This morning I watched a bird fly into a car in front of me and fall to the asphalt below like a dirty sock that missed the hamper. The bird had been part of a pair, he and his other half swooping down from the trees in the park on the opposite side of the road, as myself and the driver in front of me zoomed by on our way to what was surely some tedious Wednesday destination, mine being work, for which I was already late.

Suddenly I found myself in a dilemma. Processing the information in the very matter of seconds it took for me to drive past the site of the incident, my eyes regretfully took in the little matchstick legs kicking into the air as the bird lay helpless on its back in the middle of the road.

My mind whirred with the possibilities at hand. Do I keep driving, heading to work like a normal person, choosing to battle overpowering guilt, my neurotic fear of karma and a guaranteed sense of existential dread for the rest of the day, possibly even the week? Or I do I turn left right now and whip a dangerous U-turn into oncoming traffic, peeling out the wheels on my husband’s little green Honda and zipping back to the road where the bird is lying (dying?) in order to make some kind of attempt at saving its life?

Like the “Other Books You Might Enjoy” feature on Amazon, my mind instantly recalled the following similar incidents:

1. The time I was driving home from a party with my ex-boyfriend J. Ryan and we came across a possum in the middle of the road. It had clearly been hit by a car, but in my inebriated state I felt certain that it was quite possibly “playing possum,” and that I should attempt to save it. J. Ryan sat horrified in the car while I jumped out, grabbing a towel from the back seat and approaching slowly. I nudged it with my shoe. Nothing. Another nudge to the long, naked tail. Nothing. “It’s dead,” J. Ryan yelled from the car. And then, just in case it wasn’t, I reached down and scooped it up with the towel. Half of it — the bloody, dead half — remained on the road. I quickly put it in a neighbor’s trashcan. J. Ryan threw up a little in his mouth. We drove on.

2. The time in high school when I hit a baby squirrel with my Saab. My best friend Liz and I jumped out and wrapped it into a sweater and then, with a great sense of purpose, drove it to a nearby vet. Before handing it over we named it Pappy.

3. The time my mother stuffed a pelican, with a fishing line caught in its gullet, into the backseat of our family station wagon and instructed me to sit with it and keep it calm, while she drove to a wildlife refuge center 15 miles away. The panicked bird flapped its wings and uttered the kinds of sounds you only imagine hearing from a slaughterhouse in Kentucky, while it destroyed both the backseats of the Volvo and my confidence in my bird-saving abilities.

Okay, no wait. I didn’t remember the pelican story until AFTER I had peeled Greg’s Honda into a U-turn on Peterson Ave., thrown the car into park and bounded out into the middle of the busy road in my high-waisted work skirt and heels.

The bird was still alive and still on its back. Without regard to oncoming traffic, I squatted at the bird’s side. Another woman — 50-ish, of Middle Eastern descent and wearing a headdress — exited a house across the street and joined me in the middle of the road. Traffic was officially blocked.

She held up a plastic grocery store bag. We nodded at each other and with one quick movement she she scooped up the bird.

“I’ve been praying for it,” she said, as we hurried across the street to her yard.

“Good,” I said, pointing to the side of her house for a point of release.

Just as she let the bird go, in a flurry of flapped wings and loose feathers, a 40-ish Latino man in a pick up truck pulled off to the side of the road and joined us on the sidewalk. It was like a scene from the movie Crash.

“There’s an animal shelter up the road,” he said.

“Of course,” I exclaimed, immediately disappointed that we had so cruelly thrown this bird to the sidewalk already.

“I’ll take it,” I said, and asked the woman if she had a shoebox. She hurried away into the house, while the man and I stood on the sidewalk monitoring the bird, who had now stuck his head in a small dark crevice near the drain pipe.

It was quite a beautiful morning — crisp, fall air and an azure sky curving overhead — and, standing there, I had one of those moments where I thought about all the little things that had to happen for me to end up in this exact spot at this exact moment. How me being here right now depended on the time I left the house this morning, which depended on the fact that the nanny had arrived early, which depended on the bus she got on and the decisions the bus driver had made today, and on and on.

“It’s nice that we’re saving this bird,” the Latino man said.

I nodded at him, and we each took a sip of the fragrant Autumn air.

Two minutes later I was back in the car with the bird in a shoebox beside me, driving importantly up the road in search of the animal shelter the man had mentioned. You can’t miss it, he had said, which was really code for: You will never find it.

Giving up, I looked up a nearby veterinarian on my phone, peeled another U-turn and made sure to keep one hand on the shoebox so that all of my erratic driving didn’t freak out the bird, causing it to flap its way loose.

Blurry photo cell phone photo:

It was actually here where I remembered the pelican incident in the first place and, as I drove down the suburban Chicago thoroughfare with the injured bird in a shoebox beside me, egregiously late to work at this point, I thought about my mother and how if she hadn’t thrown her jacket over that panicked and bleeding pelican, like an impulsive kidnapper does to a weak victim, I would probably be safely ensconced in my cubicle right now, like every other boring person on the planet.

But I wasn’t.

Instead I was pulling into My Best Friend Animal Hospital and I was carefully walking my little shoebox and its inhabitant into the building. I explained what happened to the vet’s assistant and we both peered inside the box to see the bird standing quietly in a corner, its beak open, only one eye open and a glazed look on its little bird face.

The assistant, who’s head was covered in a bright, red frizz of hair, promised that she would take care of him, and even release him back into the nearby park should he recover.

I walked back out into the cool September morning and got in my car, suddenly feeling lonely. What I had thought was going to be any other old morning on my way to work, had turned into something more, but now it was over. I thought about the Middle Eastern woman, and the Latino man. I thought about the redheaded assistant and I thought about the bird.

All of us connected for one brief moment, and then released again into the world.

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CLAIRE BIDWELL SMITH lives in Los Angeles with her husband, writer Greg Boose., whom she met through TNB. They have since produced the first-ever TNB baby and have a second on the way. Claire works in private practice as an experienced therapist specializing in grief. Claire has written for many publications including Time Out New York, Yoga Journal, BlackBook Magazine, The Huffington Post and Chicago Public Radio. She has also worked for nonprofits like Dave Eggers’ literacy center 826LA, and most recently worked as a bereavement counselor for a hospice in Chicago. THE RULES OF INHERITANCE is her first book.

21 responses to “How Stopping to Save a Wounded Bird Might Just Be the Best Thing That Happened to Your Monday”

  1. Mary Richert says:

    Your opening sentence is amazing.
    The rest of it is, too. I totally admire your willingness to be late for work on account of this bird.

  2. Matt says:

    I agree with Mary, that’s a great opening line, and a fantastic image. I think your closer is pretty damn killer as well. Lovely story for a Friday morning.

    When I was a kid we hit a flying seagull with our car while driving down by the beach. Poor thing basically disintegrated; there was nothing but blood and feathers left on the fender.

  3. Your small moment is so incredibly profound. Love it! I’m sharing this w/ my mom as well — who is quite the bird lover.

    Oh, and it reminded me … there’s a dove who makes her nest each year in the limbs extending right over our pool. I can’t believe it! Every year. This is one irresponsible jackass of a dove. Anyone can be a freakin’ parent, I guess.

  4. Dana says:

    This is so sweet Claire.

    We had an immature mockingbird do a header into our picture window yesterday afternoon. It always makes me so sad, but I’m amazed at how many of them survive if they’re given the chance to sit quietly and recover.

    And I hate to be redundant, but your opening line is beautifully descriptive.

  5. Zara Potts says:

    For me, it was the last line that said everything.

    Lovely piece, Claire. You describe it all so very well; the scene, the underlying themes and of course the emotion.

    I am a habitual animal and bird saver. I have even saved rats.

    But there is something so awful about a little bird dying on a road. I once saved a tiny duckling from a busy street, the piece where you describe your little bird’s legs kicking was exactly how I remember the fuzzy duckling – it toppled onto its back and its wings were too small to hoist itself right and all I could see was these little duck legs kicking furiously. Once I picked him up, I was amazed at his calmness. All the fear of humans disappeared at the first touch and he settled into my hand like he belonged there.

    Once again – lovely piece.

  6. I would totally save a rat. And aw, I’m so glad you saved that duckling! How sweet. I would have saved it and then tried to keep it. (Greg wouldn’t have let me!) Thanks for reading!

  7. BellaTheHappyLoser says:

    Ms. Claire Bidwell Smith

    You get it

    If only you and Zara lived on the Frontier(hinterlands) where wildlife is on the move and under stress you could be depended on to give them safe passage.

    Amazing how angels(if they exist) get to work as guardians when compassion even as if an eye is on the sparrow.

    bless the beasts and the children

  8. JM Blaine says:

    Animals always
    neuter the cynics
    in me.

    & babies.

    I think heaven
    flows over
    with puppies
    that never grow old

  9. Simon Smithson says:

    “It was like a scene from the movie Crash.”

    Oh, well-played, ma’am.

    Leave no man behind! I sincerely hope the bird made it back to its mate.

  10. Leave no man behind! Can I get a license plate that says that?

  11. Marni Grossman says:

    I can’t stand the sight of roadkill. My aversion to it is legendary in my family. As such, I can’t imagine picking up a wounded bird and bringing it to an animal shelter. You’re such a good egg, Claire!

  12. Loved this story and love birds. So glad you took the time to find what was more important to you in that moment on that day.

    I just read a book called Birdology by Sy Montgomery that I think you would appreciate.


  13. Elizabeth Eslami says:

    Hi Claire,

    What a wonderful thing to do, and congrats on a story wonderfully told. Simultaneously touching and hilarious. I laughed out loud at the line about it becoming Crash.

    Kudos to you, and here’s hoping the little guy made it.

  14. […] that we could try to “save” it. (In case you don’t know, this is a theme of mine, a compulsion I get from my mother.) Anyway, we got the little guy in a box and before too long Vera and I were on our way to a […]

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