When Mariah, an orphaned red-shouldered hawk, first set eyes on his dinner of field mice, he thought it was for the birds.
"He looked real confused," said Lew Johnson, 32, of West Covina, who helped nurse Mariah back to health. "I had to teach him to eat the mouse."
Johnson, along with Judy Everett, 40, of West Covina and Linda Delafunte, 36, of Altadena, cared for Mariah for three months after the hawk fell out of his nest in Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge. Stronger and prepared to catch mice by himself, Mariah was released by Johnson on July 6.
Johnson, Everett and Delafunte have each been involved in animal rehabilitation for at least 10 years and now work together out of Everett's backyard, where her husband, Bob, has constructed aviaries. All three are licensed by the state Fish and Game Department to temporarily possess and treat injured or diseased songbirds and birds of prey. They are regularly sought by Los Angeles-area humane societies, pet stores, arboretums and zoos to care for ailing animals. Everett estimated that together they rehabilitated more than 400 sick or injured birds last year.
"I just have a tremendous love for wildlife and want to see birds of prey stay in the environment," she said. "I would hate to see the day when there are none of these birds left."
However, Everett said, bird rehabilitation is more time-consuming and expensive than most people realize. It requires attention seven days a week, from sunrise to bedtime, and pays nothing. Johnson, who works a swing shift as a maintenance man, said it cost him about $40 a month just to keep Mariah stocked with field mice and gophers.
According to Steve McNall, executive director of the Pasadena Humane Society, that kind of commitment is necessary if injured animals are to be rehabilitated properly.
"This is not a novelty," said McNall, who takes an injured bird to Delafunte about every week. "It takes a very dedicated kind of individual. A lot of people want to do good, but without adequate training, you can do more harm than good."
Delafunte, who works part-time as a church secretary, said education is the key to success in animal rehabilitation.
"I learned the hard way--by trial and error," she said, noting that 10 years ago she could not find a single book on bird rehabilitation in the library. "Fortunately, there is a lot more information available today."
One source of that information is the Alliance for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education, a nonprofit organization with more than 90 members in Southern California, including Johnson, Everett and Delafunte. With the help of the alliance, all three have participated in classroom demonstrations and are organizing a training program for animal rehabilitators.
Steve Blumenfeld, managing director of the Los Angeles chapter, emphasized the importance of taking animal rehabilitation into the schools. "If we don't educate the kids, then everything we're doing will mean nothing," he said. "All our efforts will go down the tubes."
Hazards Are Man-Made
Education is particularly important, Delafunte said, because most of the birds she cares for are victims of man-made hazards.
"If a bird has fallen out of its nest in a natural environment, that's one thing," she said. "But I'd say that 99% of the birds I see are injured because of man. They're being pushed out of their homes."
Everett, who is currently caring for a baby screech owl, said that those problems are caused primarily by growth in population, pollution and depletion of natural resources.
"I do this because I see the ecology changing," she said. "Civilization is disturbing nature. I just try to keep the odds a little more even."
However, all three "rehabbers" said, there are few rewards in fighting that battle. Mariah was found dehydrated, hungry and suffering from a serious cellular disease. But, as Delafunte pointed out, when the bird was released, he did not say thank you or offer any sign of appreciation.
"Yeah," Johnson added, "but when he flew off without landing on his butt--that was the thanks."