Tucked out of sight down a long gravel drive a few miles east of Astoria is the Wildlife Center of the North Coast, a non-profit wildlife hospital and aquatic bird rehabilitation facility, where some 2,000 birds and a small number of mammals are treated each year by a dedicated group of volunteer staff whose numbers have shrunk to the point that it’s difficult to respond to all of the calls that come in.

“Our numbers have dwindled as a result of the economy,” described the Wildlife Center director, Sharnell Fee. “People have had to quit volunteering because they had to go to work, their partners lost their jobs, and they have to move suddenly, all kinds of stories of people being battered about by the economy. As a result, our numbers of volunteers are way down, and we’re doing 2,000 birds a year without enough help.”

On any given day, birds being rehabilitated in the hospital have to be fed, wounds tended, and those that are well enough allowed to swim in big sinks and tubs while their cages are being cleaned. There’s emergency triage for incoming birds, and transportation needed for birds and mammals that come to the Wildlife Center from Newport to Astoria, and the entire southwest Washington coast.

“It takes someone special to work in the hospital,” said Fee, “with hurt birds and sick birds, some people can’t take the smell, and some people are afraid of birds. But transportation is also very important, it’s just as important. We really need drivers to bring the birds to us.”

Fee would like to have 12 volunteers in the hospital, ideally three to four per shift. The shift is in the mornings, from 9 a.m. to noon or later, depending on inventory. When we visited the Wildlife Center recently, Fee was working in the hospital with one other volunteer, they were very busy taking care of birds and fielding calls about injured birds, and trying to find people to pick up and transport the reported birds.

Fee emphasized that she needs drivers in every locale in her region, and not all of them need to drive to Astoria. For example, someone in Newport may transport a bird to Pacific City; the volunteer there may get the bird to Tillamook; someone else may take it to Cannon Beach, etc. If there is a network in place, things run relatively smoothly.

Volunteers will receive training, and in the case of drivers, that may be simply taking possession of a sick bird in an airline crate, and delivering the crate to the next driver in line.

One of the challenges the Wildlife Center is encountering currently is a “die-off event” in the puffin family, meaning that unusually large numbers of puffins are being found on the beach, dead and dying.

“There have been a lot of dead puffins on the beach this year,” said Fee. “They’re all extremely emaciated, so they’re not finding food; they’re starving. It may be that these are all northern birds, and the cold has driven them south; or it could be related to storm events; in successive storms birds expend energy fighting the elements and not eating. In any case, it is a lot of birds. Eight dead puffins on Cannon Beach are like 1,000 murres, in terms of numbers.”

Shawn Stephensen, of the State of Oregon Fish and Wildlife Service concurred with Fee: “The birds are starving,” he said, “puffins and large numbers of Rhinoceros Ocelets, also. But we really don’t know why. There don’t appear to be any contaminants. It could be ocean currents, winter storms…the prey availability must be very limited out there in the ocean.”

The Wildlife Center of the North Coast is rehabilitating a number of puffins and Rhinoceros Ocelets, to be released when they are healthy and the local puffins have returned to the area, which will hopefully signal the presence of food for the birds.

The Wildlife Center also has raptors in the hospital; they’re generally hit by cars, and a lot of Pelicans awaiting the return of their brethren to shore, so that they can be released into their species communities. When we visited recently we could not observe the Pelicans because they had just eaten, and they’re nervous birds. Fee warned me, “If you open the door to the flight cage, they’ll all throw up.”

It takes about $40,000 to $50,000 per year to keep the Wildlife Center of the North Coast running. All of that money comes from donations and grants. “We’re a private 501c3,” said Fee. “We just spent $14,000 on fish [for the birds to eat]. It’s really hard to get the little bait fish, and when we can get them, we have to buy in quantity. But we have to guess. One storm can bring in 1,000 birds, so we don’t really know how much we’ll need, and what kinds.”

Fee has been operating the Wildlife Center of the North Coast for 15 years. She owns the property, and she does not receive a salary. “I came here to help seabirds specifically,” she said. They are big indicators of the health of the oceans, and the oceans are in trouble. There is no other support for seabirds. We’re it; we do 2,000 birds per year, without enough help.”

To volunteer with the Wildlife Center of the North Coast, call 503-338-0331.