“OOOOOOOklahoma where the birds come sweepin’ down the plain…”

I know – it’s supposed to be the wind, not the birds. No matter.

I recently traveled to Oklahoma to help spread the word of wildlife, finding all kinds of adventure along the way. Since wildlife rehabilitators are in short supply wherever you go, we tend to forge internet friendships; then the fact that our closest compatriots may live thousands of miles away isn’t such a problem. I had been friends with rehabbers in Tulsa for years, although I’d never met any of them face-to-face. What a kick to finally meet them!

Tulsa area wildlife rehabilitators are awesome. There is no center, per se; just a network of rehabbers linked by telephone and Internet, all doing their best to help the injured and orphaned. The group is called WING-IT (Wildlife In Need Group In Tulsa) and is now part of Tulsa Audubon, a mutually beneficial partnership which furthers the goals of both.

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I stayed with artist/writer/illustrator/rehabber friend Kim Doner  (I call her “Whirlwind Kim,” and she set up most of my trip) and her funny, welcoming husband Dennis England; I’d still be living in their guest room, going on joyrides in their little red Mini Cooper, if I’d been able to think of a way to swing it. I landed in Tulsa on a Saturday, and later that night Kim told me the presentation I was scheduled to give the following afternoon might be sparsely attended, if not canceled, because of the approaching snowstorm.

I live in New York; I’ve also lived in Maine and Switzerland. The next morning I found Kim frowning doubtfully at the single inch of snow covering her backyard.

Snowstorm?” I said.

“You’re in Oklahoma,” she replied.

Since Kim had artwork to complete for the upcoming WING-IT fundraiser, she had arranged a lift for me. Before I could wonder if my ride would show up and what he and I might have in common, she told me it was John Kennington, President of Tulsa Audubon. John grew up near the Great Swamp Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey, is a gifted photographer, and has an easterner’s view of snowfall.

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“The diehards will be there,” he said reassuringly and squired me to the Oxley Nature Center, a beautiful educational building set on 804 acres of flood-plain forest, prairie, and wetlands one mile north of the Tulsa Zoo. He was right; a cheerful, enthusiastic group of parka-clad people eventually arrived to watch slides, listen to tales of bird rescue and rehab, and buy some of my books. One of them was my longtime-but-never-met rehabber buddy Leslie Jackson, who has accomplished the nearly-impossible task of successfully raising swifts, swallows, and Purple Martins (see one of her eventual graduates).

Monday morning I had a radio interview with Public Radio Tulsa’s Rich Fisher, who asked thoughtful, insightful questions in such an easy-going way I could have talked to him all afternoon. After brunch with Leslie, Kim and I went back to her house, where I weighed, assembled festive boxes for, and packed 643 pounds of home-made toffee for the upcoming fundraiser while Kim created more wildlife art. I packed 643 pounds of toffee – right, Kim? Or was that how much I ate? I can’t remember; I suspect there was wine involved.

Tuesday was crunch day. Matt Leach and his daughter Seinna picked me up and brought me to Holland Hall, Tulsa’s renowned day school, so I could speak about wildlife rehabilitation to the fourth and fifth graders (133 students), and then kindergarten through third graders (240 students). The numbers were daunting – the entire student body of my kids’ k-8 school was less than 240 – but the Holland Hall students were attentive, interested, unfailingly polite, and asked great questions. Each summer Seinna, her father, and her mother Christy raise nestling songbirds as subpermittees of WING-IT. When I left I was smiling: could there actually be hope for wildlife?

1375711_980555721959212_2988966565032602696_nTuesday was also WING-IT’s fundraiser. The doors of the Tulsa Garden Center opened at 1:00, where local artists, artisans, craftspeople, and vendors sold their wares and creations, a portion of which would benefit Tulsa’s wildlife rehabilitators. The talent and hard work on display was dazzling, as was the generosity of everyone who had come to help Tulsa’s wildlife. I spoke again, met two more long-distance rehabber friends, Gary and Kathy Siftar of the Oklahoma Raptor Center, and talked to Tulsa Audubon Board Member Margaret McQuaig, who made me laugh out loud with her tangled tale of trying to order my plane ticket to Tulsa over the internet.

By 10 PM everyone was packing up, and I was asking myself: why don’t all local Audubons pair with rehab centers or networks? A quick internet search revealed it’s rare; but it’s happened in Tulsa, with beautiful results.

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Kim had probably been tapping her foot for hours by the time I dragged myself out of bed the next morning, so in jig time she whisked me out of the house, into the car, then drove me off to the Gray Snow Eagle House in Perkins, OK. A rehabilitation facility founded and run by the Iowa Nation, it has an ICU, quarantine cages, spacious quarters for unreleasable birds, and a 150-foot curved flight cage that made me gasp, especially when a soon-to-be-released Golden Eagle sailed around the corner and landed on a perch above our heads. Tribal Elder and Aviary Manager Victor Roubidoux gave us the grand tour, regaling us with stories and even calling his staff out to pose for a photo with the delighted New Yorker.

What a trip! I missed seeing Eastern Band Cherokee artist/activist Shan Goshorn and couldn’t squeeze in a visit to the Tallgrass Prairie, which I believe means that someday I’ll have to return.

Banner, fourth, and fifth photos by Kim Doner; third photo by Leslie Jackson; dichroic fused glass lizard created by Kim Doner 

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Written by Suzie
Suzie Gilbert is a licensed wild bird rehabilitator whose shameful secret is that on one occasion (well … maybe more than one) she has received a little brown job, or a fledgling whatever, and has been completely unable to ID it. Luckily, she has birder friends who will rush to her aid, although she must then suffer their mockery. She runs Flyaway, Inc. out of her home, and has been caring for injured and orphaned wild birds for 20 years. Why go birding when you can just stroll through the house? Honestly, though, she is wildly envious of birders and their trips to exotic locales. She is the author of Flyaway, her bird-rehabbing memoir, and Hawk Hill, a children's book, and is the sole parent of two teenagers. Never a dull moment.