OAK MOUNTAIN, AL (WSFA) - Each year a handful of professionals and lots of volunteers nurse as many as a thousand native Alabama baby birds that are injured or orphaned with the goal of returning them to the wild healthy enough to fend for themselves.
It is a labor of love for the staff and volunteers at the Alabama Wildlife Center at Oak Mountain State Park just south of Birmingham, and one that requires dedication and patience.
[SLIDESHOW: Ken's Hare's bird-watching photos]
For instance, the youngest of the birds -- some just a couple of inches long and still virtually featherless -- have to be fed by hand every 30 minutes for up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week. (See photo.) The youngest birds have to be kept in incubators at first, gradually graduating to boxes, then cages or similar enclosures, and eventually to enclosures large enough to test their wings.
"Now is our peak season for baby birds," said Executive Director Doug Adair when I visited the center recently.
But caring for birds is not just a seasonal job for the center. Injured birds are brought to the center year round to be nursed back to health by the staff.
Each year, almost 2,000 native Alabama wild birds are treated at the center, with as many as 115 species treated in a single year. That represents more than 25 percent of all the species recorded in Alabama.
The center has to be licensed by state and federal authorities to treat wild birds, and Adair said, "Our release rates are well above the national average."
But the center, working through volunteers, attempts whenever possible to return baby birds to the nest so they can be raised by their parents. "Renesting is always our first goal," said Adair, but that it not always possible. Even when nests are destroyed by storms or foresting, volunteers have been known to use laundry baskets or other containers as nests to try to reconnect babies with parent birds in the wild.
The Alabama Wildlife Center had its birth in 1977 when Anne Miller and volunteers from the Birmingham area started caring for injured birds in her home. Miller led the ever-expanding center as its executive director until her retirement in 2008. (Miller remains active in birding, currently serving as president of the Alabama Ornithological Society.)
The center moved to its current home in a former restaurant in Oak Mountain State Park in 1987.
Adair said many people assume the center is a state agency, since it is located in a state park. But he said that although the center has a close working relationship with the park, it is a nonprofit organization that depends on individual and corporate donations, membership dues and foundation grants for its funding. He also noted that the center could not operate without the help of scores of volunteers.
While rescuing injured and orphaned birds is the primary goal of the organization, it is not the only one. The center also has an active and expanding education program designed to create awareness and appreciation for the state's native wildlife.
The center is a wonderful place for anyone interested in nature and wildlife to visit, but that is especially true for children. The center has exhibits on birds and other Alabama wildlife, and visitors almost always can get a close up look at local wild birds visiting the center's feeders just a few feet away from the one-way glass windows. In less than five minutes on my recent visit, I saw and photographed titmice, nuthatches, goldfinches and a Downy Woodpecker, not to mention a chipmunk enjoying the seeds knocked out of the feeders by the birds.
Adair said the center plans "significant upgrades to our public spaces" in the near future, including working with the respected Cornell Lab of Ornithology to develop an interactive citizen science exhibit.
But the real stars are the "education birds" -- birds that were injured in ways that leave them healthy but unable to exist on their own in the wild.
One example is a Great Horned Owl that has vision problems that would prevent it from successfully hunting in the wild. An American Kestrel, a small hawk only the size of a Blue Jay, has talons that were broken and healed on their own in a way that would keep it from grasping its prey. But both are great ambassadors for the center, and along with the other education birds are seen by thousands of children each year. (See photos.)
Other education birds include an Eastern Screech Owl, a Merlin, a Mississippi Kite, a Barred Owl and a Red-Tailed Hawk.
The education birds are a centerpiece of most scheduled programs, both onsite at the center and in off-site presentations as well. While you won't always see an education bird on a drop-in visit to the center, it's sometimes possible if a bird and a trained volunteer are available. (Information on arranging programs can be found at the AWC website: www.awrc.org)
Visitors to the center also should take time to visit the Treetop Nature Trail, where you can walk along an elevated boardwalk and see many other birds that are in enclosures that keep them as close to a natural setting as possible. Like the education birds, these birds were injured in ways that keep them from being returned to the wild. They are healthy, but impaired. These birds include a Barred Owl, a Barn Owl, a white leucistic Turkey Vulture, a Great Horned Owl and a Red-Tailed Hawk.
A visit to the AWC website also can provide you with information on how to support the work of the center financially or by volunteering. You can become a member, or simply make a donation. You can "adopt a bird" (something I plan to do in the names of my granddaughters). If you adopt them as a gift to someone, they will receive a certificate with a color photo of the bird and an acknowledgement of your gift. The center also has a variety of fund-raising activities throughout the year -- bake sales, holiday greeting cards, a "baby bird shower", and so on.
Parents and grandparents should take note of an event scheduled for July 25-29 -- the AWC Summer Day Camp for students about to enter grades 1-6. It sounds like a marvelous time, but sorry all you adult birders -- it's for students only (unless you want to volunteer to help). I expect that our "grandgirls" will be attendees when they are old enough.
Finally, but most importantly, make a note of the center's Wildlife Help Line number: 205-663-7930. If you find an injured or orphaned bird in the wild in Alabama, you can call for help. The line is manned 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.
This is a great organization doing admirable work. I recommend that every Alabama birder consider becoming a member and supporting the center's work in other ways as well.