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Up, Up and Away : Birds: Rehabilitator Diane Waters heals the sick, teaches them the behaviors necessary for survival in the wild, and releases them. Her overall success rate last year was 60%.


SILVERLAKE — The obviously distraught man carried a small box into Diane Waters' home in Silverlake and placed it in front of her.

As Waters examined its contents, a baby mourning dove--fully feathered, except for a reddened, bare spot on its tiny back--Gilberto Mello muttered apologies for the bird's wound, which was the result of his cat's foraging in the back yard of his Hollywood Hills home.

"I got your name and number from a friend, and I'm so glad I've found you," he told the self-styled Bird Lady of Silverlake, whose house is filled with cages containing sparrows, doves, jays, crows, peacocks, phoebes, a black-necked stilt, woodpeckers, mockingbirds, robins and an occasional pelican or heron. Her back yard is crammed with custom flight cages for owls, hawks and songbirds almost ready to be released.

"I have three cats and sometimes one of them catches a bird," Mello explained. "I never knew what to do; if it was better to let the cats finish them off."

Waters shuddered at the comment.

"Bring them to me," she said. "Cat-caught birds are tough to save. But I can try."

This case was a success story. Waters predicted the dove will be released within a month.

Frantic cat owners aren't the only people who resort to Waters' skilled nursing and nurturing as a licensed wild bird rehabilitator. Veterinarians, animal shelters, members of the Audubon Society, and state Fish and Game officials are among the many who refer sick, injured, damaged or orphaned wild birds to her.

This year, her eighth in rehab, Waters expects to treat more than 450 birds. As part of her licensing, she is required by the government to keep detailed records.

Last year, she handled 260. Those figures do not include the so-called "junk birds"--pigeons, starlings and house sparrows--a term Waters doesn't like. It refers to their non-native status and abundant numbers.

Additionally, Waters is licensed as a raptor rehabilitator, and her avian hospital usually contains great horned owls, red-tailed hawks and kestrels.

Her overall success rate last year was 60%. Success is measured by healing the birds, teaching them the specific behaviors necessary for survival in the wild, and releasing them.

A large number of birds are too sick or injured to be saved. If they do not respond to medicines, hand-feeding, and the warmth and security of her carefully planned rehabilitation method, Waters turns to the last resort.

"I have a hard time watching any of them die," the bird lady said. "But some of the birds are so infected or injured that I have to give a hand to end their suffering. Euthanasia is the most compassionate thing I can do for them."

Waters said she puts the creatures out of their misery with the advice and aid of veterinarians.

Waters' nursing techniques include administering antibiotics and other medications and precise feeding according to the specific dietary needs of the different species. She is assisted by three trained volunteers who contribute 16 to 18 hours weekly.

Each September, when the most intense period of her work has passed, Waters, 43, and her medical doctor-husband, Charles, go to New Mexico for a brief vacation. A trained housesitter stays with the wild birds and the Waters' personal pets--three cats, three dogs, three parrots and a chicken.

While the notion of watching a newly released red-tailed hawk soar majestically into the heavens seems romantic, wild bird rehabilitation is a realm that few people want to enter. Waters cannot enjoy home-cooked meals during baby season (March through September) because her kitchen is stocked with food that the young birds need.

"My freezer contains mouseicles, ratsicles and frozen anchovies," she said with a laugh. "You wouldn't want to see what's in the fridge."

The bird menu includes mealworms (she buys 67,000 live ones weekly), crickets, fruit flies and other insects.

The babies require hand-feeding from dawn to dusk, many of them every 20 minutes when they are days or weeks old. Waters uses a syringe with a feeding tube attached.

The formula varies according to the bird's age and species, but usually contains ground mealworms, dog food, pureed meat and the vitamins and minerals necessary to establish the required calcium-phosphorus ratio, which is critical for skeletal strength.

"The hours are very long, especially during baby season. The cleaning is endless, the record-keeping tedious and the stress very high," Waters said. "It's also very expensive, since rehabbers pay for most of the food, medicine and vet bills themselves."

Many rehabbers work through existing nonprofit organizations. Waters is in the midst of forming her own, "Wild Bird Rescue of L.A." She said she is dependent for now on donations of cash, medicines and other supplies, and the support of her husband.

"He's very supportive of this work, both financially and as a medical resource," she said.

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