Wyoming’s ‘Bird Lady’ offers a haven for injured birds

For the past 33 years, Susan Ahalt has run one of the only bird rehabilitation facilities in the state.

  • Susan Ahalt carries Sunshine, a bald eagle suffering from lead poisoning as well as West Nile virus, back to her quarters at Ironside Bird Rescue Inc. in Cody, Wyoming. Wyoming has three nonprofit raptor-rescue facilities in the state. Both the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson and Wind River Raptors in Lander have paid staffers and volunteers, while Ahalt has single-handedly operated Ironside since 1987.

  • A concerned local called Ahalt after spotting Sunshine struggling in a reservoir near Meeteetse, Wyoming. Ahalt hopped in her truck to recover the bald eagle, marking her 100th rescue so far in 2019. In 2018, she took care of 175 birds. “All I do is fix birds,” said Ahalt.

  • First thing in the morning, Ahalt cleans and feeds her charges, waiting for the day‘s calls to start coming in. Her first rescue was a naked baby starling she found abandoned at her home in the 1980s. “I had no idea what I was doing,” Ahalt said, “but I raised him.” She cared for the bird, which she named Rex, in her home until he recovered and learned to fly. Over the next 33 years, her rescuing habit grew; it now occupies multiple buildings on her Cody property, including an in-home aviary. She gets daily calls from all over the region about sick and injured birds.

  • Ahalt’s glasses sit on a letter concerning the status of a golden eagle currently in her care.

  • Wyoming Game and Fish game warden Jim Seeman, center, and retired Game and Fish biologist Bud Stewart, right, look on as Ahalt uses her mouth to tighten the strings of a hood on the head of a red-tailed hawk. Ahalt met with Seeman and Stewart to rescue the hawk, which had been discovered in Buffalo, Wyoming, earlier that day, unable to fly. Ahalt named the hawk “Speedy” after the speeding ticket she narrowly avoided upon her arrival in town. The police officer who pulled her over was going to write her a ticket until Ahalt introduced herself as “the Bird Lady” and explained that she was in town on official Game and Fish Department business. The officer let her off with a warning.

  • Veterinary technician Deana Baker and Ahalt examine a great horned owl’s wing at Lifetime Small Animal Hospital in Cody. The clinic has been Ahalt’s go-to for over 30 years.

  • Bird hoods and falconer gloves line a wall in one of Ahalt’s bird buildings.

  • Ahalt carries Sunshine, a bald eagle, to her truck. Sunshine had tested positive for lead poisoning and West Nile virus, but after a few weeks of care, she was released at Upper Sunshine Reservoir, where she was found. “The main reason why I do this is to let them go. That’s the best part,” said Ahalt.

  • Ahalt checks out an injured great horned owl near the South Fork outside Cody.

  • A family of great horned owls perches high in a tree. The property owner called to report that one of the owls appeared to have an injured eye. Ahalt was unable to do more than observe from a distance because the owl was too far out of reach.

  • Susan Ahalt carefully removes a piece of barbed wire from from the wing of a great horned owl on the tailgate of Duana VanBuren’s truck, while VanBuren and her mother, Lela Guinard, right, observe in Bridger, Montana.

  • Ahalt holds the barbed wire she removed from the great horned owl’s wing. VanBuren found the bird caught in her fence in Joliet, Montana, the night before and arranged to meet Ahalt the next morning.

  • Duana VanBuren, center, hugs Ahalt as they part ways.

  • Blood and feathers from the injured great horned owl still cling to Ahalt’s fingers as she heads back down state Route 120.


 

In late January, Susan Ahalt walked into a veterinarian’s office in Cody, Wyoming, carrying a hooded bald eagle that was found in a ditch on a ranch, unable to fly. Blood tests revealed severe lead poisoning. Even after 33 years of helping birds, Ahalt still finds moments like this emotional.

Ahalt always loved animals, but it wasn’t until she moved to Cody and rescued a baby starling that she decided to dedicate herself to birds. “I decided that I would have to name him a magnificent name because he was such an ugly little thing, so I named him Rex,” she said. “He was just a joy.” Since 1987, she has singlehandedly run Ironside Bird Rescue Inc., one of only three wild bird rehabilitation facilities in the state. Her work has earned Ahalt a region-wide reputation: “People don’t know my name,” she said. “They just know me as the Bird Lady.”

The nonprofit facility consists of an eagle, hawk and owl barn, along with enclosed areas where the birds can fly. Lacking federal or state funding, it depends entirely on grants, donations and volunteers. And with as many as 170 birds in residence, money can be tight. Ahalt worries about what will happen when she retires, and there is no longer a local facility for injured birds. “You can’t just take a bird into your house and say you’re going to fix it,” she said. “I have no idea what’s going to happen.” Helen Santoro

Rebecca Noble is a freelance photojournalist based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on InstagramEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor