TOMS RIVER – For 38 years, Donald Bonica, 72, has been rehabilitating injured birds at his Toms River Avian Care facility, located in the backyard behind his home that sits on a one-acre property off Church Road.
As one of only a handful of certified wildlife rehabilitators in the state, Bonica is currently caring for a number of birds of prey in his hospital that has about 15 flying cages. The raptors currently include five red-tailed hawks, a peregrine falcon, a great horned owl, two osprey and a Cooper’s hawk.
NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife had just delivered an endangered black skimmer to Bonica, which was suffering from malnutrition, likely resulting from competition for food with its siblings. The black skimmer is a seabird, similar to a tern.
The first thing Bonica typically does with an injured or sick bird is treat it for stress or shock, rehydrate it with IV fluids, and warm the animal up if it’s winter. He has a temperature-controlled greenhouse which serves as an emergency room where he can perform surgery and keep the injured animals until they can eat on their own.
The only greenhouse occupant on a recent day was the black skimmer, which Bonica was force feeding with a tube, four times a day. When the low-flying seabird regained some of its strength he planned to offer the bird some minnow.
“I’ll take any species, but I’m slowing down,” said Bonica, who suffers from arthritis. “I used to admit 1,000 birds a year, and during the busy season I get 20 to 30 calls a day.”
With help from his wife, Karen, who mostly handles phone calls and paperwork, Bonica is certified to perform orthopedic surgery on the birds, such as splinting broken wings, and suturing wounds resulting from fishing hooks, impact injuries, and more.
A wing heals in 10 days. The bones are hollow, so keeping them immobile any longer would result in calcification, and the bird would no longer be able to fly, he said.
“Anesthesia is a big thing, to inject them,” he said. “It’s difficult to anesthetize a sparrow, but it can be done.”
Bonica is uniquely trained as a wildlife rehabilitator: he underwent a two-year apprenticeship and a number of continuing education courses. He has lectured at veterinary schools and universities.
“I started with a passion for passerines, or songbirds, and then I progressed to gulls and marshland birds, like herons and egrets, and then I moved on to raptors,” he said.
Bonica has several birds that are permanent residents at his facility since they would be unable to live in the wild. One of them, a 35-year-old bald eagle that has lived there for 28 years, is hand-fed by Bonica and gets a daily bath in a nearby tub. The eagle was partly blinded in a fight and can no longer hunt.
He keeps the great horned owl as a surrogate mother for orphaned baby owls. She has successfully fostered some 20 motherless owls over the years.
The owl has more pressure in its talons than a pit bull has in its jaw, he said. The animal has no peripheral vision, so they are prone to getting hit by cars, he said.
The peregrine falcon is a permanent resident since it was born with cataracts. The falcon flies at 225 miles per hour and is the fastest animal in the world, said.
Bonica is also treating two seagulls in his hospital, and raised 140 baby mallard ducks this year.
“We use the birds to educate people,” he said. “It’s the only way to save these animals.”
The raptors eat rats and mice. Bonica orders 10,000 of the rodents at a time from a world-wide pharmaceutical lab who, until recently, was donating the excess inventory of euthanized and sterile lab rats and mice to him. Now the company has found a buyer for the rodents and it has become a money maker for them.
Bonica orders 3,000 frozen cockerel chicks (baby roosters) at a time from a large chicken grower in Pennsylvania. Humans don’t eat the male chicks, so they were previously ground up and used as fertilizer. Eagles eat eight or nine of the chicks a day, and the hawks eat about five. The chicks cost 15 cents a piece.
He also buys bird seed, mealworms, corn, duck pellets, and medicine for the birds out of his own pocket, which costs thousands of dollars a year.
“It adds up,” said Bonica. “I could use some help – for example, fishermen catch thousands of bunker, and I use six or seven a day at the cost of $1.50 each, so I would love it if they could donate some bunker.”
One of his most memorable stories as an avian rehabilitator is about one of the first eagles he treated about 30 years ago, at a time when there were only seven eagles in the state.
The eagle had gotten its leg trapped and it was in very bad shape, Bonica said. He consulted with universities and government agencies and they suggested euthanizing the animal.
“I amputated part of its leg,” Bonica recalled. “She was here for six months, and then we released her.”
About four years later he got a call from the NJ Department of Fish and Wildlife asking if he could come and pick up an injured eagle in south Jersey.
He recognized the eagle with the partly amputated leg. It had been lead poisoned and it died in his arms that night.
“We gave it three or four more years,” he said. “It bred, and it fulfilled its obligation.”
Once a bird is rehabilitated, Bonica brings them to a suitable habitat or close to where they were found. He estimates that he is able to release about 65 percent of the birds that are brought to him. He euthanizes those that can’t be saved.
“We can only do so much,” he said.
Bonica said he doesn’t know how much longer he plans to run his rehabilitation center.
“It’s very costly. The cages could use some repair which could cost $30,000 to $40,000,” he said.
“I don’t plan – I’m taking it day by day,” Bonica said.
To donate bunker or to help with the cost of caring for the birds, call Toms River Avian Care at 732 255-9270.