A quiet Friday afternoon at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center in Newhall was interrupted by a telephone call from a woman working at Castaic Lake. A lifeguard there had spotted a bloodied baby eagle, and the woman asked if someone would retrieve it and mend its wounds.
Skeptical but still hopeful that the bird was indeed an eagle, Lisa Peach, 25, and Harold Mountan, 27, climbed into their van, even thoughthey would not be permitted to treat the federally protected creature.
Peach returned to the center clutching a towel-wrapped bird in her arms.
"The eagle turned out to be a sea gull," she said, breaking into a grin. "You never know what you're going to get. That's what makes it fun."
She quickly cleaned the bird's broken bones with a Betadyne ointment, then wrapped them in gauze, explaining, "If a bone is exposed and not kept moist, the bone will die in a short period of time."
The raptor (bird of prey) rehabilitation program at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center is one of three such programs in the county. The other two, also run by the Department of Parks and Recreation, are situated at the Whittier Narrows Nature Center in South El Monte and the San Dimas Nature Center in San Dimas.
Peach and Mountan treat injured birds of prey such as hawks, falcons and owls, and return them to their habitats. The center also has a baby songbird program to care for displaced birds such as jays, finches and mockingbirds until they develop feathers and are mature enough to survive independently.
Last year, an estimated 200 injured and immature birds were cared for, and about 85% of those birds were later released, said Kathleen Ritner, supervisor for Placerita Canyon Natural Area Park.
The program, in its third year, is run by Peach, a zoology major at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She is a former owl and eagle trainer at Magic Mountain in Valencia and began working at the center as a volunteer when she was 9. Peach is assisted by Mountan, who has a degree in animal physiology from the University of California, San Diego.
The two have treated birds from as far away as Long Beach (house finches), Lake Los Angeles (a raven) and Santa Barbara (an American kestrel, a small falcon). Private parties or state Department of Fish and Game wardens usually bring in such birds.
Peach speculated that the young sea gull may have become entangled in an angler's fishing line or been hit by a boat. After treating the bird with an antibiotic and a steroid, she called Dr. Kim Joyner, one of four veterinarians who donate services to the center.
"Usually, the only time we call a vet is if the bird needs to be put to sleep or has a broken bone," said Peach, who under a state license may perform minor surgery. "They always get the really horrid cases."
'Pride and Joy'
Spring is the season for finding baby birds that have been abandoned or fallen from nests, Ritner said. "Yesterday, we got five birds in. Probably this week, we'll get 10 or 15," she said.
Peach's "pride and joy," she says, was an assortment of baby barn owls into whose beaks she had squeezed drops of a mixture of chopped dog food, egg yolks, vitamins and minerals. The tiny birds had been brought in by game wardens.
Another favorite is a red-tailed hawk named Thumper. Pulling out slides, Peach recounted how the hawk came to the nature center in November sporting dark growths over its talons. Since it was unable to capture prey, it weighed only about a pound. Tests showed it had a viral pox. Sheltered and fed a diet of rats and a bird-of-prey chow, the hawk now weighs three pounds and has clean, strong talons.
Another success story is that of Little Shot, a red-tailed hawk found with broken ribs and bullet holes in its chest.
"He had been on the ground for days. His feet were torn up. He was so skinny he could hardly stand," Mountan recalled. After intensive treatment, the bird was released, strong and healthy, a few months ago in the mountains.
"You get the ones through that you can save, but there are some that are so far gone that, no matter what you try, it still doesn't work out," he said.
He recalled treating a young turkey vulture last year that had suffered several broken bones. It did not survive. "Usually, by the time something like a turkey vulture or a hawk is on the ground and somebody can actually catch it and call us to come get it, it's in such bad shape that we may not be able to save it," he said. "Things like songbirds and fledglings, they are pretty easy to catch, but a bird of prey will fight until it drops in its tracks."
Although some who call the center would like to keep birds of prey they find, most bring them in. "It isn't like keeping a parakeet, where you just throw some seeds at it and everything will be all right," Mountan said.
Bird Fed Hamburger