Alix Parks has got some guts—both literally and figuratively. A volunteer wildlife rehabilitator and raptor specialist, part of her daily routine includes preparing meals—which can include chopping up dead mice and rats—to feed to majestic and dangerous birds of prey such as hawks, owls, eagles, osprey and falcons.
Neither dead rats and mice nor the sharp talons and beaks of raptors can faze Parks; she is a professional wildlife rehabilitator, dedicated to providing medical care to raptors and other wildlife in need.
The goal of wildlife rehabilitation is to provide professional care to sick, injured and orphaned wild animals so that they can ultimately be returned to their natural habitat. Animals are held in captivity only until able to live independently in the wild.
It is against state and federal law to keep wild animals, so wildlife rehabilitators must be issued special permits from state and federal wildlife agencies. Parks has served as a volunteer wildlife rehabilitator for more than 10 years and is permitted through the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Parks works out of her Signal Mountain home, which has, through the years, been converted into a critical care unit for raptors and the occasional small mammal.
In her garage, large kennels serve as temporary housing for a red-shouldered hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk and barn owl—all of which are under her care until they are ready to be released back into the wild. Her screened-in porch, which has been converted into a giant birdcage, currently houses a young crow that someone captured and fed the wrong diet, causing the crow to develop a metabolic bone disorder and injury.
Wildlife rehabilitators cannot charge for their services and can only accept donations for their work, so Parks also works as a petsitter in order to pay for her wildlife rehabilitation services. It took her eight years, she said, to save up the money to build a flight cage in her backyard, where she currently houses a juvenile red-tailed hawk that was found injured in a church parking lot in Hixson several weeks ago.
Wildlife rehabilitators work with veterinarians to assess injuries and diagnose a variety of illnesses, and Parks sings the praises of Dr. Tai Federico at Riverview Animal Hospital.
Because of the important differences between wild animals and domestic animals, rehabilitators must have extensive knowledge about the species in care, including natural history, nutritional requirements, behavioral issues and caging considerations. Rehabilitators must also be able to administer basic first aid and physical therapy, as well as understand any dangers animals may present to rehabilitators.
“It is really a privilege to work with majestic birds of prey—they are awesome,” said Parks, who has had her fair share of injuries resulting from close encounters with feathered patients. Five years ago, a great horned owl injured her hand with its talon, causing some nerve damage. However, Parks is comfortable and compassionate in handling birds of prey, and she said the rewards outweigh the risks.
“The best part of my job is being able to release a bird that came to me sick or injured,” Parks said. “It can be heartbreaking work, though, because when these animals come to me, they are as good as dead if they had not gotten help.”
Through her work, Parks is offered a unique perspective on the impact humans have on wildlife. Many of the injuries she treats in birds of prey are the result of collisions with vehicles, and she sees many birds that have been impacted by habitat destruction and development.
“Development happens so quickly today,” Parks said. “In a matter of days, an entire forest ecosystem can be wiped out by bulldozers, which leaves animals behind who are suddenly left without shelter, water and food sources.”
Parks also receives many calls about fledgling birds that have been wrongly captured while learning to fly or perch.
“People don’t realize that a baby bird on the ground is often doing exactly what it is supposed to be doing—learning to perch and fly,” she said. Because a baby bird’s best chance for survival is with its parents, she advises people to follow protocol for baby birds and mammals that can be found on the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association’s website.
“I know that wildlife rehabilitation doesn’t make a difference for a species as a whole, but for the one individual I treat, it does make a difference—it is his or her life,” Parks said.
Alix Parks can be reached at 423-847-5757 for emergencies or questions involving birds of prey.
Parks is one of only a handful of wildlife rehabilitators serving East Tennessee, and she said the need is great for additional volunteers. To learn more about becoming a permitted wildlife rehabilitator in Tennessee, visit the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer and naturalist living on Walden’s Ridge. She enjoys writing about the natural world and exploration opportunities found within the southeastern United States, one of the most biologically and recreationally rich regions on Earth. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.