Home / Adventure / On a wing and a prayer: Working out of her East Texas home, wildlife rehabilitator Karen Montalvo often is the last chance for orphaned and injured songbirds

On a wing and a prayer: Working out of her East Texas home, wildlife rehabilitator Karen Montalvo often is the last chance for orphaned and injured songbirds

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karen and pileated woodpecker

Writer: DANNY MOGLE // Photographer: ALLISON MAXWELL // Jan/Feb 2016

Karen Montalvo never set out to help birds. One day her former husband brought her a bird he found at work. The European starling was no more than a few days old.

“It was tiny and had no feathers,” Karen recalls.

She didn’t have a clue what to do with the little thing but realized if she didn’t do something the bird would die. She wasn’t about to let that happen.

On the website Starling Talk, Karen learned it was important to keep the bird warm, what and how to feed it and how to prepare it for release. After receiving lots of tender love and care, the starling grew strong, sprouted feathers and eventually flew away.

Karen thought her rescue was a one-and-done deal and that her days of playing mommy bird, nurse and protector to a winged creature was over. She was wrong.

Not long after that, someone arrived at her door with an abandoned wren and a fly catcher saying, “I heard you saved birds.”

“It just all fell into my lap,” Karen says. “But I found out quickly that it was something I was pretty good at.”

That was 10 years ago. She obtained state and federal wildlife rehabilitation permits and established Wildfeathers Songbird Rehabilitation, which she continues to operate out of her Palestine, Texas, home


It’s not easy being a wildlife rehabilitator in Texas.

Before the state issues a permit, it makes sure the applicant meets dozens of requirements. Holding facilities must have “adequate and appropriate” temperature control, lighting and ventilation. Animals must receive water and “wholesome palatable food sufficient to maintain good health.”

Contact with the animal must be kept to a minimum and never cause it “unnecessary discomfort, behavioral stress or physical harm.”

Lots of rules regulate the size of enclosures and the inter-mingling of species (in some cases different sexes of the same species) and restrict how long an animal can remain in captivity.

The places where the animals are kept – in the case of Karen spaces in her home and large flight cages in her yard – are inspected by game wardens.

The state does not provide money to rehabilitators to build and maintain enclosures, pay veterinary bills or buy food. Karen owns A Bird’s Nest, a shop that sells antiques, home decorative items and restored furniture to help fund her rehab work.

She doesn’t charge anyone for taking in a bird and is thankful for donations.

Only two people in northeast Texas hold a permit to rehabilitate birds, shows a Texas Parks & Wildlife database. Karen is the only one who cares for songbirds. Beverly Grage, who is based in Smith County, rehabilitates injured hawks and other raptors.

Songbirds are federally protected migratory animals, so Karen also must comply with federal guidelines and submit annual reports.

Karen is busiest in the spring. She calls that baby season. During a recent spring she cared for 70 birds, representing many species, at one time.

“I’ve never been so busy,” Karen says. “I was going from 9 in the morning ’til 10 at night, every day.”

Each species requires specific care. She feeds many of the youngest birds a homemade blend of high quality dog or cat food, powdered calcium and protein supplements pureed until it resembles milk formula. She often uses a straw to gently slip the nourishment into the birds’ mouths. As birds become older, some eat insects; others eat seeds.

Karen works hard not leave her human “imprint” on the birds. “When I go in (to where they are being kept) the birds don’t freak out but they have to still be afraid of people. They can’t become too dependent on me. If they do, that’s a death sentence.”

When a bird is capable of flying and feeding itself, it’s time for it to go.


People mean well but often do the wrong things when they come across a potentially injured or orphaned songbird. Scooping it up and taking it indoors typically is the last option.

Karen says it is best to return young and unfeathered birds to their nest. If the nest has fallen out of a tree, place it back on a branch.

“You can touch it (a bird),” she says. “It’s a misconception that if you touch the baby the mother bird will never have anything to do with it.” But it is very important, Karen says, to keep contact with the bird to a minimum.

If the bird has feathers, Karen says leave it alone.

“Most birds leave the nest before they can fly. That’s part of nature. The parents know where it is. You can remove it from danger but remember mom is watching.”

“The best thing you can do for a stranded wild creature is to leave it in peace,” advises the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “Above all do not try to care for it yourself.”

If a bird cannot be returned to its parents or appears to be injured, place it in a well ventilated pet carrier covered by a towel and get it to a rehabilitator as soon as possible. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department posts contact information on rehabilitators on its website.

Without a permit, it is illegal to keep a wild animal.


Because she devotes so much time and money to caring for birds, Karen must make sacrifices in other areas. However, she says the satisfaction she receives in being able to return a bird back to the wild, where it belongs, more than makes up for the sacrifices.

“I’ve always felt that if something needs help, and I can do it, I’m going to help. … I get a kick out being able to bring a little bird back from the brink of death.”

She has no plans to ever do anything else.

“That doesn’t ever cross my mind. This is a commitment I’ve made. …  I know I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I’ll be doing this as long as I’m physically able.”

About Haley Holcomb

One comment

  1. It was so nice to read it. Thanks for this post.

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