It’s been a little over a year now since I started volunteering at my local rehab center for birds of prey. The center is entirely non-profit, with only 3 paid positions in the whole company, every other person involved is a volunteer, which is just an immense project.
Bob, an American Kestrel education bird sitting on my glove.
Birds of prey are managed at the federal level, meaning all the activity at the center needs to follow national law. They are also protected under the migratory bird act, which covers a lot more than just raptors. All of this means a lot of the work at the center involves paperwork rather than wildlife. Every animal that is brought into the center is registered in a national system, and their final results (release, education, natural death, or euthanasia) are recorded.
So what does working at the rehab center entail? Well, poop, mostly. A whole lot of poop. Almost all birds learn to projectile poop when they’re babies to avoid soiling their nest, which makes for a very messy hospital and rehab center! I spend about 80% of my volunteer shift scrubbing cages, replacing newspaper, throwing soiled blankets in the wash, and mopping the floor.
A bald eagle with a wing injury, recouping in the hands-off ”apartments.”
But the other 20% of the time make all that poop-patrol worth it. I am hands-on with wild birds, opossums, rats, rabbits, squirrels, and more every single week. I’ve had to hold great horned owls, barn owls, screech owls, and burrowing owls while we administer medication or wrap broken wings. I’ve carried more red tailed hawks than I can count down to the flight where they can practice short glides before they’re released back to the wild.
Flame, a ground owl education bird that can’t be released due to an eye injury.
I’ve stuffed a turkey vulture full of food (rats) only to have him vomit it all back up in my lap.
I’ve had baby opossums pee all over me.
I’ve been mobbed by teenage ravens as I bring them a fresh dish of mice, fruits, and veggies.
And yes, I’ve been pooped on.
Tito and Alba, education bird barn owls that foster orphan babies every year. They’ve raised over 50 endangered barn owl chicks that we could later release into the wild.
We are currently seeing the start of baby season–the time of year when orphan and injured baby birds are brought to the center in droves. People care about birds, and even though baby birds are not cute like puppies, they’re still tiny and helpless. We accept unhatched eggs, infant birds without their feathers, fledglings that fall out of their nests, even adults that have been hit by cars or caught in barbed wire.
Two baby opossums in a fleece pocket, unhappy that I’ve woken them up.
The center is small. We only have about 20 cages in the hospital and only a single cramped med room. But somehow we managed to accept over 400 animals last year with an 86% rehab-and-release rate. We want to get that number up to 90% this year.
One half of the ’big’ flight, where recouping birds can stretch their healed wings.
Since the big fire came through this December, followed by destructive rain, mudslides, and flash floods, I expect the number of babies we’ll see this year will be fewer, since parents fled the area or are unable to find good nesting sites. Despite that, we still get phone calls every day about injured or abandoned wildlife, and we’ll take anything in that can be safely boxed and brought to our building.
A wild, injured red tailed hawk boxed (irritated) and ready for transport up to the center.
The work is messy and loud. Sometimes it’s just 5 hours of scrubbing poop and… leftovers. But I love it and I’m so glad I started working here to get out of the house. I’ve learned so much about all the animals that come through our building and I get to see them improve and thrive week-to-week.
An ugly-cute barn owl chick only a few days old.
I encourage you to look up your local wildlife rehab center. Odds are pretty good they’re not for profit, relying on public donations or federal grant to do their work. Centers like ours keep track of endangered bird populations as well as the latest developments in rodent management. Call up your local center and ask about volunteering, make a donation, or ask about taking a tour. You might be surprised at the breadth of work they do!