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Rescuer works on a wing and a prayer

Local woman’s mission: to save wild birds

Jodi Swenson holds one the catbirds she is rehabilitating at her home before she releases it back into the wild. Jodi Swenson holds one the catbirds she is rehabilitating at her home before she releases it back into the wild. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Bella Travaglini
Globe Correspondent / September 20, 2009

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To say that Jodi Swenson of Gloucester wakes up with the birds would be an understatement. The petite 42-year-old literally awakens early each morning in her modest home just off Route 128 to the chirping of three baby catbirds, who have taken up temporary residence in a compact plastic container on the kitchen counter, under her careful watch.

Upstairs, two pigeons and a wounded starling recover from their injuries in a room designated “the rehabilitation room,’’ where they can roam freely while on the mend.

The bird sanctuary continues outdoors, where a huge aviary stands that once housed two ailing black crows. Following weeks of nurturing and medication, Swenson recently released the pair back into the wild, where she believes they have joined a flock.

Swenson is a volunteer wildlife rehabilitator who has an affinity for saving songbirds, although it appears she’s unable to turn away any ailing bird. Another upstairs room - called “the parrot room’’ - houses four parrots and seven cockatiels, most of which were abandoned by previous owners.

Locally, Swenson is referred to as “the bird lady,’’ which makes her smile.

“I don’t mind,’’ said Swenson. “I get criticized sometimes, but my thoughts are that it is our fault these birds are in trouble. We’ve taken over their habitats. These birds don’t belong in my hand. It’s 95 percent our fault. We owe it to them.’’

She has held two rehabber licenses since 2007, one with the state and the other a federal permit, which is required because songbirds are protected nationally since they travel across state lines. She trained at the New England Wildlife Center in South Weymouth, where she continues volunteering to hone her skills.

Swenson gets unannounced visits from state Division of Wildlife and Fisheries inspectors and must submit annual reports on her work. The number of birds she has helped is in the hundreds now; many she rehabilitated before she was licensed; she received a warning from the state that what she was doing was illegal.

Rehabilitation costs are funded entirely out of pocket, which Swenson estimates runs an average of $50 per bird. Any donations Swenson receives must be tallied as taxable income. Aside from the monetary demands, several months during baby season, from spring until fall - entirely revolve around the baby birds, which require round-the-clock feedings every two hours.

Swenson relies on the support of Dr. Ray Cahill, owner of Seaport Veterinary Hospital in Gloucester, who donates his expertise, time, and diagnostic testing. Cahill commends Swenson’s dedication to her work and believes she has found a niche in rehabbing wild birds. He said she has natural ability to carry out such work, and is dedicated to giving back to the community.

Her neighbor Wendy Antrim shares Swenson’s love for birds. The two met when Antrim brought over a bird in need. Antrim now volunteers her time in assisting Swenson with the grunt work, like cleaning the aviaries.

For Swenson, the pivotal event came a few years ago, when Swenson rescued an orphaned baby seagull her daughter Maizi, now 14, named Sam. This particular bird sang to Swenson’s heart, she said, and helped her discover her calling.

Statewide, there are 101 licensed wildlife rehabilitators, with 38 holding migratory bird permits, said Kate Plourd, assistant press secretary for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Aside from a Hamilton woman who exclusively rehabilitates raptors, or birds of prey, Swenson does not know of anyone else in the area assisting the creatures.

Swenson owns an antique china restoration business, which she operates out of her home as well. That business, however, takes a back seat to the birds, which recently caused Swenson to lose a good customer when she was unable to handle a restoration job fast enough.

“The birds will die,’’ Swenson said. “China can wait.’’

The community has offered much support, Swenson said, with the Building Center of Gloucester last year donating lumber and supplies. On occasion, people drop off donations, too. Two local women turned up on Swenson’s doorstep with $200 worth of food for the birds, while a man from the neighborhood helped her move a large cage.

Swenson’s family also admires her devotion to birds in need even though it takes time away from them.

“It’s good to teach our children about compassion,’’ said Roland Leger, Swenson’s longtime companion.

“It opens their eyes to see their parents giving back. The birds were here long before us and will be around long after we go.’’

For more information on Jodi Swenson’s work, visit Cape Ann Wild Bird Rescue at www. valentine-design.com/Birds/. Bella Travaglini can be reached at bellatrav@gmail.com.