Longform

WOMEN OF A FEATHER

Page 5 of 6

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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Terry Greene