North Texas Wild is a monthly column by Amy Martin showcasing the 'wild' side of DFW.
Feb. 21, 2015
Photos by Chris Jackson
Wild bird rehabilitation sounds so romantic: nurturing the winged wounded back to health, then releasing them to fly away through blue skies to freedom. Rogers Wildlife Rehabilitation Center made headlines last fall when it took in a young bald eagle with severe injuries. DFW wildlife blogger Chris Jackson’s photos show the rehab process and a beatific Kathy Rogers with the nation’s symbol cradled in her arms.
Kathy Rogers and her team examine a bald eagle's wounded leg.
Here’s the reality. It’s a cold, overcast winter’s day in Hutchins, an industrial town southeast of Dallas where Rogers Wildlife is located. Morning chores are done and founder Kathy Rogers is warming up in the break room with a volunteer. We head to the small, cramped intake office where wounded birds are dropped off, called the George and Fay Young Clinic Annex.
More infirmary than office, cages are stacked to the ceiling in tiers. Many are filled with birds in various stages of healing, like a barred owl that is gradually regaining the ability to hold up its head. Others are resident birds temporarily brought in from the cold, suffering only from cabin fever and making noise about it. Or acting out, like the turkey vulture Ozzie who is reaching out of his cage and nibbling the legs of people standing nearby.
This one-eyed yellow-crowned night heron is a permanent resident of RWRC.
When birds are deemed non-releasable due to the extent of their injuries, or from being too imprinted on humans to live safely on their own, Rogers Wildlife serves as a sanctuary. The affable ones, such as Ozzie, serve as show-and-tell for schoolroom educational visits.
“Someone tried to raise him as a pet and he has no skills for survival in the wild.” explains Rogers.
Indeed, he’s rather goofy, but that’s part of his charm. The remaining birds live lives of leisure.
Eastern screech owls bunk together.
Some of the resident birds are flying around the room. Occasionally after rehab, which takes from three weeks to nine months, healthy birds refuse to leave. A pair of starlings prefers to stay inside, exploring every inch of the office, over and again, randomly pecking at paper.
“A relative of mynah birds, they’ll imitate sounds you give them,” says Rogers.
It’s a rather noisy room.
Nord, an 18-inch tall white cattle egret, strides across the desktop, crawls over Rogers’ chair and attempts to scale her shoulders and hair, before being gently shooed away. Repeat that about 10 times in a 15-minute conversation. Meanwhile, the phone keeps demanding her attention. And to think February is the quiet month here.
FLOOD OF BIRDS
A juvenile cattle egret is fed a freshly thawed mouse.
“In May and June,” says Rogers, “there will be a line of people going down the ramp and out, all holding boxes with birds, many of them babies. All the babies have to be fed every 15 minutes. When you have 200 of them in here, by the time you do one round it’s time to do it again.”
A typical year brings around 5,000 birds through the doors. In the last decade alone, they treated more than 40,000 birds.
Brought in by individuals, animal control departments and game wardens, birds end up at Rogers for a variety of reasons.
“They hit a car, hit a window, they’re poisoned, they’re shot, almost all human induced issues,” says Rogers.
People release pet chickens, rabbits and topical birds when they become inconvenient and good citizens will find them distraught and struggling to survive. Or people will try to raise young wild birds, only to discover once grown they are indeed quite wild. These birds often suffer badly from malnutrition. Birds come in wounded by cats or even other birds, or are babies fallen from nests.
Then there are the avian inundations. Almost three-dozen survivors of a large pelican flock ended up here after being caught in a major hailstorm at Possum Kingdom Lake. When Oncor removes eggs and nestlings from bird nests that short-out transformers, they call Rogers.
“I come get them,” she said.
More than 60 great blue herons were returned to the wild through the Oncor partnership.
A great blue heron nests on the grounds of the Rogers Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.
“We’ve never turned away a bird over in 30 years,” says Rogers. “If people care and take the time to come down here with a bird, it’s incumbent on us to fix it up and get it back in the air.”
Since the center is located in the Trinity River wetlands just south of the Great Trinity Forest, many birds are released on site.
“We can release everything on the property,” says Rogers. “Except big hawks and owls, since they stay around and eat everything.”
Not every rehab is successful.
“Birds don’t show that they’re sick until they’re at death’s door. Time is very limited, you have a matter of hours,” cautions Rogers. “It’s very upsetting when you lose one. I have to remind my staff that that’s why they’re here. If they were fine, they’d still be in the wild. But we do release 82 percent of what we get in.”
HOME, SWEET, NOISY CROWDED, HOME
The great blue herons from Oncor that are unable to be released due to injury live at the center. But so do another dozen or so who return to the center each year to mate and rear young. It is, after all, home base. Several stride about or perch on the tops of the many sheds and enclosures as Rogers and I amble the compound on this cold windy day. Their raucous cries compete with the backdrop of beeps from waste trucks at the Republic Services lot next door.
A peacock and an American white pelican are part of the menagerie of birds at RWRC.
A peacock displays its feathers, a large pelican watches us intently, and a dozen ducks and geese waddle by. Egrets are everywhere.
“I lock all the ducks and geese in at night so the bobcats don’t get them. They know what goes on around here at night, so they’re more than glad to come in at 5.”
The remaining birds sleep on the roofs.
It’s like a big city with a lot of ethnicities living together, I comment. How do they get along?
“Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t,” Rogers laughs. “And some days they do and some days they don’t. That’s part of our challenge. It’s never an easy thing.”
It entails lots of shuffling of birds between cages. Some birds just get on everyone’s nerves after a while.
When the weather is good, bigger birds stay in flight cages, chain-link outdoor enclosures the size of a large bedroom. Rogers boasts about 20 of these. Some enclosures have wading birds like herons and egrets. Miss Chitter, the barred owl, is enjoying having a flight cage to herself today and offers a steady concert of calls. We stop at a cage holding some red tailed hawks and a caracara, which is typically found in Mexico. Every bird here has a story, usually ones that are never told.
FOOD IN, FOOD OUT
Domestic geese chow down.
All those birds need nourishment and most of it, besides the 50 pounds of wild birdseed a day, is disgusting. Rogers reels off the stats:
“To feed the fish eaters, we go through two two-liter buckets of fish a day. If we get a bunch of pelicans, that goes up since they can eat three pounds day. About 150,000 mealworms, 120 pounds of beef heart, and a couple thousand rats and mice in a week.”
And where there is bird food there is bird poop.
“A lot of that,” laughs Rogers.
The smell of bird poop is fairly pervasive at the facility. Geese, pelicans and herons are especially prodigious poopers. Cleaning cages is continual.
Only the chicken coops don’t need upkeep since gardeners scoop out the hay and manure mix for fertilizer.
“If you have an aversion to poop you shouldn’t be here,” warns Rogers, “because there’s plenty of it. Our grounds are well fertilized.”
CONTINUING THE ROGERS LEGACY
Kathy Rogers hugs a bald eagle before releasing it back into the wild in December, a year after he was admitted to RWRC.
All that adds up to dedication. Rogers rehabilitated injured and orphaned birds for nearly a decade before formalizing her activities into the non-profit Rogers Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. It housed at the now-closed Samuel Farm for 15 years, before moving to 20 acres of restored wetland habitat in Hutchins donated by Browning-Ferris Industries 15 years ago.
Rogers is by far the largest avian rehab center in North Texas. Yet it receives no government funding and is entirely dependent on private donations. It succeeds because people respond to Kathy Rogers’ deep commitment to her avian cause. Donators know money is deeply needed and will be efficiently spent.
A RWRC volunteer tells a hawk goodbye before releasing it.
The center’s entire staff is pro bono, a core of volunteers. Some dedicated ones show up every day. Most volunteer shifts range from two hours to a few days a week. But all are determined to mirror the Kathy Rogers’ commitment. Penny Casey, for instance, has been a volunteer for 15 years so far.
More than just rehabbing birds, help is needed for facility upkeep and construction.
“This facility is 95 percent recycled. Fencing, guttering, lumber, sheds, buildings. The only thing I buy new is wire and nails,” says Rogers.
Volunteers are also sought for technical maintenance and office chores.
A civil engineering wizard is needed to find a way to restore a five-acre lake. Water intake was blocked by construction at neighboring FedEx.
“We do a thousand baby ducks each year out of people’s swimming pools,” says Rogers, “so not having a body of water is a real problem.”
If you’d like to visit Rogers Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, grab a box full of stuff from their wish list . Drop by anytime from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. It’s a good idea to call first: 972-225-4000. The center is at 1430 E. Cleveland St., Hutchins, TX 75141, between the giant FedEx facility and Republic Services waste company.
While you’re in the area, visit the Trinity Trail just to the north. It loops around Lemmon Lake and heads to the Trinity River Audubon Center. Access is at the very end of Simpson Stuart Road east of TX Hwy. 310. Drive carefully as huge trucks are the norm. Or go eastbound on Loop 12 on TX Hwy. 310 and take the 2nd street marked “public boat ramp.”