Saving birds that create music of our natural landscape
Published: Tuesday, May 7, 2013 at 6:49 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 8, 2013 at 1:06 p.m.
When Veronica Bowers' nonprofit agency gets a cash donation, she asks herself a very basic question: What is it worth in terms of bugs, worms and other wiggly little creatures?
Native Songbird Care and Conservation
Native Songbird Care and Conservation
-- (707) 484-6502
-- 8050 Elphick Road, Sebastopol
-- For details and instructions on how to handle injured or displaced birds, visit http://nativesongbirdcare.org.
"That's how we look at things: How many mealworms is this going to buy?" said Bowers, head of Sebastopol-based Native Songbird Care and Conservation, the only area wildlife rescue center specializing in the small and delicate songbirds that throng our yards, parks and forests.
Her need for mealworms is practical; they are a staple of the diet of many of the ailing and orphaned birds in her care, more than 750 annually suffering the ravages of predators such as house cats or the effects of human interference. In the spring and summer, many of her birds are displaced or orphaned chicks, unable to feed themselves.
"It is heartbreaking to see these babies displaced when you know how much energy and time has been expended by that parent to care for and nurture that young little life," she said.
Bowers has been involved in wildlife rescue for more than a decade, but she has gained more notice recently as a leader in a battle with Caltrans over bird netting stretched across a work site under the Petaluma bridge on Highway 101 in Petaluma. Advocates say the netting, designed to keep federally protected cliff swallows away from the work site, is in fact entangling and killing birds by the score. Caltrans admits that the net killed some birds, but it insists that the problem has long since been fixed.
Federal officials say they are investigating the bird deaths and several wildlife groups have begun legal action to force Caltrans to remove the nets. Bowers has been the media spokeswoman for those efforts and has been monitoring the nets daily for almost a month.
Bowers' regular work, however, is much less high-profile. She spends most of every day in her bird rescue center next to her home in a heavily wooded neighborhood.
"It's not as simple as finding a baby bird and feeding it and thinking 'OK, our work is done here,' " she said, using a pair of tweezers to feed mealworms to a nest of tiny bushtit chicks, all squawking and opening their beaks wide.
The training to get state and federal certification to handle wildlife takes hundreds of hours of classes and hands-on training under an experienced mentor, she said. The learning includes anatomy, behavior, nutrition and disease.
Baby birds need particularly intensive attention, Bowers said, requiring feeding every 15 minutes for the first few weeks of their lives to sustain an astonishing growth rate.
The birds usually are brought in by people who find an injured, ill, or orphaned bird near their homes or in parks. About 75 percent of the birds are eventually released back to the wild.
The conservancy "is just a wonderful resource to have," said Susan Kirks, president of the Madrone Audubon Society, "and it is a labor of love and dedication to protect the most beautiful and smallest of creatures that give us such joy in our lives."
The center survives entirely on donations, usually small sums donated by people who bring in the injured birds, for its $25,000-30,000 annual budget. It also relies solely on volunteer labor, including Bowers' work.
Bowers stepped away from a successful career to tend to the birds. She ran La Dolce V chocolate shop in Sebastopol for more than a decade, earning national attention for her creations.
She closed the business about five years ago and devoted her life to the birds, which she had been tending part time at her home since 2004.
"I saw a need," she said with a shrug in trying to explain her decision. "These birds need help."
But, she admits, the work is less than lucrative.
"Wildlife doesn't have a bank account or credit card, that's for sure," she said. "All they do is eat and poop a lot."
Bowers developed her fascination with birds early, growing up in Marin and Sonoma counties.
"I owe that to my grandmother, who always had a pair of binoculars and a field guide at the breakfast table," she said.
Her passion for rescue, however, started about 15 years ago, when she found a cliff swallow nest that had fallen off her house. She took the nest and its occupants to the Bird Rescue Center in Santa Rosa and was interested enough to begin volunteering there.
She quickly noticed that small songbirds didn't seem to like being close to larger birds of prey, such as hawks. She decided to start her own center to specialize exclusively in the smaller birds.
"She's got a real passion for it and a talent for it," said Mary Ellen Rayner, executive director of the Bird Rescue Center.
It's hard to tell exactly how her birds fare after they return to the wild, though she does put tracking bands on many of them. That makes it possible to spot them later and know that at least some are living long enough to breed, the highest goal of wildlife rehabilitation centers.
Because her birds come from such common species, it is sometimes hard to generate a lot of public interest, she said, certainly not like more glamorous endangered animals such as hawks or mountain lions.
But these small birds are important: they eat vast quantities of insects, spread seeds across the landscape, and provide valuable food sources for larger birds and mammals, she said. And they are in trouble; far from threatened yet, but still showing clear signs of population declines.
"Without them, we would be in a mountain of trouble environmentally speaking," she said, noting that without these birds, our forests and yards would fall eerily silent.
"They are the music of our natural landscape," she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or email@example.com.