The kids can’t get enough of this stuff.

“Who’s ever seen an x-ray?” I ask. “Anyone ever broken a bone?”

Hands shoot up.

“Here is an x-ray of a bird,” I say. “It’s a really big bird. Any guesses?”

A ghostly image appears on the screen. The kids’ eyes widen. Hands raise and wave.

Once we’ve established that it’s a Golden Eagle, I ask the ten-million dollar question. “You see all those little round circles? What do you think they are?”

Only once has a child guessed correctly.

“It’s buckshot,” I say.

“Somebody shot an eagle?” asks a high-pitched voice, in disbelief.

Bunny-huggers, our critics snipe. Why do you wildlife rehabilitators waste your time saving a cardinal with a broken wing, when you could be giving your money to save habitat?

All rehabbers have a rescue jones, but everyone has their own reasons for spending ungodly amounts of time, effort, money, and emotion on an endeavor which, to an outsider, may look insane. Nestling bluebirds have to be fed every 20 minutes from sunup to sundown. Emaciated egrets need to be fed through the night. Once the nestlings grow up, once the starving birds are restored to health, they are released – and their futures are not guaranteed.

So what’s the point?

Part of it is the ripple effect. The outdoor cat owner who brings a rehabber a shredded songbird may learn not to let their cat out. The homeowner who cuts down a dead tree and seeks a rehabber’s help with the fallen nest of owlets may bring it up at his next Town Board meeting. The fisherman who rescues a merganser tangled in line, pierced with fishhooks, and brings it to a rehabber may write something in his next angler’s newsletter. But if there no one to care for these birds all the potential lessons will be lost, and it will become clear that a single life doesn’t matter.

A single life does matter. How many EMTs have to defend what they do? They don’t, because humans are so vastly superior to animals – even child molesters, serial killers, and terrorists. We put people in prison for life for the most heinous of crimes, then, if they have a heart attack, solicitously resuscitate them and put them back again.

Wildlife rehabilitators should not have to defend what they do. A bird who was hit by a car is brought to me; she is in pain and will die unless I help. I provide relief and aid and care until, with luck, she recovers. During this time I am able to spend time with one of  the most magical creatures on the planet, even though I cannot cross the divide and intrude upon her wild nature. Sometimes she is a member of an endangered or threatened species. When the time comes to release her, I hold her, open my hands and watch her disappear into the sky. My heart sings.

On the other hand, I could simply write a check.

Don’t get me wrong. I love people who write checks. People who write checks have allowed me to do what I do. But they write me checks because, even though they think I am nuts, they love what I do, too.

Written by Suzie
Suzie Gilbert is a wild bird rehabilitator whose shameful secret is that on more than one occasion she has received a female LBJ, 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 is the author of her bird-rehabbing memoir Flyaway (HarperCollins) and the children's book Hawk Hill (Chronicle Books). Her recent suspenseful, bird-filled adventure novel Unflappable (Perch Press) was selected by Audubon Magazine as one of their Three Best Summer Reads of 2020. She lives in New York's beautiful Hudson Valley and is always up for a good hike.