New York City resident and wildlife rehabilitator Ariel Cordova-Rojas decided she wanted to immerse herself in nature the day before she turned 30, so she rode her bike from Harlem to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge on November 5 to take a hike.
What happened when she got there is something she said she’ll never forget.
“About a mile into my stroll, I saw a swan sitting by the edge of the bay by itself,” she said. “I’ve worked with swans before and noticed she looked a little off. She didn’t move whatsoever and just kind of looked at me.”
Cordova-Rojas, who previously volunteered at the New York City Wild Bird Fund for five years, said swans are normally territorial and can hiss at or try to flee from people when threatened. When she slowly approached the bird, the swan tried to get away, but it couldn’t walk, she said.
“At that point, I knew something was wrong with this swan,” she said. “I knew exactly where to take her, but I didn’t know how to get there because I came on my bicycle. None of that mattered to me, so I just picked up the swan, threw my jacket on top of her, scooped her up and just started to walk.”
What she didn’t realize is the rescue would take her and the swan on a two-hour trek by foot, car and subway. But that didn’t matter. She just wanted to help the swan.
Cordova-Rojas said she started to make some calls to the Wild Bird Fund to see if someone was available to pick her and the swan up, but nobody was available to give her a ride. She realized the next step she could take was to get to the subway so she could get the swan from Queens to Manhattan.
“People passing by saw someone walking with a swan trying to get (it) to safety,” Cordova-Rojas said. She said a cat rescuer named Wendy and her husband Don were willing to drive her bicycle to the Howard Beach subway station, and Wendy was able to call another friend of hers to drive Cordova-Rojas and the swan.
Eventually, Cordova-Rojas took the swan on the subway to Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn, 20 minutes later, where she was able to get a ride to the Wild Bird Fund to inspect the swan. The whole trip took about two hours, she said, and while the swan had no physical injuries or broken bones, she suspected the swan may have had lead poisoning.
The lead test came back positive and explained why the swan couldn’t walk.
“Lead poisoning is actually quite common in waterfowl and other birds in New York City,” Cordova-Rojas said. “It leeches into water sources but swans, since they’re so big, a lot of times when they’re foraging in the water, they pick up a lead anchor and it gets in their systems.”
Over time, it leads to lead toxicity, which can lead to neurological problems in the birds.
The swan will stay for a few weeks to a few months while recovering at the Wild Bird Fund, which Cordova-Rojas said is New York City’s only wildlife rehabilitation center. The swan, which she named Bae – “she was my ‘bae’ for the day,” Cordova-Rojas said – met another swan at the clinic and she may now have a boyfriend.
As someone who was born and raised in the concrete jungle, Cordova-Rojas said she was introduced to wildlife through her mother and some camping trips she went on while growing up. She said she one day wants to have her own show on National Geographic to educate youth about wildlife and nature.
The Wild Bird Fund doesn’t have a rescue squad, so while Cordova-Rojas has seen plenty of birds come into the clinic as a volunteer there, she said this experience stands out being on the other side.
“The nature of it, it doesn’t stand out but the journey of how far it took to get there definitely stands out,” she said. “It’s not my first rodeo, but it was definitely a big experience The big 3-0, right?”