Saving Songbirds in St. Louis | KBIA

Saving Songbirds in St. Louis

Aug 4, 2015

A volunteer at Wild Bird Rehabilitation in St. Louis County prepares a protein and vitamin enriched goop for songbirds anxiously awaiting its arrival.
Credit Gary Grigsby / KBIA

The number of songbirds in this country has been declining for many years.


They have a rough go of it especially from habitat loss.  But many other things play a role.  Spring and early summer are especially hard on baby songbirds.  Four out of five don't make it to adulthood.  So if you see a nest of baby cardinals on the ground after being blown from a tree during a storm or an injured adult chickadee on the side of the road, well, you can't take them to a vet or The Humane Society.  

But there's a place in St. Louis County that people drive to from miles around to bring in songbirds of all ages who are in trouble.  It's called Wild Bird Rehabilitation and in effect it's a songbird hospital.  And when you walk in the front door you're basically in the emergency room.  People scurrying around.  One of them helping the latest arrival, a house sparrow brought in by Kristine Bouckaert who found it while she was on her morning run.  "He's feisty," she said.  "I found him on the ground."  WBR Executive Director Tracy Durrell was there to help out.  "Yeah, looks like he has had an impact injury.  Window or hit by a car.  Let's have Di look at him real quick."  Di is Diane Doster who is a paralegal.  But 15 years of volunteering at WBR has given her the on the job training needed to determine what might be wrong with the sparrow. "Could be a little coracoid," Doster said.  "Yes, it's the shoulder."

After her diagnosis, another volunteer began the computerized check-in process to set up a medical record for the bird.  Long time staff member Leslie Wainwright said a birds stay at WBR is well documented.  "We put everything in.  How old the bird was.  When it arrived.  What kind of shape it was in.  How much it weighed.  Was it dehydrated.  What were the nature of the injuries.  What did we give it for medication.
How long was it here.  How well did it recover."  

Two baby robins await some food at Wild Bird Rehabilitation in St. Louis County.
Credit Gary Grigsby / KBIA

Most do recover, two out of three.  But recovery isn't always easy.  Just 20 minutes after diagnosing that baby sparrow, Diane Doster is checking out a robin who just arrived in E.R.  It's in bad shape after a cat attack.  "Right now I don't feel any fractures," she said. "But the poor thing is so stressed.  I'm going to give her something called Metacam which is an anti-inflammatory.  It will calm her down and relieve some of the pain she might have."  

The injured robin was brought in by Rachel Davis who was relieved when staff later told her the robin would likely make it.  "I don't think there is enough good going on these days and these guys are just wonderful. I can't say enough about it."

On a real busy day a couple of dozen songbirds might be admitted for care.  And most that come through the door in spring and early summer are baby birds or nestlings as they are called here.  Many will begin their stay in a small room just off reception.  That's where I found Tracy Durrell working with a 3-4 day old house sparrow.  "We're going to help him out by covering him up,"  Durrell said.  "He gets assigned a patient number and I'm going to put it in this incubator over here."  It joined a half dozen other nestlings in the incubator.  Each one getting picked up often by Marcia Block who with 10 years of volunteer experience is expertly using a syringe to push a special protein and vitamin enriched goop past the beaks of some robins on her watch. "They're just a few days old and very hungry as you can see," Block said.  "They want to be fed." 

A fairly new arrival gets fed by a volunteer while another bird dozes while waiting its turn.
Credit Gary Grigsby / KBIA

And some nestlings get fed every 15-20 minutes. Nestlings usually stay in the incubator a few days before being moved into a nest like basket in the nursery down the hall.  That's where they'll be pampered and fattened up a bit before being moved into cages in yet another room where volunteer coordinator Denise White said the birds grow up fast. "They all have their own little personalities, their own little quirks.  Like these guys fluttering their wings and shaking, like whoa what are you doing?  But that's just their way."

Each species of bird at Wild Bird Rehabilitation gets to eat food that is compatible with what it will have in the wild.
Credit Gary Grigsby / KBIA

Each species also has its own unique diet that Leslie Wainwright said WBR tries to meet as best it can.

Take the robin for example which is a popular guest here.  "We're feeding the robins 10,000 worms a week right now," Wainwright said.  "They're mail ordered. Did you see the box down the hall for the mail ordered worms?"

There are also three small worm farms in the basement along with composting bins where Tracy Durrell said the worms are fattened up with nutrients. "Then what I'm going to give them is sweet potatoes or collard greens.  High water density.  I want water in there," she said.  "I want to plump them up with water plus I want nutrients."  

But what WBR does is much more complex than just feeding the birds.  The staff has developed a care plan of sorts for each species, each bird in some cases.  It has to.  Let's say a bird comes in as a baby without a mama or daddy.  Tracy Durrell said the bird has to learn, in a month or so, how to survive in nature on its own.  "They need to understand how to find their food.  And it's my job to teach them that because I am the closest one they are going to have to a parent now."  So, the baby robins for example.  Treating them like babies doesn't last long.  "To give them worms is not enough," Durrell said.  "They need to have the dirt."  And dig for the worms on their own.  

Tufted titmice who came into WBR as nestlings learn how to adapt to the outdoors in an aviary just a few days before being released.
Credit Gary Grigsby / KBIA

As the bird gets stronger, bigger and ready to fly it has one more stop to make before it's released into the wild.  It's the outdoor aviary out behind the facility. Large cages where birds can fly around and get accustomed to living outdoors.  Volunteer Joan Stepzinski knows how to help in this process.  She has been volunteering at WBR for 20 years and recently released five tufted titmice into the aviary.  All five came into WBR about a month ago as nestlings.  And when it's time for the titmice to be released in a few days Stepzinski will likely be the one to do it.  Loading them into a smaller cage for a car ride.  "So I look up where they came from and I take them back to the home they came from," Stepzinski said.  

There is a reason for taking them home said staffer Leslie Wainwright.  "We try to find something that matches the needs of their habitat.  If it's an adult and it came from Florissant, and we release it in south county, it probably won't survive.  It doesn't have its territory established."

Wild Bird Rehabilitation has its territory established.  No one else is doing this sort of work.  Work done by staff and volunteers that over the years has given thousands of songbirds a second chance.