Not all birds fly south for the winter. Not all can. For those ill or injured at the Birds in Flight Sanctuary, the winter is a time of recuperation in the care of Heather Merritt.
At her Howland home, now turned into a wildlife rehabilitation center, she has about 100 birds from the 16-county area in eastern Ohio for which she has taken personal responsibility. Ducks roam the backyard around larger bird coups, and a few birds in more delicate condition are recovering inside the garage and her home.
She didn't start with birds though. Merritt had been taking care of and training lions and tigers at a zoo in Ravenna, but in 1991, a friend asked her for help with an injured owl in his back yard. She called around and found there was no one to take care of the bird.
"They said you'd have to find you're own way, so we did," she said.
Over the past year alone she, her two sons, ages 22 and 19, and a handful of volunteers have taken care of 1,600 birds. Since releasing that first owl back into the wild, she said she just can't not help the animals she knows are in need.
"It was so rewarding because my tigers always went into cages, but the owl was free again," she said.
Tribune Chronicle photos / Margaret Thompson
Heather Merritt of Birds in Flight Sanctuary in Howland holds a screech owl at the rehabilitation facility.
Over the years, she has acquired licenses from the state and federal government to not only rehabilitate wildlife but to train falcons, and even work with one-eyed birds to prepare them for release into the wild. After the death of a beloved animal rescuing friend in 1997, she took on caring for other wild animals as well.
Merritt said people drive to her from more than three hours away to deliver the injured birds. She has set up contacts in some counties that are willing to help "daisy chain" the animals to her.
She's had plenty of local animals turned into her as well - ducks from Mosquito Creek Reservoir, sick birds hunters have found in the woods, wingless ones that teenagers have abused.
Leaving the nest
A lot of the stories bring tears to her eyes. In her line of work, she helps the birds fly nest never to be seen again. This is healthy for them; avoiding a lot of human contact is important for keeping the birds wild. In fact, Merritt said, under her licensing it is illegal to expose the birds to public view, so the sanctuary must remain private.
Not long ago, though, one of her birds returned. About seven years ago, Merritt took in a bald eagle that had been shot. The bird needed to have one of its eyes removed.
Dr. Sam Costello of Town and Country Veterinary Hospital, Merritt's go-to veterinarian for the last 20 years, performed the surgery.
"With pets, they could have a hurt leg but they don't need to be able to run a race or anything. With bird of prey, they need to be able to function before you throw them back into the wild," Costello said. "They need to heal to the point that they can fly again and are ready to hunt."
Particularly with birds of prey he said releasing them into the wild with only one eye can be controversial. However, after a good recovery, the eagle was able to hunt fish on its own in a makeshift pond.
With the bird was ready to leave, Merritt said she checked around to see where it was allowed to be released. Several states turned her down, and in the end, she drove to Michigan where the bird was welcomed. That's all there was to it, she thought.
Toward the beginning of December, she received a call from a friend saying there was an injured bald eagle on the side of state Route 82. Upon arriving, she said the bird was eating roadkill but appeared to be in good health.
The eagle turned to look in her direction and when she saw it had one eye, she knew that it was the same eagle she had rescued long ago.
"I mean it's been seven years. You don't get to know all of the birds, but a bald eagle with one eye you know," she said.
Ready for winter
Summer is the busiest season for recovering hurt animals, Merritt said, noting that it is when people are outside and walking around that they often spot the birds in need.
With winter setting in, she said the birds are not able to be released into the cold, so they too are settling in for the next several months. Daily routines of replacing frozen water and checking on the progress of the animals keeps her busy.
Merritt said the winter also gives some of the healthy birds a break from the educational presentations she puts on a schools.
"It's a 24-hour job. I just do the surgery; she handles all of the rehabilitation, feeding the birds, cleaning the cages," Costello said. "She's very dedicated."
Not taking care of the birds is an idea Merritt said she cannot fathom. After falling ill once and having to be hospitalized, she saw that the birds would not be given the care they needed.
"If I ever quit, they won't be taken care of. Where are these guys going to go?" she said. "How could we do that? Are we going to leave them? How could you do that?"
The birds are kept safe now and Merritt is working on fundraising in her small amount of spare time to be able to build a care facility for the birds. Every month it costs her about $1,000 in grain just for the ducks, geese and swans to eat.
Due to an error in paperwork, Merritt said the sanctuary lost their 501(c)3 status, but are working to regain it. Merritt said though it is an inconvenience it won't stop her work.
She will be holding a wine tasting and raffle fundraiser at Wine Styles in Howland at 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday to benefit the sanctuary. Tickets are $20; anyone interested in purchasing one can call the sanctuary at 330-652-3381.
"They say it takes a village to raise a child," she said. "It's going to take everybody to take care of our wildlife."