She rubs her hand gently across a barred owl's head and the bird seems to understand that there is a special relationship between them. It's an understanding that Heather Merritt, affectionately known as the "bird lady," seems to have with the birds she cares for at her Birds in Flight Sanctuary in Howland.
Merritt, who has devoted the past 16 years of her life to providing rescue, rehabilitation and medical care for sick, injured and orphaned birds of prey and waterfowl, said she first started out taking care of lions and tigers until she became concerned that the animals' rough play and her two young boys wouldn't mix. Plus there was the neighbor several houses away who found an injured bird and immediately knew that Heather would know what to do.
After many hours and months of training and hands-on experience, she received her license to rehabilitate wildlife, specializing in raptors, or birds of prey. Since the Birds in Flight Sanctuary got under way, Merritt has taken in thousands upon thousands of injured birds, with last year's total more than 500. She boasts a release rate of 95 percent.
Heather Merritt of Birds in Flight Sanctuary is shown with Phoenix. She was hit by a car, which took off the end of her wing. She is unable to fly.
"I average between five and 10 calls a day," Merritt said, but added "not all are rescue calls. Some might be that a baby bird fell out of its nest."
Merritt and the bird sanctuary holds numerous state and federal licenses, so she is able to capture injured birds, rehab and treat them, release them, educate the public through use of the birds and, most recently, perform research.
The bird sanctuary is practically on speed dial with the Ohio Division of Wildlife in Trumbull County. State Wildlife Officer Jerrod Allison said that Merritt is a "lifesaver" to the department.
The next Birds in Flight Sanctuary educational program is set today at the Cleveland I-X Center, with another planned for April 18 and 19 at the Eastwood Expo Center.
Additional information about the Birds in Flight Sanctuary, how to book an educational show, volunteer or how to make a donation is available on its Web site. Calls requesting help for a bird are taken from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. daily at 330-652-3381. After hours calls are to be directed to local police departments, Heather Merritt said.
How can you tell if a bird needs rescued?
Here are some general signs to look for:
A wild animal presented to you by a cat or a dog
An apparent or obvious broken wing
A featherless or nearly featherless bird on the ground
Evidence of a dead parent nearby
Downy baby on the ground near children or animals
Hopping around on the ground/unable to fly
NOTE: Do not ever give food or water to an injured bird!
"She does a lot of work for us, which takes a lot of time. We are able to deal with other things knowing we have a working relationship with her and the sanctuary," said Allison. Allison said the sanctuary is inspected by the Ohio Division of Wildlife every two years.
With her work, Merritt travels not only through Trumbull County, but also Ashtabula, Mahoning, Columbiana, Portage, Geauga and Summit counties. The next closest bird sanctuary like the one in Howland is at the Penitentiary Glen Reservation in Lake County.
Currently the sanctuary is home to close to 30 birds ranging from owls of many varieties to vultures to ducks to hawks. Some will always call the sanctuary home when an injury or condition does not allow for release. Those birds who have become imprinted and cannot thrive on their own also are permanent residents.
Under normal circumstances, imprinting establishes a strong bond between the young and their parents. Under less ideal circumstances, imprinting causes a young animal to recognize itself as human when raised inappropriately. Once that damage has been done, the likelihood of being able to release such an animal back to the wild is low.
Whitney, the screech owl, is imprinted and needs to be fed every day, as she doesn't know how to hunt and would eventually starve. Many of the birds that cannot be released become part of an education program, through which Merritt educates the public about the birds and explains the mission of the sanctuary. Many of these fee-based programs are available to schools, nursing homes, libraries, sportsman shows and the Boy Scouts, to name a few.
Merritt and Allison caution against scooping up a baby bird that has fallen out of a nest or a fledgling that seems to be alone.
"There are many well-intentioned individuals who try to help baby birds, but really all they need is placed in their nest or left alone," said Merritt. "If you see that a heavy rain has washed out a nest in the tree, make a make-shift nest and place it back into the tree for the babies."
Allison agreed. "It's an old wives tale that once a human touches a baby bird that the mother can smell the scent and will have nothing to do with it. Birds don't have a very good sense of smell," he said. Both suggest that unless a bird is visually injured, sick or in danger, that nothing should be done.
Birds in Flight Sanctuary is completely funded by donations raised through its educational programs, donor clubs, commemorable releases and an adopt-a-bird program, as listed on its Web site, www.birdsinflightsanctuary.com. The sanctuary also has a working relationship with Dr. Sam Costello of the Town and Country Veterinary, where Merritt is able to obtain treatment, x-rays and surgeries for the birds, if necessary. According to Merritt, all injured birds requiring treatment obtained through Dr. Costello must be coordinated through the sanctuary. The birds never stay at the clinic.
"I can usually release a bird within three to four months after a surgery, or if a bird is ill, generally in one to two months. Of course, the timing depends on the bird's recovery," she said.
Merritt said that along with the many owls, hawks and vultures that she has taken in, there have been some real celebrities.
"We've had bald eagles, trumpeter swans, a Pacific loon; really we've been able to help many unusual birds and some, like the Pacific loon, who are not native to the area," she explained.
"I understand what the birds like and not like. I know how to calm them down. They are all my little babies."
The sanctuary's new permit for research allows Merritt to ascertain how effectively one-eyed birds hunt and survive in the wild. The sanctuary began to train and hunt using falconry techniques, working with a red-tailed hawk and a rough-legged hawk. According to its Web site, this is a study that has never been tackled before, and its outcome should help federal and state officials make decisions about the futures of injured birds: whether to euthanize, place in education or release back into the wild. With the study, Merritt is hoping to prove that one-eyed birds can in fact live in freedom.
The study is extremely personal for Merritt. In 2006, Liberty, a bald eagle, was released in Michigan with only one eye. As of today, he has not come into any rehabilitation facility, meaning that for almost three years he has lived in the wild, according to Merritt.