In one of the most industrial stretches of the state, next to machinists, breweries and a scrap-metal recycler, is an almost-secret aviary. It’s a warehouse inhabited by loons, owls, eagles, song-birds and the occasional falcon. The Bird Treatment and Learning Center, or Bird TLC, is a non-profit that’s somewhere in between a veterinary clinic, animal shelter and a zoo. And it’s on the cusp of moving to a dramatically different new home.
“This is where all the craziness begins,” Amy Kilshaw said while giving a tour one morning in November. Through a fluorescent lit front-room, beyond the bird operating ward, and past several enclosures called mews, each the size of walk-in closets, Kilshaw stood a few inches from a peregrine falcon.
“This one came from Dillingham,” Kilshaw said of football-sized bird. On the other side of an opaque screen the falcon calmly stood in place, barely moving or reacting to the presence of humans.
“She may have had some head trauma, because she’s just not quite all there,” Kilshaw explained. “Falcons normally are very neurotic and very high energy birds. So she is abnormally calm.”
Animals are brought here from all around the state, then Kilshaw and a group of volunteer veterinarians have to work backwards to figure out what happened.
“Unfortunately they don’t come in with name-tags of, ‘Hi, I’m Sam, and I hit a car.’ That would be nice,” Kilshaw laughed with a note of melancholy.
Because of the falcon’s sedate demeanor, it may not be released back into the wild.
“It might just be sending her to her death if we did that,” Kilshaw explained.
Of the birds that can’t leave, many become educational resources, living here or at the homes of volunteers, sometimes in large outdoor mews.
So far this year, Bird TLC has taken in more than six hundred birds, according to Kilshaw, which is down from 2016. Their busiest season by far is the summer, when up to 20 birds will be brought in a day, filling every available spot in the 2,300-square-foot space. Including a few chilly outdoor mews.
“This is a juvenile bald eagle that came from…I can’t remember now,” Kilshaw said in between trilling yelps from the bird as it bounced up and down from log perches. It was either Unalaska or Kodiak, she thought. Either way, its feathers were saturated with an oily industrial substance that had so far proven impervious to conventional cleaning techniques. They might have to wait until the bird malted to release it.
This is one of the only entities in Alaska that’s capable of not only of rehabilitating injured birds, but navigating tricky state and federal protocols when it comes to animals with special protected statuses, like bald eagles (the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka handles most of the injured avians in Southeast). About half of all the birds taken in are eventually released. Some are big and majestic, but the majority are migratory fowl or tiny song-birds that have hit upon misfortune. For example a tan pine grosbeak about the size of a fist.
“They’ll often eat berries that have been fermenting, and they get drunk and they hit things,” Kilshaw said of the watchful gosbeak.
A small number of the accidents Bird TLC ends up treating are natural occurrences. But Kilshaw and her volunteers are primarily concerned with injuries caused by humans and the world they’ve built in bird habitats.
“Ninety percent of the time it’s human caused,” Kilshaw said, pointing to attacks by domestic dogs and cats, building and car collisions, as well as accidents on roads as examples. “That’s why I do it. Because it’s not nature, it’s us. It’s human induced. So I think it’s our duty to help these birds.”
As part of its educational programming, Bird TLC non-releasable animals into schools or public outreach events (during this year’s Alaska Federation of Natives Convention they provided a snowy owl to the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation’s display booth. According to the company, the word Ukpeaġvik means “a place to hunt snowy owls.”). Part of the small non-profit’s agenda is getting tourists and residents up close with creatures they might only ever see soaring way up in the sky.
“It’s really incredible to get to see these birds up close,” Guy Runco said. Runco is the non-profit’s executive director, and the only other paid staff member beside Kilshaw. “They’re around us all the time, we just rarely see them.”
Runco is a man who seems genuinely excited about all birds. He cherishes ravens for their superior intelligence. He has kinder things to say about golden eagles than their bald scavenger cousins. And he has a special place in his heart for black-billed magpies because they are “a great family bird, they really stick together.”
But his role at the center has given him a unique perspective informed by how particular species behave under human care. Swans, for example, are not ideal guests.
“I think swans are big, beautiful birds, and I love it when they’re out in the wild,” Runco said, explaining that indoors they are large, temperamental, and “incredibly hard to take care of.”
According to Runco, the current location on King Street in the Taku-Cambell area works because it’s easy for people to drive to, and there is a lake nearby for releasing birds back into the wild. But presently Bird TLC is focused on building a new facility further south above Potter Marsh. It’ll be 4,000 square feet, about twice the size of this current facility, with more space for rehabilitation, as well as for public engagement.
The upgrade is being paid for by corporate and individual donations, as well as revenues from birds appearing at outreach events. Runco hopes they’ll be in the facility by winter of next year.