Meet the Bird World’s Essential Workers

Despite the pandemic, these pros are working long hours to save injured birds and at-risk species that need them.

It’s 11:30 on an April morning in New York City, where most residents remain in lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has swept the globe. Phyllis Tseng picks up her tote bag, puts on a face mask, and heads to work. Instead of riding the bus for 20 minutes, as she normally would, Tseng hails a cab that’ll take her directly to the Wild Bird Fund, a wildlife rehabilitation center on the Upper West Side. As an animal care manager, she tends to orphaned, injured, and sick birds rescued by New Yorkers. Much as Tseng might want to stay home, she knows that, pandemic or not, her patients need her. 

Just as the coronavirus has upended the wider economy, it has left many in wildlife-based careers furloughed or figuring out how to work from home. Birding guides have canceled tours, while many researchers have had to call off a field season. But Tseng is among the bird world’s essential workers. Vulnerable birds—and in some cases, entire endangered species—depend on them continuing to report for duty.

Tseng and her team were caring for 164 birds when Audubon magazine recently spoke with her. These included Rock Pigeons with fractured legs or broken wings, an American Woodcock that collided with a building, and four Northern Gannets suffering from exposure to the toxin that causes red tide. Even before peak migration brought about a surge in birds injured in collisions with Manhattan skyscrapers, Tseng had less time available for each patient than she normally would. Since the pandemic hit, her team has been working in smaller groups with staggered shifts to limit contact. Some staff opted for voluntary layoffs to stay safe at home. The number of volunteers dropped from at least 15 to two per team. Now, Tseng takes on additional tasks like cleaning bird cages and managing paperwork. “We have a skeleton crew at this time,” she says. “The days are exhausting.”

It’s also been an exhausting time for bird keeper Chris Crowe at the  Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s endangered species breeding center in Front Royal, Virginia. Crowe is responsible for looking after 44 cranes, 9 of them endangered Whooping Cranes. Since March, his team has dropped from six keepers to three, with no volunteers to lend a hand. He now works longer hours and comes in on off days. 

The staff shortage arrived at one of the busiest times of the year: breeding season. Along with keeping the birds healthy and fed, the ponds in their enclosures clean and the grass mowed, Crowe is in charge of artificial insemination. Natural breeding hasn’t been successful in these captive cranes, he says, so intervention from keepers has been key to rebuilding the population. But this year, due to social distancing requirements and human health concerns, none of the country’s other 11 captive breeding centers have artificially bred their Whoopers. The task requires two people to catch and briefly hold the cranes, Crowe says. At Smithsonian, however, his team—experienced staff who wore masks—bred one pair that laid three eggs, two of which were unsuccessful. If the remaining egg hatches a healthy chick and coronavirus-related travel restrictions lift in time, the youngster will join 71 wild Whoopers in Wisconsin in the fall. If not, it’ll have to wait until the following spring to leave the center.

“This line of work is very challenging and sometimes stressful, but we step up when we need to,” Crowe says. “I wanted to keep working. I just wanted to do my part to conserve the species.”

The height of the pandemic also coincided with breeding season for the endangered California Condors at the Oregon Zoo’s Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation, where seven pairs hatched one chick each this spring. Senior Condor Keeper Kelli Walker and two team members have been working in staggered shifts to stay safe as they monitor and feed the condors and their chicks. 

But despite their efforts, Walker thinks they might not be able to release the chicks this year as planned into wilderness areas in California and Arizona, due to travel restrictions. Another 32 young condors scheduled to be introduced into the wild from breeding centers in San Diego, Boise, and Los Angeles may also be held back, an unwelcome obstacle for efforts to save a species numbering only around 500 individuals. “That’s a lot of birds that wouldn’t be sent out in one year,” she says. Her team is now preparing to accommodate the extra condors, if needed, until a plan is in place. “It’s definitely a bump in the road.”

While these avian essential workers are toiling in the confines of rehab and breeding centers, Ruth Boettcher counts herself lucky to be able to get out in the field. As the coronavirus raged, Boettcher, a seabird biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, spent the early spring scrambling to build a home for as many as possible of the nearly 20,000 terns, gulls, and skimmers migrating her way. 

This past winter, as part of a massive highway project, crews paved over the island that for decades hosted Virginia’s largest seabird nesting colony. In February, the state announced a plan to create temporary nesting habitat on a nearby fortified island, leaving Boettcher and her colleagues just weeks to prepare the site for the first birds to arrive. 

In April, she oversaw a crew that removed vegetation and spread gravel and sand on 15-acre Rip Raps Island, site of the decommissioned military installation known as Fort Wool. Royal and Sandwich Terns took to nesting right away on the refurbished island, and on nearby sand-covered barges brought in to accommodate more birds. Boettcher’s team also set out decoys and speakers playing seabird sounds to lure displaced Common Terns, Gull-billed Terns and Black Skimmers to the site. 

Without these efforts, the colony might have had nowhere else to go in Virginia. For these birds, that’s about as essential as it gets.