I told my kids they could feed the wild birds. I was wrong.
We arrived at the Live Bird Thanksgiving Program, hosted by the Eagle River Nature Center, on Sat., Nov. 26 with our six kids, 30 fresh cranberries, and one raw turkey neck.
The volunteers from the Bird Treatment and Learning Center (TLC Birds) quickly confiscated our Thanksgiving leftovers and explained that the feeding would happen at their rehabilitation center. Their goal is to keep the birds as wild as possible – even their bird ambassadors – the birds who have permanent disabilities and can never be released.
Luckily, the birds weren’t hungry. But they were noisy. And for us, that’s a good thing.
My 13-year-old son, who was born with no eyeballs and severe intellectual impairment, stopped rocking and straightened up. He laughed and smiled and held out his hands, searching for the source of the beautiful racket. It became readily apparent that one doesn’t need functioning eyeballs to enjoy birds. He listened with delight to the crows, the owls, and the songbirds. It was an Alaska symphony.
Bird TLC was started in 1998, shortly after the Exxon oil spill, by veterinarian James R. Scott. Its goal is to educate the public about wild birds and their habitat, rescue distressed birds, provide medical treatment, and rehabilitate and release as many birds as possible. They provide life-long care for the birds who will never completely recover.
“It’s a big responsibility,” John Zarnetske, a Bird TLC volunteer said, gesturing to his bird ambassador. “By the luck of the draw, they have to spend the rest of their lives in captivity.”
Many of the birds rescued by Bird TLC are juveniles.
“Young birds make lots of mistakes,” Zarnetske said. “They learn by the school of hard knocks.”
He showed us Flame, an 11-year-old short-eared owl. She was found by the side of the road as a young bird, possibly hit by a car.
Visitors have to keep a healthy distance from the birds, so Zarnetske passed around an owl wing specimen. My 13-year-old daughter, also blind and intellectually impaired, was concerned to find that the wing wasn’t attached to a bird. After a few minutes of explanations, she relaxed enough to enjoy the feel of the feathers. Without sight, this is the closest she will come to experiencing an owl.
We moved on to the performer of the crowd, a northwestern crow, named Kodiak. Volunteer Lisa Pajot asked me to take a step back. Kodiak was eyeing my pen as it flashed in the light.
Kodiak, an 11-year-old male, was removed from his nest at a young age and imprinted on human beings.
“He thinks humans are his flock,” Lisa Pajot, a Bird TLC volunteer of 22 years, said. She started volunteering shortly after graduating from high school. Because Kodiak was socialized, he will never have the skills he needs to survive in the wild, Pajot said.
Kodiak sat perched on a plastic donation box labeled “Crow’s Cache.” Wild crows are notorious for hiding food in a cache for short or long term storage. Kodiak’s version was a little different. When a visitor held out a dollar bill, Kodiak gleefully snatched it and stuffed it into the half-filled donation box.
The Crow Cache is just one of the ways Bird TLC raises money. The organization, which has permits issued by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Alaska Department of Fish and Game, is dependent on grants and donations.
Contributors can “adopt” a bird for the year. Adoption rates range from $25 for a song bird to $200 for an eagle. Supporters can buy a TLC Membership ($35-$75/year), or pay for a live bird presentation $85-$150/hour. There are also opportunities to sponsor a bird release.
Bird TLC is almost entirely run by volunteers. Sharon Larson, who was in charge of Mr. Hoot, a majestic looking great horned owl whose wing was partially amputated due to a bullet wound, has been working with Bird TLC for seven years. She described the first time she volunteered.
“The first day I walked in there were two short-eared owls, a boreal, and a great horn. I fell in love,” Larson said. She thinks you’ll fall in love too.
The Learning Center is looking for volunteers to feed and care for birds, present live-bird education classes and transport birds on an emergency basis. Volunteers don’t need a biology degree or prior experience. Bird TLC will work to certify committed volunteers. Volunteers must be age 18 or older and have a current tetanus shot. If transporting birds, volunteers need a valid driver’s license and auto insurance.
Jo Walch had the day’s smallest participants. She was tending the song birds. Walch didn’t mind that her birds were being upstaged by the great horned owl across from her. She “loves the song birds” and fills an important need at the rescue center.
Every spring and summer, Bird TLC receives 200-300 orphaned song birds into their Baby Bird Program. Bird TLC is recruiting local families to foster the baby birds, a process that takes 2-3 weeks.
After attending a seminar, participants will be certified to care for song birds until they can be released in to the wild.
Bird TLC cares for approximately 1,000 wild Alaska birds each year and provides around 800 education presentations. My family left the Eagle River Nature Center in awe of the birds, the volunteers, and their stories.
Visit www.birdtlc.org for more bird stories.
Editor’s Note: Melinda Munson is a Chugiak resident and a journalism graduate from the University of Washington. She is an editorial correspondent with The ECHO News and the mother of six children.
What to Do If You Find an Injured Bird:
If you find an injured eagle, owl or large raptor call Bird TLC at 907-562-4852.
If the bird is another species, follow the steps below.
- Make sure the bird really needs help. If it’s not limping, bleeding, or showing signs of an injured wing, it might be fine.
- Be careful. The injured bird might perceive you as a threat.
- Catch the bird as gently as possible. Use a towel, blanket, or box.
- Put the bird in a container with air holes in a quiet, dark place.
- Bring the bird to the Bird TLC rehabilitation clinic (7800 King St. Anchorage). If it’s after hours, call PET Emergency Treatment at 907-519-6588 (2320 E Dowling Rd.), or call Diamond Animal Hospital at 907-562-8384 (2545 E Tudor Rd., open 24 hours)
Never try to care for a wild bird on your own. Many species are protected by state and federal law and must be cared for by a licensed rehabilitator.
Find more information at www.birdtlc.org.