The first thing you hear when you walk into the Southwest Virginia Wildlife Center of Roanoke is chirping. Lots of chirping. And alarms, which go off at 15- to 90-minute intervals and alert staff and volunteers that somebody needs to be fed.
“I go home and I hear timers,” said Mary Spangler ’20, one of two University of Lynchburg students volunteering at the wildlife rehabilitation center this summer.
For the past two and a half months, Spangler and Tobias Ziesmann ’20, both environmental science majors, have been taking care of injured and orphaned birds and mammals. They work about 18 to 24 hours a week, much of it spent hand feeding birds and cleaning their cages.
On a recent Tuesday in July, there were more than 80 birds at the center, among them house finches, blue jays, Carolina wrens, Baltimore orioles, robins, three dozen chimney swifts, and a whippoorwill. An escaped barn swallow flitted overhead. And always, the chirping and dinging of alarms. “It gets hectic at times,” Spangler said.
Asked about a typical day at the center, Spangler said, “Every day is the same in that they’re all slightly different. Most days, during the early part of the summer, I started by feeding baby mammals, such as opossums and squirrels. Next, I would clean their cages and then help out with the birds.
“As the [first] baby mammal season came to an end and we were able to release the mammals that we had, I helped out in the bird room. These past few weeks, my day has consisted of feeding baby birds and cleaning cages the whole time I’m there. Feeding the baby birds takes up the most time.”
Spangler and Ziesmann use forceps to feed the hungry birds. Along the way, they’ve learned that some are picky eaters. One of the cuckoos, for example, will only eat from the right side of the forceps; the other eats only food that is centered. Baltimore orioles and house finches tend to “over beg,” continuing to ask for food when they’re no longer hungry.
“Carolina wrens always want to be fed; they go crazy,” Ziesmann said. “Blue jays go crazy. Barn swallows, [let you] politely hand it to them.”
With the killdeer, Spangler said, you have to be “ridiculously patient.” The short-billed wading bird is in no hurry to eat its hourly ration of 10 meal worms.
Spangler and Ziesmann also feed whatever mammals are at the facility, which lately includes 18 baby Virginia opossums and what educational director Judy Loope described as a “special needs squirrel.”
The squirrel — alternately called Wally and Walnut — is one of the center’s nine educational animals. Others include Rachel, an adult opossum; two hawks, Tuskegee and Hook; a vulture called Sable; and a screen owl named Zombie.
Asked about how Zombie got his name, Spangler was happy to oblige. As the story goes, she said, Zombie was initially taken to the Wildlife Center of Virginia, in Waynesboro, with a broken wing.
“He died before surgery. They did CPR and he came back to life. He died again during surgery. They did more CPR. He died a third time after surgery. They decided not to do CPR but they came back later and he was hopping around his cage. So, Zombie.”
One of the things Spangler has done this summer is help out with the center’s educational programs. At a local SPCA summer camp, for example, she got to talk with kids about wildlife rehabilitation. “I love that part; I love teaching,” she said, adding that after she graduates next spring she’d like to work in animal rehabilitation.
Although Ziesmann hasn’t decided on a career path, he said the internship has given him a chance to explore his options.
“I wanted to pursue this internship because I’m an environmental science major and I wanted to find out what kind of careers I might have the opportunity of getting into with this major,” he said. “I also wanted to do this specific internship because I would know someone there and be working with the subject that most fascinated me since I was a child — animals.”
Both Spangler and Ziesmann say they’ve learned a lot this summer. “I’ve learned a lot about the care of small animals,” Spangler said. “I’ve learned how to properly handle the critters that come into the center, as well as the proper way to feed and take care of them. I have also learned a lot about educating the public about wildlife rehabilitation.”
While volunteering at the center, Ziesmann had the opportunity to help staff veterinarian Dr. Diane D’Orazio in the treatment room. A Great Horned Owl was brought in with a retinal detachment and he helped hold it still during treatment. “That was fun,” he said, adding, “Very impressive beak.”
Ziesmann said he’s also learned some “fun facts” this summer, including that “bats with torn wings are able to regrow the skin and fly again.”
On that line, Spangler said one of the best experiences she’s had is getting to see all the hard work pay off. “One of the best times I’ve had at the internship was when I was able to help release some of the birds that we had taken care of,” she said. “It’s a great feeling to watch a bird that you’d spent a long time taking care of fly away.”