This story is the tenth in a series by Richard Spinney about his experiences transporting injured and sick wild birds for Avian Haven bird rehabilitation center in Freedom, Maine.
It was near Thanksgiving 2020 when Aislinn Sarnacki, the editor of BDN’s Act Out section, sent me an email asking if I would be interested in “writing an article” about my experiences as a volunteer transporter for Avian Haven.
As I wrote my first article, I realized I was not going to be able to summarize my experiences — “my adventures” — in one article. The one you are reading now is my tenth and final article. If you have not read the previous articles, I would encourage you to do so.
In earlier articles, I discussed how I got involved with Avian Haven in the first place; provided information about what to do when you find a bird that is in distress; mentioned some of the laws protecting birds, including Bald Eagles; and talked about some of the birds I have transported, including a saw-whet owl that rode on the back of my back seat in my car.
I have also had a red-tailed hawk quietly climb out of the box in which it was being transported. The noisiest escapee was a woodpecker that rap-tap-tapped its way out of a cardboard box, then enjoyed the view beyond the car’s side window.
I have met many fine, caring people since beginning as a volunteer for Avian Haven in September of 2016. So many people that I could not begin to guess how many. I have met farmers, nurses, doctors, storekeepers, teachers, businessmen in their suits, lumbermen, secretaries and housewives. The list goes on.
I have met a disabled former Navy pilot who was blown off the flight deck of an aircraft carrier by the blast of a jet plane. I have met people who live from paycheck to paycheck, who have taken the time to recover a bird in distress and have sent me off with the bird and a donation to Avian Haven — money they could have used for their next meal. (Avian Haven is a nonprofit facility and operates on donations and grants.)
I have met fellow volunteer transporters who will drive 100 miles to deliver a bird to me so I may continue the trip to Freedom. And there are the Maine game wardens and biologists from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife who work to preserve wildlife in Maine. And of course, there are Diane Winn and Marc Payne, co-founders of Avian Haven, and the dedicated barebones staff and volunteers on site in Freedom.
So now, I come to the end, my last article, when birds are released from Avian Haven and return to the wild, where they belong.
I can only speak for myself, but I suspect the following is true for the rehabilitators and other transporters. It is with mixed emotions that the birds are released. Some birds are at the rehabilitation facility for only a few days, while others may be there for months. Despite minimizing contact with the birds so they don’t become accustomed to people, the caretakers do have a certain amount of attachment to the birds. Releasing a rehabilitated bird is similar to a child leaving home for the first time. You might be happy that the child is able to be on their own, while sad to see them leave.
As a transporter, I sometimes stay updated on the condition of a bird that I have transported, like the bald eagle that collided with the trailer truck, or the owl that was struck by a car. But I try to minimize asking about birds, since the phones at Avian Haven are busy enough.
Some bird releases are shown on Avian Haven’s Facebook page, with photographs and some discussion about the bird’s history. Although many people wish to witness releases (and sometimes ask Avian Haven to do so), the actual releases are private affairs. In each case, the release site is carefully considered depending upon the type of bird. The weather forecast is also a factor.
From the bird’s point of view, it has been in captivity for however long. It has endured a ride in some sort of conveyance, has been poked and probed and put in solitary confinement. Eventually, it was transferred into a larger container, maybe with similar birds, and allowed to fly about, but it was still not free to leave.
Finally, once the bird has recovered enough to be released, it is put in another container, which is placed into a conveyance and taken to some spot. The container is removed from the conveyance and suddenly there’s an opening! “Could this be? Is this real? Is it possible I am free to go?” the bird thinks.
The bird takes the opportunity to flee from its confinement. It does not see this release event as “going home,” but rather it sees it as escaping from an ordeal. A lot of people gathered about is not what the bird wishes to see at that moment. It is seeking a safe place to land, gather its wits and perhaps survey the surroundings before venturing any farther.
When we are asked to release a bird, my wife and I work as a team to release the bird by ourselves. She opens the box and I take photos, if I am lucky and the bird cooperates. The photos then are shared with Avian Haven staff who may post them on Facebook or later in the annual report.
If the bird is to be released back on its home turf and the release site is on private property, then we make arrangements with the property owner. These occasions are infrequent.
As a volunteer transporter, I enjoy meeting new people, seeing parts of the state of Maine that I haven’t seen before and being a part of birds’ survival. I enjoy seeing the photos of birds being released on Avian Haven’s Facebook page, some of which I have transported. And I have to admit, my wife and I are thrilled when we are asked to release the occasional bird back into the wild.
Richard Spinney lives in Brewer with his wife of 48 years. He retired from the U.S. Coast Guard after 20 years’ service, sold real estate for 23 years while also teaching adult ed algebra for 10 years, was a contributing editor of The Maine Genealogist for a few years and the treasurer of The Maine Genealogical Society for 14 years. He has volunteered for Avian Haven since the summer of 2016.