INDIAN ROCKS BEACH – For a new bird rescue operation in Pinellas County, it is all about the three R’s: Rescue, Rehab and Release.
Birds in Helping Hands is the name of the organization and while it has been saving birds along the Pinellas coastline for some time, it is finally emerging so residents and visitors will know they exist and how to contact them.
Shelley Vickery is a co-founder of the group. She spoke to the Barrier Islands Governmental Council on Sept. 26 to spread the word. She and co-founder Linda Mercado decided to start their own rescue operation two years ago. Both worked at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary but left when that operation ran into financial difficulties. Ever since, they have been rescuing birds and now it is time to grow.
“We were being quiet about ourselves because we didn’t have enough volunteers to answer all the potential calls we would get,” said Vickery. “Now we do; we have more than 20 volunteers all over the county.”
Vickery said they have been getting calls from all over.
“We’ve gotten them from St. Pete, Palm Harbor and New Port Richey, but nothing from Seminole,” she said laughing. “Then we finally got a call from Seminole and we knew it was time to expand.”
Vickery said she knew there was a void in service when the Seabird Sanctuary stopped rescuing birds. They rehab birds that are brought to them but don’t go out to get them.
The organization answers their phones 24 hours a day, she said.
Vickery said once an injured bird is rehabilitated, the group tries to release it as close to the spot where it was picked up as possible.
“However, if the bird got hooked by a fishing line from a pier, or was attacked by a cat in a backyard then we don’t release them near those places,” she said.
She also noted some statistics that perhaps aren’t all that surprising.
“Ninety percent of the birds we rescue are because of fishing hooks and line and 90 percent of those birds are from Fort De Soto,” she said.
Vickery discussed a pelican that had been hooked five different times. It was difficult getting all those hooks out and in one case the hook was so big they had to get bolt cutters to cut the hook.
She reminded people that it is illegal to feed pelicans.
“When you are finished fishing bring your live bait home with you or give it to someone else,” she said. “Collect all your broken line and dispose of it at home.”
She recalled that one bird had been fed the carcass of a fish and had a fish bone sticking out of its neck.
Vickery also said Birds in Helping Hands cooperates and partners with other rescue operations in Tampa Bay.
“When we rescue an owl or a hawk we bring it to Tampa Bay Raptors in Tampa where they care for the bird before it is released,” she said.
Busch Gardens provides free medical care and medicine for any of their birds that need it. The attraction also supplied food for special rescue that happened recently.
“We rescued 22 orphaned ibises and they were eating monsters,” she said. “Our food bill for them was $40 a day; that’s when Busch Gardens helped by giving us some food.”
Once they were old enough the orphaned ibises were released.
“Our favorite part is the release,” said Vickery.
Another official of the organization, Christina Buchanan, said it is now time for the organization to grow and get into new, more appropriate accommodations.
“We need a facility on about an acre of land so we can have an out building and space to keep the birds for rehab,” she said. “We’ve built great relationships but we need more help.”
Buchanan said most people don’t realize what goes into keeping a rescue and rehab operation going.
“There are cleaning products and our water bill is huge,” she said. “Those are things people don’t think about.”
Right now she said the operation on Park Boulevard is in a private home.
“All our volunteers use their own cars to do the rescues and they buy their own gas. All the money we get, 100 percent of it, goes toward the birds. No one gets paid and we want to keep it that way,” Buchanan said.
“Last year our expenses were $15,000 so that will tell you that we are a lean, mean rescue machine,” she said.
Vickery and Mercado are donating $500 each month.
“We’d like to be able to give them some of that back,” Buchanan said.
For more information about volunteering or donating to Birds in Helping Hands visit their website: Birdsinhelpinghands.org.