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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bird Sanctuary

Air Date: Week of

Karen Kelly of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium visits with Peter Dubacher of the Berkshire Bird Paradise. This upstate New York sanctuary is home to thousands of injured and abandoned birds.


CURWOOD: As humans encroach on wildlife habitat, there are inevitable clashes. We hit animals with our cars and snare them with our power lines. Sometimes these creatures recover. But with birds, the disabilities usually prevent them from returning to the wild. In upstate New York, many of these injured birds wind up at the Berkshire Bird Paradise. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Karen Kelly paid a visit to the sanctuary and has this report.

(Bird calls)

KELLY: Peter Dubacher is leading me down a gravel path in his back yard. It winds through a mishmash of wire and wood buildings that house hundreds of disabled and abandoned birds. We stop in front of a greenhouse covered with a gray plastic tarp. Dubacher unlatches the door and calls out to his newest resident, a sandhill crane.

DUBACHER: Where's that crazy crane? Come here, crane. Come here. (The crane answers) How are you doing?

KELLY: The crane dutifully trots over and makes a purring sound as Dubacher strokes its long, black beak. It was bred in captivity and then released, but Dubacher says it became so dependent on humans it couldn't survive in the wild.

DUBACHER: The reason why they had to catch these birds is because notice how docile this one is. Here's a situation where he's so overly affectionate and friendly, what are you going to do with him? Unless there's a place that's going to take care of him, you know, they have to get rid of him. So that's where we come into the picture.

KELLY: In other words, Dubacher takes birds that nobody else wants. Like the snowy owl that was stepped on by a cow, or the eagles and hawks that are shot by careless hunters. He welcomes all kinds of feathered creatures to his 20-acre farm in Grafton, New York. Here, Dubacher uses building materials and vegetation to try to recreate each bird's natural environment.

DUBACHER: You have to build your facilities according to their disabilities. You know, each one has a different need, just like a person. And we have to sort of work around their disabilities in order to make them happy and comfortable.

KELLY: This wasn't supposed to be a full-time job for Dubacher . He used to be a chef who occasionally took in injured animals. Then word got around and people started to seek him out. So Dubacher began reading books about ornithology and veterinary medicine. And he spent the past 30 years learning through trial and error.

DUBACHER: I had one situation where I had an eagle that had just come from a veterinarian and his stitches had popped. All of his stitches had popped. So I had to restitch the bird. If I wouldn't have, the bird would have died within minutes. You know, when you're dealing with life and death, sometimes you have to do things, and you learn quickly.

(High-pitched short calls)

DUBACHER: That's an eagle.

KELLY: About twice a week, Dubacher gets a call from somebody who's found an injured bird. It may be a local veterinarian or a wildlife rehabilitator in another state. Others simply show up at his door with a cardboard box containing a frightened animal.

DUBACHER: Behind each bird that's here, there's a human being. That's the way I look at it. So in other words, there was somebody that said no, I might be in a rush to work but I'm going to take the time out to help this little creature. I think what's important is all life is sacred.

(Many bird calls)

KELLY: For biologist Ward Stone, Dubacher is the Mother Theresa of the bird world. Stone is a wildlife pathologist in New York and a frequent visitor to the sanctuary.

STONE: When I first met him, I though that he probably wouldn't be able to make it because I've seen a lot of people talk like he did about saving birds and other wildlife, and then burn out and not actually do it. But here's a guy that put his life into it, worked at it seven days a week, and made it work. And so he's very unusual.


KELLY: Dubacher heads down a path that separates the peacocks from the emus and the Canadian geese. To them, this is celebrity. As he approaches, birds rush to the fence to greet him.

(Many bird calls)

KELLY: They seem to be eating well. There's a dead chicken lying in the corner and a pile of frozen lab mice near the door. There's even a kitten chomping away on a leg of venison.

DUBACHER: See the roadkill? That's what smells. That's a deer that came in yesterday, and what I do is I just chop off the legs and so forth, and in that way the birds can come right over and help themselves.

KELLY: It's not a pretty sight, but it does say something about Dubacher's matter-of-fact approach.

DUBACHER: Sometimes chickens die, pigeons die, whatever it is. I don't throw them away, I feed them. We feed them right out so nothing's wasted. It's nature. That's the real world.

KELLY: The sanctuary costs about $40,000 a year to run and depends solely on private donations. At times, Dubacher says, it's a struggle.

DUBACHER: You figure after 30 years of struggling and living basically as a hermit, taking care of eagles and chickens and ducks and pigeons or whatever it is, and you suddenly begin to question yourself, you say, "What am I doing?" you know? But if I had a choice, if you were to take a million dollars and say you've got a choice, you can take that million dollars and leave this place, I wouldn't take it.

(Chickens cluck)

DUBACHER: Hi, fellas.

KELLY: How many are in here, do you think?

DUBACHER: I would say many hundred.

KELLY: Our last stop is the chicken house. Pigeons and chickens are perched above us, below us, and flying in every direction. Peter Dubacher pulls out a hose and starts filling their water buckets, something he'll do five or six more times today. He says he's not trying to save the world. He's just trying to care for his small corner of it. For Living on Earth, I'm Karen Kelly in Grafton, New York.



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