At Santa Rosa’s Bird Rescue Center, tucked down a quiet lane off Chanate Road, more than 50 people crowd into a narrow hall to learn what they can do to ensure the next generation of Sonoma County’s wild birds, from towhees and kinglets to owls and hawks, get a solid start.
The focus is on the babies, which will begin hatching come springtime. Most of the time, mama and papa birds do the job without anyone’s assistance, but sometimes circumstance — the death of the parents, abandonment, or some other crisis — means the newborns and fledglings won’t make it to adulthood without temporary aid from a human caretaker.
That’s where the rescue center, founded 40 years ago, comes into play. The center has been training baby bird feeders — and other volunteers — season after season for decades. It holds orientations starting in late winter to enroll volunteers in training sessions so they can handle the deluge when it comes. The baby-bird season runs from May 1 into September, with the number of babies coming into the facility topping out at as many as 40 a day. And, like infants, unless they are sleeping, baby birds require nonstop care.
In the 2017 baby-bird season, director of avian care Ashton Kluttz said the facility brought in 1,583 babies, but also was able to ensure 700 fledglings remained in the field via education and its screening process. All told, 2,426 birds moved through the center in 2017, which averages 2,500 to 3,000 avian rescues each year. How 2018 will play out in the wake of October’s firestorms, both in terms of baby birds and adults needing care, remains unknown, but Kluttz and other rescue center workers have already noticed species in their yards that they haven’t seen before. While the goal is to keep healthy babies with their parents, Kluttz said, the center might have to deal with more babies this year if there are no longer safe places for the parents to raise their young.
While the skill set for rearing baby birds is relatively easy to acquire, aspects of it take some getting used to, according to center staffers. Anyone squeamish about meal worms or frozen mice — dubbed “mice-icles” — has a hurdle to overcome, because that’s what’s for dinner.
Those with an overwhelming desire to temporarily mother the babies faces yet another obstacle: Cuddling and cooing is not allowed, since the goal is to keep the babies wild. As volunteer trainer Jamie Davis-Meyer pointed out, from the baby bird’s perspective humans, no matter their good intentions, are essentially “superpredators. They are terrified and you are not comforting. Be here for them, not for your own gratification.”
Caring for the little ones requires a small army working in shifts. Not only are there round-the-clock feedings, but the meals must be prepped, the dishes must be washed, and the laundry must be done. As Davis-Meyer explained to appreciative laughter, “It’s like working in the busiest, most disgusting restaurant ever. You will prepare the food for the patron, feed the patron, clean up after the patron, and then the patron poops in the dishes … but it won’t matter because it’s so much fun.”
The orientation includes a tour of the rescue facility, which is outfitted for every bird-borne contingency. There’s a brooder for naked babies; a kitchen; an exam room and intensive-care unit; outdoor aviaries where rehabilitated birds receive “flight conditioning;” the Sanctuary, a flight hallway for smaller raptors and other species, including owls and northern flickers; and “soft-release sheds,” where the babies and rehabbed adults are kept in baskets outdoors until they can be released into the wild.
If You Find An Injured Bird
-First, make sure the bird is actually in distress. Particularly with young birds, it may be the case that the parent has temporarily left it alone to acquire food. This can be 30 minutes or more. Be patient and observe.
-If a baby bird is on the ground and has no feathers (a hatchling), look to see if it has fallen from its nest, and return it to the nest. If it has feathers, it is likely a fledgling and its parents may be nearby. Keep pets away from it, and observe.
-If you believe a bird is injured or abandoned and needs rescue, call the rescue center at 707-523-2473 to help with an assessment and learn how to properly handle and transport the species.
-If the bird should be transferred to the rescue center, handle with care. Prepare a suitable carrying container — a cardboard box with air holes and lined with a towel, for example. Once the bird is safely inside, don’t peek at it. It’ll calm down faster if it’s left in peace.
How To Volunteer
In addition to caregivers for baby birds, the Bird Rescue Center is seeking volunteers for its phone team, transport team, and field response team, among others. If one role doesn’t suit, another might fit the bill perfectly.
During baby bird season, from May to September, volunteers must commit to a four-hour shift each week. In addition, baby bird volunteers must attend four training classes, typically held in March, April and June.
To volunteer, membership is required. The annual membership fees vary; visit the website for details.
Volunteers must be at least 13 years old. Junior volunteers, aged 13-18, as well as adults, are welcome.
Volunteer orientations are listed on the rescue center website at birdrescuecenter.org.