Growing need forces cramped wildlife center to look for room
The fuzzy baby bird sat in a shoe box, nestled in a T-shirt and sock.
It was a Vaux's Swift, the species famous for roosting in Portland chimneys as they migrate south each fall.
Lacy Campbell, staff assistant at the Audubon Society of Portland's Wildlife Care Center, guessed at the problem. Summer is peak season for baby birds at the care center - not because they are injured, but because people think they are.
She gave the bird a quick exam anyway, gently stretching its wings and legs to check for any fractures, and finding none.
'Aww, it looks like a little pterodactyl,' she said. 'This guy looks totally fine, other than a sooty face.'
She wrapped it back up and gave it to the couple who'd brought it in, fearing for its safety after it fell down their chimney. 'This guy is actually OK,' she told them. 'He just needs to go back.'
She explained to the couple how to reach up around the flue and put the bird back inside the chimney. It'll climb back up, she assured them, since its sticky, Velcro-like feet are perfect for wall-climbing.
'I see, I see,' the couple said, laughing in disbelief. 'Thank you for the information.'
Back inside the care center on Northwest Cornell Road, Campbell quickly moves on to the next task: figuring out the story behind a baby bat that arrived in a blue gift bag.
Then, splinting a leg of another baby bird. Next, syringe-feeding an incubator full of malnourished baby Vaux Swifts, brought in after someone took it upon themselves to feed the birds at home for a week.
'I feel like a lot of times people don't have a lot of idea what goes on in the natural world,' Campbell says. 'We don't just fix it, but you have to fix what made it come in in the first place.'
The care center's roots date to the 1970s, when it served as a rehab center. The center expanded its mission in the early 1990s to focus on education, asking the question: 'How does caring for individual animals serve to protect the greater ecosystem?'
Each year, Audubon takes 15,000 phone calls a year on its advice line (503-292-0304), helping people deal with native urban wildlife - everything from owls and beavers to turtles and squirrels.
The center also treats about 3,500 injured and orphaned wild animals for release each year, most of them after coming into conflicts with humans.
Last year, about 200 animals were brought to the care center after being hit by a car or truck. More were found alongside roads, suspected to have been hit by a vehicle. The center also raises 200 to 300 stranded ducklings each year, who've been found nesting in unsafe places after their mothers get hit by a car or stuck in a storm drain.
Birds of all types are attacked by cats; some are illegally shot; some electrocuted by power lines.
Because of the constant need, Audubon may soon expand its operation since the outdated space - including a small lobby, kitchen and lab - is filled to the brim with animal cages, equipment and people.
Bob Sallinger, Audubon's conservation director, says the organization's board will begin looking at options this fall.
'We handle a lot of animals in a very small space,' he says. 'We need a serious upgrade (to the care center), or we need to move to continue to meet the demands. My hope is that will happen in the next couple of years.'
Deb Sheaffer joined the group seven years ago as the staff veterinarian, working 30 hours a week. She's one of just 2 1/2 paid employees, who work alongside 100 volunteers logging at least four hours apiece each week.
At the peak of the baby bird rush, the staff works nonstop from 9 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m. tending to the steady stream of people coming in with cardboard boxes of all sizes. Often there's a line out the front door in the morning.
Not every animal gets a place in the care center. The center accepts only native species, for two reasons based on the society's decision in the late 1980s, which the state later turned into policy.
One reason is capacity. 'We'd literally be stacked to the ceiling,' Sheaffer says.
The other is that non-native (introduced) species can be ecologically harmful, carrying diseases contagious to native species. For example, returning nutria to a wetland can destroy the habitat for other other wildlife there, like otters, muskrats and beavers. Starlings and house sparrows compete with native species such as Western Bluebirds, wrens and swallows.
Other non-natives include box turtles, domestic ducks and geese, opossums, Fox Squirrels and Eastern Grey Squirrels.
When it comes to saying no to an animal, Sheaffer says, she wears kid gloves.
'So many times it's the first time somebody's ever touched wildlife, or had wildlife touch their heart,' she says. 'We have to respect that.'
A fawn is saved
It's the fairytale endings that keep the care center staff going. Like the man who came in on the Fourth of July, holding a baby fawn who'd been hit on the road by an SUV in front of him as he returned from camping on the back side of Mount St. Helens.
Brandy Ellis, a Beaverton tow truck driver, said he saw the mother deer and another baby deer skitter off the road, but the fawn lay in the middle of the road, bleeding from its nose.
He stopped his Jeep, saw that it was still breathing, took it off the road and drove straight to the care center, where he'd once brought an injured hawk.
When Ellis found the care center closed, he sought information on how to care for a fawn and heard in the middle of the night from a woman in New York. She said to bottle-feed it water, so he picked up a baby bottle from QFC and fed it throughout the night as it slept in a sleeping bag next to his bed.
When Ellis showed up at Audubon the next morning with the fawn, Sheaffer recalls that she didn't have the heart to tell him that federal law doesn't allow the center to accept mammals from across state lines.
So she gave him the best advice she could. 'I said he'd have to take it back, exactly where he found it, and the mom will come get it. It's its only chance.'
Ellis left, and that was the last Sheaffer heard until Ellis called a couple of weeks later, leaving a voice message that warmed her heart. He explained how he'd driven the fawn back to the spot he'd found it.
'It's unbelievable,' he said. 'Sure enough, as soon as I put her down, there was mom, waiting beneath a shade tree, not 50 to 75 feet from where she was hit. She was laying there with the other baby.'
The fawn had slept for most of the car ride, intriguing passersby as her head stuck out of the Jeep, his 8-year-old daughter along for the ride in the back.
Sheaffer saved the message.
'There's so many times we say, 'Take it back,' and we're wondering if it was the right thing to do,' she says. 'There's a lot of soul-searching involved.'
• International Vulture Awareness Day calls attention to shrinking habitat
One of Audubon's most famous residents, Ruby the turkey vulture, will take center stage next month at the center's International Vulture Awareness Day celebration.
Known as 'nature's cleanup crews,' vultures perform a crucial role in the wild by consuming dead animals that might otherwise spread disease. Besides being caretakers of the planet, vulture populations usually reflect the health of the ecosystem.
Vulture populations are falling sharply, however. There are about half as many vultures worldwide as there were 15 years ago.
One of their major challenges is habitat loss. As human populations grow, nesting areas and food sources for the birds shrink. Vultures are also hunted for sport, and their body parts are used in some traditional folk medicines. Some species also ingest lead ammunition from the carcasses they eat.
Ruby has been a vulture ambassador since she was a young bird, believed to be taken illegally from the wild and raised by humans. Now four years old, she lives in a cage outside the Wildlife Care Center along with other birds that are too 'imprinted' on humans to return to the wild.
The free event will include live vulture presentations and kids' activities. It's set for 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 3. For information, see audubon portland.org.
- Jennifer Anderson