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A dove settles on Loreen Bustardi's head. Happens all the time, says Bustardi, not to worry. The bird figures Bustardi is its mate. Sometimes, it lays eggs in her hair. Bustardi usually doesn't know about the eggs until she changes position. The eggs aren't fertile, so it's not a loss if they spill on the floor when she suddenly turns her head or answers the telephone.
Bustardi finds a part of her chair where there are no bird droppings, sits down. She practically lives in her "Bird Room," a converted outside office in the garden of the Phoenix home that Bustardi shares with her mother. In the Bird Room are some 50 birds that have been treated by Bustardi and are recuperating from injuries caused by cats, windows, tree trimmers, guns. Some are caged, others are loose. The cacophony of caws and coos and chirps is practically deafening.
If you count the creatures flapping about in two large aviaries adjacent to the Bird Room, more than 125 birds are in Bustardi's care today.
There is a roadrunner dying of lead poisoning after swallowing someone's fishing sinker, and a crow suffering from a personality disorder brought on by the taunts of a previous owner. Near the cordless phone, which Bustardi answers so often there's a callus on her ear, squats a young mockingbird that must be fed every half-hour from a plastic tube containing an expensive liquid diet.
Behind a cage that corrals a pigeon recovering from a gunshot wound is a case stocked with syringes and antibiotics and splints. Clean towels are stacked near the filing cabinet, which is loaded with records that must be kept for the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the two agencies that issue permits allowing Bustardi to rehabilitate wild birds.
Bustardi is more than a bird "rehabber." She's a founder of For the Birds Rehabilitation Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit group of volunteers that is the Valley's largest bird rehab outfit. Last year, it treated 4,300 birds, three times as many as any other Valley rehab group. Treating the birds cost nearly $50,000, most of which came directly from the pockets of 40 volunteer rehabbers, who are mostly women who stay at home.
The investment doesn't always pay off. Last year, only half the birds survived.
All of this seems absolutely ridiculous to some birders. Birds die. To try to prevent their natural demise is silly, a refusal to acknowledge the reality of death.
For the Birds creates even more controversy than other avian-rescue groups because it rehabilitates what purist birders call "trash birds"--non-native species like starlings, pigeons and sparrows that compete with struggling native birds for food and a rapidly shrinking habitat. "These women are misguided," one Auduboner says. "Saving a non-native bird is like saving a sewer rat."
But many hard-core birders who hate trash birds nevertheless support Bustardi. They do this because they are hammered with telephone calls from frantic people who have come upon injured birds in the swimming pool, on the street, in a cat's mouth. It's a relief to refer such callers to For the Birds.
"We do not take a position on this," notes Dwayne Fink, president of the Maricopa Audubon Society. "These rehab people do this for humanitarian reasons. They do not see a difference between a pigeon and a rare hawk. They do this for love."
Last year, For the Birds responded to about 36,500 telephone calls.
The Game and Fish Department, which also offers no opinion on For the Birds' rehabilitation of non-native species, sends birds from as far away as Kingman and Lake Havasu City to Bustardi's group. The Phoenix Zoo and dozens of veterinarians and the Audubon Society all tell people who want to save injured birds they should call For the Birds and other rehabbers.
Some Auduboners even release rehabilitated birds for Bustardi. They take delivery from Bustardi's two aviaries, where birds are "wilded up," or kept as much as possible away from humans who might compromise the birds' survival instincts. The aviaries also contain "unreleasables"--birds that go to zoos or schools or stay in Bustardi's care because they are too damaged or, like the dove that lays eggs on Bustardi's head, too "imprinted" by humans to understand that they are birds.
Bustardi seems a bit imprinted herself--by the birds. A tiny woman, she flits, birdlike, about her Bird Room from sunrise until dark, suturing wounds, setting wings, rehydrating, bandaging, feeding, cleaning, training volunteers and, of course, answering calls from upset people who've found injured birds. Her self-taught knowledge of bird behavior, anatomy and medicine is encyclopedic.
She is 36 years old and has been a volunteer rehabber for 11 years, living on social security disability payments. (She suffers from a chronic bronchial condition that is not, she insists, caused by the birds.) She hasn't taken a vacation in four years. Too many birds need her, she says, and, yes, she feels stressed. And angry. "I work all the time on birds," she says. "I burned out a long time ago.
"As much as I hate the word 'co-dependent,' I tend to think of myself last."