Group dedicated to helping sick and injured birds
In an emergency, birds can’t call 911. In fact, they can’t do anything but suffer. That’s what the Galveston Bay Injured Bird Response Team wants to avoid. Since January 2017, the group of volunteers has rescued and transported hundreds of birds to safety.
“This project has been a logistical Godsend,” said Josh Henderson, Animal Services supervisor with the Galveston Police Department. “They are a group of volunteers who are dependable and can get the birds stabilized and moved for proper care within hours instead of days.”
About three dozen dedicated volunteers in Galveston, Bolivar Peninsula and the mainland have been trained by Henderson and Sharon Schmalz of the Wildlife Center of Texas on how to handle birds, capture sick or injured birds and prepare them for transport for rehabilitation at the center in Houston.
Although the majority of rescues have been brown pelicans with broken wings and birds injured by, or tangled in, fishing lines, some of the patients are ill from parasites, exposure or lack of food and water.
The Galveston Bay area is a north-south flyway for birds during the annual migrations. Many birds are found either exhausted from their journey or injured along the way.
“This is especially true during the migration periods or after a severe weather event,” said Tim Long, a Tiki Island resident and Galveston Bay Area Texas Master Naturalist, who heads the volunteer program. “We also get some birds that have been attacked by a dog or cat, but rescued by a quick-thinking owner.”
Team members have rescued nestlings and fledglings found on private property or along the shoreline by people who notified them. In 2017, the team transported more than 350 birds from 66 different species. Members have helped varieties such as the magnificent frigatebird, masked booby, gannet, bridled tern and lesser scaup. And the team found a white-crowned pigeon, a first for Texas, Long said.
In May last year, about 400 migrating birds slammed into the American National Insurance Co. building in downtown Galveston. Henderson said birds were attracted and perhaps confused by the light emanating from the building. Only six survived the mass collision and were taken to the rescue center. American National’s building manager and managers of other high-rises along Galveston Island have agreed to limit external lighting during migration periods to avoid another massive bird strike.
Capturing birds for transport is a bit dicey, Long said.
“Getting close enough to an injured bird can sometimes be challenging, especially if it can still fly or swim,” he said. “Unfortunately, from the bird’s point of view, you are going to eat them, until you don’t. With most birds, the best way to calm them is to cover their eyes. This can be done with a towel or sheet. Then they will usually calm down and can be gently handled or carried.”
Team members then crate and move the birds to a quiet, dark, warm place until they can be moved to the rehabilitation center. The birds aren’t fed or watered until the licensed rehabilitator arrives.
“When it started, I had no idea what the frequency of transports would be, how many different birds we would transport or how logistics would work out,” Long said. “Scheduling is tough since birds don’t follow a schedule.”
The birds are treated at the center in Houston and then released back in Galveston or offshore, depending on the species. Houston is the nearest city to have such a center.
Although the majority of the rescues are performed by a small cadre of dedicated workers and the Galveston Animal Control, more than 700 people follow the group on its Facebook page — Report Injured Birds Found in Galveston County — where the group posts photos and updates on the rescues. The unique program of volunteers has caught the attention of the Texas Master Naturalist organization, which awarded the group Best Project of the Year at its annual statewide convention in October.
Long is planning another training session in the spring and hopes to expand the program to Dickinson, Texas City, Kemah and League City with more volunteers, he said.