Tiny Creatures Being Saved In Oak Mountain State Park.

( As You Read These Very Lines...)

By Harry Gilbert

It was on one of the first really chilly afternoons of this mild Birmingham winter that I turned onto Terrace drive, with the turning leaves lightening the hillsides to those bangin' copper tones, deep inside Oak Mountain State Park, and ventured up the last windy hill road to The Wildlife Center, Alabama's largest full service wildlife rehabilitation center.

Founded in 1977, the Center has been a keystone in bringing the profession of wildlife rehabilitation to Alabama. Formerly the Alabama Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, the organization began its existence in the home of founder, and director, Anne Miller. Interestingly, the Center is not a state or national agency, instead relying on support from membership dues, donations, and volunteers.

The Wildlife Center professes a dual mission:

1. To provide medical and rehabilitation care for Alabama's injured and orphaned native wildlife in order to permit their return to the wild.

2. To educate the people of Alabama in order to heighten awareness and appreciation of Alabama's native wildlife.

In its unrelenting effort to protect our states' native wildlife, the center handles close to 3,000 cases a year, with flurries of activity during the bird and mammal birthing seasons. On average the center takes in about 800 baby songbirds in Summer, about 500 baby mammals a year, about 80-100 baby raptors, and other various injured or orphaned native animals. These come from up to 100 different species of native birds, mammals, and reptiles.

In the Wildlife Center's Spring 2003 newsletter Anne Miller describes her role at the Center, "As a wildlife rehabilitator, I am keenly aware of the amazing resilience of our native wildlife, bur I am also more aware than most of the ways that our ordinary, daily Human activities cause harm to the wild neighbors around us.. [but] there are simple steps we can all take in our own lives to reduce this terrible carnage."

One of the Center's most exciting recent projects involves an inspired technique, developed by Miller herself, which uses audio tape to lure the parent raptors back to young that have been displaced from their nests. The early stages of testing reveal that this technique can decrease by one half the number of baby raptors requiring rehabilitation. Research on this technique has been funded by a $25,000 challenge grant awarded as part of a cooperative program between Southern Company and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

The Center always offers self-guided tours of their impressive facilities, but guided tours must be arranged a month in advance. Among the many educational opportunities that are open to the public, one of the most interesting is the Raptor Wing, designed and built with a gift from George Barber.

According to the Wildlife Center's complimentary map and self-tour guide, the Raptor Wing, "Provides state-of-the-art housing for injured and orphaned birds of prey, while allowing visitors to view the birds through one-way glass windows designed to prevent unnecessary stress to the birds. The wing also includes an observation room with the windows designed to prevent unnecessary stress to the birds."

Other interesting features of the Center include the Baby Bird Nursery, the Mammal Room (designed to encourage natural foraging skills in a realistic setting), and the Freedom Flight Cage, a "60-foot long structure designed to allow free flight for the largest birds, including red-tailed hawks, vultures, and great blue herons."

My tour of this strikingly beautiful hospital and museum, which was once a mountaintop restaurant, was lead by the knowledgeable and dedicated Cindy Lowry, Development Assistant of the Center, who explained its history and how the facility operated, as I wandered around with her looking at all the recuperating and unreleaseable animals, including a bob-cat, some squirrels, various raptors, and owls, especially the baby barn owls, which were discovered by a group of hunters in a shooting blind.

Upon looking into their incubator, as Cindy opened the little door, I got this, like, Discovery Channel-de ja vu thing, seeing at their little round faces, a definite sense of having experienced this before, but from a comfy couch, and definitely without the smell. But you gotta love the little feathered dive bombers - for they will soon be the bane of rats and mice, tiny snakes, and very surprised tea-cup poodles all over South Alabama.

These cute, but formidable, youngsters were difficult to photograph in their incubator, so Lowry provided some skillfully captured pics that she had taken herself.

After concluding the tour, she urged me to stop by the Treetop Nature Tail, just down the hill from the Center Proper. The Treetop Trail, which was the first project that Anne Miller completed with Oak Mountain Park, "Provides close up encounters with non-releasable hawks, owls, and vultures and a chance to learn about their vital role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. The 750-foot elevated boardwalk winds through a wooded valley and connects with a .3 mile hiking trail to the Wildlife Center."

If the itch to help this noble organization fulfill its mission is causing you to twitch, then this is your lucky paragraph, because there are several things you can do. You could call to find out what supplies they need directly, then bring them whatever you can afford that's on the list. Or, possibly, you could join the Center's ream of over 100 dedicated volunteers, you could offer a modest cash donation of $75,144.12, $250.00, or hell - even $50.00 would help to feed the squirrels, and the little baby barn owls. You care about the little helpless, hungry tiny baby barn owls, DON'T YOU! Sorry about that, I got this whole barn owl complex now.

That's why you just have to come out and see for yourself, even if you're feeling mean and stingy, they'll still welcome you and help whatever hurt creature you might bring in, as long as it is a native species.