“Bing, bing,” the alarm sounds, signaling feeding time for a group of baby robins. This signal is repeated every 30 minutes, from dawn to dusk, in the home of Carol Akerlof, executive director of the Bird Center of Washtenaw County.
It’s a busy time. This year the Bird Center had a high demand for bird-rescue services. Birds have nested early because of the unusual warmth. Strong winds knocked several nests out of trees and until the center opened in early May, many distressed birds brought in by concerned citizens lived with Akerlof.
Since 2005, the group has operated May through August at a vegetation-draped, city-owned building on Rose Street in Ann Arbor, close to the University of Michigan Intramural Building. Volunteers and interns working there care for hundreds of birds each year.
“These young people that work for us never sit down,” Akerlof said. “They basically start at one end, go to the other end and go back. It’s constant.”
Akerlof began rehabilitating injured birds in the 1970s. “I released my first bird in 1979,” she said. Five years later, she attended the first annual conference of the National Wildlife Rehabilitation Association (NWRA) and discovered she was expected to acquire a permit for animal rescue.
She became a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, specializing in songbirds, a challenging category. During her 20-year career as a WCC librarian, she would often smuggle birds into a back room so she could maintain their feeding schedule.
Akerlof is most proud of the interns who have helped her in her mission. Some have gone on to manage wildlife in places such as the Texas Fish and Wildlife Department and a wild bird center in the Florida Keys.
She is also proud of a recent innovation, a computer program called “Wild-ONe” (aka Wildlife Incident Log/Database and Online Network) administered by the Wildlife Center of Virginia. Through this system, the people in Virginia are able to track data recorded by wildlife rehabilitators throughout the country and spot trends.
The database is not only used to help animals. Groups like the Center for Disease Control use such data to monitor rabies, avian flu and other diseases borne by animal hosts.
Surprisingly, this project was initially funded by the U.S. Department of Defense under the name “Project Tripwire.” The DOD wanted early warning of any patterns of wildlife deaths that may hint of a release of chemical or biological weapons. This makes the Bird Center a counter-terrorism agency.
Akerlof’s knowledge and enthusiasm have even begun to influence those who work with her.
Will O’Neill, 28, of Ann Arbor, began working as an intern at the Bird Center in the summer of 2007 because it allowed him to fulfill a field experience requirement at U-M without needing to move. He came back the following summer to conduct a study on the impact of house cats on songbirds. That summer changed his life.
“There’s nothing more rewarding than this job,” said O’Neill, now Clinic Director at the Bird Center. “It’s just amazing to know you are making a difference even if it’s only one bird at a time.”
After completing his degree at U-M, O’Neill took some vet-school prerequisite classes at WCC, and then began a master’s degree program at EMU. He hopes to one day earn a DVM and a PhD so he can conduct wildlife research like he did that summer in Ann Arbor.
The Bird Center cares for 800-900 birds per year and an average of 65 different species. It’s not cheap. Building costs, insurance, specialized bird food, salaries for interns and veterinary bills amount to more than $90,000 per year.
The center recently received national recognition when Akerlof was chosen for the lifetime achievement award of 2012 by the NWRA. She is one of only about two-dozen recipients across the U.S.
“Bing, bing,” the alarm sounds again and Akerlof is back tending to the babies. There’s no time to rest; hungry young robins need to be fed.
For more information, visit birdcenterwashtenaw.org. To donate or to become a volunteer for the Bird Center of Washtenaw County, call volunteer coordinator Dorothy Stock at (734) 996-8316 or call the center at (734) 761-9640.