As I exit my car at the top of Suzie Gilbert’s very long, very steep driveway, I’m immediately greeted, not by a recuperating hawk or crow (as you might expect from a bird rehabber), but by Merlin, Gilbert’s very large, very amiable black curly-coated retriever. Gilbert ushers me inside to meet Mario, an African grey parrot — and resident eccentric — who Gilbert adopted from a shelter years ago.
It’s February and her Hudson Valley
home, with its vaulted ceilings and woodland views, is serene. Winter is Gilbert’s slow season when people aren’t outside as much to find injured birds. Even so, I soon glimpse some of the wacky hubbub that she captures so compellingly in her new book Flyaway: How a Wild Bird Rehabber Sought Adventure and Found Her Wings
. Granted, I don’t meet the full cast of characters (Merlin and Mario are but two) who parade through her memoir detailing the hilarity and heartache of running a home-based bird rehab center and raising two kids with her husband.
No vomiting vultures. No feeble falcons. No emergency vet visits or frantic phone calls.
I do, however, meet some newly released crows and other wild birds that descend from the forest behind Gilbert’s house (near her rehab facilities) for their daily ration of soaked dog food. “Aren’t they amazing,” she sighs with unabashed reverence. I also meet Gilbert’s sole patient at the moment, a regal red-shouldered hawk, recently arrived after a harrowing week trapped inside a local Home Depot. (I doubt I’d be nearly as composed).
Later in the living room, Mario launches a vocal ruckus from the kitchen. “War!” he squawks (a favorite word). Gilbert excuses herself and returns carrying Mario on a broom handle to shut him in another room. “He won’t let go if he’s on my hand,” she explains. Soon, Merlin bounds in to play, and Skye, Gilbert’s 14-year-old daughter (also in the book), wanders through to say hi. “You see how it gets,” Gilbert says laughing.
It’s a month before her book is released and the 52-year-old Gilbert, who radiates an engaging intensity and intelligence, not to mention an elegance that’s uncommon for someone in her earthy profession, seems at peace with the lack of peace surrounding her chosen path.
I know from her book, though, that finding this path wasn’t easy. Gilbert floundered before landing work in a nearby Hudson Valley animal hospital and later volunteering at a raptor center. Hooked, she opened her own rehab operation, Flyaway, Inc.
Gilbert is clearly passionate about birds. It’s not just the softening of her voice or look of bliss (or even her wish to fly -- call it wing envy). It’s how she describes birds. “Some people are drawn to cuddly things,” she notes. “But I’m in awe of these creatures that can hurt you. I can’t get over their strength and nobility. It’s a force of nature.”
Gilbert admits her passion for helping birds -- her “rescue jones” -- comes with an emotional price, including an unresolved love-hate relationship with the human species. “Sometimes I’m appalled at people’s cruelty,” she says. (Ninety-five percent of wildlife injuries are human-related from cars, guns, etc.) “But then you see someone who’s just heroic, putting themselves in harm’s way to help an injured creature.”
Though she limits herself to crows and raptors these days -- she used to help all birds -- she still struggles to balance her deep connection to each one (“Every bird is different and has a personality”) with the need to release them back into the wild or into death. But it feels more manageable now. Gilbert credits a special orphaned crow named George (her “spiritual master”). Read the book for more on that.
And, not surprisingly, crows — “the bad boys of the bird world” with their penchant for gang life and sliding down snow banks on their backs —are Gilbert’s favorites. “They’re so smart and full of joy,” she says. (Gilbert also adores rock music, rebels, reformers and underdogs.)
Which may help explain why she continues trying to save the world one bird at a time. Her hope: That other rebels, reformers and underdogs will be inspired to help. “People often bring me birds and see how amazing they are, then become involved themselves,” she explains. “That’s why I do this. Sometimes it just takes a hands-on connection to open that channel in someone’s head.”