Inside Job: raptor rehabilitator

Frank Hersey tries caring for Beijing's abused and confused birds of prey

'Is Coke the bird's name?' 'No, that's code for Common Kestrel,' volunteer Lu Yi tells me in the Intensive Care Unit as we look at the new arrivals. This little chap will be known as 160718, the 18th bird brought in during July.

Summer is busy at the Beijing Raptor Rescue Centre – it's baby bird season. Fledglings are caught by poachers, pushed out of nests by siblings and even blown out by strong winds. But 160718 has been kept as a pet.

Volunteers

He's taken to the treatment room by rehabilitator Zhou Lei, where fellow rehabilitator Betty Dai has prepared everything. After being weighed, an anaesthetic hood is placed over his head and the gas connected. Zhou Lei monitors his heartbeat to hear when he's asleep (when I listen it's still impossibly fast), then treatment begins.

The rehabilitators check his body. There are some new feathers, but the soft tissue damage persists. They cut off the bandages from his talons to reveal the open wounds on the soles of his feet. All his injuries are from being kept in a cage for just a couple of months.

They tend to the wounds, rinsing them with saline water that’s kept at bird body temperature in a baby milk bottle warmer. Betty sands down his beak. 'In the wild they’re constantly rubbing their beaks against things to keep them in good shape, but in a cage they can't and they end up overgrown and split,' explains Zhou Lei.

Bird Shaving

With the medical duties done, it's time to try something I can manage: cleaning. The small rooms have astroturf-covered perches on four levels. 'When the birds first come in they're usually so stressed they just stand on the floor in the corner, then progress upwards,' Lu Yi tells me. Astroturf is a real breakthrough as it’s 'comfortable on their feet' and, as Lu Yi says, 'if a bird of prey hurts its feet it's serious as it uses them to hunt'. Shame it's a total bustard to get droppings off, even with a hose and scrubbing brush.

Dinnertime involves such tasty ingredients as mealworm, crickets and all kinds of rodents. We work our way through the feeding list, picking frozen mice and rats for the patients. Preparation involves things I've never done before and will never do again, but ends with a gentle sprinkling of raptor vitamins and mixing (ban, 拌, like with noodles) of the rodents with a bit of water before going out to the aviaries.

Bird Claws

As beginners, fellow volunteer Wang Feier and I aren't allowed in the enclosures, but that's okay, because there are actual eagles flapping around in them. Lu Yi emerges from one with half an uneaten rat and turns it round to show its innards have been scooped out. We make a note of all leftovers.

'This eagle owl was kept in someone's toilet', explains Lu Yi, 'but he decided it was making too much mess.' With a six-foot wingspan, the eagle owl is China's largest owl. 'He's become quite tame and we say that when he looks at you, there's a tenderness in his eyes, unlike the others.'

Astroturf!

Next, Lu Yi edges the door open to the enclosure housing the huge upland buzzards. One is standing right in the doorway, so tame that he actually approaches us for food. His mouth is open and dribbling. The contrast in the two birds' behaviour is absolute. 'He probably won’t ever be released and will have to go to the centre in Shunyi.'

Birds of Prey

We head back to the office to update the birds' files and I talk to the International Fund for Animal Welfare staff about overall trends. The centre's figures show progress until 2013, when numbers of birds brought in started to increase again. The wildlife trade is still the largest factor, accounting for a third of all patients. So it looks like it'll be 'birds of a feather stick together' for the centre's staff and volunteers for the forseeable future.

If you find an injured bird of prey, move it to safety. If you can, pick it up with a towel and put it in a cardboard box with air holes (not a cage) and call Beijing Raptor Rescue Centre on 6220 5666.

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