Suzie Gilbert is in her kitchen holding the corpse of a red-tailed hawk, frozen stiff and well-preserved. An entry wound under a claw and exit wound through the shoulder evince cause of death: electrocution by power line.
“He’s so beautiful,” says Gilbert, 53, cradling the bird as if it were a sleeping infant, “and now he’s sitting in my freezer between the peas and the beans. How is that fair?”
Gilbert, who has worked in corporate offices and in an animal hospital, is a federally certified bird rehabilitator. A tall, lean woman with high cheek bones, a ready smile and a boyish haircut, she has converted her backyard in Garrison, New York, an hour north of New York City, into a haven for injured falcons, owls, crows and any other needy birds.
Her aviary-clinics are relatively quiet today. When we enter one, three young crows flap and swirl around in the tight quarters (for a second I feel like Tippi Hedren), then settle down on perches.
The crows were grounded by a calcium deficiency that has left their feathers ragged. Gilbert explains that crows sometimes pump their young with junk food, just like humans, and that she’ll have to nurse these through molting season, into summer. Today the birds’ menu is probably healthier than it looks: dog food, spaghetti and blueberries on a single plate.
In another coop, a dignified merlin is perched quietly in the shadows. Like a lot of the birds that end up in Gilbert’s backyard, this falcon had a run-in with a glass window, and came away with a broken shoulder bone. Gilbert has stuck translucent decals on her windows. Congressman Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat, introduced a bill this month that would require many new and existing public buildings to use bird-safe materials and designs.
According to the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, about 64,000 birds are treated each year by Gilbert and other rehabbers. They save about 60 percent of their patients.
She’s unsure what her costs have been since she began eight years ago, although she recalls “steep start-up costs,” such as $6,000 for a flight cage, $2,000 for a shed, $3,500 for an outdoor hawk enclosure and “several thousand for equipment, medical supplies, drugs, food, et cetera.” In her busiest year she took in 140 birds; last year she had about 30.
Great White Egret
Besides windows and power lines, wild birds are up against autos, diseases and predators. Gilbert tells me of a great white egret that lost a hallux (back toe) to a snapping turtle, and was subsequently treated here. She shows me the chicken wire buried under each aviary to thwart local invaders -- fox and coyote.
“And don’t even get me started on cats,” she warns, but too late. Woe betide the cat owner who calls her for help with an injured bird. She’ll save the bird of course, but will also give the human a practiced and strident lecture. Pet cats, I’m informed, kill hundreds of millions of birds in the U.S. every year.
Well-meaning people are also a problem at times. She recalls the folks who brought her a red-tailed hawk that they thought was so friendly and wanted to keep as a pet.
They “were making kissy faces and talking baby talk to him,” Gilbert said. “I had to tell them that he was about 16 hours away from actually starving to death, and was too weak to try to kill them, which is what he really wanted to do.”
As for the electrocuted hawk, Gilbert is thinking of confronting her utility, Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp., with the frozen carcass.
“If worse comes to worse, I can go down there and knock on the door to speak to someone and show them the dead bird,” she says. “I have evidence here.”
Power lines can be retrofitted to prevent such tragedies, and according to the Avian Power Line Interaction Committee, a group that works with utilities to prevent bird electrocution and collisions, it is a fairly simple matter. Retrofitting just two percent of electrical poles and towers can effectively safeguard 98 percent of a network.
Later I call Central Hudson to ask what they are doing to keep birds safe. A spokesman explains that they take some steps -- placing decoys on poles, for example -- but that they very rarely get complaints about electrocuted birds. I do not warn them that that might change soon.
“The hardest part of rehabbing,” says Gilbert, “is saying no.” She will never refuse a bird in need when there’s nowhere else to go. Another difficult moment comes when the bird she has nursed for days or weeks is ready to be released back into the wild.
Kids to College
On those good days, Gilbert feels conflicted. “You don’t know what’s going to happen, like sending your kids to college. Every single one of them has personality.”
Gilbert covers most of the expenses of rehabbing herself. To help out, donate through her Web site at suziegilbert.com. Her 2009 book, “Flyaway: How a Wild Bird Rehabber Sought Adventure and Found Her Wings,” is published by HarperCollins and comes out in paperback this month.
(Mike Di Paola writes about preservation and the environment for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)