By Barry Eberling
SUISUN CITY - Morning arrives at the Wildlife Center and the orphaned baby birds chirp for food.
Center rehabilitation director Cindy Forrest and a group of volunteers are the surrogate mothers. They arrive with what Forrest calls "mockingbird mush" - ferret chow, apples, grapes, ground beef and other ingredients mixed together into a brown concoction.
That diet suits the small scrub jays, meadowlarks and sparrows just fine. Every half-hour or so, they want another dab of mush served into their beaks by way of syringe or tweezers. The demand is relentless.
"We just fed him," volunteer Melissa Ruth said as one bird continued opening its mouth.
"He's convinced he's still hungry," volunteer Pamela Schmuhl said.
Warm weather is here and so are orphaned baby birds, squirrels, raccoons and other creatures. The Wildlife Center near the boat ramp in Suisun City's Old Town cares for them until they can make it on their own.
Some people question exerting so much effort on wildlife when there are needy humans, said Monique Liguori, executive director of the Suisun Marsh Natural History Association, which runs the center. Probably 90 percent of the creatures are at the center because they've been affected by people, she said.
"It's kind of incumbent on us to fix that, if we can," Liguori said.
So the center takes in about 2,000 creatures annually. They range from a baby raccoon found in an attic after the owners scared the mother away to a crow that had its tail feathers clipped, from birds caught by cats to birds hit by cars.
Forrest and her volunteers aren't out to make friends with the birds and animals. That's not the payoff they get for their work.
"You have to remember, it's a wild animal," Schmuhl said. "You're not trying to make it a pet. You're trying to get it healthy again and get it out."
That's the altruistic payoff: Arriving at the center one day, finding an animal or bird gone and knowing it's back in the wild.
"I get to help them feel better and get their strength back and let them go to the wild, instead of just being put down," Ruth said.
Schmuhl sees a common link among the Wildlife Center volunteers. Each has a background that includes animals, she said.
"My father's a falconer," Schmuhl said. "I was raised around birds of prey."
Ruth grew up with pets ranging from rabbits to hamsters to birds to a dog. Her family visited the Wildlife Center when she was a child and she wanted to help, but had to wait several years until she reached the minimum 16 years of age for volunteers. She is now 18.
Nature can be gritty and so can some scenes at the Wildlife Center, though volunteers can avoid the chores that might make them queasy.
Three white-tailed kites there on a recent day craved mice. Schmuhl took some live mice from a terrarium, gassed them and cut them in half. Then she served them up on plastic plates to the birds, along with a sprinkling of vitamin powder.
Besides the orphaned and hurt animals, the Wildlife Center has a few permanent residents. Among them is Sedit the coyote, who lives in a large, outdoor cage. Sedit was raised to be a pet, until the owner ultimately gave up on the idea.
"There's nothing terribly wrong with her, but she doesn't know how to live on her own," Schmuhl said. "She has no hunting skills. She has no natural way to defend herself."
Ruth petted Sedit and the coyote enjoyed the moment, looking as tame as a big dog. Things changed quickly when Schmuhl turned on a hose. Suddenly, Sedit started growling and chasing its tail, making circles. It occasionally growled and approached Schmuhl, who reacted calmly and cautiously.
"She's a coyote," Schmuhl said. "You never forget who you're with."
The day moved on at the Wildlife Center - feeding baby birds, mopping the floor, feeding baby squirrels, feeding baby birds again, doing laundry, feeding baby birds yet again. Jessica Dunlap arrived to help. She's a University of California, Davis, student who wants to be a veterinarian and who is an intern at the center.
Someone called the center for advice. Forrest talked to a person who had found a fawn with no mother in sight and who wondered if the fawn needed help.
"Chances are the mom is around," Forrest said. "The best thing you can do for that baby is leave it be."
She gives similar advice to people who find baby birds on the ground. Don't bring them to the center, put them back in the nest or tree, Forrest said. Forget the notion mother birds will reject babies touched by humans, she said.
"It's an old wive's tale," Forrest said. "I grew up with the same idea."
The Wildlife Center is ready to help orphaned creatures. But it isn't out to replace the mothers of the animal kingdom.
Forrest described the center and its volunteers as pinchhitters.
Reach Barry Eberling at 425-4646 Ext. 232 or at email@example.com.
Tips for handling baby wildlife
-- Put uninjured baby birds found on the ground back in the nest or tree. The mother bird won't reject them because of human scent.
-- Be careful about removing baby jackrabbits or fawns. In both cases, the mother leaves them to feed. Bring them to the Wildlife Center only if you are certain the mother will never return.
-- Don't try to handle large animals, skunks and bats. Call Solano County Animal Control at 421-7468.
-- If you try to capture a small animal, use gloves and protect your eyes. The best way to catch a small animal is to toss a towel or blanket over it and place it quickly and gently in a cardboard box.
Source: Wildlife Center
What you can do
The Wildlife Center needs volunteers. People can help with such things as wildlife care, field trips, slide shows and lectures, clerical and reception work, carpentry and construction, clean-up days, fund-raising, publicity and newsletters.
To reach the Wildlife Center, please call 429-4295. It is located at 1171 Kellogg St. in Suisun City. Its Web site is www.suisunwildlife.org/wildmain.html.