Last Tuesday night, over 250 bird lovers crowded into the Vanderbilt Mansion on East 93rd Street to give their attention and dollars to New York City’s first wildlife rehabilitation center, The Wild Bird Fund.
Men and women dressed in suits and sequined sweaters munched on vegetarian hors d’oeuvres and mingled with turtles, a snake, a few fledgling pigeons, baby squirrels and an owl in the grand chandeliered rooms, enjoying the company of fellow avian enthusiasts and an evening of bird-themed entertainment.
Attendees bid on silent auction items, took in a beautiful performance by two lithe and feather-appointed dancers and wandered the halls of the historic mansion, bedecked with photos of rehabilitating wildlife. The use of the mansion was donated, as were many of the auction items and services, by New Yorkers who feel a duty to protect the flightiest creatures among us, even that scraggly pigeon with the broken wing.
The headliner of the night was award-winning novelist Jonathan Franzen, who has chronicled his affection for winged creatures in several pieces for The New Yorker. Franzen stood before a packed room to explain why he regards birds so highly and why he feels it’s imperative for people to care for the injured and sick of the flocks that pass over our city.
“They don’t really interact with you except to try to bite you. They really have very little to do with us directly, and that’s partly why I like them,” he said.
He called birds “the great other of the world,” the direct descendents of dinosaurs who had the earth to themselves for a good long while before we came along. Now, Franzen said, there are roughly 100 billion birds in the world, but the 7 billion-strong human population is making it harder and harder for those birds to survive.
“We’re basically taking over the world rapidly and building cities like New York City, and birds have no choice but to interact with us, to accommodate us,” Franzen said.
New York lies directly in the East Coast flyway, the path that migratory birds travel on their way south for winter and north for spring. Thousands of birds are killed every year when they fly into tall buildings that we’ve placed in their way.
“Like it or not, we’re the stewards of birds now,” Franzen said. “We claimed the planet.”
Rita McMahon, who was dressed in a kimono bedecked with pigeons that was one of the items up for bid in the silent auction, and Karen Heidgerd, co-founders of the nonprofit Wild Bird Fund, explained to the crowd why their Upper West Side location was so important and why they were asking for much-needed donations.
“It’s a great location, but it comes with a price,” Heidgerd said as a video of the rehab center, days away from officially opening, played behind her. The expensive storefront on Columbus Avenue is right across the street from Animal General, where they can bring the birds for veterinary treatment, and the Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine.
“We have all the doctors right there for us, we have X-rays—we have everything we need.”
Both McMahon and Heidgerd are certified by the state to rehabilitate wild animals and certified by the federal government to work with migratory birds. At one point, they had been housing many of their patients in McMahon’s Upper West Side apartment a few blocks away, but now the birds are nested safely in the center. The party raised over $55,000, which will help pay for equipment and medicine and put a dent in the $300,000 annual operating budget.
Franzen likened rehabilitating birds to a spiritual and moral mandate, the duty of an enlightened society.
“The fortunate birds get better and go back to being others, as they should be,” he said
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