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Bird Rescue Center of Sonoma County offers volunteer training in preparation for busy spring season when phone keeps ringing

One specializes in raptors and the other is happy to sew baby-bird basket covers. But both Bird Rescue Center volunteers are doing all they can to help injured or ill birds.

Working inside an old Quonset hut east of Sutter Hospital, Roberta Chan and Carol Trimingham have served as volunteers for four and eight years, respectively. They know what spring's baby-bird season is like.

"We'll really need help in the baby room, the fledgling room and the outdoor aviaries," said Trimingham, whose husband, Jack, helps out too, picking up birds and getting them to the center for care.

The Bird Rescue Center of Sonoma County was founded in 1977 in Santa Rosa. At first it cared for raptors, such as hawks and owls. But songbirds soon followed. Then came water birds, such as pelicans, loons and grebes.

"We see about 2,500 birds a year, with 70 percent of those arriving between mid-April and September when baby songbirds are the most common," said Diane Hichwa, community education coordinator for the center.

The center accepts more than 125 avian species, focusing on wild native birds. It does not work with pet birds such as cockatiels, nor with starlings, pigeons or farmyard ducks and geese.

Last year the center, which also offers student tours, logged more than 10,500 telephone calls from concerned bird rescuers. At peak baby-bird season, calls come in at about 50 per hour.

That's why the center needs volunteers who can meet and greet visitors, answer phone calls, accept birds, transfer birds or provide foster care.

While the goal is to release birds back to the wild, intensive care is the first priority.

"This is like a hospital emergency room. It's triage. You have to decide quickly which bird has the best chance for survival," said Chan, who has a passion for raptors and recently helped to release a red-tail hawk that had been nursed back to health after being shot.

Birds are high-maintenance patients. Baby birds, including hummingbirds, robins and sparrows, must be fed every 20 minutes, and there are wounds to clean and medicines to administer.

"Certain birds must be released to a flock, so you have to wait till you have a couple to release together near another group. And then the baby quail have special needs," Chan said.

Baby quail, which are prolific in Sonoma County, are active little birds. To move them for cage cleaning or treatment, they are placed in what look like padded bread baskets.

"I sew covers from old bed sheets," said Trimingham, pointing to a leaning tower of covered baskets, each with its own matching elastic-trimmed net cover.

"We call them popcorn, because they pop up and their heads hit the netting. But it keeps them from escaping or falling. It keeps them safe," she said.

The volunteers have learned another quail trick.

"If we have just one quail, we put a mirror in the cage so it won't get lonely. Quail, particularly, need other quail," Chan said.

While the center has been criticized for turning away birds for short periods of time in past baby seasons, this year volunteers have pitched in to clean, paint and reorganize the center to better prepare.

"I didn't know much about bird rescue when I started, but I've been here eight years because it's so rewarding," Trimingham said.

The next volunteer training session at the Bird Rescue Center is from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 29. Other sessions are scheduled for additional Saturdays and Wednesdays through April.

The Bird Center is at 3430 County Farm Drive, which is off Chanate Road, just east of Sutter Medical Center. To sign up, call 523-BIRD (2473).

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