Island People: Elizabeth Hanrahan nurses
Ocracoke’s wild animals back to health
By CONNIE LEINBACH
so often, Ocracoke islanders will glimpse a petite woman in the village
running with a net after a bird and fearlessly capturing it.
L. Hanrahan is a wildlife rehabilitator, whose home in Jackson Circle
also serves as a rehabilitation hospital to a variety of wild adult and
baby birds recovering from injuries. She is the only one in
County, although she has two colleagues in Dare County. She is always
on call and rarely leaves the island.
At the close of 2012,
Hanrahan had helped 160 birds on the island, such as gulls, loons,
pelicans, crows, mockingbirds, and cormorants. That total is
down from what she used to do when she lived in Edenton on the
mainland—about 300 a year. She also rehabilitates snakes, turtles, and
other native species.
Her license does not allow her to work with “rabies vector” animals,
such as raccoons, skunks or bats.
“I used to work with bats,” she says. “They’re a lot of fun. They have
a lot of personality.”
But, since bats are potential rabies carriers, she no longer is allowed
to work with them.
does not work with domestic animals because that could be crossing the
line of practicing veterinary medicine without a license.
home and grounds, which she shares with her husband, Calvin, a physical
therapist, are clean and tidy -- and must remain so, according to
licensing standards. Her free-standing “clinic” is a raised
Calvin built for her behind their home.
an “intake” area, where Hanrahan triages her patients and a variety of
cages and equipment. There are wound-care supplies, baby bird supplies,
an incubator, and specific supplies for specific species.
A seagull moves around in a metal cage.
“This gull may have a dislocated shoulder,” she says, opening the cage
and grabbing it easily.
“You have to learn the ‘bird-bander’s’ grip,” she adds, and, yes, “the
birds bite and peck at me all the time.”
Two other cages in the clinic have fabric-like sides.
“You have to be feather-friendly,” Hanrahan says about the cages she
has for various birds.
A freezer in the clinic holds a variety of items for her trade. She
pulls out a frozen bird cadaver in a plastic bag.
“This is a clapper rail,” she says. “They’re all over South
will send that cadaver to the Museum of Natural Science in
Raleigh. Also, in the freezer is a racer snake and a pelican
cadaver awaiting transport elsewhere.
There also are
bags of frozen mice, which are food for recovering crows, raptors, and
falcons, she says. “People don’t realize how many mice you
for this work,” she says, explaining that she purchases 200 to 300 mice
She raises meal worms for the birds in a tray beside a
three-drawer file that is labeled with beetle life stages -- newest
eggs, eggs, and beetles.
Ultraviolet bulbs help create sunlight during recovery time inside.
“You want them out as soon as possible,” she says.
She uses a feather duster as a “momma” for baby birds, as wells as two
Tupperware containers are used to hold baby birds.
their time in the clinic, injured birds can go outside to any one of
four areas she has for them to regain their wing strength. A
large metal cage can hold large birds, such as raptors. An upstairs
screened-in porch on her home has several tree branches. This
where the passerines, or song birds such as Carolina wrens, go for
therapy before they are released.
“You don’t interact with baby birds (or ducks) or they will habituate
on you and come back,” she says.
has a cage about 20-foot tall towards the front of her property, which
can hold pelicans, gulls, and the three varieties of falcons found on
the island—peregrine, merlins, and American kestrels, of which she has
seen more this year than in the last five years.
is also baby bird day care,” she explains. The otherwise bare
cage contains a couple of ledges, and a few kiddie pools—where pelagic
(or water) birds learn or relearn to swim and feed themselves.
that live in colonies, such as pelicans and terns, have to join a
“crèche,” or a group of the same birds, as part of their rehabilitation
so that they learn (or relearn) that they are wild birds.
couple of mirrors in the cage are for “enrichment,” she says with a
smile. “So that they think they’re looking at other birds
Hanrahan will “chase them around the cage” for
their rehabilitation. “You can’t just take them out and
them,” she says.
She takes pelicans up to the north end of the
island to teach them to swim and fish before releasing them. Each bird
has to be released into its native habitat and she cannot release
anything into National Park Service land that didn’t come from the park.
In August, she had several barn swallow babies she had to teach to fly
nearby her Jackson Circle home.
“I love that,” she says.
rehabilitators must have a state permit and a license from the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service. While Hanrahan does not get paid
any organization or agency to do this work, she has to submit reports
on her work to federal agencies.
It is all done on her own
nickel—the supplies, equipment and licenses, although she can take the
purchases for her work off her taxes.
She receives fees for
teaching classes at the College of Albemarle and the Raptor Center in
Charlotte. If she teaches at a convention, her attendance fee is
waived. She receives no income from her profession, although she has
applied for grants to pay for some of the cages. Because she is
licensed by the federal government, individual donations to her for her
work are tax-deductible, she says.
Helping wildlife has
been a passion for Hanrahan since she began volunteering years ago at
her local humane society in her native Gainesville, Ga., where she had
been a vocational education teacher. She has an undergraduate
degree in business administration and master’s degrees in vocational
education administration and special education.
Eventually, she became executive director of the society, where they
occasionally got some wild animals.
“Emotionally, (the humane society) work drove me nuts,” she said about
the euthanasia aspect of it.
she left the humane society in the mid-1980s, she embarked on formal
training in wildlife rehabilitation and found her true
After living on Ocracoke from 2000 to 2006, then in Edenton, Hanrahan
and her husband moved back to Ocracoke permanently in 2010.
with rehabilitating injured birds, Hanrahan helps educate island
students in the summer at the Outdoor Classroom, sponsored by the
She also does her best to educate people who find injured birds.
go on the Internet to learn how to feed wild birds,” she says, shaking
her head. “Don’t feed them milk, dog food, or cat food. This can be
life-threatening. There are seven different categories for birds and
you have to know which of these seven the bird is in as to what to feed
Moreover, she says, individuals are legally not allowed to foster wild
“Birds are federally protected,” Hanrahan says. “It’s against the law
to keep wild birds.”
This is why she is always on call to pick up an injured bird at any
time on the island.
you have a cat attack, you need to get them on meds right away,” she
says. “If (people who’ve found an injured bird) wait a few days, it may
be too late.”
She is full of the argot of her profession and information about the
various bird species she assists.
“Every bird (I help) is my favorite,” she says.
is scheduled to teach a basic Wildlife Rehabilitation Class at the
College of the Albemarle the first weekend in February. A notice will
be posted in the post office in mid-January.
However, if the
class is not held, she will offer to do a class locally for those who
would like to get at state permit to rehabilitate squirrels, and native
mammals and/or local baby ducks that are not considered
The class would also be for folks who would like to volunteer
For more information on these classes or questions about injured
wildlife, Hanrahan can be reached at 252-928-2604.
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