The Miracle Bird of Elizabethtown led the Outdoors page of a Lancaster newspaper one morning this spring, a feel-good tale if there ever was one.
The column told how Pati Mattrick, a 57-year-old grandmother and preschool teacher, had rescued the hatchling from a howling rainstorm four years earlier. And now the bird was returning the favor.
Mattrick's German shepherd had discovered the tiny creature - pink, fuzzy, and soaked - buried in the backyard ivy at the foot of a towering spruce. She carried it inside and placed it in an incubator fashioned from an old aquarium, a Tupperware bowl, a linen napkin, and a heating pad. She named the tiny bird Stormy Girl.
Unsure what her charge ate, Mattrick rounded up some worms and bugs, razoring them into bite-size specks. She e-mailed wildlife rehabilitation shelters to learn more. The bird, they said, was unlikely to survive.
But Stormy Girl did fine, growing feathers, filling out on a diet of fruit and nuts, and finding its singing voice. Mattrick learned her new friend was a house finch. The bird would serenade her as it followed her around the house. "She thought I was her mother," Mattrick says.
Which was just what Mattrick needed, since the last of her four daughters had moved out and she didn't feel well enough to teach anymore. The bird, she says, helped lift her depression.
The column, by outdoors writer Ad Crable of the Intelligencer Journal/New Era, ran May 11. Two mornings later, about 9 a.m., a knock at the door startled Mattrick. More alarming were her callers: a Pennsylvania Game Commission officer and three armed policemen.
They'd come for the bird.
Who knew you couldn't keep house finches in the house?
Certainly not Mattrick. But the Game Commission knew. Those garden-variety fowl - the Cornell Lab of Ornithology estimates there are as many as 1.4 billion of them on the continent - are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918.
Mattrick was breaking the law.
Over the last few months, the case has created quite a squawk. Readers sounded off, some accusing the commission of storm-trooper tactics, others defending its vigilance. A Facebook group called Help StormyGirl attracted 411 members at last count.
And Mattrick has found an ally in Lancaster County's top prosecutor.
"At best, this case was a grossly misguided abuse of law enforcement discretion," says Craig Stedman, the county's district attorney. "At worst, it was just plain cruel."
Earlier this month, Stedman made sure that no more Game Commission raids would take place in Lancaster County without his knowledge. Wardens now must get his office's approval for all search warrants, rather than going to the local magistrate.
Stedman says the case has been a disaster for all. "I didn't see any threat to society or the community from this," he said. "Let's put some common sense in this whole job of law enforcement. I really don't want the representatives of the police participating in search warrants for house finches."
Pati Mattrick says her health went into a dive after Stormy Girl was taken from her. Her depression has deepened. The stress has made her asthma worse, and she now needs to use oxygen every night.
"What good did this all do?" she asks. "It didn't do the bird any good. It certainly didn't do me any good. I don't get it."
She isn't sure what to believe.
"I was lied to so many times," she says. During the search, she says, the Game Commission officer told her that if she resisted the search, the FBI would come next.
"All I could hear was furniture moving around and her screaming and screaming," she says. "It's something I just can't get out of my head."
The animal-control officer told her that the bird would be going to a wildlife rehabilitation shelter, she says, and that she could visit it.
But the Game Commission still won't tell her where the bird is. They wouldn't tell me either.
"It's alive," is all spokesman Jerry Feaser would say.