'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.
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
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.
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.'
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.'
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
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