Several years ago my wife was driving along the Salmon River after dumping me and my steelhead fishing guests off for a day trip. On her way back she spotted a western grebe flailing on the roadside, acting like it had a broken leg.  As a good Samaritan she stopped and scooped it up and took it home with her.  The displaced bird was swimming around in a little tub of water she tried to make it comfortable in, until I returned at the end of my day of guiding.  She wanted my opinion and plan for what to do next.

Though I had seen quite a few of these elegantly feathered birds over the years, while fishing and on refuges, I had never seen one up so close before. What I found most striking was its blood-red eye.  It contrasted well with the black and white plumage and was simply an awesome, most beautiful bird. The red-hot eye seemed to burn a hole of  searing compassion in my heart, too.

I examined it to see if it might have a broken leg or some other problem, but could not find any evidence to support that conclusion. Though I suspected the bird was having trouble walking when Barb found it, I decided to call my brother-in-law (USFWS refuge biologist) who had more experience with the waterfowl world. Sure enough, he confirmed what I suspected. The legs on these birds are set very far on their back-end and is the reason they are so awkward on terra firma.  When on bare ground they struggle to walk and cannot fly without water to get a running launch from. He said that often they mistakenly land in the wrong place, like seeing a sheet of ice as a body of water, or landing in other dangerous places, only to become  stranded and ending up as more potential coyote bait.

So, in reality, though the bird was fine, and I first thought she had made a mistake in picking it up, it turns out that she probably saved it. The grebe was too far from water and would be easy prey for predators, so Barb was indeed most likely its salvation.  The next day I had another steelhead trip so put the bird in a basket before leaving home, then released it when we dumped our boat in the water later. Funny thing, that bird followed us for half a day swimming nearby my boat as we fished various holes, moving when we moved, shadowing us all that time.  It was really cool.

The entire incident also reminded me of a good Samaritan  fallacy us humans often demonstrate in our  thinking,  in what psychologist call the “Bystander Effect.”  There is a misconception that when someone is hurt, people rush to their aid. In reality, the more people who witness a person in distress, the less likely it is that any one person will help.  Had we seen this bird as a group while driving to our put-in, I suspect we would have rationalized that it was ok, just having a bad feather day and would find a way to survive. Someone else, or factor would help this bird get saved.  Instead, when Barb was by herself, she acted swiftly, because no one else was there to enable her to justify abandoning personal responsibility.

That is why your chances of being saved from some kind of catastrophic event is far less on a crowded city street full of people, than it is on a country road with just one car passing by.  In groups, we sub-consciously more readily delegate our own responsibilities off unto others, thinking someone else already has called police or emergency personnel, or soon will.  Moral of the story, when your fishing rod goes down, don’t wait for someone else to grab it.