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WOMEN OF A FEATHER

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."

At her feet, a crippled starling pecks at a dish of squirming mealworms. (Rehabbers like to feed mealworms to insect-eating birds. Last year alone, For the Birds purchased 7.8 million mealworms, at a cost of about $11,000.)

Inspecting a mockingbird suffering from what she thinks is a congenital defect, Bustardi adds, "One reason I'm afraid to take a vacation is that I might never want to return. When I've gotten away before, I had this incredible feeling that I didn't want to return. It comes down to the fact that if I don't do this, birds will die. I would have to live with that."

Bustardi knows what she does is offbeat and not particularly valued by society--she earns nothing and she saves pigeons. She's asked herself if caring for birds is somehow linked up to childlessness, but she's concluded it's not. It's just something she's good at.

"I don't think a day goes by when I don't ask myself why I do this," she says.

Loreen Bustardi got into birds when she was 25. And, actually, it's the first thing she's ever stuck with. She'd just moved back home with her mother. She'd gone from job to job, couldn't find anything that satisfied her. Never finished college. Never got married. Never had money.

Shortly after she'd moved in with mom, a neighbor brought by a couple of injured doves. She called a rehabber for advice, gradually picked up the skills, got suckered into taking a few birds into her home. "If someone told me at that time that I would be rehabbing 500 birds a year for ten years, I would have said, 'No,'" she says.

She helped found For the Birds because no other rehab group would take in non-native species. "They didn't ask to be brought here," she says. "Tree trimmers and cats and kids with slingshots aren't native, either."

At first, Bustardi says, she cried over every failure, sometimes falling asleep holding in her hand a bird that had died. But, gradually, she got used to it. As deserts surrounding Phoenix succumbed to the bulldozer blades of developers, more birds were brought to her. And more birds.

Too many birds.
Hundreds of needy birds are delivered every year to almost every For the Birds rehabber, which is why most volunteers seem very, very stressed. And all but the most bird-loving husbands feel the stress, too.

The tensest time is "baby-bird season." From March to September, rehabbers are confined to their homes, where they must feed many fledglings every 30 minutes, from dawn to dusk.

That type of stress gets old.
(It can trigger unusual responses, too. "If you use my name, I'll have a contract out on you," one bird rehabber says, declining to be interviewed because her husband of 25 years is fed up with her bird rescues.)

And stressed rehabbers unload on Bustardi. They threaten to quit. They pout and don't answer the telephone.

"One thing that rings true with most volunteers is that in their lives, they haven't been the best with people," Bustardi says. "Maybe it's easier to be empathetic with birds who have no one to care for them than with people. People have people. Birds have no one."

Pigeons, especially, have no one. Except for a handful of bird rehabbers like Penny Bobbitt. (No relation to John Wayne Bobbitt, and, yes, she hears the jokes all the time.)

Her Glendale home, which she shares with three daughters and her husband, Ray, is a safehouse for pigeons. She got into pigeons while training as a rehabber for For the Birds (pigeons are so hardy, even the clumsiest beginning rehabber would have a hard time killing one) and fell in love with them.

There are several baby pigeons in immaculate cages in her living room. When she walks by, they flap their wings frantically, a pigeon's way of asking for food. She talks to them in baby talk.

Bobbitt has 65 birds residing in and out of her house. Most are pigeons. They are all caged. There are blind and crippled pigeons that can never be set free, and pigeons awaiting release to a secret spot Bobbitt has found where they will not be exterminated by those who see these birds as flying rats. Which is practically everybody.  

Bobbitt is a very clean woman, by her own admission, and almost to a fault. Each day, she scrubs out the pigeon cages. She tackles the larger cages with a trowel.

When Ray, a barber, gets home in the evening, he helps out. Clean a pigeon cage? That's not a problem for Ray. Unlike many For the Birds spouses, Ray doesn't feel neglected because of his wife's concern for "these innocent little birds."

Penny Bobbitt gets very exercised about pigeons. When three pigeons she named Ellabella, Butterball and Pox died in her care, she wrote them a song: "If you could stay, I'd love you any old way. But you had to go, you struggled and tried I know."

Even now, Bobbitt's eyes well up with tears when she thinks of the three birds.

Last year, when Maricopa County announced plans to poison pigeons soiling the exterior of the Madison Street Jail, Bobbitt protested tearfully to a radio talk show. (Animal-rights groups objected to the proposed extermination, too, and county officials spelled the pigeons.)

The way Bobbitt sees it, people accuse pigeons of spreading disease to humans only so there will be an excuse for killing the birds. But pigeons don't spread disease, she insists; their only crime against humanity is leaving large droppings around. After all, she says, pigeons don't have bathrooms. Humans would make messes, too, if they didn't have bathrooms.

State and county officials agree that pigeons pose little health risk to humans.

Craig Levy, an epidemiologist for the Arizona Department of Health Services, specializes in diseases transmitted from animals to humans. He's been doing it for 11 years, and during this time, he says, not a single case of ornithosis, a flulike virus commonly transmitted from birds to humans, has been linked to pigeons.

What's more, fungal diseases attributed to pigeons are found in many bird droppings, he says, and in the soil itself.

He says there's little danger that loose pigeons will spread disease to humans. Steve Englander, director of public health for Maricopa County, agrees.

"Pigeons are messy critters, but they are part of the urban ecosystem," he says. "I imagine they have a [positive] role even if it's just picking up popcorn off the sidewalk. . . . Are they responsible for human disease in the community? I don't think anyone has the data to support that."

Because she's a pigeon rehabber, Penny Bobbitt has experienced a little antipigeon discrimination herself. A neighbor called the city because Bobbitt's aviary violated a municipal code--it was three inches too close to a fence separating the two properties. Bobbitt moved the aviary to another side of her yard.

She spends four hours a day with her beloved birds, and, sometimes, her daughters resent it. They wish she'd spend a little more time with them.

But during baby-bird season, it's hard.
Like today. Bobbitt gently grasps a baby pigeon around the middle, puts it on a table in her living room and tries to coach it to walk, much like a parent holds a child learning to toddle.

"All I've ever done is be a mother," says Bobbitt, now 31. She had her first child at 15, and two more after that. Her youngest is now 8. As her children grew up, Bobbitt began to have time on her hands. She went to the tanning parlor. She took up aerobics. She started learning real estate appraisal.

Since she began taking care of birds last year, though, Bobbitt has had little time for those pursuits. This is the way she sees it: "God sends you reasons to be here. Somewhere along the line, taking care of birds fell in my lap."

Life hasn't been particularly easy for Debbie Cornwell. She and her husband, Craig, have been unable to have the children she always wanted. Then, five years ago, she endured a painful back operation.

She stayed in bed for two years.
"I needed something to do," the 43-year-old former special education teacher remembers. "I needed a reason to get out of bed. My white cat brought me a reason. He brought me a baby bird."

She felt an overwhelming urge to save it. She called For the Birds and soon became a volunteer.

"I can't deny my maternal instinct might have something to do with this," she says.

Today, Cornwell cares for 50 baby birds--most of which have to be fed with a syringe every 30 minutes--and 100 adult birds in her north Scottsdale patio home. At first, she nursed them in a spare guest room. There were birds on the bed, birds on the dresser, birds everywhere.

Her husband transformed the room into a hospital-like bird nursery, she says, after she wept and begged him not to make her go back to work. "Craig lets me do this because he loves me, not because he likes it," she says.  

Debbie acknowledges that her relationship with Craig becomes somewhat strained during baby-bird season. It's hard for her to get to household chores, what with the frequent bird feedings. "One day, he came home and demanded that I fix supper," she says. "I did, and I've been fixing it ever since."

Craig Cornwell does not sound enthusiastic when asked for an interview. "I'll call you back," he says. But he does not call back.

The neighbors in this upscale section of Scottsdale have been tolerant. Still, one neighbor is rattled by the parade of strangers delivering injured birds to her house, instead of to Cornwell's. And people do stream in and out of Cornwell's house.

Last year, 400 birds were brought to Debbie Cornwell. Only 12 died.
There is seldom time for a break.
"Baby verdin" is one of the reasons. Cornwell sits on her couch, trying to force a cut-up worm into the mouth of the pink, ugly, featherless hatchling. The bird, all beak, swallows a worm section. Satisfied, Cornwell puts the creature back in its "nest," a tissue-lined margarine tub resting on a heating pad. She blankets the bird with another tissue, then sets about feeding a mockingbird someone had found in the parking lot of a Smitty's store. The bird, though completely wild, instinctively bonds to her. It hops on her chest, then falls asleep next to her on the couch.

"This is why I like this," Cornwell says. "Birds give you something back. If you slow down enough, you can actually feel their affection."

Soon a middle-aged woman named Diane and her husband, Russ (they won't give their last name), deliver a tiny sparrow to Cornwell. Diane is nervous. She discovered the sparrow on her patio, she says. It must have fallen out of its nest. She and Russ fed it dog food on a toothpick, got up all night to take care of it, and it looks like an embryo, doesn't it, kind of ugly but kind of cute. And so helpless, more helpless than Diane's two kids were when they were babies.

"I'm a nurturer, I really am. There's something about birds--I could see myself doing this," Diane says, watching a cactus wren hop up on Cornwell's shoulder.

"I could get hooked on this," Diane says again. She looks over at Russ. "And then he'd leave me."

In the next half-hour, Cornwell checks out a woodpecker brought in by the housekeeper for a doctor's family. "They didn't even know there was a bird in the house," the housekeeper says. "It's a 10,000-square-foot house."

The woodpecker has a damaged beak, and screams when Cornwell examines it. The housekeeper winces. Later, she offers to return with a donation of bird seed; she also offers to clean Cornwell's house free.

Sometimes, Cornwell says, her husband asks her why she does what she does. Why not let nature take its course, let only the fittest survive? Her answer is always the same, always defensive:

Human destruction of bird habitat is not natural.
Birds have nowhere to go.
"I do this because the birds need me," she says.

As general manager of a company that rents hospital beds, Nancy Haines has to get the payroll out, no matter what. She's got calls to make and orders to take care of and filing and--well--you name it. She does it all, between half-hour feedings of several orphaned birds--a finch, a sparrow, a mockingbird, a starling and an inca dove. They peep and chirp in the pet carriers and paper cartons she uses to transport them to work.

Except for a few telltale white stains on Haines' professional navy blue dress--and in her hair--you'd never know she'd been rehabbing birds all day at work.

"Oh, do I have it in my hair again?" she asks, brushing her brown coif with the hand that is not holding a baby bird.

"You get used to bird poop. It's not like I freak out when it happens. I never go to bed with bird poop in my hair, and I sure as hell won't go out with bird poop in my hair," she says.

After work, she stops at a veterinarian's office to pick up more injured birds (one day, the vet gave her 18 pigeons to take home), then heads home to her two children and husband Ed, a Phoenix police officer.

Justin Haines, now 10, once wrote in a school paper that his mother was "inactive" and watched a lot of television. Not anymore. Her day begins at dawn and she works until midnight. "I didn't even like birds, to tell you the truth," she says. Then a year and a half ago, she found a baby bird, called For the Birds, and got hooked. The reward, she says, is releasing the birds back into the wild.  

Ed builds cages, and more cages, and more cages. He helps with feedings. When Nancy is out of town on business, he takes care of the birds.

"Nancy started this as a hobby," says Ed. "But the demand is so great that her little hobby has grown and grown. Now she's dragging the birds to work. . . . It affects things around here. She has a lot less time to relax and be with the family.

"But I don't want you to think that I'm complaining, because I'm not."

On the back seat of Bob Bradley's Toyota Camry is a McGillivvay's warbler fluttering away in a paper sack with holes punched in it. A rock wren sits in a well-aerated shoebox.

It is 7 o'clock in the morning, and Bradley drives slowly through the dusty back roads of Cave Creek, trying to find suitable riparian habitat for the rehabilitated warbler, which he picked up at Loreen Bustardi's house just an hour before. Bradley, a birder for 25 years, is a member of the Maricopa Audubon Society. He has been "releasing" rehabbed For the Birds patients for more than a decade.

He hikes to a mesquite tree on the bank of Cave Creek, gently opens the paper bag. The warbler disappears in the branches.

A coyote hangs out in some bushes in the distance, staring at Bradley. "Don't think about eating this little bird," Bradley says to the coyote.

"These birds that have been rehabbed are kind of at a disadvantage," he says. "They don't know the good places to hide. So all we can do is let them go and hope for the best."

Bradley, a retired engineer, understands what birders mean when they say people like Loreen Bustardi are misguided in their efforts to save non-native species. He also understands complaints that removing wounded birds from nature deprives predator birds, like hawks and owls, of food.

But he figures rehabbers do not have enough of an effect upon the general bird population to make a difference, one way or the other. There are millions of birds in the Sonoran Desert. Rehabbers save only a few thousand. What's more, the bird rescuers serve an educational purpose, sending desert birds to zoos all over the country. And, sometimes, the women save rare species that birders delight in, like the migrating scarlet tanager that flew against a window at St. Joseph's Hospital last year.

"I don't have a problem with saving non-native species," Bradley says. "Some people feel they must save everything. If they feel that way, then fine."

Satisfied that the coyote will not gobble the warbler, Bradley scouts the desert for sandy boulders, the suitable habitat for the rock wren waiting quietly in the shoebox in the back seat of his car.

Loreen Bustardi doesn't get out on releases as much as she'd like to, what with all the needy birds people bring to her home. A few days after Bob Bradley releases the rock wren and the warbler, someone brings in a pigeon that has been hit by a car. The pigeon is in terrible shape; its innards are torn up, and it is scalped.

But Bustardi decides she'll treat it rather than euthanize.
She spends an hour and a half stitching the pigeon's head and a ripped chest, trimming bits of flesh. She learned her skills from a vet, knows exactly what to do.

The bird will live. She will release it when it recovers--realizing that the bird, a pest in the eyes of most, will probably be shot or poisoned in short order.

But this is what she's chosen to do for the past 11 years--cage herself to treat injured birds that may not survive, feed featherless babies every half-hour all day long for months at a time, answer thousands of telephone calls from frantic people who've come upon sick birds, soothe stressed-out rehabbers. She does this for no money and she's burned out. And, what's odd about all this is that it doesn't feed her emotional needs. She gets lonely sometimes, even though she herself has chosen this monastic calling and could walk out any time.

But she won't abandon the birds.
"What keeps me going," she says, "is that I have faith in God. I feel that this kind of love for birds has some sort of ultimate meaning.  


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