January 7, 2013

Island People: Elizabeth Hanrahan nurses
Ocracoke’s wild animals back to health


Every so often, Ocracoke islanders will glimpse a petite woman in the village running with a net after a bird and fearlessly capturing it.

Elizabeth 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 Hyde 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 way 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.

She does not work with domestic animals because that could be crossing the line of practicing veterinary medicine without a license.

Hanrahan’s 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 shed Calvin built for her behind their home.
Inside, there’s 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 Point.” 

She 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 need for this work,” she says, explaining that she purchases 200 to 300 mice a year.

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 stuffed-animal birds. 
 Tupperware containers are used to hold baby birds. 

After 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 is 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.

Hanrahan 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. 

“This 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.

Birds 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. 

A couple of mirrors in the cage are for “enrichment,” she says with a smile.  “So that they think they’re looking at other birds like themselves.”

Hanrahan will “chase them around the cage” for their rehabilitation.  “You can’t just take them out and release 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.

Wildlife rehabilitators must have a state permit and a license from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  While Hanrahan does not get paid by 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. 

After she left the humane society in the mid-1980s, she embarked on formal training in wildlife rehabilitation and found her true calling.  After living on Ocracoke from 2000 to 2006, then in Edenton, Hanrahan and her husband moved back to Ocracoke permanently in 2010.

Along with rehabilitating injured birds, Hanrahan helps educate island students in the summer at the Outdoor Classroom, sponsored by the Ocracoke Foundation.

She also does her best to educate people who find injured birds.
“Don’t 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 it.”

Moreover, she says, individuals are legally not allowed to foster wild birds themselves.

“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.

“If 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.

Hanrahan 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 “wild”.  The class would also be for folks who would like to volunteer occasionally.

For more information on these classes or questions about injured wildlife, Hanrahan can be reached at 252-928-2604.


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