Longform

WOMEN OF A FEATHER

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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.

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Terry Greene