Bird nerds, swan hugs, and poop: Why I love volunteering at a wild bird rehab

Guest post by Tara

When we told you our May patron Tara volunteers at a wild bird rehab, you told us you wanted to know more. Tara obliged, because she’s awesome like that.


I haven’t always been a birder. Just a few years ago, I worked in the kitchen of a semi-remote Alaskan lodge. Glancing up from my cinnamon rolls one day I noticed a small yellow bird perched outside the window. With floury hands, I excitedly sent my then-boyfriend-now-husband a text, asking him what kind of bird it could possibly be. He responded with a species that sounded vaguely familiar, so I proceeded to tell everybody about the Star-Bellied Sneetch I had seen.

My passion and knowledge for all things avian increased over time, but the “bird nerd” tipping point came during a cross-country road trip.

On a windy Florida beach I held a brown pelican while a fisherman removed a hook from its wing. Despite numerous incredible animal experiences that include bathing elephants and swimming with wild dolphins, manatees, and whale sharks, my interaction with this pelican deeply moved me. I became determined to get involved in bird rescue and rehabilitation.

Luckily, my home city is also home to a wild bird treatment and rehabilitation center. The center is a local non-profit that takes in sick, injured, and orphaned wild birds with the goal of rehabilitating and releasing them. Healthy but non-releasable birds can become part of their fantastic education program, or they are placed around the country with appropriate institutions. I’ve been lucky enough to be a clinic volunteer for almost a year.

Clinic work is messy. Most of my job involves cleaning up bird poop, which is technically referred to as “mutes.” Whatever you call it, there is a lot of it.

After learning all about cleaning, I progressed to preparing food for the birds. This requires carefully measuring out things like salmon, moose meat, whale meat, and rodents, and learning which foods the individual birds like to eat. I have also been trained to tube feed birds (I learned on a fork-tailed storm petrel, which is freaking adorable) and to give them subcutaneous fluids.

Tara being a badass.
Tara being a badass.

Handling the birds is especially cool. The more experienced volunteers are wonderful teachers who make sure us newbies know what we are doing. One of my favorite moments was when my volunteer lead handed me a bundle of blanket, feathers, and very sharp pointy bits, saying, “Here, hold this goshawk. Watch the talons.” Owls can be tricky because of their 270 degree neck rotation and ornery disposition. Nothing makes me feel like more of a badass than when I pick up a bald eagle using a just a blanket.

Handling is stressful for untrained birds so it’s only done when necessary. However, in at least one instance I think that the physical contact was beneficial to the bird. Last fall we received a juvenile trumpeter swan with a partially amputated wing. The swan will never fly again, but the amputation site eventually healed. Trumpeter swans are very social and this one was obviously lonely. He just sat in front of a mirror and made soft swan noises to his reflection. I’ve only cried once at the clinic, when that swan heard a recording of other swans and started calling to them. At one point it was suggested that I hold the swan, with the hope that my physical presence would calm him down (this would not have been done with a releasable bird).

having a volunteer moment with a swan

In one of the more surreal experiences of my life, I gently squatted down with the swan between my knees and wrapped my arms around him. After a moment or two of adjusting, the swan tucked his head underneath my arm and he fell asleep. Thankfully, after months of work, one of our dedicated volunteers delivered the trumpeter swan to his new home at a zoo where he has a lady swan friend.

Sometimes our excellent veterinarians can’t help the birds. Rehab work requires a certain hardness and pragmatism that is difficult to explain without sounding dismissive about the loss of life. I am saddened by the deaths but overjoyed when a bird is released back into the wild. I feel the most pain and anger when we receive birds that are physically in perfect condition but have imprinted on humans because somebody wanted a novel (and illegal) pet. These birds are non-releasable because even though all the parts are there, they just don’t know how to be a bird properly. I feel like their lives were stolen from them.

I love everything I do at the clinic, poop and all. Whether I’m encouraging bohemian waxwings to exercise, being bitten by northwestern crows, being hissed at by great horned owls, chasing around an escaped northern flicker, or even acting as a surrogate trumpeter swan parent, I know I’m doing my part to help wild birds.

People always ask me if I want a pet bird. I thought about this a lot recently, while I spent four days camping alone on an Alaskan beach while I attended a birding festival. I’m still not sure. I do get awfully attached to some of the clinic patients, but caged birds make me sad.

What I do know is that I am happiest when I am outside, watching the wild birds fly above me. May they never know my blanket.

Comments on Bird nerds, swan hugs, and poop: Why I love volunteering at a wild bird rehab

  1. You are AMAZING!

    As someone who worked with turtles at a nature center for a few years, I had the same moment when I really would have LOVED a turtle of my own (because seriously those critters have a lot of personality), but couldn’t justify it since in all probability they will outlive me and I didn’t feel like that was fair. Its always wonderful when you can educate others about animals that you love though and teach them about how they can help these creatures in the wild!

    • Thank you! I really enjoy what I do.
      I completely commiserate with you on the turtles. They are so cute! The opportunity to educate and make a difference, however, is truly wonderful.

  2. Thank you for the amazing work that you do! I’m an animal control officer, so I often encounter bird rehabilitators and the great network of volunteers that help to save birds.

    I consider myself a fledgling bird nerd….I’ve watched Sir David Attenborough’s entire documentary “The Life of Birds” three times, own the companion book, and included a quote from it in my wedding ceremony. 🙂

    • Thank you for your hard work!
      I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I haven’t seen that particular series, but now I’ll have to check it out! I’ll bet your wedding ceremony was beautiful.

      • Oh my god, yes! Watch that series! It’s along the same vein as the “Planet Earth” series, but solely focused on birds. It’s available to stream on Netflix and Amazon Prime.

        • I work in the UK for the RSPB on a nature reserve (conservation rather than welfare) and we work closely with a local rehabilitation centre, the work they (and you) do is invaluable and inspiring.

          David Attenborough was the person that inspired my love of wildlife, and why I now do what I do. He is a national institution here in the UK. I highly recommend everything he’s ever recorded, ever! 🙂

  3. Thank you for your hard work and dedication to helping creatures who need it! The bit about the trumpeter swan made me tear up. How awesome.

  4. I’ve always had a certain fondness for great-horned owls. They are massively huge as adults, but as babies, they are these big round balls of fluffy. They are also the only (local) predator of skunks.

    • I love great horned owls! It’s funny because even though the adults look big they really just have a lot of feathers. The one I’m working with right now is somewhere around 2 pounds.

  5. Thanks for a great post. The swan story really caught my fancy. I remember I was completely enthralled by “The Trumpet of the Swan” as a little girl. I’m happy your swan got to live in something close to his natural environment but oh my I would have missed the swan hugs!

    “Despite numerous incredible animal experiences that include bathing elephants and swimming with wild dolphins, manatees, and whale sharks…”

    And gosh these sound like topics for more posts… 🙂

  6. Fellow bird nerd here! I love your story!

    I fell in love with birding a few years ago and am still a complete amateur birder, but I love it. I live in Las Vegas, NV so we don’t have the diverse birds you’d have in Alaska, but there are burrowing owls within a mile of my home. They are AMAZING creatures and right now one of the burrows has FIVE babies! Five, fluffy, awkward, baby owlettes!

  7. Love this!!! As a vet tech/nurse and conservation student, and big volunteer, this captures why I do what I do really well!

    And right there with you on the not owning birds. For me, I’ll only ever have rescued domestic species of animals. The rest… it’s just not fair.

  8. Thank you for sharing your stories! I only learned that bird rescues were a Thing when we had a great blue heron with a broken wing on our pond last year, and it was interesting to hear what it involves. (No happy ending to our heron’s story, unfortunately.)

    My husband is a life-long birder and I’ve taken it up, too. We’ve had some amazing adventures together. Our most recent is raising chickens, and I felt pretty bad-ass when I helped two of the chicks out of their eggs. (Which was necessary because of humidity issues in our incubator, and was only done after lots of research and waiting to see if they’d make it out on their own.) One of the two didn’t make it, but the other is nearly four weeks old and thriving. It’s fascinating to watch these birds grow and develop.

    I hear ya on the poop, though. We’ve learned that the chicks make a particular noise before they unload, so that’s our cue to make sure they’re positioned over newspaper if they happen to be perching on us at the moment.

    • I’m really looking forward to the day I live in a place where I can tend chickens.
      So with poop, you learn that some birds are shooters (eagles) and some are ploppers (owls). It’s handy to learn the signs of imminent poop, especially if you are standing behind an eagle.

      • Quick story:
        Honeymoon. Hotel room window open. Seagull poop ricocheted and hit the inside wall. Incredipoop!

        Shit moves in mysterious ways.

        • Also a quick story: Cat brought bird inside. Bird stressed but not damaged. Got on top of my computer. Managed to somehow, with pinpoint-accuracy, shit through the tiny (covered with a panel) vent, leading to the conversation that my friend who works in IT will never let me forget, where I led with “So do you have any advice for cleaning bird poop off of a graphics card?”
          Computer has been called the Death Star since that day.

  9. Awww. The story with the swan is so heart-breaking and heart-warming at the same time. I had never considered birds as sensible creatures before, but your story really makes me rethink that.

    • Nya, I’m so happy to hear that! Before I started doing rehab work I hadn’t realized what distinct personalities birds develop. Corvids, like ravens, crows, and magpies are especially prone to this. We currently have three magpies housed together at the clinic and we can tell them apart based on their movements and vocalizations. The book “Alex & Me” by Irene Pepperberg, about an African grey parrot, is a fascinating introduction to animal intelligence.

  10. What a wonderful article! Thank you so much for what you and others like you do. In fact, I was so inspired I immediately signed up to volunteer at the raptor rehabilitation project here in my hometown of Columbia, Mo.

    • Raptor rehabilitation project ?

      One second’s worth of distracted reading was all it took for me to picture a volunteer cuddling with a sweet, lonely, crying velociraptor.
      Mind = blown.

      • Yesterday I had the privilege of working with a baby bald eagle. I swear she looked exactly like a fuzzy little dinosaur! One of the cutest animals I’ve ever seen as I’ve always wished for a baby dinosaur.

  11. I volunteer at a wildlife rehab in NJ and absolutely love it. It’s not an easy job – lots of pee, poop, dirty laundry, and weird smells – but it’s so rewarding to feel like I’m making a difference in the universe by helping orphaned and injured wildlife.

  12. The swan story was really something else. Since I was little, I would cry whenever I heard the story of H.C.Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling”, since I was socially anxious and “different” even as a preschooler and could totally identify with that lonely little bird.
    (Also: Dumbo.)

    I just reread the ugly duckling, and I discovered all those details I had totally forgotten about, like how it wants to commit suicide in the end or how the others say “you have no right to express an opinion when sensible people are speaking”, just because it is different.
    It’s public domain, read it here:

    And what you wrote about the swan listening and answering to swan songs is just like what is described in the original fable:
    “…One evening, just as the sun set amid radiant clouds, there came a large flock of beautiful birds out of the bushes. The duckling had never seen any like them before. They were swans, and they curved their graceful necks, while their soft plumage shown with dazzling whiteness. They uttered a singular cry, as they spread their glorious wings and flew away from those cold regions to warmer countries across the sea. As they mounted higher and higher in the air, the ugly little duckling felt quite a strange sensation as he watched them. He whirled himself in the water like a wheel, stretched out his neck towards them, and uttered a cry so strange that it frightened himself.”

    And I always wanted to comfort the little creature at this point and tell him that everything would be okay and that he was beautiful no matter what the others said and that he wouldn’t be lonely forever – and I kind of feel like you did that.

    Anyway. Though my story might be sappy and rambling, yours was really touching and I wanted you to know that.

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