Deep inside the Siskiyou Mountains of southern Oregon is the dark entrance to the Oregon Caves they call the Marble Halls of Oregon. Not far from the entrance stands a grove of giant Douglas fir trees. In the top branches of the tallest, lives a majestic bald eagle named Rusty. His friends call him that because tinges of red show in the tips of the white feathers covering his proud head.
Rusty likes to travel. His wings are so wide and powerful that he can rise to heights and fly faster than any other bird. He can soar for hours without resting. His sharp eyesight and acute hearing allow him to see and hear all is taking place in the air and on the ground far below him.
Rusty likes to launch himself from his perch in early mornings and ride the thermals high above the earth to visit places he’s never been before. Once he flapped and glided all the away to Hurricane Ridge at the northern extremes of the land called Washington state and another time he rested awhile on the cliffs of El Captain to the south in California. But most of the time Rusty stays in the Oregon territory and visits friends and places south of the Columbia River on the north, south to Applegate and Goose Lakes, as far west as the great Pacific Ocean and Lake Owyhee to the east.
Early one August morning, Rusty was awakened by penetrating rays of the bright sun coming up over the dark green hills to the east. He planned to fly north today to visit Aplo Rufa, his beaver friend who lived near the head-waters of the Umpqua River. First he needed to launch from his nest in the top of his friendly fir tree and fly along the contours of the Illinois River to search for breakfast. Though he didn’t much like the idea of killing fish for food, there was a certain sport in catching them and it seemed natural to him. It was the way he was made. He had no choice.
Nevertheless, he hopped to the edge of the nest and dropped off into the fresh morning air. Though most August days turn hot and dry with the advance of the sun, today’s early morning air carried a bit of refreshing moisture. Rusty landed on a large boulder resting in the middle of the rushing river. He cocked his head and peered into the depths of the idle pool that collected before plunging over the edge into the cascade of foaming water that flowed into the retreating river below.
Suddenly, he heard high pitched cry coming from the shadows of a pine tree growing near the river’s edge. It was a cry of distress. Rusty thought it sounded like Blather, his bat friend who lived with a large colony of bats in the vast complex of caves not far away. The mysterious creatures fascinated Rusty. It struck him as funny that bats had no feathers. They look something like naked eagles when they are first born but bats never bother to grow clothes. They only come out at night to fly about hunting for food and indulging in the sort of play that is fun for bats. Rusty considered himself as good at flying as any creature on earth but he knew better than to fly helter-skelter at night like bats do. They seemed to have eyes in their ears. Blather promised to teach him to fly at night like bats, but so far hadn’t gotten around to the first lesson.
“It can’t be Blather,” Rusty thought. “She’s never out in the day time.”
But the voice of his tiny friend was persistent. Rusty flapped his enormous wings the few yards across the river and toward the stand of pine trees not far from the giant fir where he lived.
“Is that you, Bla?” Rusty asked landing on a lower branch in one of the pines. The tree limb nearly touched the ground under the weight of the huge eagle.
The shrill squeal ceased and a tiny voice said, “Yes, I’m here.”
Rusty, whose eyesight was as good as eyesight can get, looked everywhere. It annoyed him a little that he couldn’t see her.
“I don’t see you,” he said cocking his head with quick jerks in all directions. “Where are you hiding?” he asked.
“Here! I’m not hiding!” Blather said. “Above your right ear.”
Rusty looked. Blather was hanging upside down with the tiny fingers of her feet clutching the rough surface of a pinecone.
“Why the cry?” Rusty asked getting to the point.
“My cousins” Blather cried. “A terrible something is keeping them from sleeping which is making them sick. The tips of their noses and wings turn white and they feel terrible. When they can’t sleep, they burn more energy than they can get back by eating and before long they die.”
“White noses, huh?” Rusty mused adjusting his weight on the swaying limb. “It is cold in those caves, isn’t it? Could be frost, maybe?”
“It gets cold where we live but it doesn’t freeze. Get serious Rusty, you know that!”
“No offence, just testing ideas,” Rusty said, “It has to be something. They try brushing it off?”
“Oh bother! I thought if I asked you, you’d know what to do but, never mind. The stuff stays on them no matter what. It’s something else and I’m scared. Three bats from a southern cave died a couple of days ago. It’s terrible. I’m afraid it will get us all.”
“Well, stay calm,” Rusty said reassuringly, “I’ll go ask Sage. She’ll know what to do…I think.”
“I knew you would think of something,” Blather said hopefully. Please hurry! Where is Sage? I’ll wait here.”
“No, you’d better get back to the cave,” Rusty said. Tell Laura and Betty and the others not to worry. I’ll be back as soon as I can get to Sage and back”
“Thanks Rusty,” Blather squealed into Rusty’s ear while flapping awkwardly off the cone into the bright summer sun toward the mouth of the big cave. “I’ll do it.”
Rusty flapped his wings a couple of times to test the air. Moments later he was high above the mountain terrain headed for the headwaters of the Rogue River near Lost Lake. Sage hung out in an old snag east of the lake. She lived in a pocket a woodpecker had made in the trunk of an oak tree. Her facial disc was grayish-brown, washed with pale chestnut or rusty-brown. Upperparts of her body were grayish-brown with fine blackish mottles and shaft-streaks. Her flight feathers and tail had contrasting light and dark bars. To anyone but an owl, Sage looked like a small branch on the stately oak.
Rusty circled the tree twice looking for Sage. He was exasperated that his remarkable eyesight was put to a test for a second time this day and he didn’t like it.
“Why can’t she dress like an ordinary bird,” he said to himself as he settled on an upper branch of the big oak.
“You here?” he asked feeling a little silly talking to the bark of a tree.
He heard two preliminary, lower-pitched ‘grace’ notes that often precede the woop characteristic of Sage’s greeting.
“Where are you?” Rusty growled impatiently. “You pretending to be a ventriloquist, or something? Show yourself!”
“I was thinking.” Sage said smoothly.
“Figures,” Rusty snapped. “Oh, there you are!” he said hopping down two branches to face the illusive owl. “Blather, a friend who lives near me needs our help…well, your help. Her cousins are getting sick because of white stuff on their noses and wings … and feet for that matter.”
“Don’t eagles call their noses beaks … like owls?” Sage said.
“Oh, Blather’s not an eagle, she’s a bat.”
“A bat!” Sage retorted. “Don’t you know owls eat bats?” she asked incredulously and added, “Well some owls, I don’t. I’m too small. I guess though I might be interested in the tiny ones … you know the ones no bigger than mice.”
“Sage!” Rusty interrupted, “Time is important. A couple of her cousins have died already from whatever it is! They need help now – like yesterday.”
“Oh, sorry,” Sage said meekly and continued. “The solution is simple. Tell Blather to take a daily swim in a nearby river, stream, creek.”
“Swim?” Rusty interrupted, “We’re not talking about fish here. Blather is a bat and so are her cousins.”
“Bats swim when they want to or have to as the case may be,” Sage said with a tinge of condescension in her voice. “And since they seem to have white nose syndrome, this is a case of have to, wouldn’t you say?”
“White nose syndrome?”
“Yes, white nose syndrome,” Sage said. “Nobody knows what causes it. It appears to be some sort of fungus. Nasty stuff. But, to keep it from doing its diabolical damage, the bats need to wash it off every day and swimming would be the easiest way to do it, wouldn’t you say?”
Thanks Sage, you’re the best.”
“Fly carefully,” Sage answered.
It was late afternoon when Rusty landed on the edge of his nest. It would be a while before the bats came out for their evening feed and usual nighttime activities. Until then Rusty could catch his breath from the long flight home from the Lost Lake. Though weary, he made a visit to the Illinois River and caught himself a fish to satiate his appetite.
The sunset was unusually spectacular. Fires somewhere in Rogue River National Forest northwest of the caves filled the air with smoke. The sun was a brilliant orange. Scattered clouds were tinged a golden orange. Rusty had been through forest fires before and knew that animals living in that part of the forest were experiencing terrible consequences. He empathized with them. Nevertheless, the sky was beautiful and he was determined to enjoy it.
Suddenly, Rusty heard the high pitch of Blather’s voice.
“Did you find out anything?” the anxious bat asked.
Dusk made it difficult for Rusty to see the small bat, but there she was hanging upside down on a branch above the one on which Rusty perched.
“You’re there!” Rusty said reassuring himself the dark shadow really was his friend.
“My cousin, Dong has white nose. She hasn’t slept for two nights. Did you find out anything? Is there anything we can do,” the persistent bat pleaded.
“Hold on,” Rusty said gently, “I’ve been waiting for you all to come out. I think Sage may have the answer.”
“Oh … Oh,” Blather said expectantly.
“Get Dong to the river as soon as you can. Make or at least help her take a swim.”
“A swim?” Blather cried. “She needs to sleep, not exercise!”
“You’ve got to help her. It’s her only hope and that goes for the rest of you too. You all need to take a swim every day to keep the contamination washed off. You understand?”
Blather paused assimilating what she had heard. “We aren’t made to swim … Well, we can swim but we weren’t made for swimming. Most of us don’t even like the water.”
“Well, you’d better get used to it and the sooner the better,” Rusty said. “Now, go get Woody and the others to help you. Get Dong to the river and into the water and while you’re at it persuade every bat you know to take a daily swim.”
“You really think that will help?” Blather asked.”
“I don’t know. It’s what Sage says and you’ve got no choice. Now get going,” Rusty said urging Blather by brushing her with his wing. I want to know how it works.”
“Okay, I’ll do it. Everyone will think I’m crazy, but I’ll do it,” Blather said flapping her gray wings rapidly and taking flight.
“And maybe I am,” Rusty heard her add as she disappeared in the underbrush.
Rusty wished he could do more to help the frightened bat community, but other than cheering them on, he was helpless. Night was upon him. He rose into the air and made his way to his nest and bedded down for the night atop the majestic fir.
The next morning when Rusty awakened, he saw no sign of the bats. Apparently, they had all returned to the cave and were probably asleep. Rusty had already postponed his trip north to visit friends and sightsee in the Columbia River Gorge. Those pleasures would have to wait. He couldn’t go anywhere until he knew how the swimming treatment worked for his bat friends.
That night Rusty waited for Blather to join him on the limb that had become their meeting place. Blather reported that she, Woody and other healthy bats had helped Dong bathe in the Illinois River.
“Yeah, the swim washed the white stuff off Dong but she still hasn’t slept,” Blather wailed.
“It’s only one day – okay, one night – but keep it up,” Rusty said reassuringly. He had no experience to know if or when Sage’s treatment might work, but he knew that dwelling on the negative wasn’t what the bat community needed. He felt that his job now was to help Blather keep a positive attitude.
“Only one night,” he repeated, “Keep it up!”
The third night Blather came to Rusty with squeals of delight. Dong had slept. She was feeling a lot better. No one else had gotten sick with white nose syndrome. Swimming in the Illinois as it meandered toward the ocean, seemed to have carried the plague away.
The bat community was encouraged and hopeful that the plague would never return. But if it did, they knew exactly what to do about it.
Three nights later Blather announced to Rusty that, if by the end of the month they were still free of the syndrome, they would conduct a big bat celebration. Rusty couldn’t believe his ears when he heard that one of the events at the celebration would be the more adventurous young bats showing off their swimming and diving skills.
“You and Sage will be the guests of honor,” Blather proudly announced to “You think Sage will come?”
“Sage? I can’t speak for Sage. “But,” Rusty puffed. “You can bet, I’ll be there!”