Of all the birds Kathy Benner has rescued in the 11 years she's volunteered with the Juneau Raptor Center, her most gratifying experience came from the world's tiniest feathered creature.
"There was a teeny, tiny hummingbird that came in," she said. "Little by little, I just kept giving him nectar. Then, little by little, he came to."
For Benner, the joy of watching her efforts pay off is what keeps her answering the center's hotline at odd hours, it's what drives her to care for injured raptors in a flight mew in her back yard and it's what keeps her spending money out of her own pockets just to help the center stay afloat.
For her, and other longtime volunteers like Board President Janet Capito and Secretary Pat Bock, it's about the emotional connection they have with the birds they care for.
The local nonprofit is a volunteer-run center that has served the Southeast region since 1987. The group has rescued a gyrfalcon, two red-tailed hawks, a barred owl and ravens, just to name a few. They've spoken in classrooms all over the Juneau School District and many locals have met Justice, an adult bald eagle, who was blinded in 2000. In short, the JRC's mission is simple: To treat and rehabilitate injured wild birds and to educate the public.
"Release is the ultimate goal," Benner said.
It's a goal they've attained successfully, especially lately. Last weekend Benner released a rehabilitated bald eagle in Haines, and Thursday evening the group released a record three eagles near Brotherhood Bridge in Juneau.
Raptors may be the center's most common patient, but the group does not discriminate.
"We rescue just about any bird," Benner said.
Only "nuisance" and game birds are not rescued due to sensitivities with rules and regulations surrounding those species.
And group members agreed, they also care for the callers who report the injured birds.
"I think a lot of what we do is for the people, not just the birds," Benner said. "People have an emotional connection with these birds."
Even in the most dire circumstances, however, Benner, Capito and Bock all agreed, they'll do everything they can to help - even if they know their efforts are in vain.
"That's when we make the call to humanely euthanize the bird," Capito said. "Sometimes there's just nothing we can do."
It's a decision that, for volunteers, never gets easier.
"Pat still cries," Benner said.
"It's sad," Bock said. "Because you are helping this bird, take Maggie (for example), she had maggots in her body ..."
Yet the center cannot operate without volunteers or money, and finding both can prove to be a challenge.
"A lot of people think we get money from the government," Bock said. "We rely on memberships, grants and revenue from merchandise sales."
And unlike centers down south, the JRC does not charge for educational programs.
"We want to be friendly," Benner said.
"If we are asked to take a bird to a group, we try our hardest to accommodate that," Bock said. "(Of course,) we try to encourage donations, but a lot of money comes out of our own pockets."
And donations, Bock said, could come in a variety of forms. The JRC is always looking for food donations such as quality salmon meat, eggs and heads, game meat such as deer and some road kill. But the requirements are specific. The group asks that interested parties call first, to ensure the food donation is acceptable.
"We all gotta eat," Bock said.
It's fair to say working with wild birds is not always glamorous. There is after all, the bitten fingers, the feedings and, of course, the clean up.
But this trio of longtime volunteers sees the silver lining.
"You never get tired of it," Bock said.
"It can be a kingfisher or a baby robin ..." Benner said.
"It's just so great," Capito said.
When it comes to picking up the phone, volunteers always prefer the call.
"We'll ask questions," Benner said. "I'd rather be able to go and make sure the bird is safe."
To report an injured bird, community members can call the JRC message line at 586-8393 or page the on-call volunteer at 790-5424.
"Just be prepared to get a call back," Bock said.
Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at 523-2271 or email@example.com.
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