Love is in the Air

Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society gives injured birds and other wildlife a second chance.

I am seated in the administration office and admitting centre at the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS) when Reg Westcott walks into the room.  He holds a great horned owl against his chest. Its feet— with long sharp talons—are held firmly but gently in his left hand.  A towel is loosely draped over the bird’s head, so it wouldn’t struggle as it is moved from one building to the next.

Maj Birch, the founder and manager at MARS, scurries over to get the latest update on the bird’s condition. The towel is slowly lifted off the owl’s head, revealing enormous yellow eyes set in a moon-shaped flat face.  To me, the eyes simultaneously show both fear and trust.  It is almost as if the owl knows that these people are trying to help him.  Or, perhaps, he is just too weak to put up a fight.  Up close, mottled brown feathers give the illusion of health but, I am told, beneath this feathery camouflage is an emaciated body.  Without the efforts of the staff and volunteers at MARS, this owl would have died several days ago.  With their intervention, food, medication, and plenty of TLC, there is hope that he will eventually be able to fly free again.

After a few minutes of discussion about feeding and treatment options, the towel is once again draped over the owl’s head and Westcott, the Wildlife Centre’s rescue and education outreach worker, returns to the intensive care building. Maj Birch turns back to me and continues telling me about MARS—an organization that has built a solid reputation for providing rescue, rehabilitation and eventual release (for those with a chance for survival) for injured, ill, orphaned or oiled avian species.

Everything from owls, eagles and blue herons to ducks, geese, Trumpeter swans and hummingbirds tiny enough to fit in the palm of your hand have received a second chance at MARS.  Two of their more memorable cases over the years include a couple of pelicans.  These clownish birds presented challenges and some comic relief during their stays, before they were well enough to be transported to a pelican sanctuary in the United States to complete their recovery.  Then, there was a racing pigeon from Japan (easily identified by the band on his leg) that got way off course and wisely hitched a ride to dry land and safety on a Canadian Coast Guard ship.  After a one-month quarantine at MARS, the wayward bird was transported back to his grateful owner in Japan.

Birch is quick to remind me that MARS isn’t just a sanctuary for the birds!  Although they do not have suitable facilities for long-term housing of most mammal species, MARS also provides short-term care and transport to other wildlife rehabilitations centres for orphaned, injured or ill native species, such as fawns, squirrels, raccoons and beavers.  It is interesting to note that, due to the fragile and unique ecosystem on Vancouver Island, they are not permitted to rehabilitate non-native species, such as starlings, English sparrows, feral domesticated rabbits, skunks, foxes or opossum.

“While we may have a range of birds and some animals here on any given day, I have to stress that MARS is not a zoo,” warns Birch.  “These animals are here to recover and be rehabilitated, not to be on display.  They need a quiet and stress-free environment, as well as food and medication in order to get well.  Because of this, people can’t just drop in.  Visitation is by appointment only.”

There are, however, three full-time resident raptors that don’t seem to mind you looking at them.  These birds were injured and brought to the centre years ago but were deemed unfit for release.  Shakespeare, a one-eyed barred owl, Horus, a hand-raised red-tailed hawk that had been abandoned and was unable to survive in the wild, and Otis, a little Western screech owl with one wonky eye, now serve as public education ambassadors.  The MARS staff and volunteers and these three birds regularly visit local classrooms and appear at more than 50 meetings, lectures, displays, workshops, seminars and conferences every year.  They are, perhaps, the most photographed birds on Vancouver Island!

“Operating a wildlife rehabilitation centre is not something I had planned on doing,” explains Birch.  “My fascination for birds started with the bird feeder outside my home in Ohio.  I was a city girl and I found the activity at the feeder fascinating.  When I moved to Canada in 1972, I participated in a Christmas day wild bird count and after that, my interest in birds continued to grow.  I became aware of wildlife rehabilitation programs and began to volunteer at a facility in northern BC.  A few years later, I became a certified member of the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council.”

In 1992, Maj and her husband Keith moved to Vancouver Island and purchased a three-acre property at 6817 Headquarters Road, in Merville.  One year later, they received the necessary wildlife permits to enable them to provide professional care for injured and ill birds on a case-by-case basis.  They worked closely with the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre in Errington, considering that they had limited facilities on their own property at that time.

“Before long, news of our project began to spread amongst the veterinary community, the SPCA, and the public,” adds Birch.  “Even Harold Macey, Area C director for the Comox Valley Regional District, applauded our mission.  Soon, a small group of volunteers came forward to help us.”

Otis, a Western screech owl rehabilitated by MARS, is one of three birds that now serve as public education ambassadors for the group.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

In 1995, the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society became an official non-profit provincial organization.  With the support of an all-volunteer team, the facilities grew along with the demand.  Eventually, nine different buildings and flight pens would be constructed there.

The old adage “if you build it… they will come” certainly rang true.  An average of 20 ‘patients’ a year soon became 70, then 140.  In the past couple of years, MARS has cared for about 450 cases annually.  In total, several thousand creatures from the Gulf Islands, as far south as Nanaimo, east to Powell River, west to Tofino, and north to the top of Vancouver Island have been in their care.  2011 was a record year, with 54 bald eagles representing a large percentage of the caseload.  While some perished, the majority were rehabilitated and released back into the wild.

With the cooperation of various individuals and associations across the Island and on the mainland, MARS has a well-established network to assist with transportation of animals to and from the Wildlife Centre in Merville.  Some volunteers transport wildlife by car.  Others with boats provide water taxi service for the Gulf Islands.  Pacific Coastal Airlines, Air Canada, Westjet and even a couple of pilots with privately owned small aircraft have all generously donated air transport on numerous occasions.  Helicopter pilot Norm Snihur has been extraordinary in his support.  Snihur has transported wildlife for MARS and other wildlife rehab centres for more than 10 years and personally logs about 300 hours annually.

While demands on the Wildlife Centre continued to grow, Maj and Keith Birch were still working and helping tend to the birds before and after work.  Although supported by a dedicated team of volunteers, the personal and financial stress, and tremendous time commitment, eventually became too much for everyone.  For a brief period in 2000, MARS was forced to cease operations.

During the ‘down time’ MARS supporters did not sit idle.  They incorporated federally, to enable them to issue tax receipts to donors, and they developed a five-year business plan.  The plan included hiring two full-time employees.  Considering her extensive experience and dedication to MARS, the Board of Directors hired Birch as the manager.  Sadly, Keith passed away in 2008, leaving the future of the entire project in Maj’s hands, along with the support of a dedicated Board of Directors and large volunteer base.

While it would be fabulous to be able to fill this article with heart-warming or funny stories, and say that the financial concerns at MARS are a thing of the past, that isn’t the case.  The truth is that the wildlife rescue centre that most Comox Valley residents are so proud of could use a little more TLC from the community.  Ever-changing gaming grant regulations, ongoing funding challenges, and increasing costs put a strain on the 100 or so volunteers and two employees at MARS. Requests for public education presentations and appearances continue to grow, case loads increase annually, costs have risen dramatically, but funding has not grown to meet these demands on resources.

To add to the frustrations, MARS was denied some of its government funding for a few years because there was concern about the wildlife centre’s structures being constructed on privately-owned land.  This, combined with changes to the BC Gaming regulations and grants program, sent MARS on a financial roller coaster ride.  Thankfully, those concerns have been laid to rest in the last couple of years but, because of annual funding variations, the organization can’t bank on financial forecasts from one year to the next.  “Financially, everything is okay right now,” adds Birch, “but we never know what challenges the future will bring.”

Now, in addition to her role as founder and job as manager, wildlife rehabilitator, chief cook and bottle washer, Birch says with a faint smile, “I had to become a professional beggar, too.  It is my job to ensure that we have enough funding to carry on operations.  Instead of caring for wildlife, up to 70 per cent of my time is dedicated to fundraising, grant applications and related tasks.”

Birch is quick to add that MARS is ever grateful for the generosity of many individuals and corporate donors in the past, and knows that they can be counted on for support in the future.  Several large corporations, such as the TD Canada Trust Friends of the Environment Fund, Shell Environment Fund, and BC Hydro, to name a few, as well as the veterinary and the farming communities, local businesses, and artists, have all been extraordinary in their support.

“What would really help MARS is if we could have a larger number of people in the community to sign up for ‘planned giving,’ with a small amount automatically donated monthly through the CanadaHelps.org program,” explains Birch.  “I really wish I could get more people to realize how helpful this would be to us.”

Also high on the MARS’ wish list is acquiring the land (and funding) to build and support the operation of a large flight pen to assist with the rehabilitation of bald eagles and other large birds of prey.

“If the land was gifted to us, then we could start working on getting the funding to construct a flight pen that would be a minimum of 120-feet long and 40-feet wide and we would be able to fully rehabilitate raptors,” says Birch.  “A structure of this nature could also be home to a wildlife interpretive centre that could be used to showcase local wildlife art and host educational presentations.  It would be good for the community… and for the birds.”

My tour of MARS ends with a visit to a flight pen that contains four majestic bald eagles, all in various stages of recovery. They are startled when Birch and I first come near their enclosure and they swoop from one end to the other, not frantically, but definitely concerned with the sight and scent of a stranger coming near their territory.  Their wing tips are only a metre or so from my face as they pass in front of me and, when they flap their wings, I feel a rush of air across my face.  I also feel a flood of emotion and now understand how these birds have come to mean so much to Birch and others. I can only imagine the pride that the people at MARS must feel when one of these magnificent creatures blossoms under their care and can be released back into the wild—and they see their love take to the air.


MARS encourages the public to help with the rescue of injured wildlife by bringing small species to them or to a veterinarian, however, before you interfere with any wildlife, please call them at 250-337-2021 or their toll-free Wildlife Emergency pager: 1-800-304-9968 for advice. Don’t put yourself at risk with large or dangerous species, such as bald eagles, swans or great blue heron, their trained staff and volunteers will respond. For more on how you can help MARS and to learn about upcoming events, visit their website at: www.wingtips.org

One Response to Love is in the Air

  1. Hello Terri. I read the article you did in the April/May 2012 InFocus Magazine: “Love is in the Air”, about the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society. You did a great job with the story and I’m sure this will give much needed financial support for this important organization. It’s really good to have also included the phone numbers for when someone encounters wildlife they think are in trouble. Thanks for your part in letting people know all about MARS – that’s a huge help for the birds and wild animals in need!

    Gail Lovig
    Fanny Bay