INDIAN SHORES — A battered baby bird, more fluff than feathers, needed her. At the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary bird hospital, Barbara Suto performed a quick exam. No broken bones, but the chick was ailing. The sanctuary's longtime biologist injected the chick with an antibiotic. She gave it saline to prevent dehydration.
Oil had nothing to do with the hurt mockingbird. The villain? A cat.
In west-central Florida, at least for now, cats, dogs and other birds are more of a threat than the oil sheen spreading along the northern gulf coast.
But if oil reaches here, Suto will be ready. At 50, she has spent more than half of her life caring for everything from 1-inch hummingbirds to white pelicans with 9-foot wingspans. "Really, I don't want to think about the oil right now," Suto said. "I want to concentrate on the present. We're overwhelmed as it is.''
It's spring in Florida, but nature is no Disney movie. As you read this, chicks are tumbling out of nests by accident or because a parent bird has given them the heave-ho. On the ground, fiddler crabs with clicking claws are closing in for the kill. Waiting alligators grab baby birds out of midair like an outfielder catching a popup.
Still, some hatchlings luck out. Someone nice carries the helpless chick in a shoebox to Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary or a place like it.
Suto and her volunteers save as many as they can. Others die in their hands. Nature.
• • •
There is nothing natural about birds with oil-soaked feathers.
If the worst happens, bird rehabilitators from Pensacola to Jacksonville will head for water. They will be working for Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research, the Delaware nonprofit tapped by BP to lead the rehabilitation effort.
"Oil is a toxin," said Suto, who worked with oily birds after a Tampa Bay spill in 1993. "Birds absorb it through their skin and are poisoned. Oil is heavy. Some birds can't fly if they're saturated. Their natural body temperature ranges from 102 to 110. If they're covered with oil, their feathers don't insulate and they can die of hypothermia in 80-degree water. They can drown. They can starve or die of thirst. They can die of stress. We'll be ready.''
Suto has curly auburn hair, gray eyes and the slender build of a great blue heron. She has scars on her arms and hands from the beaks of egrets and gannets. She seldom watches television or goes to the movies or to parties. The birds need her at the hospital and at home, where she cares for three African parrots and five cockatiels. "I don't have human children,'' she says. "My birds are my kids.''
• • •
At the bird hospital, patients chirped, croaked and cawed from 143 cages. They pecked and excreted, begged for food and excreted again. The overwhelming aroma of fish and ammonia permeated every corner.
In one cage, four squirmy Cooper's hawk hatchlings, all fuzz and attitude, squirmed cantankerously. "I think they're going to make it,'' Suto said.
In another cage, an osprey chick lay breast down on a towel and fought for breath. Suto pulled on gloves, removed the fish hawk and performed an exam.
"I've never seen this particular problem with an osprey before,'' she said. The claws looked normal, but the legs were splayed unnaturally wide apart. This osprey would never be capable of hunting or landing. Maybe the parents had pushed their abnormal chick from the nest. Perhaps they had abandoned it.
But here it was.
Suto injected the osprey with a syringe. Within seconds its eyes rolled back. Soon it ceased moving. Sometimes euthanasia is a form of release.
"I care about these birds but I try to detach,'' Suto said. "You can't let it get to you. There's always the next bird to focus on.''