Since 2001, over 7,000 feathered and furry vagrants have passed through a cramped apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, with screaming babies stacked above solemn old-timers and sprightly young fellows whistling aside the gravely ill. But as my colleagues Kelly Slivka and Kate Yandell report in this video, this eclectic menagerie, known as the Wild Bird Fund, has now secured a 1,300-square-foot independent space that opens on Saturday on Columbus Avenue.
“We’re trying to help make a difference, to at least have some place that kind-hearted New Yorkers can come to bring those animals when they are in distress — and they are very much in distress,” said Rita McMahon, the founder of the Wild Bird Fund and the owner of the apartment that housed ailing animals.
Until now, Ms. McMahon explained, New York City was the only major metropolis in the country without a wildlife rehabilitation center — but not for lack of need. Over 350 species of birds are native to the city or pass through it while migrating. But the urban jungle presents a host of obstacles and dangers, including tall glass buildings, cars, pollution and people. The vast majority of animals that Ms. McMahon sees are hurt or have fallen ill as a result of human activity, like getting run over by a bicycle or being exposed to lead-based paint on buildings. Life’s not easy for a little bird in the big city.
Since the Wild Bird Fund was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 2005 and began publicizing its services online, more injured animals have passed through Ms. McMahon’s apartment each season. In 2005, she saw about 200 patients; this year she expects to handle more than 1,500. “Around 2009, we realized it was getting out of control — there were so many cages and cat carriers in my apartment,” she said, explaining her decision to open an official location.
Ms. McMahon was a market research consultant (with a passion for art history) before the birds found her. Although she calls herself an animal lover, she never expected to make a career of championing wildlife rehabilitation. Her involvement began back in 1997, when she picked up a crippled Canada goose off the side of Interstate 684 and brought it home with her to the Upper West Side. She was at a loss when she realized that no place existed for helping ailing wildlife. Desperate, she called a local veterinary clinic, Animal General. To her relief, a veterinarian there, Karen Heidgerd, agreed to help the goose.
Since that first meeting, a partnership has blossomed. Dr. Heidgerd lends her medical expertise and equipment in support of Ms. McMahon’s now-full-time mission of aiding an endless stream of over 100 different species. “Our favorite client is the pigeon,” Ms. McMahon said, but this past week, she has seen opossums, Canada goslings, a peregrine falcon, two kestrel falcons, a crow, a medley of blue jays, robins, starlings, and hummingbirds, and a red-tailed hawk. “Plus the squirrels — we can’t leave out the squirrels,” she said.
The Wild Bird Fund is able to rehabilitate and release more than 50 percent of its animal patients, thanks to the digital X-rays, lead poison kits, oxygen masks, pain medications and veterinary expertise of Animal General, which is just across the street, and its partner hospital, the Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine. “There’s something wonderful about turning around a life or giving a bird back its chance to live,” Ms. McMahon said. “They never say ‘thank you,’ but it’s a great experience to see them go.”
The rehabilitation efforts are supported entirely by donations, nearly all of them from local residents. New Yorkers value urban wildlife, Ms. McMahon explained, whether it’s pigeons interacting on sidewalks or a great blue heron alighting in a Central Park pond.
On Saturday and Sunday, the public is invited to stop by the center (565 Columbus Avenue, between 87th and 88th Streets) for baby bird feeding demos, wildlife lectures, bird-themed art and origami activities and behind-the-scenes tours. “Our center is still just a fledgling operation — we really do need all the help we can get,” Ms. McMahon said. The open house will run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day.