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Lost City

Victoria Hayward of Feline and Avian Rescue Nottingham on How the City’s Wildlife Coped During COVID

28 September 21 words: Victoria Hayward

Victoria Hayward, a volunteer at Feline and Wildlife Rescue Nottingham, explains how the city’s wildlife has been affected during COVID, and how an encounter with a rare golden oriole drew national attention...

For many of us, the last year has felt like a strange stasis. A violent stillness that buffeted us with the force of its imposed inaction. We were unmoored from the usual rituals of normality - birthdays went unmarked, festivals went uncelebrated. Life stopped.

But nature did not. The wheel of the seasons continued to turn. Those of us unleashed from office confines saw the outdoors beyond the hours to which our lives had so long ticked. No longer leaving and returning to our houses in darkness, we saw flowers bloom and birds sing - for the first time, we felt the rush of the starlings’ murmuration overhead. As we detached from the old reality, we connected with an older one. The primal changing of the seasons, the inevitable cycle of life, decay and renewal.

This was especially true in the city, where grasses grew and wildflowers bloomed for the first time in parks and verges were allowed to grow wild. People were at home, and noticing nature more. They were finding tiny creatures the cat had brought in and gardening more than before - inadvertently strimming a hedgehog’s face or lighting bonfires containing nests of mice. Wildlife rescues have been busier than ever.

Some of these hurts we can mend. Our veterinary volunteers are dedicated, exhausted people who spend their days caring for pets in a practice. They return home to feed baby animals every few hours throughout the night, a small act of care to restore a population decimated by human intrusion. 

We are species agnostic at FAW - if we have the facilities and ability to rehabilitate an animal, we will do so, no matter the perceived value of its life. Pigeons are amongst the most delightful animals to raise. They start as helpless little yellow-furred blobs on the day of hatching to become within a mere week loud creatures with endearingly bad attitudes. The uninitiated mistake them for ducklings, eagles and dodos, so outlandish is their appearance.

Recently however, FAW rehabilitated a very rare bird which drew the attention of the national press, one which likely appears in the wishful fever dreams of birders in the pit of the night. The golden oriole is a jewel-like creature with ruby-red eyes and a pure voice like molten gold to go along with its bright feathers. It is exotic and elusive, a bird that flits between the green shadows of trees, for a few short months passing through our small island on the long journey it makes to and from central Africa. Our bird was nicknamed Aurora, after the goddess of the dawn, and the time at which golden orioles sing. Aurora was found unable to fly at a school in Melton Mowbray, her bright plumage leaving her vulnerable to predators. She was very fortunate to be taken to a leading avian vet who called FAW - probably one of the only wildlife rescues in the UK with experience of caring for orioles (our avian lead having been a zookeeper).

The golden oriole is a jewel-like creature with ruby-red eyes and a pure voice like molten gold to go along with its bright feathers

We monitored Aurora with cameras to minimise stress (a killer in wild birds), sampled her droppings for parasites and flight-tested her in a soft net mesh so she wouldn’t damage her feathers if panicked. We spoke to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) about ringing and recording her as part of their conservation mission. When she was ready, Aurora was released in secret, to avoid the descent of birdwatchers on the release site. We were conflicted about depriving people of the opportunity to see her,  but we had to be led by both the need to give her a calm and quiet release, and COVID restrictions at the time.

After the BTO had placed the rings on her leg, our bird lead gently took Aurora to a stand of trees, and let her fly free. It was early evening in the Nottinghamshire countryside, the light dreamlike in the clear air after a summer shower. It was electric to watch her disappear, a flash of gold against our grey skies. Despite their protected status in the UK, many orioles are killed during hunting season in some European countries. It is too painful to think of the elegant creature which so many hands had worked to save being destroyed for sport. So we think instead of the fact that we gave her a chance and that she had been lucky so far - we hope that her luck holds and that she safely makes her journey home.

You may not know, but we have lagoons a few miles outside of our city. You must banish any thoughts of tropical waters and nodding palm trees, but I still hope to entice you even after I tell you that one of the bodies of water is named the ‘slurry lagoon’. Netherfield Lagoons is a beautiful site, reclaimed from industry (like Attenborough) and cared for by Gedling Conservation Trust. Like FAW, these are volunteers who receive no funding, and rely on donations to carry out their work. There is a fantastic walk round the site, including along a high causeway looking down on the water and nesting terns, gulls and warblers. Access is a little trickier than Attenborough, but the peace and quiet make it more than worthwhile

I’d like to leave you with a simple thing you can do to help wildlife. Fresh drinking water is a lifesaver in this heat (literally for hedgehogs, who often come to us severely dehydrated). Another lifesaver is keeping the drinking water clean - even if you only have time to tip the bowl over every week and allow it to dry out, that will be sufficient to kill a pesky little protozoan currently decimating our songbird population. Trichomoniasis gallinae has existed in some form since the time of the dinosaurs, and there is evidence it was able to lay low the mighty T-Rex. It is sending our greenfinches and chaffinches the same way, but by drying out your bird baths, you can kill it dead. A small act that makes a big difference.

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