new auckland

Sylvia - saviour of 140,000 birds

After 35 years of fixing the broken wings of Auckland's rescued birds, Sylvia Durrant, 85, is retiring. 

The bird-painted gate on her North Shore home is closed and the cages being given away. Her doctor has told her to give up - it's her blood pressure. She can still dart like a fantail but "when I get up and do things it's thumping", she says. 

That hasn't stopped the phone going non-stop at her little Rothesay Bay flat - she still gives advice, but there is now no one on the Shore who takes in injured birds. Already, just a day after the news starts to get out, people have proved willing to head quite some distance away to Lyn Macdonald in Green Bay - Auckland's other bird lady. 

There's also a Stanmore Bay place but it's not 24/7 like Sylvia's was. She will still go and talk to kindy groups and others who call, but she won't be able to bring her wounded charges with her. The Auckland Zoo has taken two of her three little blue penguins - Bernie, who had a broken wing, had to be put down. ("Every beach in New Zealand has penguins. If you see them during the day there's something wrong with them.") She is often seen at her local beach supervising their recuperation swims in rock pools, with her dog Missy nearby to lend a restraining paw on a little blue if needs be. (Missy was rescued, too.) 

It's time for the Department of Conservation to pick up the slack, she says, and do what it should have been doing for native birds all these years. If you have a stunned kererū that's smashed into your window, ring DoC. That's not an unlikely scenario. "Wood pigeons are the most stupid birds," she laughs. "If a wood pigeon sees a reflection of a tree in your window it will try to fly into it." If you have large trees and clean windows at your place, string some Christmas tinsel across the window so it moves a bit in the breeze. "Once you've been doing that for a few weeks they learn their lesson." 

She doesn't often get pīwakawaka in her bird hospital wards. "They flit so hard to catch insects. It's rare that something gets them. 

"Mostly it's wax-eyes because they are everywhere and feed on everything." 

Sylvia has been doing this work since answering an ad in the paper more than three decades ago - she needed something to do besides caring for her disabled husband Cliff, and it didn't involve leaving the house. She has never been paid for it - all these years donations have kept her in supplies. "I've never really been out of pocket." She mends around 4000 birds a year. 

She's led what she calls "an unusual life", growing up - happily - as a state ward from the age of three. Her father turned up on her doorstep when she was 14 but that was too late for any sort of bonding .. she has no idea what happened to her mother. "I had a good childhood though," she says, "No stress or strains. You knew who you were: you were nobody." She became a nurse. "It's very similar, caring for birds and for people ... birds just have feathers and extremities that we don't have." She married and had five boys, two of whom beat her into retirement. Now she has a flock of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, some of them helpers who will no doubt miss the bird hospital. 

Her favourite native bird is the tui, which she thinks is now the one most of us call to mind when it comes to New Zealand identity. (She's never had a kiwi handed in.) Sylvia was a song bird herself, in a choir for many years. She has a distaste for myna birds. "They're a nuisance - they attack other birds' nests. They are a pest."

Her most unusual case - an albatross. 

"She crashed into a fishing boat in the Southern Ocean and knocked herself out. The crew rang me from the bottom of the South Island and said she just wasn't flying away. They were feeding her fish. When they got to Auckland they handed her over. I nursed her back to health and a week later she went back with the same crew and they released her into the Southern Ocean again." 

She had a kookaburra once too, and gets hawks. With the latter she advises people to throw a towel around its claws - "it just stands there with its mouth open in horror not knowing what to do." With other species the towel has to go around the beak to avoid being nipped. 

"They're wild birds. I don't look them in the eye, they're not your friends." Over the years she's had occasion to use a lot of chloroform. "If you can't fix them they will die a horrible death. If you see a bird lying twitching and bloody on the bottom of the cage you have to put it to sleep." 

Birds have largely adapted to urban life, says Sylvia, but cats and cars are the biggest enemies - in that order. In the spring she sees victims of cats that have raided nests for the babies and collected unaware parents coming back with food. We're coming into baby bird season now but don't ring Sylvia about them, she's doing the crossword, lunching with friends, walking the dog, and taking it easy. 

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