Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary; A safe place for a bird
Indian Shores, Fla.
The coastal highway running down the Gulf of Mexico from Clearwater snakes through communities where sky- tickling condominiums, low-slung resort motel complexes, and stucco-covered efficiency rentals compete for a place in the sun.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Just off the asphalt here, tucked between the "no vacancy" signs and palm fronds, is a cluster of cages and buildings called the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary Inc., a place where injured birds are cared for and prepared -- if possible -- for release back into the wild.
"We'll take care of everything from sparrows to eagles," says zoologist Ralph Heath Jr., pointing to a cage where a scruffy-looking immature eagle is hunched on a limb. Mr. Heath, founder and director of the nonprofit sanctuary, has been helping birds for nearly a decade.
It all began with a broken-winged cormorant, rescued by Mr. Heath from the side of the road in 1971. He named the bird Maynard, and after taking it to a veterinarian, he began looking after his new ward himself. Over the next few months, he became the guardian for several other injured birds and by May 1972 the sanctuary was officially christened.
Since then the sanctuary has taken care of more than 35,000 birds.
Situated on an odd-shaped 1 1/2-acre slice of beach-front real estate, the sanctuary has grown from a backyard project into a bird rehabilitation center with a national reputation. There are currently about 500 birds residing here, including more than 150 brown pelicans.
The sanctuary receives 15 to 20 injured birds on an average day. Most are brought in by the public, but various government agencies also call on its services. In addition to the birds brought in, the sanctuary usually runs its own patrol boat in the inland waterways between Clearwater and St. Petersburg -- spanning 25 miles -- looking for birds in distress.
"When we don't personally run the patrols, that doesn't mean the work doesn't get done," Mr. Heath says, explaining that when business in the sanctuary hits full tilt, there are always friends who take up slack by patrolling with their own boats.
Demand for the sanctuary's services has been building steadily in recent years. The staff has grown, too, and now includes seven paid workers (including Heath) and a varying number of volunteers -- usually about four.
Heath recalls a day last year when the sanctuary took in 93 birds. "That's a record for a day without an oil spill or a die-off," he says. For emergencies such as oil spills, the sanctuary keeps a battery of wash bins and detergents on hand to clean birds.
But talk of numbers brings a smile to his face as he leads the way up a flight of outdoor concrete stairs. From there one can look out on the flat roof of the sanctuary infirmary where healthy birds often congregate at mealtime. On winter days these freeloaders sometimes swell the avian population of the sanctuary to more than 800.
But the director says the sanctuary is open to anything in feathers, healthy or hurt, and he means it.
The public is admitted freely, as well. The gates of the sanctuary are open every day from 9 a.m. until dark, and visitors can stroll between pens where egrets share space with herons. Small, hand-painted signs tell the names of individual birds, while others warn that "Parents are responsible to keep children's fingers away from all cages."
Heath pauses thoughtfully when asked how far his services have reached. "We've had a bird flown in from as far away as Washington state," he recalls, adding that they have also taken care of a screech owl driven to the sanctuary from Texas and a wood duck brought from Minnesota.
The sanctuary has a mailing list of over 8,000 bird-loving friends and patrons, some from as far away as Australia and West Germany.
But the most important work remains local, where Mr. Heath feels many birds are becoming victims of the region's rapid development. In fact, he believes the birds themselves are beginning to catch on to what the sanctuary is all about. Just the day before, he says, a pelican -- its characteristic pouch badly torn by a fishing hook -- walked into the sanctuary unescorted.