April 21. 2013 12:36AM

Volunteer care gets animals back to the woods

Sunday News Correspondent

Wildlife rehabilitator Maria Colby feeds a rescued baby squirrel at New England College in Henniker on Thursday. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)

HENNIKER -- When a squirrel or a possum is hit crossing the road but survives, when a deer or fisher is orphaned, when a hawk or songbird has a broken wing, local volunteer animal specialists get them back to the wild where they belong.

Many Granite Staters have encountered a wounded chipmunk or rabbit or raccoon, and many have ended up feeling frustrated or even guilty over the inability to help. But there is something people in such situations can do.

For three decades, the state Fish and Game Department has been training and licensing a dedicated group of volunteers as wildlife rehabilitators.

On a recent afternoon, Patty Furness of Bradford stopped by to visit Maria Colby, founder and operator of Wings of the Dawn Wildlife Rehabilitation Center and Bird Sanctuary in Henniker, to check on a malnourished barred owl she'd brought to Colby a weeks earlier.

"I got a call that the owl couldn't fly, and I went to check it out, and it was too malnourished to fly. So I scooped it up and brought it to Maria," Furness said.

After seeing how the owl was doing, Furness said she was amazed it was the same bird and called Colby one of the best wildlife rehabilitators in the state.

Furness also asked Colby about the status of a great horned owl that was found with more than 150 porcupine quills stuck around its face. Colby told Furness the was doing fine and would be released soon.

Plenty of patients

Wings, according to Colby, is one of the largest volunteer animal rehabilitation sites in New Hampshire.

Even though spring still was in its early stages, with birds just starting to return and hibernating mammals just beginning to wake up, Colby said, the center housed multiple species of owls and hawks, a raven, a turkey, bats, seagulls, geese, a vulture and a baby squirrel.

Unless permanently injured, she said, every animal is rehabilitated in a way that makes reintroduction into the wild possible.

Not including the cost of building new enclosures and upkeep, Colby said, it takes roughly $20,000 annually to keep Wings of the Dawn running. People do donate to support the center, she said, but much of the money spent on Wings of the Dawn over the years has been her own.

Colby's hard work isn't lost on her family and friends. Her granddaughter Sequoia French said her grandmother rarely has any free time.

"I have taken one vacation in my life," Colby said, "and that was enough."

Injuries and abandonment

As Colby walked through her animal enclosures, some as large as barns, she could hear geese flying overhead.

"I swear those are the baby geese I raised coming back for the summer," she smiled.

Colby said that while cars or windows cause many of the injuries to the animals she treats, 80 percent of the orphaned baby birds and mammals brought to her lost their parents to house cats. In addition, she said, many baby animals are abandoned by their parents when humans cut down trees and carelessly leave the babies on the ground.

"Just put them back up in a tree in something safe, their parents usually come back," she said.

To help raise orphaned animals, Colby said, she uses adult animals who are permanently injured and will never go back to the wild. Allowing the young to be raised by adults of their own species, she said, gives the young a better chance of making it in the wild.

Doing what she does, Colby said, requires licensing from both the state Fish and Game and the federal Fish and Wildlife departments. Also, she said, her work wouldn't be possible without veterinarian Michael Dutton of the Weare Animal Hospital working on injured wildlife for free.

"I bring him like $50 worth of M&Ms every time I visit him," Colby joked.

Not a job for DIY-ers

Although her operation is one of the biggest of its kind in the state, Colby is far from being New Hampshire's only animal rehabilitator. Among her best-known colleagues in the field is Benjamin Kilham of Lyme, who runs the state's lone rehabilitation program for black bear cubs.

Kilham currently is getting ready to release 27 bear cubs found last year back into the wild this June. Normally, he said, he has about five bear cubs a year, but a perfect storm of circumstances last year brought him about five times the average amount.

Despite the difficulty and cost of rehabilitating wildlife, Kilham said, "Somebody has to do it."

Colby warns that before attempting a rescue, anyone encountering an injured wild animal should call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator or state official, rather than risk personal injury or further injury to the animal.

For a complete list of contact information for New Hampshire's licensed wildlife rehabilitators, visit http://tinyurl.com/cz7uen7.