Student Helps Songbirds Take Flight

Originally posted in the Sonoma State Star; reproduced here in its entirety as it is no longer available on the newspaper’s website. (Archival information here:

By Ronald Pierce

When Sonoma State University senior Wendy St. John is not playing video games or spending time with her son, she volunteers her time at The Songbird Hospital (SBH) based in Sebastopol, CA.

St. John, a biology major focusing on ecology and evolutionary biology, began volunteering at the SBH two years ago for director Veronica Bowers, who runs the SBH on her home property. The organization operates on the US Fish and Wildlife and California Department of Fish and Game licenses of Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue.

St. John plans to return to SSU after her upcoming graduation to receive her master’s degree, and is currently working on an ongoing project with assistant professor Nicholas Geist involving western pond turtles.

“I started really young. My mom rescued and raised birds at home back in the 70’s – that’s not legal,” said St. John, describing the beginnings her lifelong passion for birds as well as other animals. “I’ve just always loved birds.”

St. John was volunteering with Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue when she discovered a sickly, baby crow that she took to Bowers at the SBH. Having heard of Bowers’ work but never visited, she took the opportunity to drop by.

“My poor baby crow died; he had intestinal parasites,” said St. John.

The SBH specializes in the care of passerines, a wide classification of songbirds based on vocal structure that includes sparrows, finches, swallows, crows and ravens, although the SBH does not care for crows and ravens. Over 500 injured, orphaned and ill birds pass through the SBH every year from both local and migratory species.

“Our birds don’t get the same care in bigger hospitals for their specialized needs,” said St. John. The SBH works with the small, fragile birds that require more intense care than the average creature.

Babies, which arrive en mass in the season between May and August, require feeding every 30 minutes to two hours while still young. Other jobs St. John performs at the SBH include cleaning the outdoor aviaries, basic medical examinations, releases, and management in Bowers’ absence. An average week for a volunteer, like St. John, between May and August is four to ten hours of work in one or two shifts.

“Cliff swallows, like the ones at SSU, are Veronica’s favorite,” said St. John about the flock of cliff swallows that nest annually on the outside of Salazar Hall. “Their mud nests may have babies already.”

The birds build their dried mud nests on the high walls due to the similarities to the cliffs for which the birds are named. The school is very cooperative with the birds, only washing down the nests after they have all flown south for the winter to prevent the growth of parasites, as it is illegal to destroy the nests of native birds in a way that would interfere with breeding.

Bowers said that several cliff swallow babies pass through her hospital from SSU each year, saying that any cliff swallow baby old enough to leave its nest should already be able to fly. In any other case, the baby will need care as soon as possible.

Bowers spoke highly of St. John as one of her key team members.

“Wendy’s strong intelligence in the natural world and academic studies are an asset to our work at the SBH,” said Bowers. “Her high energy and good humor is a welcome aspect of her personality when getting work done.”

The Song Bird Hospital, located at 8050 Elphick Rd. in Sebastopol, welcomes all potential volunteers. Those interested should visit their website at Any student who finds a baby bird should call the SBH at 707-484-6504 and not attempt to care for the bird themselves.

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