Carol Ardman Issue: Section:

photographs by Peter Gelfin and Karen Markham

The cages in Rita McMahon’s living room aerie on the Upper West Side near Central Park are labeled: Jennifer, Dianne, Robin, Howard, Joe and more. But these names don’t identify the shut-ins – a pigeon wearing a cast on its broken leg, a Grackle with a gash on its head, baby sparrows and jays that would die without being hand-fed. They belong to the rescuers – the people who took these injured avians off the subway stairs, from beneath a scaffold or from a curb – humans who are part of a flock of a thousand New Yorkers who brought their injured, orphaned or displaced animal to the Wild Bird Fund, Inc. (
The birds in the living room are nursed by a dancer, a bartender, an opera singer, a corporate lawyer, a veterinary technician-to-be, a vintner – people from all walks who refuse to let a helpless creature die on the street. Ms. McMahon herself, who founded Wild Bird Fund, Inc. eight years ago, worked as a television producer until this – her real calling – took over her life and her home. (Her husband, a writer and editor, works in a quietly separate “bird-free” part of the apartment.)
But the cages on the couch and various side tables are just one outpatient clinic. In this big, octopus-type organization buttressed by the Humane Society, the Audubon Society, the cop on the beat, night watchmen and others, over 100 volunteers also care for rescues in their own homes, learning as they go how to do wing therapy, how to tube- feed, how to give antibiotics or an intramuscular injection.
“We’re in the great East Coast migratory flyway. It goes right through the city,” says Ms. McMahon, a federally certified Wildlife Rehabilitator who speaks about her work and cares for her charges joyfully. “We’ve had lots of kestrels (members of the falcon genus), cormorants and a loon. Those are in addition to the pigeons, sparrows, robins, starlings, Grackles,” she says. “We’re wildlife, not just birds. We do possums, squirrels, skunks, turtles, even a beaver”.
Young birds that have been rehabilitated and are ready to go back to the wild, even the wilds of Manhattan, “Go to school at the New Jersey Raptor Center,” says Ms. McMahon, smiling. “They stay in an outdoor pen and learn to forage for food.”
As she explains that New York is the only major city in the United States without a formal wildlife rehabilitation center and how she aims to remedy this deficiency with the help of a $250,000 Pepsi Refresh grant (*, volunteer Robin Taylor takes an injured pigeon she found under a truck from its cage, gives it a clearly enjoyable scratch behind its ears and sits down to feed it by hand from a bowl filled with Purina Puppy Chow. Robin, who grew up in pastoral upstate New York, came to this work through a friend like many other volunteers, but she explains that she gets satisfaction from doing it because, “You have an obligation to help, to give back to the city and to nature."

The multitude of pigeons Wild Bird Fund, Inc. rehabilitates might be looked down on by some as “rats with wings,” but Ms. McMahon insists that’s a bad rap. ”They have centuries of living with humans, they’re one of the first domesticated animals, along with the dog and the horse. They’ve helped save us in two World Wars and in the Gulf war they worked as messengers because cell calls could be intercepted. They’re closer to humans than any other bird,” she says. “A lot of the bad press comes from the pest control companies, who like to say they’re dirty, they’re diseased.” The New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene agrees, saying on its web site that pigeon droppings may pose “a small health risk” to humans, but passes on the birds themselves.

When a pigeon or other patient of the Wild Bird Fund becomes too ill for home care, Animal General Hospital is the next stop . Long-time volunteer Susan Bercaw brings a very sick young pigeon to see Ms. McMahon there, placing it on a gleaming stainless-steel, towel-covered examining table. Quickly, Ms. McMahon checks the bird, which has a guarded prognosis, and prescribes anti-inflammatories, cage rest for a week, then wing therapy. Then she settles the patient in an incubator.

The next patient, also a pigeon, is recovering from a broken leg. With the help of another volunteer, Ms. McMahon removes the existing splint, uses masking tape to affix the bird’s head, wings and legs to the table and takes an X-ray, which is inconclusive. Wrapping one end of a piece of tape around the bird’s ankle and holding the other end of the tape in her mouth to keep the leg straight and “provide traction,” she happily lists some of the other advantages of being able to use the hospital’s facilities. “We can do lab work here. There are avian vets. We can do surgery with bird-sized instruments – sometimes you need to amputate a toe or sew up a wing,” she says. Then, with a tiny needle, she administers a shot of calcium.
Later that afternoon Ms. McMahon, a thin attractive woman dressed in black, treats a seagull with a septic wing impact, a juvenile sparrow caught in the rain and a fledgling pigeon with a traumatic cut on his lower back and a compound fracture to the wing humerus.

All this would not be possible without private donations of about $50,000 per year and the generosity of Paul Howell, who owns Animal General Hospital. With her partner, Karen Heidgerd, a co-founder of the Wild Bird Fund and the Practice Administrator at Animal General, Ms. McMahon has her eye on a building two doors down -- a building that could easily be engineered to house an operating room, wards, X-ray facilities and all the rest.
            Standing on the sidewalk, Ms. McMahon looks at the building with eager delight, and asks. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we got the funds to turn this place into New York’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center?”

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