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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

SocietyOctober 13, 2022

‘Birds are so damned hard to fix’: Inside Aotearoa’s biggest bird hospital

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Alex Casey meets the vets and volunteers who go to great lengths to save the thousands of sick and injured patients brought into BirdCare every year.

The pointy hoods were made out of old pillowcases, with wonky eye holes crudely cut out with scissors. As the shadowy pair concealed their faces and wriggled on black rubber gloves in silence, it was hard not to note that their silhouettes paralleled one of the most infamous hate groups of all time. But where members of the KKK are synonymous with violence and terror, these two hooded figures were simply nursing a fluffy Ōi, or grey-faced petrel, back to good health. 

As the tiny grey fluffball, affectionately named Squeaky Toy, gratefully received its liquidised meal via syringe, a recording of the Ōi call squawked from a nearby phone. Later, after she has removed her hood, BirdCare general manager Lynn Miller explains that they have to go to great lengths to hide all human features – including faces and voices – while feeding, to prevent the process of imprinting, or making the baby bird think they are its human parents. 

Feeding Squeaky Toy is an elaborate task. (Photo: Alex Casey)

Inside BirdCare Aotearoa, the largest wild bird rehabilitation centre in the country, you could burst into tears around every corner. At the triage wing, a row of patient charts line the wall. There’s a pied shag who was found “very dizzy, wobbly and depressed” in a park in Albany, a mallard on a pain management plan after being hit by a car in Browns Bay, and another grey petrel who flew into a window in Muriwai and had an underlying infection. 

Dr Miller, who has been the GM of BirdCare for the last three years, has loved birds all her life. “I think it started before I was even verbal,” she laughs, explaining how as a young child she would always draw stick figure pictures of herself, her house, and trees full of birds. She studied science, but being a woman in the 1960s meant that her opportunities to work with birds were limited. “In those days, the guy who was head of our equivalent of DOC only employed women to make tea or or type,” she explains. “That was as far as that went.”

Eventually she moved to England to study under naturalist Gerald Durrell, whose writing had been a huge source of inspiration for her as a young New Zealander. “He actually saved my sanity, because I was able to read about and dream about what I wanted to do.” The dream back then? “I wanted to save the world.” What followed was decades dedicated to birds around the world, including working with birds of prey in North America, establishing Le Nichoir, a bird conservation centre in Quebec, and even working the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed an estimated 600,000-800,000 seabirds. 

Lynn Miller with a hawk at Birdcare. (Photo: Birdcare Aotearoa)

These days, Miller can be found up a steep driveway in Green Bay, busying herself with the five or so human staff members and the hundreds of bird patients in their care. BirdCare is a registered charity that provides rehabilitation for sick, injured and orphaned wild birds brought in by members of the public across Tāmaki Makaurau. Kererū donks its head on your window? Take it to BirdCare. Ducklings found cheeping down a drain? Take them to BirdCare. Depressed shag wobbling around at the park? Take it to BirdCare. 

Upon arrival at the facility, all patient details are filed at a computer on the front desk, including details of their injury or ailment, species and location found. On the day I visit, recent admissions include a magpie, a blackbird and a pūkeko chick, just three of the 132 patients in care that day. In the veterinary office, Miller opens a large cupboard filled with breathable boxes and shows me the squawking pūkeko chick. “Hello my love,” she coos as the chick, no more than a day or two old, does a furious poo on a bit of paper towel. 

The tour of wonders doesn’t stop there. In the triage ward, there’s a glittering blue spa pool where the waterfowl can stretch their legs. “They love a spa darling,” says Miller, as she inspects a literal box of fluffy ducks. There’s an ICU ward, thankfully empty when we visit, filled with “Bird Brooder 90” incubator machines. There’s a baby room, an outdoor shed for birds of prey, even a bug room where they grow all the bugs for the birds to eat. The detailed “beetle sifting schedule” on the wall dictates a twice weekly sift. On the staff room fridge down the hall, there’s a stark warning: “Do NOT use the mealworms in this fridge.” 

A pūkeko chick and a ruru chick at Birdcare. (Photo: Simon Runting and BirdCare Aotearoa)

There’s so much to be charmed by that it’s easy to forget the grim reason BirdCare exists. “Our job is to heal what’s gone wrong,” says Miller. “And unfortunately 95% of things that have gone wrong are because of humans.” She sees the human impact on bird life daily, be it through car collisions, cat and dog attacks, poisons or windows. It also means they are on the front line of the goings-on in nature, and can sound the alarm if anything appears unusual. “If there’s an oil or chemical spill, or if something else is going on in the environment, we are likely to see some of its victims coming in here and we may be the first humans to know about a situation.” 

The explosion of the toxic disease botulism in Auckland bird populations is just one example of this. Last year, BirdCare took in 753 botulism cases, all of which had come from water treatment facilities across the region. “We’ve created a devastating situation, because botulism is just an awful way to die,” Miller says. “You are conscious till the minute you suffocate. You either suffocate on land, when your lungs can no longer expand, or you drown. It’s a lousy way to die.” Given rising water temperatures, which make it ideal for the botulinum spores to reproduce, Miller and her team are gearing up for “another very bad summer” this year. 

A repurposed examination table houses multiple botulism patients. (Photo: Birdcare Aotearoa)

Knowing when to say goodbye to their patients is, unfortunately, part of the job. “The reality is that in rehabilitation we can only release about 40% of our patients,” says Miller. “When you have these events happening day after day, it can damage your soul. Because all of this stuff is happening to these birds because of us.” Globally, the wildlife rehabilitation community suffers from high rates of suicide, mental health issues and compassion fatigue. “I’ve had days where I’ve picked up my team, sobbing because of the losses we go through.”

Some patients are seared into her memory for all the wrong reasons. Miller recalls a deceased red-tailed Hawk that arrived at a facility she was working at in the USA with bullet wounds. Upon X-ray, she discovered the bird had been shot on three separate occasions. She says it is happening here too – just recently she encountered two shags that had been found shot dead on an Auckland beach. On another occasion she reared and banded a group of baby Kingfisher orphans – “spiky wee porcupine looking things” – and released them as juveniles, only to have some of them return within months, dead, after being hit by a car.

“We all set out to save the world but we do see the very worst,” Miller says.

But there are also daily success stories, and that’s what keeps the team going. “These birds are so damned hard to fix, because they don’t come into us unless they’re dying.” Miller says they once had a kererū come in with both the upper and lower bones on its beak broken – usually a death sentence because they can’t eat anything. The vet put a tube into the neck and down the oesophagus of the kererū and taped the beak shut, allowing it to consume “food smoothies” and medication while it healed. A week later, they took the splint off the beak and it got to chow down on its first meal.

“That bird was so happy that it licked its plate clean the first night,” Miller beams. “It’s the simple things.”

A baby kererū and a baby heron have a nice time. (Photo: Birdcare Aotearoa)

Birdcare has also seen a rapid increase in tītī, or Cook’s petrels, in their care, increasing from around 10-15 annually in 2019 to 143 over just a three-week period last year. “Their first flight when they leave Little Barrier is to come over Auckland, and a number of these birds get grounded because so many of them are attracted to the urban lights.” The fascinating finding, Miller says, is that every tītī that died was male. “What gives?” she wonders aloud. “Are the boys more attracted to the bright city lights? Or are the guys just dumb as planks?”

Last year they were able to release 88% of their tītī patients, but it was the very last survivor that Miller says “nearly gave them a heart attack.” Her team had taken several birds out for release along the West Coast at dusk. As they released the final bird in an emotional sunset scene, a mighty ruru swooped down in a dramatic silhouette and tried to eat it. “We were all screaming, but the bird made it through, thank god.” Although traumatic, it also provided a new data point – a ruru had never been spotted hunting over the water until then. 

“There’s these really quirky, weird things that happen, it’s always really exciting,” says Miller. “From my perspective, releasing all those birds is magic, it’s absolutely magic.”

A group of Tūi chicks and a rebellious sibling. (Photo: Birdcare Aotearoa)

Although birds come into BirdCare for a number of reasons, Miller makes special mention of cats, which are responsible for 36% of their patients – only 20% of which can be saved. “The crush injuries, the bites that have hit the kidneys, the broken ribs, we can’t fix those,” says Miller. A cat-lover herself, her hope is that more people will consider keeping their cats indoors, making their property escape-proof, or investing in a catio. “Cats are a member of your family, so you want to make sure that they’re as safe as possible, while also protecting our local wildlife.” 

Over the decades that she has worked with wildlife, Miller has learned to walk back her teenage dream of saving the world. “That’s just not realistic today, what I do now is take things one day at a time, and hopefully relieve some suffering.” When we catch up a few days after my visit, she has some sad news: Squeaky Toy, the delightful little fluffball who they diligently fed from beneath their scary hood, didn’t make it. “I’m afraid there was a bout of tears for him. We really do cry for our patients.” 

She briefly wells up before collecting herself – the world keeps turning and Miller remains dedicated to her goal of saving one bird at a time. “Birds are a reflection of the health of the environment around us. Think about the people you care about and love: how can you condemn them to a world that doesn’t even support birds?” She still delights in waking up to birdsong every morning, be it the magpie’s call or a duck’s quack. “All is well in the world when we have our fauna and our wildlife around us.”

“Because the reality is, if we wake up to a silent world, the next victims will be us.”

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