The College Professor Who Is a 'Mama Bird' In Her Free Time

Cheep cheep. Chirp. Peep peep peeeeeep. Imagine having 50 baby birds in one room. You have to feed each one every 1/2 hour because they are always hungry.

Christine Powell knows just what that's like. She's a licensed wild-bird rehabilitator. Every spring and summer she takes care of baby birds that have fallen out of their nests. Right now she is very, very busy.

Her hobby started five years ago when she rescued a baby owl that fell out of a tree in her backyard. Now, she acts as "mama bird" for hundreds of orphan birds - feeding them, housing them, and caring for them until they're ready to fly away into the wild.

Because the birds need so much care all the time, Dr. Powell carts them to and from work every day. She is a geology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she is also a seismologist, someone who studies earthquakes.

All different types of homeless birds have fallen into Powell's kind care - chipping sparrows, blue jays, robins, thrashers, mocking birds, finches, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, and more! Some are nosier than others - such as pigeons, doves, and starlings.

One day I went to visit Christine Powell, or as some people call her: the "bird lady."

You can tell Dr. Powell is a caring person just by the way she smiles, acts, and speaks - softly and gently. This day she is wearing rubber boots, jeans, and a blue sweatshirt that reads "Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Network." That's an organization she belongs to that helps wild animals.

Her office is filled with papers, books, a computer, and, of course, many birds.

The newborn baby birds are in "nests," but not exactly the kind you would find in a tree. Powell makes nests by putting facial tissue in berry baskets - those little plastic green baskets that strawberries come in. That kind of nest is perfect for about four newborn birds.

The older babies - who chirp, hop around, and have at least a few feathers - are housed in cardboard boxes lined with newspaper and covered with netting.

The first rule with baby birds is to always keep them warm, says Dr. Powell. Often she will set heating pads on "low" underneath the birds' new "nests."

Next, they need to eat. Baby birds have to learn how to eat, she says, and sometimes that's hard because they're not too smart at first. Even if you put food right in front of them, they don't know what to do with it, she says.

But then "in two to three weeks, they learn the secret. They're self-feeding," she says. "Even in the wild it takes them a long time."

Powell picks up a baby sparrow and holds it in her hand - firmly enough so it doesn't wriggle away but gently enough so she doesn't squeeze it too hard. With her other hand, she takes a syringe, which holds the food and helps deliver it inside the bird's mouth.

mon, c'mon," she speaks to the baby bird. "Open up," she says as she taps the tip of the syringe lightly on the bird's beak. "Open up."

Finally, the bird opens its beak and Powell drops some food down deep. "The air pipe hole is near the front, so you have to be sure to get by that," she explains.

Gulp. "Mmmmm. Delicious," the bird must think. It opens up for more.

The food looks a little bit like watery peanut butter. But it isn't exactly what you and I would ever want to eat: a mixture of plain yogurt, squashed-up bugs, birdie vitamins, and cat food.

Cat food? For baby birds?

"It gives them protein," says Powell, and moisture. That's what they eat every 1/2 hour. Luckily, the birds go to sleep at night, so Powell gets to sleep too.

Many people think that if they touch a baby bird that has fallen from its nest, the parent birds won't take it back. But that's not true. "That is a myth that if you touch them the parents won't take them back," says Powell. If you find a baby bird on the ground and know where its nest is, just put it back, she says. "Always the mother bird is much better."

Powell guesses she took care of 400 birds last year.

"That was a big year," she says with a sigh and a smile. The word is out that she takes care of birds, so animal shelters, veterinarians, and individuals often call on her.

To take care of wild birds, you are required by law to have a license from the state and federal governments. Powell learned her mama-bird skills from another woman who lives in Chapel Hill. "There's incredible need for this kind of work," she says.

Birds usually come into her care for one of three reasons:

1. They have fallen out of their nest.

2. The parent bird has died.

3. They are injured.

Powell says that one of the hardest things is to identify the birds - especially newborns because they are "naked," with no feathers. "Each one is really different. It's a learning experience," she says.

Does she give them names?

"No, never," says Powell. "I don't want to become attached." Also, it's illegal to keep them. Sadly, some birds don't live. But "given the proper care, most birds can survive and be let free," says Powell.

"This one's full, let's try another one," Powell announces. Next up is a young blue jay that has been injured. He seems very scared to be held, but soon he starts eating.

"You have to have a lot of patience," says Powell, trying to convince the blue jay to eat some more.

Powell says that even though caring for birds takes a lot of time and hard work, it's worth it.

"Definitely; it's so rewarding," she says. "The trick here is to have as many [birds as are] pleasing and delightful." Powell has a 10-year-old daughter who often helps out; not surprisingly, she wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up.

After a baby bird is just about grown up and healthy enough to fly on its own, Powell puts it in her aviary, a large cage in her back yard, for a week or so. "Then it's sayonara [good bye]." They fly out of her nest and into the real bird world. Sometimes she is sad to see them go, but she realizes that they will be much happier in the wild.

"It's fun, it's a challenge," she says about her hobby. And as for the birds: "I love them. They each have a different personality. I enjoy watching them grow and it's neat to watch them progress."

"It's crazy, but it's true that I feel like they're my kids or something."

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