Personal Stories from the Front Lines

Pigeon Power!

Pigeon Power! By Susie Brain
As a volunteer with WRI since April 1981, I have had my fair share of experiences, yet I found it hard to decide what Rescuer readers might be interested in. At first I thought of writing about the changing trends in "volunteerism" that have impacted our organization. There have been some big changes. Two decades ago, 40 percent of women stayed at home (if they were WRI volunteers they had time to feed and raise wildlife in their homes); whereas today, only 27 percent women stay at home. No, I thought, too boring, people want animal stories... Then, this week I was at an orientation for new board members and was chatting to Elly, a WRI volunteer who had just returned from a vacation in Egypt. She told me the only birds she saw in the middle of the desert were pigeons. That was the inspiration I needed-I decided I was going to write about pigeons!

My first hands-on experience with a pigeon was at founder Carol Hamilton's house. She was the caretaker of "Judy," a non-releasable educational pigeon. I can still remember the impact Judy had on me. She was docile enough that she could be held, and Carol showed me the correct handling technique. As I held her, I could feel her chest and heart beating inside. Her body felt warm, although her feet were cool. Pigeons are fairly large muscular birds with strong wings for powerful and sustained flight. But Judy was calm and accepting as only pigeons can be. You are probably now asking yourself, "Why is she writing about pigeons? What about that golden eagle we received a few years ago?". Well, I'm a pigeon advocate even though I know they are not considered native wildlife and are not protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. But pigeons have "power"-they are great educators!

The first pigeon I rehabilitated was a juvenile that had received a head injury.

His skin at the top of his skull was sutured and his wound healed nicely. I was very inexperienced at this time, and even though the bird looked "normal," its behavior was not. The bird flapped its wings a lot and tried to fly, but it never seemed to move forward. I just presumed it was learning to fly (what ignorance!). The weeks went by with no flight progress; however, I did notice that the bird could become airborne, but flew backward for a few flaps rather than forward. This looked extremely amusing at the time, yet the pigeon must have been suffering from some type of brain damage.

Unfortunately for the pigeon, I now realize I was learning a valuable lesson at the time. What was I doing to this poor bird who obviously would never be normal and able to fly with a flock? I was trying to perform the impossible, hoping that over time the bird would improve, a common mistake made by beginning rehabilitators. Luckily, a more experienced volunteer said, "Susie, there is no hope for this pigeon. We will have to humanely euthanize this bird." My first euthanasia experience, and thus my education continued. Looking back I realized that even though that pigeon should have been euthanized a lot sooner, it taught me so much about regarding and being aware of the quality of life of the wildlife patients we treat.

If space allowed, I could recall countless pigeon stories. But before closing I want to mention that pigeons have "educated" hundreds of volunteers throughout the last 25 years. We first learn to "gavage" (feed via a tube) on a pigeon. We learn handling and restraint techniques on a pigeon, as well as how to do a physical exam. We learn about fecal diagnostic procedures using their feces. We use them as foster parents. We even use dead pigeons to educate ourselves (we use the dead bodies to perform necropsies, learn about bird anatomy and maybe learn why the bird died).

Now, back to that eagle story... many times over the years have I received a frantic call from someone who has found a baby eagle and just doesn't know what to do. The person brings their precious "find" to Wildlife Rescue, and lo-and-behold, that baby eagle turns out to be a baby pigeon! Now that's pigeon power...

By Martha Gates
I took the basic classes at WRI in 1988 and began doing home care, including finches, doves, squirrels, opossums, robins, jays and mockers. The following year I trained with Rob Steele and participated in the Speakers Bureau.

In 1990 I got involved with the initial phase of WRI's quest for a permanent facility and headed the Capital Campaign. I served on the Board of Directors in the early 90s as well and worked on several grants including the one which funded WRI's coloring book.

Now, I maintain an aviary for doves and do educational presentations. I've particularly enjoyed sharing the wonders of wildlife with school children and with my own kids, 16, nine and six.

By Kappy Sprenger
We were in the midst of a years-long epidemic called the "gull syndrome" in 1987. I was in my second year of rehabbing, working as the waterbird home care volunteer with the Santa Clara wildlife group. A very large number of sick and dying gulls were coming into my home. Being fairly new to rehabbing, and working with a group that tended to keep to itself, I had no idea that anyone else was struggling with the same gull problems that I was. I felt very isolated and wished for advice and support.

Much to my surprise, one day I received a call from Susie Brain and Frances Johnson. They wanted to talk with me about the sick gulls, and they were willing to come all the way down to Los Gatos to meet with me and share experiences and insights. These were my kind of people, wanting to network, problem-solve and learn! We didn't solve the gull problem, but several months later when I was looking for a new rehab “home” with which to affiliate, there was no question where I wanted to go: Wildlife Rescue.

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