Habitat December 19, 2018

On a Wing and a Prayer

The Ruth Melichar Bird Center offers a second chance to Boise’s winged wildlife

Inside the old red barn perched on a rise overlooking the sprawling Quail Hollow Golf Course in Boise’s foothills, a small group of dedicated bird lovers work year-round to rescue some of Idaho’s most magnificent winged creatures.

Swallows, flickers, finches, robins, ducks, geese, and even the tiniest of hummingbirds, all sick, injured or orphaned, are brought here, to the Ruth Melichar Bird Center, to be patched up, rehabilitated and released back into the wild. “I refer to it as the ‘Town bird center’,” said its director Jennifer Rockwell. “Every bird you see in town in the Treasure Valley is everything we get.”

The Melichar Center is the avian arm of Animals in Distress Association (AIDA) and was named for the late Ruth Melichar, a well-known Boise artist who for decades rescued injured and sick birds and cared for them in her home, earning her the moniker, “The Bird Lady of the Treasure Valley.”

Built in 1910, and acquired by AIDA in 2000, the barn has been transformed into an all-in-one emergency room, intensive care, and rehabilitation facility that takes in about 3,000 wild birds each year, of which 400 to 500 are ducklings. Open every day of the year, including holidays, the center bumps its hours of operation up to 12 hours a day during the busy season from May to mid-September when hundreds of baby birds are brought through the doors.

Birds in the Hand

The incoming helpless squawking baby birds begin their journey to rehabilitation in the baby bird room where, just like in nature with their bird parents, each one will be fed every 15 or 20 minutes for 12 hours a day. Rockwell said that throughout the summer months, there will be a minimum of 100 to 200 baby birds being cared for at all times.

As the babies thrive and become more active, they graduate into the juvenile room next door, where they learn to feed themselves. Down the hallway, a medical room shelters sick and injured birds while they are being treated and monitored. From broken wings, and blow darts through the neck and head, to babies separated from their nests and injuries from cats and cars, Rockwell sees it all.

Although she isn’t a veterinarian, Rockwell is trained to perform a wide range of treatments such as administering medication, splinting broken bones and dealing with traumas. When needed, she works with local veterinarians.

Rockwell first got involved with the Melichar center in 2001 when she brought in an injured bird. “I became a volunteer the next day,” she said with a smile. “I was a bird lover to begin with, so I just continued to educate myself, taking courses through the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council and other rehab programs, and wound up becoming the director here about five years ago.”

She’s also a state and federally licensed and permitted bird of prey rehabilitator, but noted the center does not have the proper caging to keep raptors for the long-term. “When a hawk or an eagle comes in, we accept them temporarily so we can examine them and get them stabilized, but then transfer them to another licensed bird of prey rehabber in the community who has the right facilities. We are not a bird of prey rehab facility, but we won’t turn any bird away that needs help,” she said.

The center has a separate outside enclosure known as Duckville, a heated facility for baby ducklings and other waterfowl. During the busy season in 2017, after the unusually harsh Boise winter, the center received an unprecedented 700 ducklings, with 350 of those arriving within a two-week period. “The weather had sort of pushed the ducks more inland off the river and out of their normal nesting territory,” said Rockwell, noting every year the patient population can change depending on winter, the arrival of spring, and weather patterns during migration.

Next to Duckville are the aviaries and flight cages, where healthy birds are moved as part of the final step in their rehabilitation process before they are released back into the wild.

“We give them a week or two of flight cage time so they can build up their flight muscles and get acclimated to the outside temperature and environment,” said Rockwell. “We watch their flight patterns to see if they’re flying well and capable of migrating. When they’re ready, we take them to a release site. Being able to release these birds is so gratifying and emotionally rewarding.”

Returning Home

The center’s release success rate is about 75 percent, “Which is very high,” Rockwell noted. As a rule, they try to release birds back into their original territory, working with other community birders in that process.

“When we do a release I always say, ‘On a wing and a prayer,’ like good luck guys, because now it’s up to them. Mother Nature is very, very harsh; she’s got her own agenda, and if those birds aren’t in 250 percent tip-top shape, well, they have a lot of challenges ahead. They may make it, or may not.

“As rehabbers, we have to be very responsible making sure when we do a release it’s a bird in great condition or we’re not doing that bird a service. They have a lot to contend with out there.”

Rockwell smiled as she recounted one of the thousands of successful releases she has been a part of over the past 17 years. “A few years ago we had a raven that was picked up at the prison. The people thought he was injured, but it was raining and his feathers just got really saturated, and he couldn’t fly. We took him in and put him in a flight cage to see how he would do.”

After a few days, Rockwell took him back to the prison area for his release. “Ravens are bonded with their family groups and since he was a juvenile we knew there was a family out there somewhere for him to join up with.” To her delight, the raven family was perched along a fence post, as if waiting for his return, but soon flew away. Rockwell put the rescued raven on the fence and he took off to a berm in the field where two of his family members joined him.

“They circled over him and landed, and then started talking back and forth, and the bird we were releasing started making food begging calls. It was almost like the family member was saying, ‘Where the heck have you been, dude?’ and he’s saying back, ‘I’ve been in prison, and I’m really glad to see you!’ And then after maybe 20 minutes of chattering, they all took off and joined the rest of the family across the field. For me, that was something I’ll never forget.”

Backyard Bird Challenges

The center receives hundreds of backyard birds every year, some with injuries and others that aren’t injured at all. “As our area has grown it has become house after house of habitat being ripped away, so birds are forced to nest in highly convoluted, populated areas and become backyard birds that end up having more interactions with humans,” she said. “Often humans get too involved and don’t leave them alone.”

One challenge she faces is people who see a bird on the ground and immediately think it needs to be brought to the center. Often homeowners see nests that have fallen from a tree, babies that have fallen out of a nest, or fledglings that have left the nest but are being cared for on the ground by their nearby parents. “In cases like that we try to get people to keep the baby with its family group, not just react and grab it and bring it to us,” she said, adding that the old tale of birds rejecting their baby if it has been touched by a human is simply not true.

“There are times when people should act, like if a tree has been cut down and the parents flew off, or if a bird is injured,” she said. “In general we want the babies to be raised in the wild, not by people. But, of course we are always here as a second option to help, when needed.”

Even in relatively dense urban areas, Boiseans get to experience the occasional thrill of a hawk flying into their backyard. Rockwell said that Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks are known to enter backyards to hunt songbirds, and since humans feed songbirds, an urban backyard is a great place to find a meal.

“The downside is they run the risk of hitting buildings and windows, and they’re notorious for that because their hunting style is aerodynamic and they catch birds on the fly,” Rockwell said. “When I get a Cooper’s or a sharp-shinned hawk into rehab they are almost always a juvenile. Their skill set isn’t as high as an adult, so they’re still learning to maneuver and constantly running into sides of buildings. There are a lot of buildings and development they have to contend with in order to eat.”

Urban Sprawl Challenges

“The Treasure Valley is building up so fast and birds are finding it more difficult to find nesting territories,” Rockwell noted. “Besides the growth that displaces wildlife, there are also car accidents with birds, which are all tied together. It’s becoming more of a concrete world and that affects habitats not only for the birds but for their prey as well,” she said.

She recalled that in 2017 there were reports of dozens and dozens of owls dying next to the I-84 Interstate. “It could be that some birds are nesting and hunting close to the freeway because their habitat is close to there. Rodents that they hunt have been displaced by the concrete and are nesting close by in the dirt, and the owls fly low in search of prey and become victims when they end up getting hit by vehicles. One day I counted 25 dead barn owls on the side of the freeway,” she said.

Medical Challenges

One of the biggest challenges wild birds face are attacks from roaming outdoor cats, and the center receives hundreds of victims each year. “Pasteurella Multocida is a bacterium that is prevalent in a cat’s mouth and very toxic to the bird via attack wounds, so birds need to be treated immediately with an antibacterial medication,” Rockwell said. “People who don’t manage their cats accordingly is a problem, and unfortunately the birds pay the price.”

In fact the American Bird Conservancy estimates that outdoor cats kill billions of birds each year in the U.S.

Bone fractures provide another medical challenge at the center. “We don’t at this time have easy access to a radiography machine, so that’s a challenge, too,” Rockwell said.

When a bird comes in with a fracture, Rockwell has a lot to consider: the bird’s species, the severity of the injury; can the bird stay calm in captivity; is it eating well or losing weight; are secondary issues occurring due to the initial injury?

“Sometimes we are able to repair the fracture, and the bird makes a full recovery; but sometimes, in spite of all the work, time and medical expenses, a fracture won’t heal correctly and we have to put the bird down.”

How Do They Manage It All?

From feeding baby birds every quarter-hour to cleaning cages and enclosures, preparing food, washing dishes, sweeping floors and rehabbing and releasing birds, how does this nonprofit accomplish it all while still providing this free service to the community?

“We mostly operate with the help of our volunteers, and we couldn’t do all the work without their help,” Rockwell said, noting that during the summer she has between 20 and 40 volunteers. She also has a small budget for some employees during the high season, since there needs to be someone there 12 hours a day to feed the baby birds every 15 minutes.

Other than the rare grant, 98 percent of the center’s funding comes from private donations, with no city, state or federal financial support. The cost to operate seven days a week, 365 days a year is enormous, with food costs, travel costs to rescue and release birds, utilities and more. Baby birds and ducklings all require heat 24 hours a day via heating pads or ceramic heat bulbs. Just the volume of water needed to care for the waterfowl alone is staggering, with swim tanks and enclosures needing to be hosed out and changed two or three times every single day.

“I get a lot of people who bring a bird in and they’ll tell me, ‘Oh, I am so glad you are here!’” said Rockwell. “The center offers a tremendously helpful service to the community that is free of charge, but the only reason we are able to be here is because of private donations. Without those much needed donations, we’re simply not here.”

What to Do if You Find a Bird

If you find an injured baby bird or nestling that cannot be returned to its nest, call the RMBC at 208-338-0897 for further instructions. They advise placing the bird in a cardboard box with a towel shaped like a nest to prevent the bird from flopping about or getting injured during transport. Cover the box to keep the bird calm and immediately take it to the bird center at 4650 N. 36th in Boise. Other important reminders from the RMBC include: Do not give food or water to any wildlife. If an animal is cold, dehydrated, injured, or ill, any food or improper hydration could kill it. Never give a wild animal any cow’s milk or human infant formula.

Who Was Ruth Melichar, Boise’s Bird Lady?

Born in 1906, Ruth Melichar was the inspiration and namesake for Boise’s bird rescue center. She was not a veterinarian, but an artist and a writer who was fascinated by wildlife and trained herself to rehabilitate sick, injured and orphaned wild birds.

Melichar took in her first sick bird, a burrowing owl, in 1974. A veterinarian told her if she’d like to keep it in her home he’d get her the proper permits as long as she’d take in a few more birds. And she did. By the time she died in 1997 at age 91, Melichar had treated and released between 650 and 850 birds each year, according to memories provided by her family.

She became known as “The Bird Lady” and her home was the place people brought the injured birds they found around town.

“She had so many birds and loved them individually; not one was less than the other. She doted on them as if they were priceless,” said Melichar’s granddaughter Tammy Burlile.

Burlile recalled that birds lived everywhere in her grandmother’s house – living room, hallway counters, art room, bathroom, bedroom, kitchen table. “Once I counted 87 birds and birds of prey inside her home and more outside.

“She had a kestrel hawk named “Lizzie” who flew freely in the art studio. But during mating season, visitors had to wear hats because Lizzie had chosen my grandmother as her mate and flew around dive bombing anyone who was not my grandmother. You were sure to get a talon to the head if it wasn’t covered. After her flights, Lizzie would softly land on my grandmother’s head and “nest.” Seeing a kestrel hawk on top of a silver haired woman was quite the sight.”

“Big Boy”, a great horned owl, had been hit by a car and was blind in one eye. “He was the longest resident in her home,” said Burlile. “His cage was always open about two inches and one night he decided to get out and go visit her in her bedroom. She could hear the click, click of his talons on the floor. Grandma got out of bed and, after loving on him, put him back in his cage. To me this was not only about her love for the birds, but also their love for her. Those that were with her long term loved her and trusted her.”

When Melichar died in 1997, Animals In Distress Association created the Ruth Melichar Bird Center to continue her humanitarian work of rescuing and rehabilitating injured and orphaned wild birds.

Educating children about birds

By Tammy Burlile, granddaughter of Ruth Melichar

“For many years she and my grandfather Chuck would take birds to the schools and educate children on not shooting at the birds, as many of the owls that she had were all blind in one eye from BB guns. Owls eyes are so big within their heads  she wanted children to know that nine times out of ten they would blind an owl if shot. Once my grandmother got older she was no longer able to take the birds to the schools; thus the field trips started to arrive at her home.”

“Robin” was a red breasted robin that my grandmother eventually released after rehabilitation. The funniest thing about this bird was that he would constantly strip the newspaper from the bottom of his cage and dip it in his water bowl until he no longer had his red breast because it was black from the printer’s ink. No matter how many times you cleaned him up, he went straight back to his newspaper and water.”

“Goggles” was a great horned owl my grandmother had incubated and hatched from an egg. As grandma got older, rehabilitation and release became more difficult; thus Goggles was never released. As he matured, he was put in an aviary cage outside where he could fly around. He loved my grandmother. The cooing he would make when she’d bring him cut up beef heart was one of love. He would gently bring his beak down, make a cooing sound for her and reach for the beef heart. She would also stroke his legs and he would gently lift his foot and give her what I would call a hand shake.” ~ Tammy Burlile, granddaughter of Ruth Melichar

“Parakeets” she had a cage full of nine parakeets in her living room. A group of children with disabilities had visited an aviary and spotted these nine birds and were saddened to learn that the parakeets did not have hip sockets and they would be put down. They begged the aviary to give them the parakeets and immediately took the birds to my grandmother. These parakeets’ legs went out straight to either side of their body and they would hold on to the cage with one foot and rest their breast on the wooden dowels. They were able to fly, just not stand tall on their perch. My grandmother not only loved the parakeets, but also the children seeking hope when they brought these disabled birds to her.”

How You Can Help

The Ruth Melichar Bird Center, the avian branch of Animals in Distress Association (AIDA), rescues and rehabilitates between 2,800 and 3,000 injured and orphaned birds each year. The center is open seven days a week, 365 days a year, including holidays and operates entirely on private donations and grants. They also gladly accept gift cards and donations of birdseed and other supplies.

Visit AIDA’s website at idahowildliferescue.org or contact them at P.O. Box 7263, Boise, Idaho 83707-1263.

This article appears in the Winter 2018 Issue of Territory Magazine.