That Must Be Rita Nursing Swan on NYC’s Upper West Side
By Mike Di Paola – Jul 7, 2013 11:01 PM CT
The swan was found in March, grounded and very ill, in a Brooklyn parking lot.
“Lead poisoning,” said Rita McMahon, the wildlife rehabilitator who opened the Wild Bird Fund Center last year on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “She was off the charts with lead poisoning and just a skeleton when she came in, about half the weight she should be.”
Wild Bird Fund Center cofounder Rita McMahon with a swan. The bird had been rescued from a Brooklyn parking lot, a victim of lead poisoning. Photographer: Mike Di Paola/Bloomberg
A yellow-bellied sapsucker recuperating at the Wild Bird Fund Center. After treatments of vitamin K, mealworms, and maple syrup, the bird was released in Central Park. Photographer: Mike Di Paola/Bloomberg
Wildlife rehabilators gavage-feeding a pigeon at the Wild Bird Center. There are usually 60 or 70 injured or sick birds and other animals at the city’s only wildlife rehab center. Photographer: Mike Di Paola/Bloomberg
Wild Bird Fund Center cofounder Rita McMahon with a squirrel house. “We get squirrels, woodchucks, opossum, and the rare chipmunk or turtle,” she says. Photographer: Mike Di Paola/Bloomberg
The swan underwent chelation for the lead, followed by antibiotics for swollen joints. If she had gotten strong enough she would have been released in the wild. Because of the lead poisoning, however, the swan couldn’t stand up.
Being grounded badly damaged the bird’s keel, the large bone on its underside. McMahon and her staff treated her for almost two months, even attempting to surgically repair the damage, but “we could not win the battle against infection,” McMahon said. She had to euthanize the regal bird in May.
The Wild Bird Fund has the only wildlife rescue center in New York City. On a recent visit, there were about 70 birds under care in the converted storefront and basement, including a Brant goose with a fractured leg, an ailing ring-billed gull, and many, many mallard ducks.
As the weather gets warmer more injured birds will be taken in, largely because more people are outdoors with more opportunity to see them.
Actress Kate Winslet brought in a pair of mourning doves that had been under hawk attack outside her penthouse. Jazz singer Nellie McKay often stops in at the center with an injured bird. “A very sweet person,” McMahon said.
Most of the animals here are sick or hurt, but occasionally healthy specimens need saving. A teenage girl who volunteers at the center rescued two birds — a muscovy duck and a chicken — from a live poultry market in Harlem. She purchased their death-row reprieves for $30 apiece. Both birds are now living happily ever after in more bucolic settings.
McMahon took me downstairs, where two rehabbers were gavage-feeding a pigeon through a plastic tube. Some of the more mobile pigeons got a workout flying about the room.
McMahon plucked a tiny yellow-bellied sapsucker from its cage. “He had a collision with a car, I believe. Blood was pouring out of its ear. A little vitamin K, mealworms and maple syrup and he was ready to go.” (The bird was released the next day in nearby Central Park.)
Although the clinic treats mostly birds, it will handle almost any type of patient. “We get squirrels, woodchucks, opossum and the rare chipmunk or turtle,” McMahon said. Not long ago someone brought in an abandoned fish — a large red pacu that had been left on a street corner in a bucket. “Lucky for him we have a waterfowl tank. He was in heaven.”
The day of my visit, that tank was being used as a lap pool by the gull. The eight-by-three-foot structure has a ramp at one end used to facilitate waddling in and out.
A new bat room is almost ready to begin taking in chiropteran patients. Bats brought to the center this year may well have been climate-change victims, as unusually warm winter days wake the creatures from hibernation, then subsequent cold weather sends them into a sickly torpor and they require treatment or will die.
Still, it costs about $330,000 a year to run, most of which is in rent. There are a few big-money donors and occasional fundraising events, but the clinic relies on individual donations.
“The main thing that supports us are the people who walk through that door with an injured bird,” McMahon said. Good Samaritans who care enough to tote an injured pigeon will also be the kind of people who donate. “It could be $5 or $500,” she says.
“The greatest fun for me was when a high-school boyfriend I haven’t seen since 1969 donated. He saw some article about us and said, ‘That must be Rita.’”
Animal lovers can donate at the Wild Bird Fund website, where one can also consult informative articles such as “How to Rescue a Bird That Has Hit a Window” or “I Found a Baby Bird – – Now What?”
The center conducts guided walks in the park and frequent seminars at the American Museum of Natural History.
(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Mike Di Paola at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York email@example.com.