When migrating birds run into trouble, wildlife rehabilitators swoop in

Lela Nargi

THE WASHINGTON POST – When you’re sick, you go to the pediatrician. When your pets have a problem, you take them to a veterinarian. When wild birds are hurt, if they’re lucky, a good Samaritan takes them to an animal rehabilitator.

New York City’s rehabilitation facility is called the Wild Bird Fund, or WBF. It also treats opossum, squirrels and rabbits. Each year its staff cares for more than 7,000 animals. Some of them are pigeons or hawks hit by cars or poisoned by lead in the environment. But because New York is part of the Atlantic Flyway, many of them are birds that pass through during migration season. Many of them crash into buildings.

On a rainy fall afternoon, a shaken-up woodcock gets a checkup from Tristan Higginbotham.

She’s one of WBF’s 10 animal care managers. When birds hit glass, as this woodcock did, “we check to see if they have a broken mandible,” she said (that’s a jaw bone). She places the bird on a towel on an examination table. She gently pulls open a long, slender, delicate beak and looks for signs of injury.

Next she turns the bird in her hands. She coaxes the wings apart, feeling with her fingers for swelling. Then she blows on the bird’s feathers to see if they’re sticky with blood.

Tristan Higgenbotham of the Wild Bird Fund in New York, examines an injured American woodcock. The woodcock collided with a window, so Higgenbotham makes sure it hasn’t damaged its shoulders or coracoids, or wing bones.PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Higginbotham plans to drop fluorescent yellow liquid into the woodcock’s eyes, which will highlight any scratches. She may give the woodcock “bird ibuprofen” for pain and fluid under its skin to get it hydrated.

But right now, the bird “looks pretty good,” Higginbotham said.

In WBF’s cramped, chaotic foyer, four Pekin ducks, whose owners didn’t want them anymore, have just had a swim in the exercise pool and are mumbling energetically. Another rehabber bundles a swan with mysteriously drooping and clicking wings into a carrier. It will have an X-ray at a nearby vet’s office.

Downstairs, volunteers clean pigeon cages while the birds get free time. Some pigeons are treated to physical therapy: stretches called “cabinet door” (opening and closing a wing), “wing to beak” and the “scapula slide.” (A scapula is a shoulder bone.)

In a narrow room called the “flyway,” recovering titmice, warblers and sparrows practice their moves.

One nuthatch fell into tar and lost its tail feathers when it was cleaned. The feathers grow back in a few weeks. A sapsucker has a fractured coracoid (wing bone). “You can see his wing is sticking up, and that can take a long time to heal,” Higginbotham said.

The birds squeak and squabble. When the rain stops, Higginbotham will take most of them to a park. At long last, they’ll be released back into the wild.