A Safe Nest For Fine Feathered Friends

June 14, 1994|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,Sun Staff Writer

Call her the Birdwoman of Dundalk.

Gerda Deterer, a retired pastry baker, houses almost 80 different species of birds -- ranging from tiny mockingbirds to exotic cockatoos -- inside and out of her modest gray bungalow in Dundalk.

Mrs. Deterer, 53, accepts homeless and injured birds and rehabilitates them until they can be released back into the wild, all without assistance from the city, county or state, she said.

From the outside, the house looks little different than others in the neighborhood off Dundalk Avenue. But the sounds of birds suggests otherwise.

Three owls perch in cages on a screened porch. In the living room, there are cages for 10 other types of birds. What once was a dining room has become a nest where four incubators keep about 20 hatchlings warm and seven cages shelter 15 more adult birds. Other birds sign in cages out back.

"I have always loved animals and birds," said the tiny woman.

Since 1986, Mrs. Deterer has been licensed by the state and federal governments to house birds and nurse them back to the point they can be released. She said she taught herself how to care for them. The cost is high, Mrs. Deterer said, and she accepts but does not solicit donations. She said she spends about $500 a month on food alone for the birds but declined to say how much she spends a year for their upkeep. "I don't want to think about it because I'll cry," she says.

Mrs. Deterer said she started in avian rehabilitation when she realized that the birds were being ignored by animal rescue groups.

"There are big organizations helping people, and there are others that help dogs and cats," she said. "But there were none for birds. . . . People and children started bringing me all sorts of birds, and it just snowballed from there."

Mrs. Deterer may get as many as 10 calls a day about injured or homeless birds. Three volunteers transport the birds to her house. Her husband, Wayne, a maintenance supervisor, helps out when he can.

Once the birds are there, Mrs. Deterer attempts to diagnose and rectify the problem. If a bird is suffering from malnutrition, she begins a feeding schedule during which a hatchling is fed almost every 20 minutes, and an older bird three times a day.

If the bird is injured, she said she takes it to a veterinarian.

Karen Foxworth had never heard of Mrs. Deterer until a few weeks ago when a 2-month-old red-tailed hawk in obvious distress wound up in her back yard in Randallstown.

The hawk was unable to fly and suffering from dehydration and starvation. Mrs. Foxworth called city and county agencies to find a caretaker.

"No one would help," Mrs. Foxworth said. "What do I need, a tiger, before they come up and help me?" Finally, the Carrie Murray Outdoor Center in Leakin Park in West Baltimore referred Mrs. Foxworth to Mrs. Deterer.

"She's helped us a whole lot, and we try to help her, too," said center director Corinne Parks, adding that the facility had been too crowded that day to accept the young hawk.

Mrs. Deterer gladly took in the hawk, which she said is doing well.

Over the years, there have been many other happy bird story endings. She estimated her success rate at more than 80 percent. But there are times when rehabilitation does not go as hoped. A case early this month still bothers her.

A family called after finding an injured gray female horned owl in their backyard in Owings Mills. Despite Mrs. Deterer's pleadings, the family refused to turn over the owl, which is federally protected.

Four days later, Mrs. Deterer said, the family called again and asked her to pick up the owl. The family had tried to place it back into a tree, but it fell out and injured its eye.

That kind of misplaced heroism angers Mrs. Deterer, who said the owl was severely malnourished.

"People mean well . . . but they're not doing the animals a favor when they try to do it themselves," she said. "If they only had listened to me -- that bird is so thin. I don't think she's going to make it."

The greatest reward from the work comes when the birds eventually return to the wild, she said.

"At first, you're apprehensive," she said. "You don't want to let them go, but you know that you have to. You just send them with a prayer. 'God, I've done all I can for them. Please protect them.' "

Lynn Blackmon, one of Mrs. Deterer's volunteers, said, "You spend seven weeks taking care of them, and you love all of them. But it's much better when you get to see them fly away and be free."

Although Mrs. Deterer joked that the birds have become her natural alarm clock, she said they don't disturb her neighbors.

"My neighbors are great," she said. "The birds don't bother anybody. I've lived here since 1963, and there has never been a problem."

In fact, Helen Tanner, who lives across the street, said last week she was not even aware that Mrs. Deterer had that many birds.

So Mrs. Deterer keeps taking in birds. Mrs. Foxworth, one of her newest fans, said she feels fortunate to have found out about Mrs. Deterer.

"I think she's a saint," she said. "Someone else can be in a situation like me, and not find any help."

The Birdwoman of Dundalk said the work often seems never-ending.

"It started to take over my life where I would spend every waking hour taking care of the critters," she said.

"We talk about it, 'Why do we do this?' You feel like you're helping just a bit. I used to love going to parks, but now I don't have to."

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