The obviously distraught man carried a small box into Diane Waters’ home in Silverlake and placed it in front of her.
As Waters examined its contents, a baby mourning dove--fully feathered, except for a reddened, bare spot on its tiny back--Gilberto Mello muttered apologies for the bird’s wound, which was the result of his cat’s foraging in the back yard of his Hollywood Hills home.
“I got your name and number from a friend, and I’m so glad I’ve found you,” he told the self-styled Bird Lady of Silverlake, whose house is filled with cages containing sparrows, doves, jays, crows, peacocks, phoebes, a black-necked stilt, woodpeckers, mockingbirds, robins and an occasional pelican or heron. Her back yard is crammed with custom flight cages for owls, hawks and songbirds almost ready to be released.
“I have three cats and sometimes one of them catches a bird,” Mello explained. “I never knew what to do; if it was better to let the cats finish them off.”
Waters shuddered at the comment.
“Bring them to me,” she said. “Cat-caught birds are tough to save. But I can try.”
This case was a success story. Waters predicted the dove will be released within a month.
Frantic cat owners aren’t the only people who resort to Waters’ skilled nursing and nurturing as a licensed wild bird rehabilitator. Veterinarians, animal shelters, members of the Audubon Society, and state Fish and Game officials are among the many who refer sick, injured, damaged or orphaned wild birds to her.
This year, her eighth in rehab, Waters expects to treat more than 450 birds. As part of her licensing, she is required by the government to keep detailed records.
Last year, she handled 260. Those figures do not include the so-called “junk birds"--pigeons, starlings and house sparrows--a term Waters doesn’t like. It refers to their non-native status and abundant numbers.
Additionally, Waters is licensed as a raptor rehabilitator, and her avian hospital usually contains great horned owls, red-tailed hawks and kestrels.
Her overall success rate last year was 60%. Success is measured by healing the birds, teaching them the specific behaviors necessary for survival in the wild, and releasing them.
A large number of birds are too sick or injured to be saved. If they do not respond to medicines, hand-feeding, and the warmth and security of her carefully planned rehabilitation method, Waters turns to the last resort.
“I have a hard time watching any of them die,” the bird lady said. “But some of the birds are so infected or injured that I have to give a hand to end their suffering. Euthanasia is the most compassionate thing I can do for them.”
Waters said she puts the creatures out of their misery with the advice and aid of veterinarians.
Waters’ nursing techniques include administering antibiotics and other medications and precise feeding according to the specific dietary needs of the different species. She is assisted by three trained volunteers who contribute 16 to 18 hours weekly.
Each September, when the most intense period of her work has passed, Waters, 43, and her medical doctor-husband, Charles, go to New Mexico for a brief vacation. A trained housesitter stays with the wild birds and the Waters’ personal pets--three cats, three dogs, three parrots and a chicken.
While the notion of watching a newly released red-tailed hawk soar majestically into the heavens seems romantic, wild bird rehabilitation is a realm that few people want to enter. Waters cannot enjoy home-cooked meals during baby season (March through September) because her kitchen is stocked with food that the young birds need.
“My freezer contains mouseicles, ratsicles and frozen anchovies,” she said with a laugh. “You wouldn’t want to see what’s in the fridge.”
The bird menu includes mealworms (she buys 67,000 live ones weekly), crickets, fruit flies and other insects.
The babies require hand-feeding from dawn to dusk, many of them every 20 minutes when they are days or weeks old. Waters uses a syringe with a feeding tube attached.
The formula varies according to the bird’s age and species, but usually contains ground mealworms, dog food, pureed meat and the vitamins and minerals necessary to establish the required calcium-phosphorus ratio, which is critical for skeletal strength.
“The hours are very long, especially during baby season. The cleaning is endless, the record-keeping tedious and the stress very high,” Waters said. “It’s also very expensive, since rehabbers pay for most of the food, medicine and vet bills themselves.”
Many rehabbers work through existing nonprofit organizations. Waters is in the midst of forming her own, “Wild Bird Rescue of L.A.” She said she is dependent for now on donations of cash, medicines and other supplies, and the support of her husband.
“He’s very supportive of this work, both financially and as a medical resource,” she said.
Waters said her husband was the catalyst for her becoming a Florence Nightingale for feathered creatures. The couple was living in New Mexico and their residence was becoming a refuge for injured or abandoned dogs, cats, rabbits and wild birds. Waters was successful with caring for the mammals, but discouraged because the birds continued to die.
“One day, Charlie showed me an article about a wild bird rehab group in Albuquerque,” she said. “I called and went there immediately.”
The people at Wildlife Rescue trained Waters in tube-feeding techniques, plus other skills required for wild bird rehabilitation. She obtained licenses from both the state of New Mexico and the federal government. When they moved to Los Angeles four years ago, she also obtained a license from the California Department of Fish and Game.
Why is a person willing to work from 7 a.m. to midnight seven days a week, scrub endless cages, and daily deal with the drama of life and death?
“I truly believe that damaged birds shouldn’t be left to die--especially when it’s mankind that’s usually the cause of the situation,” Waters said.
Saying she has a rapport with birds and a special feeling for them, Waters also adds that she wants to “find a way to make things right, to make up for the destruction humans are causing to the ecosystem.”
The hardest part of being a wild bird rehabber is dealing with humans, Waters said. She can receive up to 30 calls daily, and although she is eager to impart information on how people can help damaged birds, she has no patience for people who disdain her advice, or want to treat the birds themselves.
“I’ve been doing this for almost eight years, and I still make mistakes and am learning all the time. So how can an inexperienced person expect to have success?” she asked.
Her concern over well-meaning people who try to rescue birds is that the diet will be wrong or the bird may be so imprinted or tamed that it will trust humans and rely on them for food.
“I hate it when people tell me they’ve been feeding hamburger to a bird. No bird should eat a cow in any form--and that includes milk or cheese,” she said.
“And it’s against the law to make a pet out of any native bird,” she added. “People mistakenly think the law applies just to raptors, but it includes all natives.”
Instead, Waters urges people to bring birds to her or another licensed rehab expert who, in addition to feeding the bird, is also trained in teaching it to survive on its own so it can be released to the wild. Waters can be reached at (213) 667-1478.
“This is what I’ve chosen to do, this is what I’m here for,” Thompson said.