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Injured Raptors’ Refuge of Recovery : ‘Bird Lady’ Opens Home to Victims of Rapid Urbanization

Times Staff Writer

Growing up in a small Wisconsin farm town, Marge Gibson often shopped with her mother at the local Woolworth’s. Fascinated by birds, the young girl went straight to the store’s pet section to peer at the parakeets and songbirds in metal cages.

“Mom always knew where to find me in the store,” Gibson remembers. “I was spellbound by those birds.”

Years later on the eve of her 40th birthday, Marge Gibson in many ways has retained that same wonderment of and devotion to birds. Only now she is more than a wide-eyed observer. She is an activist, crusading on behalf of birds of prey--falcons, owls, hawks and eagles.

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These species, known collectively as raptors, are victims of Orange County’s rapid urbanization. Bulldozers and pavers have pushed ever deeper into the county’s rural perimeter, threatening and, in many areas, destroying the birds’ habitat.

Eventual Release Into Wild

The clash between man and bird has resulted in casualties: hawks with gunshot wounds, abandoned owl chicks and poisoned falcons. Gibson, supported by a network of veterinarians and biologists, has taken it upon herself to nurse the injured raptors back to health for eventual release into the wild.

She has transformed her isolated Villa Park home into a convalescent hospital for birds. The tennis court out back has been divided into half a dozen mews, or flight pens, where the recovering birds feed and exercise. Her kitchen often doubles as a triage unit where the most vulnerable of the incoming wounded are treated and monitored.

Last year, she cared for an estimated 350 birds at her home, one of the largest privately funded raptor rehabilitation programs in the nation. She is one of a handful of people licensed by California Department of Fish and Game officials to rehabilitate endangered bird species, such as golden eagles and peregrine falcons.

“She is very well respected,” said Jan Yost, a Fish and Game warden assigned to Orange County. “The key to successfully rehabilitating any wild bird, especially a raptor, is not imprinting (domesticating) it by handling it too much. It is a fine line, and Marge is one of the best at not crossing it. She has a very good record at returning birds to the wild.”

It was Gibson, a single mother who has one teen-age daughter still at home, who provided a safe house for many of the raptors wounded earlier this year in a rash of shootings in the county described by one biologist as “unprecedented.” At least 30 birds were killed or wounded, about a dozen of which survived.

No one was arrested, but Gibson contends that the shootings were further evidence of the pressure on the county’s raptor population.

‘Isn’t It Our Responsibility?’

“I feel compelled to help these birds,” Gibson said. “Isn’t it our responsibility, as the highest species, to help other species, especially one that is under attack?”

Though raptors are her speciality, Gibson rarely turns away any ailing bird. During a recent hot spell, she apologized to a visitor about not being able to sit in the cool of the back porch overlooking the pool because it was occupied by a road runner with a damaged wing.

Teasingly, Gibson said: “I’m not sure he’d appreciate our company.”

Her living room was also in use. A 4-week-old goose chick, a baby-soft ball of yellow feathers, was warming itself under a heat lamp in a box of sawdust.

A friend had found the abandoned chick near Irvine Lake.

“Somebody apparently didn’t want this little guy,” Gibson said softly. “I’ll probably wind up keeping him and putting him out with my chickens. . . . Welcome to the bird lady’s house.”

It hasn’t always been that way.

Though Gibson’s love affair with birds is rooted in her childhood, it wasn’t until four years ago that she brought her avocation home in a big way and built her rehabilitation center.

For years, even as a homemaker raising three children, she joined various raptor research projects. Most notably, she helped study the impact of pesticides, primarily phosphates, on California condors in Kern County. She also teamed up with local biologists to trap, band and equip raptors, such as red-tailed hawks, with radio transmitters to monitor behavior and habitat size. She spent long hours in the field, bumping along dirt trails in four-wheel-drive vehicles, or hiking in the backcountry with a pair of binoculars around her neck and a clipboard in hand.

Too Time-Consuming

But it proved too time-consuming, what with a family and job as manager of the chemistry laboratory at Orange Coast College.

Recognizing the need for a clinic for injured birds, Gibson bought a few cages and went into the rehabilitation business. In time, she converted her tennis court into a series of plywood enclosures and soon became the first call that county veterinarians and state wildlife officials made after receiving injured raptors.

Scott Weldy, an El Toro veterinarian who treats wild birds, said many of the birds Gibson treats would not have survived without her.

“Rehab is critical,” Weldy said. “You have to have someone who understands the birds and has the facilities. If not, you’re up a creek. . . . These are not tweet-tweet birds. These are carnivores that like live food and don’t care much for human contact.”

Gibson estimates that 40% to 50% of the birds she receives are released back to the wild eventually. The others are either given to zoos, wildlife parks or universities for research. Some are killed if their injuries are too debilitating.

“These are not pets. They are wild birds,” Gibson said. “I don’t believe in keeping something alive that is hurting and has no hope of surviving, either in the wild or captivity. Some people criticize us for euthanizing these birds, and that’s unfair. I do care about these birds, but I’m a realist.”

Gibson’s reputation in the raptor field did not come easily. She does not have a wall full of academic degrees. She studied medical technology in college, not biology or natural science. And she is a woman in a vocation more common to men.

“At first my sex made it difficult,” acknowledged Gibson, who modeled for a time. “I suspect there were some who stereotyped me as a brainless woman who had some sort of ulterior motive.”

Hard work has apparently won over the skeptics.

“She does a remarkable job,” said Pete Bloom, a research biologist with the National Audubon Society who ran a similar raptor rehabilitation facility in the county in the mid-1970s. “It’s a lot of work, at times too much. And there are not a whole lot of rewards. You have to pat yourself on the back because nobody else does. And there is no money in this.”

That fact has become a painful reality for Gibson, who personally underwrites her operation.

She estimates that last year she spent more than $10,000 on medical supplies and food, mostly live mice and chicks, for her birds. A baby owl, for example, can eat between six and 10 mice a day, and last year she cared for 38 owl chicks, most of which had fallen from nests.

To offset her costs, Gibson and her daughter, Sarah, have formed a nonprofit foundation to raise money. The two lecture at schools and before civic groups to draw attention to Gibson’s efforts and the plight of raptors. Gibson often brings along P.R., a red-tailed hawk, or Godzilla, a large great horned owl that was domesticated after it was hit by a logging truck in Northern California.

Raptors, she said, are often misunderstood as violent, menacing birds.

“My goal is to educate the public that they are one of nature’s wonders, and it would be a great loss should they vanish from this county,” Gibson said. “In many ways, they are very much like humans.”

Most raptors mate for life and breed only occasionally, a characteristic that Gibson said adds urgency to her work. Because they do not reproduce at a rapid rate, the loss of a single bird can have an immediate impact on a species’ population, particularly if it is endangered.

Gibson said she rarely names the birds she receives to avoid becoming emotionally attached. She also limits her contact with them, fearing they may become dependent on humans. Some begin to believe they are humans, she said.

Gibson said her facility is “not an old-age home” for raptors. The aim is to ultimately return birds to the wild, to undo what she contends humans, in many instances, have caused.

“Many of the birds I get have been wounded or hurt by man,” she said. “What we are trying to do here is give back to these birds what man has taken away. I want to give them another opportunity to make it in the wild.”


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