Birder's Eye View

Monday, September 26, 2011

Volunteering for the birds

Feeding the shorebirds
It's 8 o'clock in the morning on Saturday, but temperatures are already rising into the humid upper 80s as my friend and I are arrive at the local seabird sanctuary. We know we're in for a long day -- it's our first day of what will be a 40 hour volunteer project over the semester for our senior class. I couldn't be more excited though. The seabird sanctuary is the largest wild bird hospital in the country, admitting around 8,000 birds each year.

Although we won't be working directly with the hospital,  we do get to work closely with the rehabilitated birds in the public area of the facility. As soon as we arrive, a staff member puts us to work with scrub brushes, soap, bleach, and rakes, assigning us several enclosures. I get to take care of the owls first -- 4 screech owls, a barn owl, two barred owls, and a great-horned. 

It's a little different than the work I did over the summer; these birds for the most part are not trained to work with humans, so they are a lot more nervous each time I get near them. Nonetheless, they remain fairly calm and only eye me disdainfully as I scrape droppings off of perches, drain pools, and rake the soft beach sand at the bottom of the enclosures.

Once I finish, I help my friend clean an enclosure housing some crows, followed by a kestrel, and then some blue jays. The jays are a lot more feisty than the others, and one even lands on my head for a moment when I first walk in to hose off its food dish! We also work together to clean a large enclosure housing a group of vultures and peregrine falcons.

Cleaning duties are finished around 10:30am and we move on to food prep. Most of this work takes place in one wing of the hospital building, a workshop-like room with a large tank full of dead fish, as well as sinks, counter space, refrigerators, storage areas, etc. Even without air conditioning, it's still the coolest place at the facility, aired out by a giant fan in the corner wafting away some of the harsher odors.

My friend and I are put to work sorting fish by size, and soon find ourselves up to our elbows in the red-tinted water of the big tank, trying not to get jabbed by spines and barbs. It's an oddly satisfying task however, and contrary to what you might think, it wasn't really as "gross" as you would expect!

After a lunch break, we return to work to fillet the fish we sorted, cut them into small strips, and divvy out diets for each of the bird enclosures. The staff members show us what each bird eats and where to place the dishes in the enclosures, but I know I'll never remember it all! Next we find ourselves cutting up more fish in big chunks (yum!), and then hauling the remaining fish out of the tank and dividing them into buckets that will go out to the pelicans and gulls.

By the end of the day I smell positively delightful and am covered in a delicious smattering of fish guts, sand, and bird poop. It was totally exhausting, and certainly not the most glamorous job, but after talking to many of the staff members and volunteers I could really see why it was important that we were there. The sanctuary runs as a nonprofit, so all their money comes straight from donations, meaning they have very little to go around. Most of the dirty work is done totally by unpaid volunteers. It's incredible that the facility remains one of the largest in the country, considering how few people are doing so much work.

So this will be my every weekend for the next couple months. Eight hours down, 32 more to go. It's rough work, but I'm happy to be doing it; I've already learned a lot more about birds and can't wait to become more familiar with the place and the people there. 

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