. A serious bird lover, I vowed that wouldn’t happen again.

Our home, with all its hanging feeders, has long been a bird sanctuary (or depending on how you look at it, a cat feeding ground.) Some of the wild jays who frequent our property would eat right out of Olof’s hand at our patio table. We’d also been bequeathed Rory’s outdoor aviary of cockatiels when he went to college. So it probably wasn’t too much of a stretch some years back when I talked Olof into becoming a volunteer with me for the songbird team of a local wildlife agency, taking care of batches of orphaned baby finches, sparrows, blue jays, etc. most of whom had had ended up on the ground after tree trimmers cut down their branches. People had been bringing us injured birds for years, so we figured we might as well know what we were doing.

We were put through our paces by the wildlife agency trainers (or the “bird nazis”, as Olof  affectionately called them, due to the intensity of their commitment and what he perceived as their inability to impart 20 minutes of information in less than two hours, which drove him completely nuts.)  But we graduated (I had to whack Olof a few times with the syllabus to get him to behave) and were now an official Dept. of Fish and Game Substation. 

We soon got our first group of week-old baby birds, who had to have a goopy mixture of cat food (the irony) and Gerber’s beef baby food syringed into their ever-gaping gullets every 30 minutes from sunup to sunset. Later they got worms (yuck) and assorted fruits and veggies. They’d stand on each others’ heads trying to beat their siblings out for food and sometimes even hoard it in the corner just so the other guys couldn't have it. I kept asking myself, “where have I seen this behavior before? Oh, yes – the kids!”

Per regulations, a room in our home (absent a garage, Henry’s room since he was away at college) became a (posted!) Department of Fish and Game Satellite Facility requiring a yearly inspection of the facilities.  As I told the inspector, the room had been previously occupied by wildlife for some 20 years, although not always with the level of cleanliness that it now boasted.

Fortunately, I had a job where I could bring baby birds to work. My co-workers helped feed them if I had to attend a meeting, noting that all the chirping made for a soothing sylvan atmosphere. (Callers asked, “Are you in a forest?”) My boss, however, an avid hunter, referred to them as “the finch tacos” and said it was a good thing they didn’t have much meat on them.  Well, I said, I could always switch to the Raccoon Team…   By about seven weeks, the birds were ready for Birdie Graduate School, a huge flight cage where they’d hone their flying and worm excavation skills for two weeks before being released back into the wild.  We’d always try to give them an appropriately enthusiastic send-off. (“Watch out for cats!  Go for the tall trees!  Don’t call home collect!”) 

As an interesting side note, I always knew that my grandmother (who died before I was born) earned a Ph.D. in zoology in 1910. What I learned from a relative during my volunteer tenure was that her specialty had been ornithology, and particularly, song birds.

Olof and I were well into our second six-month baby bird season when my career as a savior of sparrows came to a precipitous end. Someone at work complained about my birds (my boss?) and the administration nixed animals in the workplace. But I have fond memories of that time.

As for my sea lion, I was amazed and delighted to get a call from Sea World several hours after they’d retrieved my moribund pinni-pup, reporting that he had indeed made it, and was responding well to treatment. So keep this number handy, folks. And people who want to write to me and say this is just the cycle of nature and I should have left him there to die, save yourself the trouble. It made my whole week.

My starving sea lion lifts his head

Orphaned baby blue jays, spring, 2001


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

** Revenge Of The Yellow Reading Group

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published April 9, 2015] © 2015 

When my friend’s 31- and 29-year-old sons want to disparage their 21-year-old sister’s intelligence, they’ll note, “Well, you were, after all, in the yellow reading group.” The brothers are quick to remind her that they were both in the blue reading group in grade school, the best readers. 
Honestly, the reading group you’re assigned to in first grade can haunt you for life. I’m 67 and I don’t remember what reading group I was in but I do know it wasn’t the bluebirds, the top one. Which brings us to ask: What is it about the color blue that they’re always the good readers?

True to form, when my sons were in first grade, the advanced readers basked in the blue group, middle readers were relegated to the yellow group, the sucky readers sentenced to red. Suffice to say the kids were clear which group was which (Brilliant/Average/Braindead), and more to the point, by day two of school, the parents were too. Much gnashing of teeth and calls to the teacher ensued with entreaties to move little Quentin to the blue reading group where he clearly belonged. Unsaid: Do we look like people who breed yellow reading group children??? A child of Quentin’s obvious talents needed to be challenged!  It was beneath his dignity to be associated with yellow – or God forbid red  - readers who would only pull him down to their level. (They probably didn’t wash either.)
 It was not like this just impacted the kid. You could already see the blue reading group parents getting chummy with each other and next thing you know they’ll have dinner parties and not invite you, and your child will be black, er, blue-listed from play dates. Day 2 of school and the wheat’s already been separated from the chaff.
I confess that I did have my moments of blue reading group angst. But I also reminded myself that neither Olof nor I were academic balls of fire in our early years. Olof, in fact, was labeled an “accelerated non-achiever” in grade school, a label that puzzled his parents for years. Did this mean he was gifted but not achieving? Or gifted AT non-achieving?  Regardless, he was not achieving. But somewhere along the way, he managed to up his game and ultimately achieved a degree in nuclear physics from Cal Tech. Sighed his mother (age 93) recently, “If only we could have known.”
I wasn’t exactly an academic barn burner either. I was the blond sheep in a family of brunette geniuses. My family has never let me forget coming home from the public library after researching my first term paper in seventh grade and announcing sagely, “Ibid sure wrote a lot of stuff!” My voraciously-reading siblings were definitely bluebirds. (I think I may have been a puffin.)
While I was never identified as having learning disabilities, I learned only recently that I had one. I wasn’t  good at learning things by hearing them; I always had to see it to remember it. In college, I would leave lectures without being able to tell you virtually a single thing the professor said but would then transcribe the notes I’d frantically scribbled and know the material cold. A few months ago, a friend was telling me that her granddaughter had been diagnosed with Auditory Processing Disorder: she was poor at processing what she heard. Lo these many years later, did I finally have an excuse for not being in the blue reading group?  OK, probably not, but it was worth a try.
For the record, my older son was in the red group, and my younger son was in the yellow. Despite concerns that failure to be in the blue reading group in first grade dooms a child’s adult options to a career in coal mining (or worse, a lesser state university)  both have been completely self-supporting (and not in coal mining) since graduating from college. Where was the crystal ball when you needed it?
My 21-year-old yellow reading group neighbor is slated to graduate from college in June. Both of her older brothers, despite being blue reading groupers, managed not to graduate on time due to some unfortunate miscalculation of required credits – information that both of them failed to determine until their folks were literally in their car en route to commencement ceremonies. Folks were not pleased. But the impending graduate swears to them that she is not going to follow in her brothers’ footsteps in this regard. The sibs may have been early readers, she notes, but she can actually add. The folks will not be driving to her graduation and getting the same phone call that they got two previous times. At this point, it’s personal, she said, and she’s already made it the theme of her graduation weekend: 
The Revenge of the Yellow Group Reader.