This story ran in the O.C. Register on June 5, 2017. By Jonathan Winslow
After nearly four decades spent rehabilitating hundreds of injured birds a year in her Orange home, the city’s “bird lady,” Susan Doggett, is migrating to Twentynine Palms.
Since her husband of 23 years, Brett Doggett died in October 2014, Doggett said she has struggled financially and the time has come to move.
The house she’ll soon be leaving has seen some interesting times – Doggett said she has had loons in her bathtub, pelicans in her pool and a peregrine falcon in the garage. Even as she scrambles to prepare for her upcoming move, Doggett is still attending to dozens of birds, including four baby crows in her bathroom.
The remaining birds, including elderly education birds she uses for talks at schools and wildlife facilities about once a month, will be tagging along to her new digs – a ranch miles away from civilization.
Chirps and talking birds can be heard from her doorstep, both from aviaries in her back yard and from birds sharing space through the home.
Doggett studied biology for seven years before leaving medical school to work with animals through the Department of Fish and Wildlife, starting her down her path as a federally licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
All day long, a landline phone rings. Doggett is one of a few wildlife rehabilitation volunteers in Orange County listed on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website.
Most of the calls are people looking for advice, but when someone has a bird they’re certain is injured, Doggett stands ready to receive it. Over the years, she’s tended to owls, ravens, crows, hawks, falcons, vultures and much more.
When she takes in a new bird, Doggett said she can tell from their eyes if they’ve given up on life or if they’re desperate to survive. If the bird is willing to fight, she said she is as well.
When nursing her birds, Doggett takes a no-nonsense approach – they aren’t pets and she doesn’t name them.
“You don’t interact with them, you don’t scratch them on the head, you don’t say ‘Hi, how are you,’” Dogget said. “I’m not their friend. I’m the biggest predator they’ll ever meet. I don’t want them to trust me, I want them to trust each other.”
Doggett is set say goodbye to Orange County on June 15. By then, she needs to pack up her home and prepare the dozens of birds she’s still watching over for the trip. She’s hoping to get help.
The world just isn’t the same without her husband around, Doggett said. She keeps a good sense of humor about life, but she said she’s been through some rough times.
Even so, Doggett said she has no regrets about the path she’s walked.
She’s kept caring for injured birds through her heartbreak and financial struggles for the moment when they are set free, she said, knowing a bird is going back to nature when it may well have otherwise died.
Sometimes a bird will squawk what sounds like a “thank you,” she said. Sometimes they’ll circle her head before taking off, and sometimes they’ll just poop on her shoulder. Sometimes Doggett beams a smile, and sometimes she cries.
“Life is up and down for all of us. If it were all up, it’d be boring as heck. If it was all down, you probably wouldn’t even want to be here,” she said. “For most of us, it’s kind of a roller coaster ride.
“The animals keep me focused on the bigger picture of what’s more important than the issues I might have. They don’t have an advocate, they can’t speak for themselves. They need someone who cares about them and is willing to sacrifice for them.”
What to do if you find an injured bird
Susan Doggett, who is among the wildlife rehabilitators the state Fish and Wildlife department lists for Orange County, offers the following tips if you discover an injured bird:
1. Make sure the bird is actually injured. Is something drooping or bleeding? Is anything out of alignment? Is the bird laying on its side or its back? Is the bird in harm’s way? If not, taking the bird could cause more harm than good.
2. If the bird is definitely injured, place it in a box with a soft towel or T-shirt to keep it safe and contact a facility that can care for it. A list of local rehabilitaters can be found at wildlife.ca.gov.
3. Poke air holes in a box before you put the bird inside.
4. Don’t give the bird any food or water, and don’t trust the Internet for advice on nutrition. Always ask an expert first.
5. If the bird appears to be young and healthy, you should probably leave it be. Baby birds can take hours to weeks to learn to fly, depending on the species. While learning, a baby might hide in a bush near their nest. About half of birds will give up on living, refuse to eat and die from the stress of captivity and being removed from their family.