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"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.

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Terry Greene