The Birdwoman Cometh

Down a narrow country road in Castle Hayne, the lives of wild birds are being saved

Story and Photographs by Virginia Holman

Tucked away on a narrow country road in Castle Hayne, behind a modest vine-covered brick home, is Skywatch Bird Rescue’s new facility. There’s no permanent signage; if not for the banner out front, you’d have no idea that behind the garden gates lies a growing 10-acre avian paradise. There are outdoor aviaries that house injured pelicans and herons, a dim aviary for a great horned owl, a large aviary for two rescued blue and gold macaws, an aviary full of songbirds in various states of rehabilitation, and even two ponds for more mobile waterfowl such as black swans, great egrets and Muscovy ducks.

Skywatch’s founder and director, Amelia Mason, oversees every aspect of this impressive operation. Her love of wild animals began early: She grew up in Kruger National Park in South Africa, the largest wild game reserve in the world. (Her mother ran the park’s small airport.) Mason’s interactions with wild creatures and veterinarians, rangers, trackers and wildlife guides stoked her desire to learn more. When she arrived in North Carolina as a young woman, she volunteered with Carolina Waterfowl Rescue in Charlotte and eventually became a federally certified wildlife rehabilitator.

Mason feels that injured birds sometimes come to her and that sometimes she is led to them. The first week after she relocated to Wilmington, she and her husband were canoeing and came upon a blue heron tangled in fishing line and drowning.


“I called and called, and realized that there wasn’t a good bird rehabilitation program in New Hanover County.” Mason found that this gap was leaving many birds in dire straits, because individuals can’t keep and rehabilitate migratory birds for more than 24 hours while actively seeking help. In fact, it’s a federal offense to keep a migratory bird, one that carries a fine of $15,000 per bird. So, in 2010, Mason started Skywatch Bird Rescue. 

“People think that just as with dogs and cats, tax dollars go to care for unwanted and injured birds, but that’s not the case.” Mason points out that the rescued wild and domestic birds brought to Skywatch aren’t there for natural reasons. “They are here for a variety of reasons. Perhaps someone shot them, injured them with discarded fishing line, or they swallowed a fish hook, or a dog attacked them, and so on. Almost all are injured in ways related to human activities.”

Many well-meaning but unlicensed amateur rescuers try to help birds in ways that are harmful. For instance, Mason gets many birds with water in their lungs. “People drop water into the bird’s mouth. Because a bird’s anatomy differs from ours, that water goes to the lungs and creates breathing problems and introduces a breeding ground for bacterial infection.” The best thing any good Samaritan can do is to call a certified bird rescue group like Skywatch before doing anything.

Skywatch is now a highly regarded wildlife rehabilitation facility, and Mason is a federally licensed wildlife rehabilitator. The facility boasts a volunteer staff of 14, though more committed volunteers are always needed. In addition, Skywatch received a $35,000 grant from the Women’s Impact Network of New Hanover County to expand Skywatch’s programs and fund the much-needed upgrade of their on-site bird hospital facility, which flooded during last October’s epic rainstorm. Hurricane Matthew did cause flooding and some cage damage this October, but most of the birds were evacuated and they weathered the storm safely. All funds go to help care for the birds, as neither Mason nor her volunteers collect a paycheck. At this time, donations cover about 45 percent of Skywatch’s needs, Mason pays the remaining portion out of her personal funds.

As Skywatch becomes well-known, the number of rescues arriving at the facility is increasing dramatically. “This past spring we had over 700 baby birds.” Some were knocked out of the nest by storms; others were injured by house cats. Unfortunately, many baby birds were brought in by well-meaning but overzealous rescuers. Mason points out that “people often find baby birds hopping around on the ground and think they are abandoned when they are simply fledging.” She explains that many birds leave the nest a day or so before they can fly, but that the watchful parents are nearby tending their chicks. “We had so many ‘rescued’ babies this year that we left a message on our voicemail and social media pages in order to educate people about fledglings.” Mason and her volunteer staff also visit area festivals, parks, schools, and businesses like Petsmart to help educate the public about wild birds.

Skywatch occasionally assists with the rescue and rehabilitation of escaped pet birds and birds such as roosters. She explains that they get two types of roosters: those that come in from ignorant backyard breeders who didn’t purchase their chicks sexed and don’t want to cull (kill) or pay to care for the roosters, and roosters obtained through cockfighting busts. “The fighting roosters that come in are often so sad. Some can be rehabilitated, but some have been in so many fights that their combs have been torn off completely, and their heads are smooth.” However, she emphasizes that Skywatch is not a dumping ground for unwanted pet birds. In such cases, she directs people to organizations such as the Cape Fear Parrot Sanctuary.

Occasionally, she’ll receive birds from hoarders. She has four elegant emus confiscated from a Brunswick County home and a mated pair of blue and gold macaws she’s named Hansel and Gretel. I peer into the macaws’ enclosure and notice that the female’s breast is completely bare. “She’s picked out all of her feathers,” says Mason. “We got them from a hoarder who kept them in a small rusted cage covered in filth. She claimed she had rescued them from a man who was selling exotic birds out of a storage container. The birds have suffered so much abuse. The feather picking, or trichotillomania, will never go away. She’s suffered too much. You’ll see that the male is missing feathers on his head. That’s because when she is done picking out her feathers, she picks the feathers on his head, and he lets her because they’re a mated pair, and he loves her.” Mason explains that Gretel has improved over the last couple of years: She’s on anti-anxiety medication and in winter is made more comfortable with a heat lamp and a small jacket that covers her featherless breast.

Though Skywatch’s primary goal is the rescue, rehabilitation and release or placement of wild and domestic birds, some rescues have become permanent residents and education birds. Two raptors, Achilles the red-tailed hawk and Venus the barn owl, are two such birds. A well-meaning person rescued Venus and attempted to rehabilitate the bird himself. The owlet imprinted on him, which means the owl will forever view a human as his parent. Achilles, the red-tailed hawk, is blind in one eye from crashing into a car.

Mason reminds people that something many of us enjoy doing, feeding bread to waterfowl like ducks, can actually cause irreparable damage to the birds. The problem is two-fold: “The ducks come to rely upon humans and bread and can develop a condition called angel wing, in which the bones in the wing twist and point away from the body.” Due to the results of such malnourishment, these birds can’t fly and often suffer an early death. “Wildlife education is so important. That’s one reason we want to expand our facility, so that we can educate school groups and others.”

As I look around at Mason’s 10-acre sanctuary, I tell her I can’t imagine, even with 14 volunteers, how she does so much. She tosses her golden curls back and laughs a gentle, understated laugh.

“Well,” she says, “it’s a long, busy day here pretty much every day.”

Skywatch is not open for public tours, but does have volunteer opportunities. Visit to find out more about bird rescue, volunteering or to make a donation. To contact Skywatch about an injured bird, call (855) 40-RESCU or (855) 407-3728.

Author Virginia Holman, a regular Salt columnist, teaches in the creative writing department at UNC Wilmington and occasionally guides with Kayak Carolina.

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