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Wild Birds To the Rescue


            Whenever I passed by the little storefront window on that busy city avenue, I stopped to admire the fancy pigeons roosting and chattering together inside. This little building housed the only organization in the city where wild birds in need, could be brought in for rescue, rehab and release. In the room behind the cooing pigeons, I could see the staff going about their business – mostly in green medical scrubs- caring for wild birds of all kinds that lived, visited, migrated or just found themselves in trouble in a metropolis.

            As an avid birder, I longed to be part of this world of wild birds beyond helping with monthly donations. I have zero background in medicine or wild bird care. What could I possibly offer the devoted staff or their feathery charges? They’d never want me as a volunteer- the negative voice in my head assured me. It took me over a year to get my nerve up and ring the bell to ask about volunteering. The idea that I would be close up to birds I normally see from hundreds of yards away -if at all- through binoculars and might be of some assistance to them sounded like a dream opportunity.

            After ringing the little tinkling bell above the door, I was welcomed by a harried woman who pointed to a stack of eight cat carriers holding pigeons, a seagull, a woodcock, a blue jay and a crow “This is what a slow day looks like!” she told me. Fluffy chickens greeted me pecking around my feet as a huge Canada goose waddled past honking its displeasure at the clucking hens. To my left I saw a small room with a pool at waist level. Four elegant swans were busily paddling away behind the glass wall separating them from their fellow residents. I was totally enthralled. 

            After submitting the volunteer packet, I got an email a few weeks later informing me I was accepted to come in for training as a wild bird rescue volunteer and to please report for training. A few nights later, there were six of us sitting in a circle, as one of the staff explained what would be required of our time and what chores we could do to keep the rescue in good working order. They consisted of cleaning out pigeon cages, mopping the floor (a constant job!) and never-ending piles of laundry. At some point, we could work the reception desk to take in the seemingly unending stream of creatures in need. The northeast of the United States is a critical flyway corridor for birds heading north and south during migration. The organization handles over five thousand birds a year in the two small floors they occupy in an apartment building. The birds arrive in a multitude of conditions and with various needs. Some are terribly injured. Broken bones and impact injuries abound from window strikes as they try to navigate the glass canyons of a city that has sprung up in their flight path. Confounding generations of genetic coding for migration. Others need some assistance with rest and hydration. Or they’ve been blown off course from a storm and need to hitch a ride to their proper environment. Every effort is made to save them and return them to the wild with as little human interaction as possible. 

            My first afternoon of scrubbing pigeon cages in the tiny downstairs medical room was thrilling. I understand some people are put off by flapping birds. I on the other hand am not. 

Watching the team of health techs jump into action, was inspiring. Their devotion and expertise apparent. Stepping into the “flyway room” a narrow space where mostly small songbirds are kept while they get their flight strength and agility back is a magical world. Cardinals, a tufted titmouse or two, warblers, robins and wary eyed blue jays, flitted and chittered at me as I put out food for them and swept the floor of their temporary home. I felt honored to do so. One scarlet cardinal took a shine to me and would stop by to perch on the top of my head and let out a few chirps before he took off again.  By my third week, I was asked to work the reception desk for intakes. This is where I saw how truly incredible humans can be. A nine-year-old girl and her mother rushing in with an injured sparrow in a brown paper lunch bag, a woman who took an hour-long train ride with a sick pigeon in her giant purse. Two grinning police officers knocking on the door holding a box that was housing a massive red tail hawk they had captured after it had accidentally flown into an office building lobby, terrifying visitors as it swooped over their heads. Sea birds, raptors, songbirds, ducks, geese, swans even the occasional raven came knocking for refuge, repair and always the goal: release. Ducklings are especially delightful to see and we were sternly instructed to leave them alone- including uttering baby talk to them, lest they imprint on us and think we are their momma duck. The organization insists the “wildness” of their charges be respected and maintained. The shortest stay. The least amount of human interaction is critical to the birds surviving and keeping their wild nature when they are returned to their habitats. I admit it’s hard not to smooch a fuzzy duckling.

            The amazing staff and founder are beyond grateful for the volunteer team and made us feel at home in this special space they have created. The best days are when a group of us march off together to a local park for a “release”. Watching a loon scuttle into the reservoir and then dip with pleasure under the water before taking off for its more remote home is a special joy. A swan being carried by two or even four of us in a cardboard moving box to a nearby lake, then set free to join her mate who indeed waited anxiously for this day to arrive and be reunited with his graceful bride. As like many birds, swans pair up for life.

             Best of all is releasing a hawk. Powerful hunters with three-foot wing spans. We always choose a hill across from a tall tree line. When the box is gently tipped and the flap opened, the hawk usually waits a beat, scanning that line of trees and BAM! out the bird flies with such energy, we can feel the wind from its wings as we watch it soar to the trees. After getting its bearings, the raptor launches skyward to pinwheel high above us doing victory laps over our upturned faces. Cheering on a regular basis is very good for the soul I found. 

            The smallest service I am able to do for these wild birds, brings me not only a sense of self-worth but one of humility too. I’ve been shown again and again the goodness of strangers is something real and to be believed in. Reminded that the world indeed can be a hard place to navigate. These creatures taught me the most valuable of lessons. I always get back so much more than I can ever give away.

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