Meet the Inspirational ‘Bird Lady’ – a Wildlife Hero Who Has Devoted Her Life to Caring for Birds and Facilitates the Most Charming Daily Penguin Spectacle on a Small Kiwi Beach

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If the thought of taking penguins on a daily beach walk or giving a baby or injured penguin a bath floats your boat… you have got to keep reading! 

I want to introduce you to an example of a human being living a life of true service, that’s totally in alignment with their divine truth that it can’t help but inspire anyone who hears her story.

Today on Mindfood Magpie, we feature Sylvia Durrant. A woman who facilitates recovery of all types of bird, but is particularly famous for her penguins.

Indeed, if you live in or around Auckland, you can call her up and arrange to visit with your children and visit the birds and even give a penguin a bath! Yes, who wouldn’t want to put giving a penguin a bath on their bucket list as soon as they heard it was possible! 

For more than 30 years, Sylvia Durrant of Rothesay Bay on Auckland’s lovely North Shore has been caring for sick and injured birds. Now in her mid eighties, she’s as busy and energetic as ever, with a gruelling workload, nursing 4,000 birds annually – and advising on the care of many more across the globe, such is her reputation all over the globe.

In this era of internet, this incredible bird lady doesn’t have an email address, but she receives phone calls from all over the world asking for her expertise. 

During the breeding season from September to February, Sylvia can have up to a hundred and fifty birds; many are babies and she can work fourteen hours a day, seven days a week.

There are times when the need becomes almost unmanageable but manage Sylvia does, somehow. In April 2006, a rare mass starvation of blue penguins along the Hauraki coast resulted in Sylvia caring for 140 sick birds in early summer compared to around 30 usually received. She’d never refuse a bird, but one can’t help but be overawed by the sheer devotion, time and money dedicated to these birds. 

While Sylvia has an extensive community of volunteers, she sadly doesn’t appear to have a successor. There aren’t an abundance of people who can do what she does; DOC, SPCA and all the local vets rely on her when they have a bird that needs saving. She’s a very special person clearly and a one of a kind, so finding a replacement isn’t a feasible option, if Sylvia eventually is forced to retire. 

As I said, she’s the expert and leader at the helm but she’s not alone. There’s a steady flow of volunteers that come to Durrant’s house to help out. When she has a full house, there’s almost always someone who helps feed the birds, clean the cages, and handle new arrivals. 

She also has the support of the local community, which is just as well as she relies on donations from the public to keep going. Hungry penguins can eat an astonishing $300 to $500 of fish each week.

Sylvia’s unrivalled knack for healing birds may stem from her training as a nurse; she used to care for disabled children at the Wilson Home, near where she resides now. 

She has described a crossover in bird care and human care. She says bird skeletons are similar to our human ones and that their long feathers at the end of their wings are like their fingers. She even says their internal organs are much like our own – and that our bones and their bones heal in similar fashion. 

Over the years, she’s become an expert at mending broken wings and puncture wounds. One of Durrant’s ducks has a cast made from masking tape; she uses aloe vera to heal the injured harrier hawk.

The most challenging part of Sylvia’s work is dealing with injuries because veterinarians don’t usually treat wild birds. She had a blue penguin with a deep gash across its back and the vet said it was impossible to stitch.

I got all the sand out of the wound… I put aloe vera jelly on it to heal it and just put a few zig-zag stitches in it to hold it so that when she moved, her back muscles wouldn’t just tear it again and then I bandaged her up, sent her swimming every day and it healed. Took three months but it healed.”

When she first started, there were several others in Auckland who also cared for birds; that’s how she learned much of what she knows. 

“If a bird came, I’d ring them up and say ‘hey, I’ve got this bird, and I don’t even know what it is!’ But then I would know for the next time.” She also devoured books about birds, and slowly built up a knowledge base that has made her one of the leading experts on bird rescuing in the country.

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The best part for me, is that she takes her collection of sick penguins down to Campbell’s Bay for a swim in the rock pools every morning. With Missy her dog as their loyal protector, the penguins always attract a crowd. 

If you get a chance to be in the crowd, head down on an early morning walk to Rothesay Bay beach, and witness the joy of Sylvia and Missy encouraging their convalescing patients out of the carriers onto the rocks pools. 

It’s such a popular spectacle that Auckland Council plans to erect a penguin statue and commemorative plaque at the beach to honour the ongoing tradition.

That’s not the only official recognition she’s received, with various awards, including being named in the Queen’s birthday honours list in 2007. 

Whilst immensely caring Sylvia doesn’t get attached to the birds, she insists. Too much human contact wouldn’t prepare them for the wild and the release is the most important part to her. 

“The most important thing is that they re-enter the wild. That’s where they belong.”

If you want to help care for the birds, contact Durrant at (09) 478 8819. Or, if you come across a sick or injured bird, drop it by her rescue centre, Bird Care, at 13 Montgomery Avenue in Rothesay Bay.

If you are just as inspired as I am by the bird lady, please donate on the link below. 

https://givealittle.co.nz/cause/birdladyofrothesaybay