Saving Lives in the Songbird Room: Lees-McRae Students Take a Walk on the Wild Side

By Maya Jarrell, Lees-McRae College

It’s 7 a.m., and Macey Alderman, a wildlife biology major at Sullivan Foundation partner school Lees-McRae College, can hear the flitting and rustling of baby birds as soon as she walks into the songbird room at the college’s May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. She flips on the light and the feeding cycle begins.

“I love the songbird room,” Alderman said. “Right now, every table is covered with fledges and enclosures, and there’s so many babies to feed. A lot of them are on feedings every 30 minutes, so you get in there at 7 in the morning, and you’re immediately feeding. By the time you’re done feeding, it’s time to feed again. It’s exhausting, but it’s my favorite room because they’re really fun.”

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Alderman, like many of the other wildlife biology students who work in the rehabilitation center, is pursuing a specialization in wildlife rehabilitation. This summer she is part of a group of students fulfilling their clinicals hours for the program and getting the hands-on experience that will shape them into confident and capable wildlife professionals.

These summer clinicals are intensive experiential learning experiences where students are split into groups and work in the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center five days a week, cycling through different rooms and responsibilities.

Emma McGuckin and her animal ambassador Ziggie, an eastern indigo snake.

“We have a.m. shifts and p.m. shifts. If I have an a.m. shift, I get there at 7 or 8, and then we have something called rounds at 1:30 or 1:45 p.m.,” rising sophomore Emma McGuckin said. “That means people who are working the p.m. shift come and we all go in the classroom, and we basically trade out information. We have a mammal room, songbird room, and a raptor room—which is where we keep our large birds such as hawks and owls—[and] we rotate through each room.”

Additionally, students may be assigned to the off-site clinic in Jones Ridge—an outdoor area that mainly houses animal ambassadors that cannot be released for a number of reasons and are used for public education sessions—or to the center’s emergency room, or they give wildlife presentations to the public. Each day at the center is different, depending on which shift you work, which room you’re in, and countless other factors. But McGuckin said most days at the center begin the same.

Depending on the room they are assigned to that day, students will arrive at 7 or 8 a.m. The first task for every room is to put together a list of the patients’ dietary needs for the day. A separate group in the kitchen will then prepare the food. After dropping off the list in the kitchen, students return to their assigned room and take care of basic tasks, like changing out bedding, taking dirty towels to be washed, and refilling the water.

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Feeding, cleaning, and administering medication to all the animals is a priority regardless of which room a student is working in that week. Students learn many of these skills in their regular semester courses, where they get an introduction to the rehabilitation center under the mentorship of those who have already completed their clinicals.

“During your second year here at Lees-McRae, you learn about the basics of wildlife rehabilitation, and you’re graded on attending three hours every week working in the rehab center,” Tristin Hall, a rising junior, said. “Then, going into second semester, you take a class with Dr. Amber, which is basically advanced medicine, and that’s where you get the basics on how to give injections, how to do bandaging, how to do the medical aspect of it. After that, you take another class…on wildlife programming, which is another big part of our program and involves going out in the public and educating on conservation and keeping species alive. It’s very hands-on. The classes give you the skills to be able to go into the rehab center every day and do it for six hours a day.”

Tristin Hall and his animal ambassador Thunder, an eastern gray squirrel.

While these students come in with a basic knowledge and understanding of the tasks at hand, summer clinicals are a much more intense experience. Students essentially work as full-time wildlife rehabilitators long before graduating, preparing them to work with any number of species later.

“Learning how to restrain different types of animals is something that’s going to be valuable no matter what field I go into,” Alderman said. “There are animals that can tear you to shreds if you don’t have a good hold on them and learn how to restrain them properly and wear the right protective equipment. Every intake we get we usually palpate the animal, feel their wings and limbs to see if there are any fractures or swelling.”

While working in the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center is central to the wildlife biology major and wildlife rehabilitation minor, it’s only one aspect of their clinicals. Each week, several students are assigned to give educational wildlife presentations to the public. The presentations serve not only as a valuable learning opportunity for the community members to understand their impact on local wildlife, but also as an experiential learning opportunity for the students conducting the presentations, helping them become more confident in their own knowledge and gain an understanding of the most effective ways to share that knowledge with others.

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“There are three days out of the week that you’re actually presenting to the public, and then the other days you’re in the classroom learning how to handle birds or something else to do with wildlife,” Hall said of the weeks when students are assigned to do presentations. “Maybe you learn how to feed a bird [or] how to identify one in case you’re asked. You never know what you’re going to come across.”

Being able to work with animals in so many different environments means that Lees-McRae can create well-rounded and capable wildlife professionals and help them find their niche when they go out into the world. Whether they prefer educating the public through wildlife presentations or providing emergency medical services to patients in the surgical suite, each wildlife biology student gets to figure out where their career interests lie.

“Wildlife biology is a really broad field to go into,” Hall said. “You could be sitting in the field taking measurements. You could be a wildlife rehabilitator, a zookeeper. You can do a lot of things. Working at the May Wildlife Center helps you realize what part of wildlife you want to go into.”

But it’s not all fun and games. Hall said there is more that goes into wildlife rehabilitation than meets the eye, and some days can pose challenges for the passionate team behind the scenes.

“Yes, we do work with animals, and, yes, we’re holding cute little bunnies, but that’s just what’s shown in the pictures we post,” Hall said. “You don’t see that, right before that, an animal just died and it was on us, even though we tried so hard to keep it safe.”

“You see me holding a bird on my arm, but you didn’t see what we had to go through so the animal would build trust with me,” Hall added. “I think it’s good for the community to know that, while the things we do may look easy and fun, there is a lot more emotional stuff that happens, a lot more requirements that the program asks for, and it can take a toll on you.”

But the emotional toll, early mornings, and long hours in the center are all worth it when release day comes and the hard work put into an animal’s recovery finally comes to fruition.

“Everyone wants to see a bird get better, but once you see it yourself, it’s a great feeling,” McGuckin said. “We get an intake and it’s completely injured and, then, over the course of a few months you see him get better. If it’s a bird, you see the flight test where he goes from not being able to fly at all to him flying perfectly. That feeling you get is almost indescribable, like, ‘Wow, I helped with that.’”

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