In 2001, I was studying Environmental Geography at Concordia University, Montreal.
Despite the fact that I was taking various courses, I still had time before my other jobs as a volunteer in different animal-related places.
One of them was the SPCA, or Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Canada. I went there when I was able to walk the dogs waiting for adoption. Since here in Montreal winters are very cold and snowy, animals stay indoors: dogs in kennels and cats in cages. Sometimes, we received birds, rabbits and other little pets that people didn’t want to keep anymore.
Most of the animals were not adopted at the same time. And of course, the dogs were waiting anxiously for the volunteers to get them out of their kennels to go for a stroll in the neighborhood.
That summer, during one of my trips to the SPCA I saw a small sign for another organization. “Le Nichoir, Bird Rehabilitation Center”, which was looking for volunteers.
I noted their number down and the same night I called Judy, the Director of the center at that time. I didn’t know that that phone call was the beginning of a years-long friendship with the retired English nurse and bird lover.
She explained to me that we would work on Sundays, head to the shelter together early in the morning since it was located in the town of Hudson, 60 kilometers away from Montreal. She also added that there were no employees on Sundays but only a little group of volunteers.
The shelter had to be opened before 8 a.m. and closed at 7 p.m., we would have to do all of the animal-care and maintenance-related tasks.
Even though I would have to wake up at approximately 5 a.m. to be at the subway station where Judy would be waiting for me and even though the only time I would be back home was 9 p.m., I took the job.
The place was beautiful. The shelter was built in a wood barn on a land donated by an elderly. It had many trees and that same elderly woman had given a big portion of her land to another environmental group for them to build a small reserve. Many wild birds were flying through the shelter’s skies, many of which had been released right here on the shelter’s land.
Judy showed me all the cages and incubators with birds inside them in the barn and all the external aviaries for the adult birds since they would be released soon after.
All these animals were brought by people throughout Quebec, they were found wounded, attacked by cats or they were chicks that had fallen from the nest or been abandoned by their parents. On many occasions, people with good intentions think that the young birds were abandoned by their parents when in fact they were still taken care of.
All birds are welcome at the shelter. First, they are checked by the veterinary team and then they were placed in one of the cages in the shelter. Sometimes, we would receive birds that had just hatched from their egg—no feathers and eyes still closed—and as expected, it was difficult to save them most of them.
Judy was a true expert and always explained things to me. The shelter was founded a few years ago by Lynn Millar, a wild bird specialist from New Zealand. She visited the center regularly to work on the most difficult cases.
With the other groups of volunteers that arrived after us, we were known as “The Sunday Group” and including wintertime and until today we are still in contact and we see each other a few times a year or we phone each other.
That summer, I was over there almost every Sunday. I got used to cleaning the crows’ aviaries, the ducks’ lake, to feeding insectivore birds insect larvae with a pair of tweezers or pieces of raw fish (sometimes by force if they didn’t want to eat) and doing all the tasks related to the center.
It could be: preparing certain quantities of food consisting of a liquefied mixture of cat food, calcium, water and yogurt that would be frozen for future use. Other tasks consisted in washing towels and small plates, cleaning the storage area, cutting mice, chicken or frozen fish (which nobody wanted to do but I didn’t especially bother me despite all the weird things I had done in my life!) and mainly in feeding that mixture with syringes to the birds, waiting for us with their beaks wide open, one by one every half-hour or hour.
Everything needed to be clean: there were always cleaning chores. Sometimes, we would attend to the people who brought the birds and offered them a tour of the shelter. At other times, I had to capture birds with nets in the bigger cages to release them in other area or to change their location.
Some days, inside the day’s heat, I would take a short nap in the woods or go watch the skunks passing by.
Once, an unidentified wild animal, maybe a marten or a mink, got into the cages and went on a rampage, which made us reinforce all the cages. The work had us worn to a frazzle but very happy to have been able to do so in order for the birds to spend the night for them to see that we had done a good work.
Finally, it was a great reward for us to release the birds and see them fly through the trees. In order to be sure that they would find food, we placed big troughs filled with all kinds of seeds and we saw them come back on many occasions. We had various woodpeckers, beach birds and a variety of water birds such as herons, geese and more. Once we received 60 chicks found in a building that was being demolished. And more cleaning and fish cutting!
I remember very particularly a little tit that, despite having been released, still stayed with us. He would come flying and sit on our shoulders and eat what was in our hands. Another important figure who still is at the shelter is Kuna, a common crow that had lost a wing. She stayed with the refuge all her life: during the summer, she stayed at the refuge and in wintertime she would stay at one volunteer’s place.
We also received predatory birds like falcons or owls, we provided them with primary care and then we brought them to a shelter specialized in those species. Until I graduated from college in 2003, I went there quite often during summer. After that year, I went there a few times a year whether it was to the shelter or where they would organize activities to raise funds, and of course to our traditional Christmas dinners with the Sunday Group.
Things changed a lot with the years. When it came to the facilities, they built big aviaries to accommodate the numerous ducklings and chicks that arrived every year, an outside silent room for adult birds that needed silence and time to recover and there were still plans about expanding the shelter.
At a management level, now there are employees every day of the week, especially biology or veterinary students. Also, cleaning and food standards are much stricter. I don’t feel like there is a big need for volunteers now like before, even though our help is always welcome.
Judy has health problems and I work quite a lot so I can’t go as often, but I still try to follow closely the activities the shelter organize and I don’t miss a single opportunity to go there and lend a hand. It’s the place where I worked for many years as a volunteer and sincerely, when I’m there, I truly feel at home.
Author: Helena Arroyo
Translation: Noëlla Moussa