The bird lady12/16/2015
“Feed the birds, tuppence a bag
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag
Feed the birds, that’s what she cries
While overhead her birds fill the skies.”
Feed the Birds — Mary Poppins
The multicolored pigeons cooed, the exotic chickens clucked, even that bird on the wire gave a loud squawk. No matter their voiced concerns, the woman offered them no thoughtful advice, or special daily inspiration, or clever aphorisms to guide them on their life journey. Instead, in her chore boots and long coat, she brought them what they wanted, a bucket of food. Opening the aviary with pail in hand, a slow, wide smile crinkled the women’s face, and her dark eyebrows rose with pleasure. “It’s going to happen,” the birds seemed to shout. And they clattered with joy as she bent over the feeding tray. Ah, breakfast time — courtesy of the bird lady.
“When I was in graduate school, I found a baby crow. It was at University of California, Davis. One of my professors, just a few weeks before, showed me a baby robin he was feeding. So I called him up and asked him what I do with this baby crow. He said, bring him in, and I’ll show you how to feed him. That little crow, his name was Clover, changed my life.”
Perhaps an understatement.
“I’m a wildlife rehabilitator. I specialize in wild birds. But I do get called ‘bird lady’ quite a bit.” She self-consciously smiles. And over she goes to feed her non-wild chickens.
Jenni Boonjakuakul takes in wild birds. She’s done it for many years. Not the only thing she’s done, by the way. She has a degree in microbiology. She’s done a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco. She was a microbiologist with the United States Department of Agriculture. And she ended up at Iowa State doing more post-doctoral work. Her husband, Jay Heaverlo, is a licensed acupuncturist practicing out of Midwest Acupuncture Clinic in Urbandale, where she now helps him run the business side of his clinic. And, yes, she takes in wild birds, but not in that crazy bird lady way.
“You have to have a permit through the DNR to be a wildlife rehabilitator. I get a quarter of the birds from Des Moines Animal Control. And then more from Polk County Conservation and DNR officers. The rest, people just drop off. Last year I took in 354 birds. This year I really feel like it is over 400. I haven’t done my final count yet.”
Boonjakuakul does everything to stabilize the birds brought to her. She always hopes to get them well enough to release back to the wild. But it’s a bit of an effort.
“I take birds to work with me at the clinic because of their needs. There was a point this summer where I had about 65 baby birds in the car because the baby birds need to be fed every hour.”
Okay, maybe she is the crazy bird lady.
“I’m setting wings, setting legs, giving antibiotics as needed. I have a wonderful vet who helps me out. A lot of vets won’t take in wild birds because they don’t want to worry about contamination with pet birds. Plus it’s a whole other field.”
Don’t you get attached to your birds?
“I don’t name anyone. You want to make sure you’re not taming anyone. I don’t pet, I don’t hold, I don’t pick up. By the time they are healthy, they don’t want anything to do with me. But the ones I get attached to are the ones that are injured. There are a few every year where I cry when they don’t make it, or ecstatic when they do.”
All of this care and feeding is provided for “free,” which means that Boonjakuakul mostly pays.
“The worms, they are my biggest expense. I have to do live worms — because baby birds see them wiggling in the dish and they are attracted to that, plus they are a good protein source. I probably go through 10,000 a week.”
Does any of this gross you out?
“Not the worms. Although, maggots gross me out. They’re usually on a live, injured bird. They are usually on the bigger birds that can survive for a bit with injury.”
Great. Now I’m grossed out.
Boonjakuakul has taken care of birds as small as hummingbirds and as large as pelicans. And everything in between.
“I get a lot of wood duck babies. They are one of the hardest birds to rehab. People find them, and people think something is really wrong when nothing is really wrong. Unfortunately, what happens is Mom gets scared off. They need to be left alone. They die from stress. So, if you bring them in, it is too much. They do a little better if there are several. You can put a little mirror, or a duster to make them so they don’t feel alone. But I dread getting them as babies.”
All of this care occurs in Boonjakuakul’s clinic in her basement, a second out-building in the backyard, and her home-built aviaries. And, nope, this is not located on some reserve in Africa, or on a millionaire’s thousand acres in Texas, but in a backyard in Beaverdale. Yup, Beaverdale. And she’s not doing all this undercover, but can be easily reached at the Iowa DNR website or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
But what about your poor husband? Second fiddle to 400 birds?
“We don’t go anywhere in the summer, or take any vacations, because feedings have to occur every hour.”
She pauses with this not-so-happy reflection, then she gives a slight smile.
“But he knew what he was getting into. Our first date, when he arrived at my door, someone showed up at the same time with a pigeon.”
She laughs softly and adds: “He’s supportive.”
Of course he is.
And so she returns, not to steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, as in the Mary Poppins song, but to her broken wings, her wiggly worms, and her squawking charges, right here in Beaverdale.
A tuppence a bag. CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.