Wildlife Shelter Cradles Littlest Tornado Victims

May 8, 2011

Andrew Yeager

Relief workers in Alabama have been working around the clock to tend to victims of last week's tornadoes. But for volunteers at the Alabama Wildlife Center south of Birmingham, they're dealing with some of the smallest victims, wild birds.

The director of a popular state park there says storms blew over more trees than he can count. It's a reminder the weather affects more than just humans.

A volunteer pulls a ruffled owl from a cardboard box and cups his hands around the tiny bird as it screeches in response. It's not happy.

Wildlife rehabilitator Lee McDonald examines it. "If I were a little baby screech owl, I wouldn't be enjoying it either," she says.

This baby bird was found after the tornadoes, alongside its dead parents and sibling. McDonald goes over its feet, stretches out its wings and checks the feathers.

"Everything seems, from outside appearances, to be in working order," she declares.

But she's concerned about the owl's nutrition. Despite the best intentions, the woman who found the bird didn't feed it a proper diet.

The Alabama Wildlife Center does this kind of work year-round, but Executive Director Beth Bloomfield says the number of birds received since the tornadoes is unlike any previous storm. They've been working from dawn to past dusk this last week to keep up. Fortunately, most of the birds are healthy — some feather damage, broken bones.

"We had one that came in with a broken hip," she says. "We've had some broken wings."

They try to reunite healthy birds with their families. They've reunited four already. Otherwise, the birds start the road to recovery.

Intern Lynn Brown whistles to get a trio of storm-tattered baby birds to open their mouths. The birds squirm in a nest of unscented toilet paper in a green, plastic berry basket. A mixture of dry cat food, yogurt and vitamins trickles from the syringe into a bird's beak.

"They're full for now. Come back in 30 minutes," Brown laughs.

The youngest birds do require food every half hour, up to 14 hours a day. Paper clocks attached to charts track each feeding.

An injured song bird may stay at the Alabama Wildlife Center five or six weeks. A larger bird, such as a bard owl, may be here up to six months.

Bloomfield says spring is the busiest season anyway. This time last year, they were cleaning oil from Gulf Coast birds. This latest influx has them stretched thin, but she says if left alone, the birds would be eaten or starve. While humans are the first priority in a disaster, she believes birds deserve attention too.

"People have a special relationship with birds," she says. "We appreciate their beauty; they're one of the few wildlife species that you can see anywhere, any day."

Bloomfield expects more storm-injured birds in the coming days and weeks, one cardboard box at a time. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.