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Rare birds: Volunteers give Mother Nature a hand when one of her own is in need

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January 20th, 2003, 02:18 PM
Rare birds: Volunteers give Mother Nature a hand when one of her own is in need

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

By Cooper Munroe

Karen Kaylor of Chicora is a self-described "bluebird fanatic." So, when she noticed over the course of a day in July that five 9-day-old bluebirds in a nest box on her property were straining their necks with their mouths wide open for food, she started to worry that the birds had been abandoned.

"I had been keeping a close eye on the nest box and saw that one baby bird stuck its neck out so far it fell out of the nest," Kaylor said.

Trying to find a way to help, Kaylor remembered she had a flier listing local wildlife rehabilitators, individuals who are licensed to care for, treat and eventually release wild animals back into the wild.

On the list was Beth McMaster of Wildbird Recovery in Middlesex, who specializes in caring for songbirds. Kaylor called her, and after watching the birds for a couple more hours, she reported back to McMaster, who said to bring in the birds because they probably had been abandoned. Kaylor took down the nest box and brought the brood to McMaster.

"Beth is just so dedicated and totally selfless," Kaylor said. "I don't know how she does it. Baby bluebirds have to eat on a strict schedule, and Beth was able to make sure they were all fed every 20 minutes."

After an intricate procedure of decreasing feedings and incrementally increasing the size of the incubators that housed the birds, all five birds survived. McMaster, however, was concerned that they might not want to leave their cage and, once released, might have trouble finding food on their own.

When the bluebirds were 30 days old, McMaster and Kaylor released them back into Kaylor's yard.

"When we brought them home to release them, the babies didn't make a peep for the 25-mile trip. When we got to my driveway, one of the birds started to softly sing the most beautiful, content, warbling-type song," Kaylor said. "We opened the cage and they flew out like fighter pilots. I couldn't sleep for days, it was so exciting. I still watch them in my yard, and they forage for their own food."

Kaylor's bluebirds were only five of the 440 birds that McMaster and her rotating team of 10 volunteers treated in 2002.

Wildbird Recovery is a nonprofit organization on the 14-acre farm where McMaster grew up.

It operates on an annual budget of about $3,500, which comes from private donations. That amount covers the cost of the birds' food, supplies and veterinary care. But all improvements at the facility, such as the outdoor aviary that McMaster's husband, Dave, built this past summer, are paid for by the McMasters.

Beth McMaster receives no salary. But then she never was in wildlife rehabilitation for the money.

"It is not about me," she emphasized. "It is about people like me and there aren't enough of us out there. We are out there with everything we have, heart and soul, and do what we can with whatever money we can scrape together."

Since 1999, when she received her wildlife rehabilitation permits from the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, McMaster has cared for almost 1,000 birds at the family farm, called Stormy Oaks.

"I can't say no. That's my problem," she laughed.

The rehabilitation areas, where the injured birds are treated, are specially outfitted rooms in the house that contain a double set of doors, wall murals of trees and full-spectrum lighting.

The surrounding property includes a number of aviaries lined with protective mesh that keeps out predators and is soft enough so that it doesn't damage the songbirds' fragile wings. The yard, which McMaster described as "the perfect habitat for birds," is landscaped with berry-producing shrubs and bird-friendly perennials and trees.

Mary Beth Molnar, a waterfowl specialist for Wildlife Works Inc. in Youngwood, Westmoreland County, has worked closely with McMaster and is amazed by her commitment.

"When you go to her house, you can see how devoted [McMaster] is and how much of a normal life she has relegated to help these birds," Molnar said. "It is an unpaid position, but I think the payoff for her is the rehabilitation of the birds."

McMaster, 49, grew up riding horses and helping her parents breed and show champion dogs. After she married, she focused on raising her three children, who are now grown, and showing horses with her family.

"I have loved animals all my life," she said. "Cats, dogs, cows, horses."

But she never owned a bird. That changed in 1988 when a family member told her about an abused umbrella cockatoo named Boo that needed a home.

"He's my boy," McMaster said of Boo. The cockatoo is now 15 years old.

"When I rescued him, I knew nothing about birds. To do right by [Boo], I decided I had to learn how to take care of him the right way," she said.

Once she got to know about Boo, McMaster was hooked on birds. Her closet is bursting full of manuals and how-to books about bird weight, behavior and diet.

McMaster currently is treating 29 birds in her rehabilitation center, significantly down from her summer peak of 130 because the need for bird rehabilitation decreases in cold weather. She primarily treats robins, sparrows and mourning doves plus a fair amount of blue jays, house finches and Canada geese. Two-thirds of the birds she treats are babies.

Six doves and a domestic black swan are among the occupants of the rehabilitation center right now.

"The Jackson Township police called me and she was on the road," McMaster said, pointing to the black swan. "I presumed she was hit by a car."

The swan could not stand or walk.

McMaster transferred the swan to Molnar at Wildlife Works for a week so that Molnar could help the bird build strength in her legs and hips. After X-rays, visits with a vet and physical therapy, the swan stood up and was sent back to McMaster to continue rehabilitation.

Included in the swan's current treatment is a two-hour swim each day in the bathtub, where McMaster submerges kale and spinach to simulate the vegetation the swan would be eating in her natural environment.

Last week, the swan got up off the white quilt she had fashioned into a nest on the floor and slowly waddled across McMaster's rehabilitation room for the first time.

"Good girl!" McMaster beamed.

The six doves were brought in by different people for a variety of reasons. One was caught by a cat, one was hit by a car and the rest fell from their nests.

Those situations are fairly typical of what brings most birds to Wildbird Recovery. Cats, cars, humans and loss of habitat are among the reasons birds end up at McMaster's center. House cats are one threat to birds that can be controlled, she said. By keeping all house cats indoors, according to McMaster, the lives of 4 million songbirds would be saved daily in the United States.

McMaster is quick to point out that she does not do all the work and relies on the center's 10 volunteers.

Jake Marks, a seventh-grader at Mars Area Middle School, and his mother, Diane, started volunteering for McMaster this summer when Jake's dog picked up a baby bird and he and his mom brought the bird to McMaster.

Jake, 12, was eager to volunteer. "I have always wanted to be a vet. I have never wanted to be anything else," he said.

Jake helps McMaster every week by feeding the birds, cleaning the cages and doing "whatever else they need." His favorite job at the center so far has been caring for chimney swifts, he said.

"The baby chimney swifts would all line up in the cage and I would go bird to bird. I would take little meal worms in tweezers and one by one open the tweezers over their mouths and drop the worm in," he said.

"The chimney swifts love him," McMaster said. "Jake has a lot of patience and he can quietly feed them."

McMaster believes that animals teach people how to be better humans.

"Giving back to animals makes me more complete as a human," she said. "To be able to save these beautiful creatures and put them back where they belong, I couldn't imagine being any more fulfilled."

For more information about Wildbird Recovery, contact Beth McMaster at 724-898-1788 or e-mail her at stormyoaks@aol.com.