After 10 years of taking in injured and orphaned hawks, owls, songbirds and just about anything else that ends up on her doorstep on a wing and a prayer, Judy Everett wonders whether all her care and nursing make any difference. Lately, she says, it seems the birds are dropping from the skies faster than she and her partner, Lew Johnson, can pick them up.
"When such a large percentage of all the birds we get are victims of man-made circumstance, you know something is drastically wrong in the environment," said Everett, 41, of West Covina. "It's frightening."
She and Johnson, her neighbor, are two of an estimated 40 to 60 people in the Los Angeles area who are licensed by the state Department of Fish and Game to temporarily keep songbirds and birds of prey to treat them for injury and disease.
For years, both had cared for birds in their respective homes and backyard aviaries --Johnson as a falconer and Everett as a rehabilitator--but they began working together only three years ago, when Johnson asked Everett to take a look at an orphaned crow his wife, Caryn, had brought home.
Their mutual love of birds made them instant friends, and Johnson, 32, gave up falconry to become a "rehabber."
But even with the added pair of helping hands, Everett, who has rehabilitated more than 800 birds and successfully released 80% of the them back into the wild, says the workload is anything but light.
"We want to get them back in the sky, where they belong," she said.
She and Johnson are currently caring for 22 birds of prey and seven songbirds, and recently had to refuse an injured owl for lack of space.
Both rehabilitators belong to the nonprofit organization AWARE (Alliance for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education), which has more than 90 members in the Los Angeles area. But Everett says there is a shortage of dedicated rehabbers, leaving many needy birds with no place to go.
Some are picked up by good Samaritans with only the best intentions. But that can spell doom for the bird, Johnson said, unless it is given skilled care.
"Once, we got a call from a very wealthy couple who had found three orphaned woodpeckers," Johnson said. "They thought the birds looked sick, so they fed them expensive vodka through an eyedropper. They said they thought it would beef them up."
But, said Everett, "it beefed one of them right into the next world. The other two lived, but they were pretty drunk."
Johnson believes ignorance is the birds' greatest foe.
"It's not that people don't care," he said. "They just don't know. We have to have good knowledge of math and chemistry, and we weigh the birds to see how many calories they need. It's very technical."
The birds come to the rehabilitators through animal shelters, private individuals, game wardens and others. Upon arrival, the patient undergoes a complete physical, usually conducted by Everett, whose small fingers can detect tiny, broken bones.
Blood and fecal analysis follows, and "sometimes we have to set a wing or administer medication," said Everett, whose husband, Bob, a chemist, calculates medical dosages.
Johnson estimates that it costs $40 to $45 a month to feed a bird of prey. Those birds--falcons, hawks and owls--eat mostly rodents, which the rehabbers buy from pet stores, laboratory animal dealers and feed stores.
Everett figures that it costs about $35 to support a songbird, which eats less costly seeds and insects.
For a time, Everett raised her own rats to save the $1 to $2.50 it costs to buy each of the rodents, but the smell forced her to give that up, at least for the summer. She plans to start again when the weather cools.
"My mother asked me what I wanted for Christmas, and I told her breeding rats," she said.
Meanwhile, Everett and Johnson try to meet expenses by contracting with schools to give conservation lectures, during which they display permanently disabled birds and emphasize the importance of the food chain and the effect that disruptions of the chain have on the environment.
Still, costs of caring for the birds often comes from the rehabilitators' own pockets.
Everett believes the public is oblivious to the rate at which extinction of wild species is occurring. In the last few years, she said, she has noticed a marked decline in the populations of once-plentiful birds such as red-tailed hawks and great horned owls.
"It gets worse every year," she said. "Progress is squeezing out wildlife at such a rapid rate. We get birds that have flown into windows or high wires or have been hit by cars, or knocked out of their nests by tree trimmers--but what really gets me is that many of them have been shot."
For eight months, the two have been caring for a red-tailed hawk they call "Conan," after a movie character with uncivilized qualities. But Johnson said the person who abused the bird is the real barbarian.