My voice goes singsong, as though I’m speaking to a baby or a small dog: “BEN, MY SWEETHEART!” With a series of high-pitched chirps like sneakers on linoleum, an apple-red cardinal swoops down and lands on my shoulder. He sidesteps over to my ear, gives it a quick nip with his beak and starts trying to pull out my earring. This is unquestionably the high point of my week.
About a year ago, I was surfing around the cute-photo Internet and stumbled into a gallery of birthday parties for zoo animals — a weird, marvelous corner of the web where Komodo dragons are presented with frozen meat-cakes festooned with dead rats and elephants trumpet over dessert-shaped towers of vegetables. The zoo websites explained that the cakes were enrichment objects. Exotic animals and craft projects are some of my favorite things on this earth; why, I thought, I should make those cakes!I burrito-wrapped a swan in a beach towel and felt him stamp his huge feet with impatience as we tube-fed him.
It felt like fate was guiding my hand as I clicked on the volunteer information page.
Unsurprisingly, zoos are more interested in volunteers who give talks to groups of tourists and schoolchildren than they are in volunteers who want to play chef.
“Alas,” I tweeted, “my plan to make cakes for tigers has fallen through. I’ll have to find another way to volunteer with animals.”
One of my Twitter followers, Erin, responded to my tweet immediately: “Hey, you should look up the Wild Bird Fund! They’re the only group in New York City that works with wild animals, and they’re great.” She worked with a similar group on Long Island, she explained, and said that I could learn to do anything I liked, from cleaning cages to splinting broken wings. Days later, I found myself in an orientation session in a little storefront on the Upper West Side with fancy pigeons in the window and glamour shots of turtles and woodpeckers covering the walls.
Over the next hour, Rita McMahon, the WBF’s cofounder, peeled back the New York City I knew and revealed one that was fantastically foreign. All sorts of wild creatures end up on our streets (and eventually at the WBF), from jewel-bright migratory songbirds that smack into skyscrapers to gorgeous long-necked waterfowl that mistake White Castle parking-lot puddles for ponds and crash-land on the asphalt.
Most robust of all, of course, is the population of pigeons, and Rita’s face softened as she spoke about them. I think her expression was the biggest clue that I was in the right place; I loved that someone cared for those tough little birds. Rita told us that the hardest part of her work was the death rate, a staggering 50 percent; by the time a wild animal lets you pick it up, it’s in terrible shape. She also spoke of the best part, though — the burst-your-chest fullness of going out to the park and opening a box to let a once-crippled bird fly free. This wasn’t like an animal shelter; the best-case scenario was that the little creature in your hands would spiral into the sky without a backward look. I could be part of that? Forget the captive tigers and their cakes — I was hooked.
At first, I cleaned pigeon cages. We were instructed to let the birds fly around the room for as long as possible to strengthen their wings, so we worked under a whirling tornado of grey and white feathers. When we had to catch each bird and return it to its cage, the avian chaos was like a mid-‘80s Prince video. It was outstanding.
At the end of my first day, Rita called, “Hey, is anyone interested in bats?” She donned a thick, mean-looking Kevlar glove. As little pig-snouted Eastern red bats perched on her finger, I fed them mealworms with a pair of tweezers. We drowned the worms in a juice glass before we fed them to the bats — no one would enjoy being eaten bite by bite, she said.
On my second day, I was called up to the waterfowl room, where a tile ramp led to a Plexiglas-sided pool. There, behind bath towels draped over cages, were fledgling kestrels scowling like teenagers, ducklings crowd-surfing over each other, and a massive Canada goose lying motionless on the rush-covered bottom of her cage. She was dehydrated and emaciated, crawling with parasites; she’d been found by the side of an expressway. I cradled her as we gave her IV fluids, her beautiful neck drooped over my arm. I have never felt so like a fairy-tale character in my life as when I gathered that bird to my chest.
I learned how to give softened puppy chow to squeakers, which are little pigeons that still have goofy yellow hatchling feathers sprouting in tufts from their heads (hold two fingers in an upside-down V, and they’ll think you’re their parent’s beak).
I burrito-wrapped a swan in a beach towel and felt him stamp his huge feet with impatience as we tube-fed him.
I met and fell in love with Ben the thieving cardinal, who was raised and abandoned by humans, and was named for the boy who found him on a stoop, bedraggled and missing an eye, on the day before Christmas. My social media feeds are peppered with blurry shots of baby chicks, and my phone is full of Ben photobombs. I introduced Ben to my dad a few months ago; he promptly bit his ear. Dad took it as a compliment and now asks me to say hello to Bird Ben, as though Bird is a title. Maybe it is.
Tucked away in a concrete box, it’s easy to feel that the natural world is the stuff of coffee-table books and idyllic weekends upstate, not a beady-eyed, beating part of my life. Each week, as I duck bird tornadoes in an uptown basement, I’m reminded of what magnificent neighbors I have, and what a privilege it is to offer them care.
Nothing beats watching a bird fly away.