Every other week, I volunteer at the New Zealand Bird Rescue. The bird rescue is a charity dedicated to rehabilitating all types of New Zealand birds and releasing them back into the wild. While other organizations focus on native species, the New Zealand Bird Rescue takes in all birds, from tuis to mallards to lost pets. This openness ensures that the centre is full of sick and injured birds all year, and it depends on donations and the work of volunteers to keep it running. I’ve been volunteering there for about a year and a half and there’s never a dull moment!
By far the worst part of volunteering is the start time: birds wake up early and so volunteers must be there at 8 a.m. (on a Saturday!) in order to give them their breakfast. Some days, waking up at 7 a.m. after a long Friday evening and driving for 20 minutes to the centre is miserable, but nothing fixes a hangover like fresh air and manual labor. With three or four volunteers, work is usually done by noon, which means the afternoon is still free for other weekend activities.
The centre is located in the basement and on the extensive grounds of a residence, where Lyn, the head of the New Zealand Bird Rescue, lives. The grounds are covered in aviaries where stronger birds are kept, but I mostly work inside. Though the area inside is one room with a small kitchen attached, there are several sections: the pet birds, the large crates, the medium-sized white plastic boxes, and the small wooden brown boxes on a large table. At the start of a shift, a volunteer takes charge of one of these sections, though we help out with others when we finish our area.
I started out by working on the crates. These are large, shallow metal crates lined with cloth and usually covered by a light elasticated mesh to prevent birds from jumping out. Most of the year the crates contain sick or orphaned ducklings, though they can also have a few flighty New Zealand wood pigeons, chicks, or larger single birds like a swan. To clean a crate (or any of the boxes), the birds must be caught and removed. Ducklings and swans get a bath while their crate is being cleaned, which means filling one of the outdoor sinks with a little bit of water. For the littlest ducklings, the water has to be warm so they don’t get too cold. While the birds splash about, the newspaper and cloth in the crate, which is usually caked in poo if it’s ducklings, is thrown away and it and the crate lining replaced. The food and water bowls are washed in another outdoor sink, dried, and then refilled. The ducklings often get some medicine in their water. Then it’s time to get the birds out of the water, dry them off (as best as possible), put them back in their fresh clean crate, and watch them immediately poop all over it. Oh well!
In contrast to the crates, which hold many birds, the white boxes usually only hold one. Adult ducks each have their own plastic box, along with more wood pigeons, chickens, seagulls, pukekos, and the like. Except for the ducks, which also get a bath in a smaller sink, the birds get put into a temporary cardboard box while the white box is cleaned in one of the large outdoor sinks. Once the white box is dried (the lids are the hardest part), new newspaper, cloth or towels, and paper towels (on top of the towels to keep it a little cleaner) are put back in the box, along with the cleaned food and water bowls. When getting the birds in and out of their cardboard box, they sometimes escape and fly around the centre. When this happens, people (and the resident cockatoo) yell “bird out!” and shut any open doors so the bird doesn’t really get out, then grab nets and catch the escapee. Bigger birds like pigeons are easy to recover, but smaller birds like tuis or sparrows can hide under tables and between boxes, making them harder to catch.
I mostly do the crates and white boxes, but doing the brown boxes is also fun. These small wooden boxes hold tiny birds like sparrows, kingfishers, young pigeons, rosellas (a type of parrot), songbirds, etc. Because the wood can’t be dried like the plastic boxes, the best procedure is to set up a new brown box, with a little bit of newspaper and a hand towel, then transfer the bird directly into the clean box. The birds are small but can be feisty: tuis have very sharp claws, kingfishers and sparrows nip with their strong beaks, and rosellas scream bloody murder and give nasty bites. Grabbing the bird gently with a towel protects your hand from the worst of it. In the spring and summer, the table with the brown boxes also has little nests of baby birds. They must be fed every half hour or so, eating kitten food out of plastic tweezers. Everyone knows when the baby birds are hungry as they cheep loudly!
By about 10 a.m., the volunteers are hungry too and we stop for morning tea. Everyone brings their own snacks (though sometimes there’s biscuits) and makes tea or coffee, then sits outside (in good weather) to relax for a bit. Often, one of the resident birds– Zambezi the rainbow lorikeet– joins us, hopping from shoulder to shoulder and trying to steal a bite of biscuit. He’s quite the character, but much more friendly than the other lorikeets at the rescue. Out of the pet birds (which a dedicated volunteer takes care of), many are lorikeets: they are loud and not the most social pets, which means that they often get surrendered. The other pet birds, including budgies and cockatiels, are more affectionate and tend to get adopted fairly quickly.
After morning tea, we finish up any of the indoor crates and boxes, then help out with some of the outdoor aviaries. The pigeon aviary is right next to the centre and holds about a dozen pigeons, which tend to flap around your head when you enter it. As usual, the food and water is cleaned out, along with the rocks and sticks that the pigeons sit on. The rocks are easy to wash, but pigeon poo is one of the tougher types to clean, especially off of rough, porous sticks. The other aviary also involved scrubbing poop, but this time with a bucket and brush. This aviary contains flighted finches, a couple of tiny grey quails, and a special all-white blackbird, and the beams and walls of the aviary must be scrubbed to keep it clean. In addition, the random collection of food, including nectar, seeds, and cat food, is cleaned out, all the while dodging quails and sparrows.
This routine is the usual state of affairs at the bird rescue, but occasionally there are new, exciting birds. Last week I handled a harrier, a raptor with sharp claws and staring eyes, and it’s always special when a little ruru/morepork, New Zealand’s owl, comes in to the centre.
Everyone’s favorite, though, is the little blue penguin. There’s been one at the centre for the past few months, being fattened up on a steady diet of hand-fed fish. While he was in a white box, I cleaned it out: penguin poo is clay-like and difficult to clean out of a towel! I’ve also fed him stinky fish, shoving them into his face headfirst while he gobbled them up.
Taking care of these birds, both familiar and exotic, is very rewarding, well worth all the scratches, bites, and poop!