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Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research in Newark, Delaware

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If you make your way to the very end of a narrow road called Possum Hollow, you’ll find yourself at a rehab facility designed for the greatest possible comfort of its patients. The staff and volunteers are trained to deal with anything from minor illness and injury to major trauma. For the most part, things run smoothly. But chaos can ensue if one of the patients slips out of its cage to soar around the nursery.

Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research has been dedicated to saving birds since 1976. After the sixth major oil spill in the northeastern United States in a three-year period, passionate wildlife activist Lynne Frink founded Tri-State to study the effects of oil on wildlife and to work on developing effective treatment protocols.

Mallard ducklings. Photograph by Carlos Alejandro

In 1982 Tri-State opened a full-time wild bird rehabilitation and research facility in response to community need. By 1989 it had outgrown its original facility and staff opened the Frink Center for Wildlife in Newark, which serves as its headquarters.

Inside the Frink, there is an unsettling chorus that seems to come from a legion of invisible songbirds. As I found out on my second visit, that notion is actually close to the truth; the bird sounds come from a recording meant to block out human noises and make the patients feel like they are in their natural habitat. The building is a renovated barn with a reception area, examination room, nursery, oil spill facility, and outdoor aviaries and pools.

Today, Tri-State is the largest bird rescue facility east of the Mississippi. But even with 250 volunteers who donate more than 30,000 hours to Tri-State a year, it never seems like enough.

On a typical Tuesday, Mary VanderDussen volunteers for five hours to care for dozens of goslings, ducklings and songbirds. Today she’s caring for a bald eagle and a great horned owl. Since she started in May, VanderDussen has put many extra miles on her car driving to Tri-State from her home in North Wilmington. She usually goes home at 6 p.m, but she has stayed until 8 p.m. when the clinic was short on volunteers. Tonight seems like one of those nights.

A recipe board for the birds. Photograph by Carlos Alejandro

“You get to see all the non-glamorous work we do,” VanderDussen says.

It may not be glamorous, but it’s important. Tri-State gives second chances to more than 3,000 wild birds a year in the clinic alone. That number does not include the wildlife the organization cleans and rehabilitates at oil spills. Since 1990 alone, Tri-State’s Oil Spill Response Team has tackled more than 80 oil spills on three continents.

After Tri-State’s annual open house in early May, I meet with Julie Bartley, volunteer and office manager, occasional receptionist, and the person who does whatever else needs to be done. The clinic has treated 425 birds (at the time), she explains, adding that it has not reached its peak season yet— baby bird season. Volunteers brace themselves for the rapid increase in patients they will experience during that season.

Julie Bartley (left) watches as volunteer Mary VanderDussen cares for baby American robins. Photo by Carlos Alejandro

VanderDussen sets up a makeshift nest that she’ll use for an ailing bald eagle that volunteer Jim Amundsen has just brought in a large crate to the reception area.

Bartley takes the eagle to the examination room where a hood is placed on its head to help calm him, and to save veterinarian Dr. Erica Miller’s fingers from its sharp, powerful beak. Bartley says the eagle must be at least 5 years old. That’s when eagles get their white head and tail feathers.

This particular eagle comes from Rock Hall, Md., where a motorist found him on the side of the road with wing injuries that likely resulted from a fight with another eagle. Amundsen, whose job mostly entails transporting birds to and from the rescue, has never transported an eagle before, and is fascinated by its grandeur.

In addition to rescuing America’s national birds, volunteers at Tri-State have some less glamorous tasks to accomplish, like cleaning up after the birds and feeding them.

VanderDussen sets up the eagle’s recovery nest in a playpen layered with a garbage bag, newspaper and a fitted sheet, which is all covered by a net. She gets the bird a bowl of water and chats with Emily Brunner, one of three clinic supervisors. Brunner is busy cutting in half dead mice and rats to feed to hawks and owls. The freezer is packed with the ill-fated rodents, meat and bags of crickets. It all comes from a commercial supplier,

I mention that Tri-State would make an excellent episode of “Dirty Jobs.”

“No one appreciates how gross it can be,” Brunner says. “I don’t gross out that easily, I’ll put it that way.”

“My mantra here is ‘Ew!’” VanderDussen adds.

I follow her to her next task: cleaning out the playpens of five orphaned ducklings and goslings. We go into the nursery room where the baby birds rest from the stress of losing their families. No one is sure what happened to the ducklings’ mother, but, sadly, the rest of the gosling family was hit by a car just yesterday.

After moving the babies into a bathtub to swim and exercise, VanderDussen starts to take apart their playpens for cleaning. Each one has a large stuffed duck or goose, a log, a feather duster, and a mirror. VanderDussen says they like the company.

An intern fixes supper. Photograph by Carlos Alejandro

“Everything but a mint on the pillow,” she says.

None of the birds at Tri-State are given names. They’re given numbers. The goal is to rehabilitate them and release them back into the wild. But sometimes the rule is overlooked in order to more easily identify a bird. For example, the duckling with the injured leg’s chart is called Gimpy. The one with a sutured neck is Stitches.

They’re not the only ones who have eluded the no-name rule. Outside, where there are large aviaries and pools for healthier birds, one cage is dedicated to the memory of a beloved barn owl and heron. Their names were Barney and Heronie.

I tell VanderDussen I find the baby birds’ fuzzy down feathers irresistibly cute. She says she would feel the same way if she were not the one cleaning up after the babies.

“I just want to put a diaper on their little feathery butts,” she says.

After their playpens are cleaned, VanderDussen makes up trays of duck pellets and chopped romaine lettuce in a bowl of water, which sounds reasonably appetizing compared to the highly nutritious, but slightly cannibalistic songbird platter VanderDussen also prepares: an egg yolk, wet kitten kibble, a dead cricket and fruit.

A baby blue jay enjoys a spritz. Photograph by Carlos Alejandro

Before retiring and starting to volunteer at Tri-State a year ago, VanderDussen served a different kind of platter: trays of airplane food and cocktails. She was a first-class flight attendant with US Airways for 35 years.

“I always say, ‘If they could see me now,’” she laughs as she dumps a can of a/d (tubing diet for carnivores) into a blender with baby formula.

Tri-State volunteers go through stages of training from basic bird care to oil spill response, which requires a lot of experience at the clinic. Unfortunately, several student volunteers leave within the first six months. Many are college students who find that they have other priorities. The volunteers who are trained in oil spill response put it to good use.

VanderDussen trained at an oil spill workshop in December, and in January, she helped with the New Jersey Transit diesel spill.

Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research in Newark goes out on a limb to help birds of all types. Photograph by Carlos AlejandroBartley told me that Tri-State also played a major role in the rescue efforts following the massive BP oil spill in 2010. Tri-State was the main bird rescue on site, and Bartley explained that BP covered all expenses for the team to travel and get supplies. They went through countless toothbrushes and bottles of blue Dawn dish soap—the essential tools for cleaning oiled birds. The people at Tri-State use exclusively the blue-colored original Dawn formula because research has determined it to be the most effective and safest type of soap for cleaning oiled birds.

Even in the 120-degree heat of Mississippi, the team wore full yellow protective suits, goggles or masks, and two pairs of rubber gloves to protect their skin from the oil. It took three hours for each bird to go through the cleaning process.

Bartley says her experience working at Tri-State has affected her in a profound way. “It’s helped me pay attention to things I wouldn’t normally pay attention to,” she says.

Tri-State is hoping that others will follow suit and pay more attention to the things they do that adversely affect wild birds. Eighty-five percent of the birds treated in the clinic have been harmed by human activity like the use of pesticides, oil spills, or allowing cats to roam freely.

“We are their stewards and need to do all we can to ensure their survival,” Bartley says.

Today, there are no major environmental disasters to respond to, but there are still hundreds of avian lives in the hands of the staff and volunteers. There is a cacophony of squawks, chirps, quacks, screeches and ringing phones. There is the bald eagle to tend to, and a new patient, a great horned owl in need of immediate care that is possibly a victim of the West Nile virus.

It’s after 5 p.m. and VanderDussen still has about an hour’s worth of cleaning and feeding to do. But she doesn’t mind, she says, “ I come home exhausted with a big silly grin on my face.”

(Allison Kane is a senior at the University of Delaware.)

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