For the Birds

As soon as you walk in the door at the Youth Science Institute (YSI) in Alum Rock park you know this place is for the birds. A collection of birds, some now extinct, from many locales gaze out of glass cases. This is the Holmes Bird Collection, an extensive collection of about three hundred birds collected during the late 1800s.

But these birds are no longer the life of the party. As you walk into the small animal room just to the left of the entrance, eyes will be watching you. Perched high on a ledge up close to the ceiling are some very real hawks and owls.

Almost from the day it opened in 1953, YSI has housed birds of prey. The birds are there because of some misfortune. The Swainsons hawk, for example, has only one wing, the result of an accident some twenty-seven years ago. Only a Great-horned owl has been there longer, thirty years now. These two raptors have been joined by five others–another Great-horned owl, a screech owl, a barred and a barn owl and a Red-tailed hawk. All non-releasable, these birds earn their keep as part of YSI’s exhibits and school programs teaching thousands each year about birds and the food chain that helps maintain the balance of nature.

When these birds are not working–even hawks and owls need days off–they live in aviaries behind the YSI building. Now twelve years old, these plywood structures are melting down. Alum Rock Park is no stranger to moving earth. Several wet winters in the last decade have brought mud cascading down the hillside in back of the building. Mud flowed in and around these aviaries. Moisture has rotted framing and doors.

YSI has permits, renewable each year, from California Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife to house these birds, which technically are residents of California, not YSI. Over the years the regulations from these two agencies have changed. More space is now mandated in order to house our feathered co-workers.

All of this means one thing for YSI. We must build new aviaries. This we will do over the next year–behind a retaining wall with a concrete foundation that won’t rot away. Marvin Bamburg, an architect who, with his wife Bonnie, a member of the YSI Guild, has been a long-time friend of YSI. He has donated a plan. We have written  grant proposals and are seeking donors to pay for the new structure which has an estimated cost of $100,000 and will house four birds. The YSI Guild has contributed $20,000 to kick off the project. Private donations have started coming in and Philips Electronics is sponsoring a fund-raising dinner for the project.

YSI is seeking friends for these birds that are facing a housing crisis. If you would like to be one, you may call for more information (408) 356-4945. Seats a a very fancy dinner at the Fairmont on December 9 are still available and there are other ways to help too. You may send a donation marked Fly with YSI to YSI, 16260 Alum Rock Avenue, San Jose, CA 95127. You can sponsor an aviary (there are four)  or a retaining wall and have your name on it or give it as a gift to someone you love. Or you can simply come visit the birds and tell others about them.

Whatever you do, the birds will benefit.


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