MAKING UP FOR WHAT WE’RE DOING
Many years ago on a playground in Ann Arbor, Mich., a group of grade school children discovered a hole full of baby rabbits. A student named Amanda warned the others that touching newborn animals was bad for them. When one girl tried to touch them anyway, Amanda pulled her away and threw her to the ground. It was the first and only time she got detention, but it wasn’t the last time she intervened to save wild creatures. Currently wildlife rehabilitator and hospital manager for the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center in Tavernier, Amanda Margraves has made it her life’s work.
Margraves was on the front lines of the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill in Pensacola, but this July 1, she made her most significant rescue to date. Early in the morning, the center took a call from a concerned citizen regarding a colony of least terns atop the roof of the Tradewinds Plaza Publix store in Key Largo. Populations of the bird have been declining rapidly since the late 1800s, initially due to feather hunting and egg collecting and later from pesticide use and human disturbance of nesting habitats. With a global population of under 70,000, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service classifies them as “threatened.”
Margraves alerted the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission then drove to the store where a roofing crew was ready to clear the roof. “I tried to stop them myself but that did not go well. These big construction guys were just laughing at me.”
A Monroe County Sheriff’s deputy arrived only to side with the contractors. Margraves managed to stall the crew until Florida Fish & Wildlife agents finally reached the scene.
“I was able to go up on the roof with them and right away we found 20 eggs and 3 chicks, evidence that this was an active colony. They shut down the roofing project until the birds could be relocated.” More than 100 least terns were saved.
Margraves got her first formal wildlife rehab experience when she started volunteering for a local bird center while earning her undergraduate degree in zoology from the University of Michigan. Upon graduating, she took a job building an aviary at Flint River Aquarium in Albany, Georgia. After the facility was set up and the birds acquired, Margraves realized she had no interest in becoming a zookeeper. Instead, she took the position of wildlife rehabilitator at Belize Bird Rescue in Belize, Central America.
“It was a whole different experience,” Margraves explained, “because you don’t have things like you do here. You take in a hawk, guess what, you’ve got to find its food. Here I order food online and it comes nice and frozen. There it took a lot of improvising.”
She worked with lots of confiscated parrots and many injured owls, because Belize culture views owls as bad luck. “It’s getting better where people will call to have them removed instead of just killing them,” Margraves noted.
Many birds are brought in mistakenly when people see fledglings that have fallen from their nest.
While in Belize, Margraves also assisted at two other wildlife centers, one for primates and one for manatees. Birds remained her primary focus, because she loves a challenge. “It’s never a dull moment with birds. There are so many different types, you always have to be on your toes. They’re really difficult to rehab because they don’t show that they’re injured until they’re right on the border of death. They can’t show their weaknesses or they’ll be left behind by the group or picked off by predators and eaten.”
Margraves left Belize after a year for personal reasons and wishes she had stayed longer (she’s vacationing there this summer), but upon returning to the U.S. she immediately saw a job posting for the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center. She called the director and after a brief conversation about her credentials was told: “Don’t unpack your bags!”
For the past three years, Margraves has been responsible for the more than 1,000 damaged birds brought annually to the center, from pelicans and cormorants tangled in fishing line to raptors and songbirds injured by cars, cats and nest destruction. In the spring, it’s all baby birds, some of which have fallen victim to overzealous wildlife fans.
“Many birds are brought in mistakenly when people see fledglings that have fallen from their nest,” Margraves explained. “The parents are still feeding them and they’re fine, but people grab them up and bring them to us.”
She also maintains 18 pens housing the center’s 80 resident birds, which have been rehabilitated but can’t be released into the wild. “We have about a 65% release rate. We’re really proud of that. Some rehab centers only release about 30%.”
The Florida Keys Wild Bird Center is part of a team effort, and Margraves maintains close ties with Pelican Harbor Seabird Station in Miami, Everglades Outpost of Homestead, the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key, the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, the Marathon Wild Bird Center and other wildlife centers throughout the country. These resources are invaluable when a challenging patient comes along.
Margraves runs down the rehab process: “You might not know exactly what type of bird it is, but you know the basics. No matter what kind of bird you take in, you’re going to check for injuries, you’re going to hydrate it, then you have a little window before feeding it when you can figure out what you need to do.”
Rehabilitation is made even more challenging by state wildlife regulations, which establish specific time frames for intervening with wild animals. Sometimes success comes at the last minute. “We had a great white heron with a bad leg,” Margraves recalled. “It had been broken and healed incorrectly so he couldn’t use it. After five months it didn’t appear he would ever regain use of that leg and be able to hunt in the wild. On the day we decided that it was never going to work, we went out back and he was putting weight on the leg. After another month, he completely healed and we released him.”
Margraves and her colleagues will soon be better equipped than ever with the opening of the new Wild Bird Rehabilitation and Education Center in Tavernier this August. They also recently hired their first education coordinator to reach children with their message: “Keep them flying!”
To Margraves, the need for both wildlife education and rehabilitation is clear. “I think it’s the least we can do for these birds, because they’re coming here due to human impact. We’re basically making up for what we’re doing.”
by Erich Decker-Hoppen for Keys Style Magazine, a publication of the Florida Keys Free Press.