BOOKS: Flyaway

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2009:
Flyaway: How a wild bird rehabber sought adventure and found her wings
by Suzie Gilbert
HarperCollins Publishers (10 East 53rd St., New
York, NY 10022), 2009. 352 pages. $25.99
“And I see these two robins, and one is
kicking the crap out of the other one. Beating
the bejesus out of himÅ .And he’s out there right
now waiting for you.”
Bird rehabilitator Suzie Gilbert, of
Hudson Valley, New York, answers frequent calls
of a similar nature, concerned about birds but
not necessarily well-informed about their
Her mother fed wild birds, so maybe
Gilbert was destined for this career. But
getting there took time. Gilbert repeatedly
changed directions in pursuing her education and
a career, traveling extensively abroad. She
found her calling by volunteering at a wildlife
rehabilitation center in 1990.

After Gilbert married and had two
children, Mac and Skye, she began to rehab wild
birds at home. Gilbert and her husband John soon
built flight cages, deepening their commitment.
Eventually their entire house was retrofitted to
accommodate birds. Initially Gilbert intended
only to handle birds who had been rescued by
other rehabbers. However, in New York state she
needed both a state license to rehabilitate
wildlife and a federal permit to keep native
birds. Meeting the licensing requirements
qualified her to do rescue herself.
A finch with a dislocated wing arrived
first, then a red-tail hawk. There were injured
ducks, northern goshawks, parrots, crows,
owls, turkeys and sparrows. Each came with a
special story. Some were hit by cars. Thugs
shot some for spite. Other birds were injured by
free-roaming cats.
Gilbert in one short chapter addresses
the ongoing controversy between cat and bird
advocates as to whether free-roaming and feral
cats are a significant threat to birds and other
wildlife. Gilbert says yes, as most bird
rehabilitators do.
Flyaway takes the readers through the
daily routines of bird rehabilitation. Birds
require cages to fit their extremely variable
sizes, especially their wing spans. According
to Gilbert, “Wild birds can’t be kept in regular
bird cages as they will damage their feathers by
brushing them against the metal bars.” She
improvises with roomy reptile enclosures made of
light plastic. Avian diets vary from fresh fish
to seeds to dead rodents to bugs. Some need
antibiotics; others need life-saving surgery.
Some need “snowshoes,” lightweight plastic
devices that straighten a bird’s foot when it has
become curled or clenched too tightly.
Working with wildlife, which now and
then includes endangered species, requires
filings with both the state and federal
government. Penalties ensue for those who do not
comply. Gilbert and every reputable wildlife
rehabilitator must keep copious notes. Their
records are often used to track diseases–for
example, the dangerous West Nile virus, whose
progress has been followed primarily by
rehabilitators’ reports since first appearing in
the U.S. in August 1999.
Many of the birds whom Gilbert takes in
are seriously injured and do not survive. The
mortality rate in avian rescue is much higher
than in rescuing dogs, cats, horses, and
livestock, partly because a wild animal tends to
be in worse shape than a domestic animal before
attracting human intervention.
Wild birds, as Gilbert notes, cannot be
released until perfectly healed. Except among
flightless species, none native to the U.S. and
therefore ineligible for release, a bird who
cannot fly will not survive in the wild. When
birds suffer permanently disabling injuries to
their wings or beaks, Gilbert works with other
rehabbers to find appropriate lifetime sanctuary
Gilbert’s family were unperturbed when a
bathroom became a makeshift bird clinic and dead
rodents filled their freezer. Postal employees
were less amused when a box of live crickets
unexpectedly opened, releasing more than 1,000
crickets, who hopped over packages, letters,
and a conveyor belt carrying mail until Gilbert
and her husband could contain them.
The financial burden of caring for so
many birds eventually obliged Gilbert to
incorporate Flyaway Inc. as a nonprofit
organization. This was accomplished in 2002.
Nearly all my experience has been with
dog and cat rescue, so reading about avian
rescue was an informative introduction to a very
different branch of animal welfare. I was
disappointed in the family’s choice to buy rather
than to adopt a puppy, but Flyaway is a
worthwhile read, even if the family dog came
from a breeder. –Debra J.

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