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'The Bird Stops Here,' Rescuer Says : His Hobby Hatched a Hospital for Raptors and Other Feathered Friends

February 05, 1989|SID MOODY | Associated Press

MILLINGTON N. J. — It is hard to say just when a man decides to turn his yard into a repair shop for wrecked birds.

For Leonard Soucy, it probably happened 20 years ago, when someone left a red-tail hawk with a broken wing in a cardboard box on his front stoop.

It was a challenge Soucy couldn't resist. He still can't.

That is why his home is an intensive-care facility full of cages--some the size of boxcars--where he endeavors to restore to the wild sick and injured owls, hawks, eagles, falcons, songbirds--and the occasional lame duck.

In earthy terms appropriate to a pirate's parrot, Soucy tells how the birds have taken over his home, his bank account, his job and even his wife, Diane.

"Birds have eaten me up. They've consumed my life."

These are the birds who came to dinner, as it were. For their convalescence, Soucy buys 10,000 crickets a week from a Tennessee breeder, millions of grubworms from California, grasshoppers galore from Georgia and 150,000 rodents a year.

"I have 10,000 mealworms here right now, and they're just snacks!" he said. "This cost $100,000 last year. If the food wasn't donated, it would have cost $250,000. Just one rat costs $2.50. A mouse is $1.09 . . . but I have to do it. No one else is going to."

Owls, Eagles, Hawks

Soucy may have as many as 500 recovering birds at a time in his 100,000 cubic feet of cages. There's a barred owl on the mend from an entanglement with a kite string, a golden eagle with a broken wing, and hawks shot by what Soucy calls, with unprintable modifiers, "slobs." Orphaned birds are raised from infancy. An oriole must winter over because it did not recover until after the last flight south.

Soucy still tries to sandwich his work as a self-employed tool-and-die pattern maker around a hobby that was once a Sopwith Camel and is now a B-52. This sometimes requires him to go to his paying job at 2 a.m. There are emergency calls at all hours.

"A bird gets hit, falls out of the nest. It doesn't belong to the police. Not the dog warden. Doesn't belong to anybody. So they say 'Call Soucy.' " A screech owl flies down a chimney and catches fire. Call Soucy. A goshawk crashes through a picture window and lands, dazed, on a coffee table. Call Soucy.

"There's nobody else to pass them to. The bird stops here."

Year for the Birds

Last year, Soucy's busiest ever, 1,485 wild birds ended up on his doorstep. They included 240 raptors, the carnivores that are his specialty. About half the birds recovered and were returned to the wild. Repairs are not cheap.

"To do an intramedullary fusion of a bird's wing bone with a pin can cost $400 for the operation. Post-op care can approach $1,000."

Fortunately, Soucy has two understanding veterinarians nearby--Dr. Andrew Major in Plainfield and Dr. Ken Jacobsen in Basking Ridge--who donate their surgical services.

"We can keep a bird alive 90% of the time, but can we restore it 100%? The bird won't make it in the wild if it's only 75%, so we keep about 100 for educational lectures at schools and such, and euthanize the rest."

Soucy's preoccupation with raptors is evolutionary. He was born in Cedar Grove, N. J., 57 years ago when it had some open land and nothing like the 40,000 people who pack it today. He learned about nature from an uncle who was a hunter--a species with whom Soucy has no quarrel, despite the many gunshot-maimed birds he's treated.

"No competent, moral hunter will shoot hawks and owls. The (bleeping) slobs do."

His interest was piqued years ago when he read an article on hawks in Audubon magazine. He and Diane went out to Hawk Mountain in eastern Pennsylvania to see the migration of autumn, when thousands of raptors may fly by in a day, riding the thermals south.

"I couldn't imagine 1,000 hawks in the whole world, much less overhead."

Gunners used to shoot hundreds of birds in a day at Hawk Mountain, just for target practice. This was ended in 1934, when Rosalie Edge, a wealthy New Yorker, bought the mountain and made it a refuge for the birds and bird watchers. Cape May, an even bigger migration junction at the southern tip of New Jersey, was also a hunting ground, but this stopped when the federal government outlawed shooting of raptors in 1972.

By then, Soucy and Diane had been in the bird-repair business 4 years. They had rehabilitated that first red-tail and released it. One thing led to another. They bought a house in the country next to the Great Swamp Wildlife Refuge here. It all started as a back yard hobby, a way of righting some of the wrongs committed by the most deadly predator of them all, man.

"The stupidity of man not doing better gradually enraged me. All things on Earth are valuable to us because they help stabilize the darn thing. I was raised to think man owned the world. We've got to get out of this idea, because we're a part of it. It's all our world. We've got to take care of Momma Earth."

He had no illusions about it being easy.

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