By Moira Farr

Not everyone would maintain composure when interrupted by a Canada goose during an interview, but Kathy Nihei, director and founder of the Wild Bird Care Centre in Nepean, merely furrows her brow, turns to the honker waddling down the corridor and says, “You’re loud.” Whatever ailment brought the bird to the centre has been remedied enough that it now has the strength to wander out of its caged run and explore its surroundings, trumpeting all the way. Soon, the bird will take flight back to the wild, like the tens of thousands of other birds that have passed through the centre in the 25 years of its existence.

On this humid spring day, as I am led by Nihei through the sprawling one-storey centre, down a series of narrow hallways and into bright room after room, each filled with cages, perches and tubs catering to different sized birds at different stages of healing, (and the windowless isolation room for birds that might carry communicable diseases), I am serenaded by the urgent “feed me” squawks of baby starlings, robins and grackles, trilling of songbirds and soft coos of mourning doves. Two screech owlets stare with huge eyes from their cage. A kestrel with “feather damage” sits and watches from a pile of egg cartons on top of a fridge, in a room where staff and volunteers prepare food for the avian residents. An albino robin – a permanent resident that was pushed from its nest by rejecting parents – flutters around an enclosure with a killdeer and several grosbeaks. In the insectivore ward, smaller songbirds – a cardinal, a baby bluebird and a bohemian waxwing – bounce around while injuries heal.

Staff and a handful of volunteers bustle by in white lab coats. Patty Summers, a conservation biology student at Laurentian University, in her fifth year as a summer staff member at the centre, tends to an injured crow in the admitting room. Nihei’s mentally disabled brother, Dave, who lives in a group home in nearby Kemptville, arrives with a cheerful hello for his regular Wednesday morning shift of sweeping floors and other chores.

The centre receives a steady stream of ailing birds from late March to October — and a fair number through winter too. None are turned away.  As many as 4,000 birds have come in one year, but in the past several, numbers have been down, around 2600 (Nihei isn’t sure why). Not all can be saved:  22 percent of birds brought in die of their injuries; 39 percent are released back into the wild; an equal number are euthanized. A handful, like the albino robin, will live out their lives at this or another permanent protected home.

The woman behind all this avian care says she herself sometimes can’t believe that the centre, which began in the basement of her suburban home and is now a large spread of a building with an annual operating budget of roughly $250,000 and a summer staff of 10, has survived this long. Nihei, in her sixties, is a tiny person (one is tempted to say bird-like), with large tender eyes behind big glasses, and the firmly-set jaw of someone who has a tough job and many demands to meet, day after unpredictable day. Her calm, gentle manner is well suited to her vocation, and those who have worked with her say she has a special rapport with creatures in pain. “I remember once a crow with a broken wing got loose outside,” says Linda Tran, who has volunteered with the Centre for a decade. The crow could fly only four feet off the ground, and the staff panicked upon seeing a red-tailed hawk circling. “We were all running around, and then Kathy just came out and walked up to the crow, talking softly, and picked him up.”

It isn’t all heart, though, that runs a centre of this magnitude and success. Nihei’s intelligence and determination have impressed many over the years.  She has persisted while weathering skeptics’ criticism, disgruntled neighbours’ complaints, obstinate bureaucrats, funding setbacks and even a spate of vandalism.

Born in northern Ontario, Nihei and her four siblings were shunted about various foster homes while their mother spent long spells in hospital with tuberculosis, and their father (“a kind of Peter Pan”) traveled. “There was abuse,” says Nihei, at some of the homes. Regardless of where she was living, Nihei was always a rescuer.  Baby raccoons, rabbits, a pair of barn cats, all were on the receiving end of Nihei’s care.

In the sixties, Nihei struck up a correspondence with a young man she’d met at a dance at the Royal Military College in Kingston. In 1966, she married him, knowing he had been diagnosed with leukemia.  They had happy times together before he died in 1971.

Three years later, Nihei gave birth to her only child, a son, David now in his thirties. In the early 80s, Nihei would meet her next partner and “soul mate,” Lance Holden, a gifted artist and musician. Unfortunately, it was also a short-lived relationship. Holden died of AIDS in 1987.

“It’s been a hard life,” says Nihei, without a hint of self-pity.

“She’s a quick learner and a tireless worker,” says Randy Marinelli, a retired conservation officer with the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), and long-time supporter of the centre. Back in 1982, Marinelli was sent to investigate a report of an injured Canada goose sighted in someone’s driveway, possibly being kept without a permit. That someone turned out to be Nihei, and for the first time in his career, Marinelli did not confiscate the bird. Since 1981, when she had successfully nursed a hummingbird back to health – the now famous “Pip” – word had spread that she was someone to whom you could bring an injured bird.

Marinelli didn’t dispute that there was a real need for such a service in a city the size of Ottawa. But he wanted to make sure Nihei understood what such a job was going to entail. “I’d seen lots of people over the years who had a whimsical dream about rehabilitating birds, but who were totally unrealistic about the amount of money, time and intense emotion it takes,” he says. Nihei, he soon realized, was different. “I became convinced that she and her intentions were truly a cut above the rest.”

Marinelli then had to convince his superiors at MNR that Nihei should be given the permits she would need to do rehabilitation work with birds. “It was not an easy sell,” he recalls. Eventually, though, “she proved the doubters wrong.” Nihei received permits to do “basic preliminary care” on birds from both MNR (for provincial birds) and the Canadian Wildlife Service (for birds that migrate beyond Ontario). Birds in need of specialized care are sent to Dr. Robin Roscoe, an avian veterinarian at the Lynwood Clinic in Ottawa.

As the number of injured birds in Nihei’s basement grew, so did the complaints of her neighbours, who didn’t think much of the noise and the numbers, especially while they were having barbecues in their back yards. After prolonged wrangling, the Wild Bird Care Centre opened at its current location near the Stoney Swamp Conservation area in Nepean in 1992.

That was a significant step, but keeping the centre up and running through mainly private donations would be, and remains, a challenge. Several years ago, Nihei decided to forego a $50,000 grant from the City of Ottawa in protest of the seemingly endless bureaucratic hoops she was required to go through annually to receive the money – funding which was never a given.

After 25 years, there is no question the centre has established itself as part of a thriving community of birdlovers (the mailing list numbers 12,000 names), and Nihei’s work has been recognized and rewarded through numerous honours.

These days, funding is stable, though Nihei wishes she could afford two shifts for her staff. She’d also like to expand outdoor space for more runs and cages. And she does want to make sure there are people in place who can continue the work when she is no longer there. But that won’t be for awhile yet. “Apparently, I’m not allowed to retire,” says Nihei with a smile that suggests it’s not something she’d want to do anyway.

“The centre is a success story,” says Marinelli, “and it’s Kathy who’s made it a success.”

Anyone who has ever brought a bird to the centre, and there are thousands who have, would heartily agree.

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Moira Farr is a freelance writer based in Ottawa. Her article, “The eagle rises,” appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of ON Nature.