Watch Ellen Kalish tenderly smooth the rumpled feathers on one of her tiny barred owls and you feel you’re in the presence of the Jane Goodall of bird rehabbers. She emanates the calm and expertise of a woman born to care for feathered creatures and to share her passion for them with the rest of us.
At the age of 40, Kalish was commuting into Manhattan when she decided corporate life wasn’t for her. She spent the next few years raising her two sons by the Hudson River, enjoying nature, watching birds migrate. When her kids left home, she found another fulfilling mission: rescuing broken and abandoned birds, helping them heal and, then, thrilling to the moment when they could fly away.
Twenty-five years later, Kalish is the director of the Ravensbeard Wildlife Center, which she founded to rehabilitate “injured, ill and orphaned animals in order to return them to the wild.” On the day Hudson Valley One visited, she was showing the Morrison family of Westbury, Long Island, around her one acre compound in Saugerties. At the moment, there are 18 birds and 9 pigeons in ten tall cages and 5 baby squirrels in residence.
Seven of the birds are educational birds that Kalish will take with her to schools and other lectures. There are also injured birds that she is nursing until they can be released back into nature and some birds that will stay because they wouldn’t survive in the wild, plus two 18-year old pet parrots.
On their tour, the Morrisons met an Eastern Screech-Owl with one sunken eye who lives at Ravensbeard. He was brought in with head trauma and a vet determined that blood had collected in his eye, leaving him partially blind. He’s so tiny he’d be prey for bigger birds so Kalish kept him and feeds him mice. She explained that 12 hours after owls eat they throw up a pellet of bones, fur and whatever else they can’t digest, so if you want to know if there are owls around, look for pellets on the ground.
Kalish also brought out her 8-year old American Kestrel named T-Rex for the Morrisons to see. She explained that T-Rex and his siblings were born in the back of a truck and his tail feathers were broken. It was too late in the year for him to migrate so Kalish kept him over the winter while he healed. The next year, he still wasn’t ready to fly south, so he’s now an “ed” bird. (Fun facts: American Kestrels are the smallest members of the falcon family and can often be seen on telephone wires; they’re the only birds besides hummingbirds that can hover; and if they’re hungry enough, they’ll eat mourning doves, even if they are the same size.)
Rocky, the Christmas owl
There’s apparently very little about birds that Kalish doesn’t know. She started her career as a rehabber by apprenticing with other wildlife rehabbers. It takes two years to get licensed as a bird rehabber by the Department of Environmental Conservation. Ellen was licensed in 2000 with New York State and was federally licensed to work with migratory birds through the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 2002.
Kalish has learned that this work is a labor of love. It’s costly: she has to pay for cages, food (rodents don’t come cheap!), medicine, X-rays, vets, not to mention rent. And then there’s the heartbreak. Half the birds brought to Ravensbeard don’t survive; many die within the first day. This year, she’s taken in 250 birds. April to July is baby bird season and Kalish was getting 30 calls a day. Because of all the rain, nests brimming with baby birds disintegrated and fell out of trees.
Although there are four or five bird rehabbers in Ulster County, there are none in some surrounding counties like Orange and Sullivan, so sometimes people drive for hours hoping Kalish can revive a near-dead raptor. Fortunately, she’s got volunteers who help. If they save 60% of the birds brought in, they’re pleased but, Kalish says, the work is “emotionally taxing.”
There is one bird Kalish saved that has helped her save many others — Rockefeller, a young Saw-whet owl, aka Rocky the Christmas owl. In November, 2020, a worker discovered him, sickly but alive, squished in the branches of a tall Norwegian Spruce from Oneonta, destined to be festooned with lights at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. His wife called the Ravensbeard Center and Kalish agreed to take him in. Kalish says there’s no way of knowing when the stowaway got caught in the tree. The miniscule owl was dehydrated and emaciated when she got him but otherwise unharmed. After a few days, he gained weight and Kalish realized Rocky was a “she.” Kalish released her soon after, as you can see at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jgfMqn78UC8
Rocky the owl’s rescue was a wonderful holiday story. Newspapers and television stations nationwide covered the touching saga of a tiny survivor amid a year of misery. And Rocky brought Kalish good fortune too. She began selling Rocky Christmas ornaments on Ravensbeard’s website. While she’s always depended on lecture fees, tour donations and other contributions, the attention brought new donors and helped her get through the pandemic. She’s been able to buy bigger cages, more supplies and take in more needy avian creatures.
Next month, The Christmas Owl: Based on the True Story of a Little Owl Named Rockefeller, a pre-school children’s book co-authored by Ellen Kalish and Gideon Sterer and published by Little, Brown, will go on sale at Target and on Amazon.
And next year, Ravensbeard will have a new home, its first permanent location. Kalish is now living and working on a rented property, with a lease due to expire in a year. She’s been looking for a stable home for her avian refuge for decades and was offered land at the Ashokan Center, the 385-acre campus in Olive Bridge.
There she’ll finally have the 100-foot flight cage she’s needed to test whether wounded birds can fly on their own and a house for herself, so she can maintain her 24/7 rescue operation.
She’s also very excited about the Ashokan Center’s dedication to “outdoor experiential learning with today’s children who…will shape the future of our planet.” Kalish, who is also a certified wildlife educator, says “Our missions are aligned. Once children have been exposed to live birds, they start caring about animals and it changes their world. They’ll learn to make the right decisions. Wildlife education is as important as saving birds.”
For more information, see https://ravensbeard.org.