The bird lady

Kathy Bernhardt

Photo by Larry Dalton

You find an injured bird. You take it home and your parents reluctantly allow you to keep it, maybe even taking you to the library to get some books on how to care for it. You nurse the bird back to health and mom or dad, in all their parental wisdom, suggest you return the little fella back to the wild. You do. You feel good about yourself, and you’ve got another wonderful childhood memory. Unless you’re Kathy Bernhardt, in which case you allow the experience to change your life. You nurture and care for thousands of birds, you live with birds, and you become a neighborhood eccentric known as the crazy bird lady.

What is it that you do?

I am a wildlife rehabilitator. I work mainly with birds.

How did you get started?

I’ve been taking care of birds since I was 3 or 4 years old. My first experience was with a pheasant that fell in the water and I saved, but I’ve been doing it officially with a group called Wildlife Care Association of Sacramento since about 10 years ago. I got into it because I found a mockingbird, didn’t know how to raise it, called around, discovered the organization existed, took classes and I’ve been doing it ever since.

How many birds have you rescued or rehabilitated?

The group does about 4,000 a year. Personally I do between 50 and 100. My focus is more on training and education. I do bring in injured, mostly birds of prey—hawks, eagles, owls. I do a lot of crows.

What do your neighbors think?

They actually like it. Kids come over all the time. I have a little girl next door, she’s about 11 years old. She’s my constant helper in the summertime when I have a lot of birds. Funny thing is, she’s scared to death of them—but she’s always willing to come over and help.

You’re not ostracized as the crazy bird lady?

I don’t think I’m ostracized. I’m sure I’m talked about.

What about house cats?

I’d say a good half of the birds we get in, especially in the springtime, are cat-caught; they are mauled by cats. Cats are un-natural predators. They don’t belong here; they’re non-native to California and they do a terrible amount of damage to the bird population of the U.S. Five million birds die because of house cats every year.

Do you have suggestions for cat owners?

If you have to have your cat outside, put it outside after nine in the morning and bring it back in before three in the afternoon. The reason for that is most birds feed in the early morning hours and the late afternoon hours. Bells don’t really work, but a bright collar might—so put the brightest, widest collar you can put on your cat. The main thing is, just keep your cats inside. Cats don’t belong outside; they live a much shorter life, they get hit by cars, they get chased by dogs, neighbors trap them and take them to the pound. So keep your cat inside if you love them.

What’s the most exotic bird you’ve ever had?

We got this grebe in that had landed on a brand-new, paved parking lot. And there was nothing wrong with it. It just had scraped feet. I was brand new to the organization, so I had never even seen a grebe before, but I realized by looking at it that it had to be kept on water because of the way its feet were. So I put in a small sink we had at the facility. Well, this grebe was very aggressive, and every time I went by it, it would dive out of the sink and attack me—actually stab me with that long beak. By the time my associate came to help me figure out what to do with this bird, I was soaking wet with cut marks on my arms from this bird so … I don’t do grebes a lot.

You have an owl in the backyard?

That owl is part of our education. We go to the schools. One lady handles a gray horned owl and a turkey vulture. I handle a crow, a magpie and a screech owl, a third lady handles snakes and lizards and a fourth goes to the little kids with chickens and rabbits that they can pet. We take these animals to classrooms, to Boy and Girl Scout troops, to an old-folks home—[to] anyone who asks us. I think it’s one of the best things that Wildlife Care does.

Why do you do it?

We’re giving back a little bit what nature needs. Mankind has taken so much environment, so much habitat, [and] so much of everything these animals need to survive.

Any funny stories?

My mom came to the house one time and I told her to get a Popsicle. She went to the wrong freezer and opened it up and picked up this wrapped up thing with a long stick on it and held it up and said, “Is this what you’re looking for.” I said, “No, Mom, that’s a ratsicle.” She had a great big frozen rat I was saving for a gray horned owl I was working with.

And the stick she was holding …

… was the tail! She never got in my freezer again.

What positive things can we do for the wildlife in our area?

I think the most positive thing you can do is respect the wildlife around here. Realize that when you’re living in a city you kind of need to put back. So put feeders out, keep your cats inside. Most importantly, teach your kids to respect these animals. They were here first. They deserve to live here. They all have a job to do, they’re all here for a reason, there’s a niche for every one of them.

You know when you’re a wildlife rehabilitator when …

… you can clear out a restaurant in 10 minutes flat by talking about how to make mice mush in your blender. I tell ya, you never want to have a margarita at a rehabber’s house.

If you find an injured bird or other animal, or if you are interested in becoming a wildlife rehabilitator, call Wildlife Care of Sacramento at 1-888-599-9453.