Spreading Its Wings

Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research has evolved over the past 30 years. Now it’s working to take another big step forward—bird by bird.

A young barred owl, rescued by a Brownies troop in Dover and rehabilitated by Tri-State, is returned to the wild. (Photograph by Jason Keenan)This is the best part of my job,” Jim McCoy says as he tramps down a trail in Killens Pond State Park. “Not that they pay me, but this makes eight weeks of cleaning up duck crap worth it.”

McCoy, a volunteer for Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research, is carrying a soft-side cooler that contains a precious cargo: a baby barred owl that, two months earlier, had been discovered by Brownies from Troop 511 in Dover. The girls found the nestling lying in a trail in this very same park several weeks earlier, the night after an intense storm. High above, they could see its home in the trees.

“Luckily we came along when we did,” says Brownie leader Linda Volmett, “because five minutes behind us was a woman with a bloodhound on a leash that could’ve gobbled that bird up before anybody knew what happened.”

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The baby owl was transported to Tri-State’s 18-acre site at the end of Possum Hollow Road in Newark. The staff there splinted its broken right foot, stitched a cut under its wing, then performed physical rehabilitation and trained it to fend for itself. After two months, the bird was fitted with a tracking device from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, packed into the cooler, then sent off with McCoy to be returned to the wild.

Park ranger Gary Cooke signals McCoy and the girls when they’ve found a suitable spot for release. The Brownies try to contain their exuberance as they prepare their cameras.

McCoy unzips the cooler. The girls oooh and ahhh as the owl flits upward, then, as it perches on a thick tree branch, they turn silent. As they do so, another sound becomes apparent—the hoots of other barred owls welcoming the once-injured bird home.

Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research was established in 1976, after the Liberian tanker Olympic Games spilled 130,000 gallons of light Arabian crude into the Delaware River. It was the sixth major spill in the Northeast in three years, and it killed tens of thousands of animals.

Determined not to let such a tragedy happen again, Delaware Audubon Society founder Lynne Frink assembled a team of biologists, pathologists, veterinarians, chemists, and concerned citizens to research the effects of oil exposure on birds, develop treatment protocols, and improve responses to oil spills.

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Since then, Tri-State has responded to more than 110 spills on three continents at all hours. It is one of only two agencies in the country that can professionally oversee a wildlife oil spill response.

Tri-State’s 20 full- and part-time staffers, as well as 200 volunteers, treat thousands of birds every year. Not all are victims of oil spills. Most have been orphaned or injured in some other way. Since the 1970s Tri-State’s caseload has increased 73 percent, due in large part to increasing suburban sprawl. With the resulting habitat destruction comes loss of food sources, attacks by dogs and cats, collisions with vehicles, electrocution, and destruction of nests and nesting areas.

Tri-State’s headquarters, surrounded by the 800-plus-acre Middle Run Natural Resources Area, may look much like a barn on the outside, but inside and around back are facilities to care for the thousands of birds.

Tri-State is equipped to handle species from nightjars to bald eagles, with a nursery to care for baby birds and outdoor pools for loons and other waterfowl. In 1989 it opened a modern facility complete with animal care wards, nurseries, research labs and outdoor aviaries where birds hone their flying and hunting skills, and an oil spill facility.  

Mauri Liberati is a biology student from Virginia Tech who interned at Tri-State. Every day over the summer, Liberati helped to feed and care for baby birds. “The baby birds need to eat every 20 minutes, 14 hours a day,” she says.

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The barred owl was an exciting addition to the nursery, which is usually filled with sparrows and wrens. Though dealing with orphaned and injured birds makes up most of Tri-State’s work, oiled birds require more immediate attention.

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Tri-State treats thousands of birds, such as this brown pelican, every year.The U.S. consumes almost 25 percent of the world’s oil—7.5 billion barrels a year. One million barrels enter the Delaware Bay daily. Despite preventative efforts by oil companies and regulatory agencies, spills have increased with rising demand. According to the EPA, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., rank in the top six states for oil spills per square mile.

When a large spill occurs, the affected birds strain Tri-State’s facilities, which slows its response at the very moment efficacy is most important. The oil ruins the birds’ feathers, which makes it difficult to float, fly and stay warm, putting them at imminent risk. Worse, the birds ingest oil when they preen, which poisons them.

To remedy the overcrowding problem, Tri-State has launched a capital campaign to raise $1.5 million for a wildlife response annex to house and care for birds affected by spills, toxins and disease outbreaks. The annex will include classroom space dedicated to educational programs for students, veterinarians and wildlife professionals, as well as a training facility for volunteers.

The building will be constructed from renewable, local materials to reduce energy needs. By using solar panels to heat water, installing louvered windows to control temperature, and employing a rainwater collection system, Tri-State hopes to reduce environmental impact and operating costs.

In addition to $1.5 million for the new annex, Tri-State is campaigning to raise $4 million to support ongoing growth. The organization has raised almost $3 million since the campaign launched in late April. The total goal was $5.5 million by November 1.

Tri-State is supported solely by donors small and large. One of the biggest is the Delaware Bay and River Cooperative, a nonprofit corporation founded and funded by seven regional oil refineries, including Sunoco, ConocoPhillips and Valero. The co-op’s job is cleaning spilled oil from the water surface. To deal with wildlife, it turns to Tri-State.

Whether for ethical reasons or as good public relations, the oil companies are doing their part to minimize the environmental impacts of oil spills. But some people are concerned that Tri-State accepts support from “the bad guys,” says director Gary Robertson.

In truth, there are no bad guys. If the demand for oil weren’t so high, we wouldn’t be importing 1 million barrels to refineries around the Delaware Bay every day. As long as we depend on oil, spills will happen.

“Wildlife is an important barometer of our own health and ability to exist in the future,” Robertson says. “If we don’t learn to lead lives in balance with nature, we’ll leave behind a sparse world where our grandchildren and their children will have to fight for limited resources.”

Why then, people ask him, is it important to save one bird? If so many species are facing extinction—one in eight around the world, mainly because of habitat destruction—will one really make a difference?

“We aren’t saving just one bird,” Robertson explains. “After a successful rehabilitation and release, that bird will typically enjoy many wonderful breeding seasons. So instead of saving one bird, we are helping propagate an entire species.”

The people at Tri-State know that unless habitat destruction is curbed and more areas are set aside for wildlife reserves, they will continue to face the same problem, but they remain optimistic.

“I am very hopeful about the future,” Robertson says. “The world is beginning to understand the cause and effect of overtaxing our natural resources. Living a balanced life with nature is starting to resonate with many people. So while the world catches up, we’ll be here saving wildlife for tomorrow, one bird at a time.”


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