For the Birds Radio Program: Evacuating with Children and Birds

Original Air Date: July 6, 1992

When a Burlington-Northern derailment led to a benzene spill, Laura, her children, their dog, and a bunch of birds had to evacuate. (Date confirmed.)

Audio missing


Last week, in the face of Burlington-Northern’s train car derailment and benzene leak, I had the novel experience of evacuating three children, a dog, and six birds from my Lakeside neighborhood. My lips and throat were starting to burn and my daughter’s lungs were hurting by the time we evacuated. Birds metabolize toxic chemicals much more rapidly than do mammals of the same size, so I had no choice but to bring my charges along.

Bunter the Wonder Dog sat in the back seat with Tommy and Katie. Fred and Ginger the nighthawks rode in big shoeboxes, and the malnourished baby crow I’m trying to repair was comfortable in a cardboard carton. My children’s pet birds—a starling and a lovebird—traveled in their regular cages. But Sneakers, the imprinted Blue Jay who won’t fly away—had never been confined in a little bird cage before. Sneakers is usually either loose in the neighborhood or loose in my house, and when I do have to cage him I keep him in a huge one my husband built, sided with window screening rather than metal bars to protect his feathers. For this trip, I had to put him in a regular bird cage, which looked pretty much like a prison cell to me. Fortunately, Sneakers knows nothing of prisons, and found the whole experience a great joke. He enjoyed the car ride immensely, whistling his favorite tunes as we drove out of town.

The traffic getting out of Lakeside was horrendous, but everyone was courteous and patient. There were two lanes of traffic on Glenwood, and whenever Sneakers caught a glimpse of a dog or cat in a nearby car, he hollered out a jovial Blue Jay greeting. He was so interested in everything going on, and so comfortable with his whole adopted family near him, that he didn’t get nervous or flutter against the bars of the cage at all. Wild birds can seriously damage their feathers when put in cages—that’s one of the problems orphaned and injured birds have when they are cared for by well-meaning but ignorant people. Fortunately, Sneakers survived the day with his feathers intact.

We waited out most of the evacuation at the airport parking lot. It was getting cloudy, so the open car didn’t heat up at all. It seemed simpler and less stressful on the birds to keep them in the car rather than dragging them all indoors, with all the strange people and pets, or setting them on the airport lawn, with crows and Ring-billed Gulls flying everywhere above us. From past experience, I know that Blue Jays are frightened by the shadows of large birds overhead. From the safety of the car, he could enjoy all the commotion without getting scared. Not having a large enough vocabulary to encompass the meaning of the terms toxic spill, benzene, or evacuation, he had a jolly holiday.

My kids unfortunately had a pretty good understanding of those words. They were anxious and frightened at first, but having a flock of birds to take care of was a good way to divert their attention. Walking around, we found several moths on car grills, and brought the best ones to Sneakers and Fred the Nighthawk. I dropped one enormous Sphinx moth in on Sneakers, and he had more fun with that than he’s had since he took apart our chandelier. It was breezy in the back of the car, and he played toss the moth for several minutes, until the wind snatched it up and blew it right out of the cage. Sneakers let out a banshee yell which brought Joey and Katie running from quite a distance. When I handed Sneakers the dead moth he gobbled it right down, unwilling to risk losing it again.

Keeping the baby crow and nighthawks fed kept the kids busy and occupied while the toxic cloud hung over our home, Eventually we got hold of a friend north of Duluth, and brought the whole menagerie over to her house for the duration. Now we know all about how to evacuate, but I fervently hope that the knowledge will never do us a bit of good, and that this was no more than a once-in-a-lifetime experience.