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.
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).
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.