From patient to educator

Looking back on the last 20 years at the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center with Nelson the crow

When Margaret Whisnant saw a crow inside the Catawba County Library in June, she knew immediately that she had met him before. She was sure this was the same crow she had spent a few days caring for 20 years earlier, the same crow who had been brought to her with a broken wing that needed veterinary attention, and the same crow that she brought to the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center to receive care. That crow was Nelson, an animal ambassador at the Rehabilitation Center who was brought to the library that day as part of a community wildlife presentation.

Whisnant is a licensed rehabilitator who specializes in songbirds, so when someone found that injured baby crow, they brought him to her. It wasn’t long, however, until she realized she would not be able to provide Nelson the care he needed to heal and thrive. Her flight cage was too small, she didn’t have another crow for him to socialize with, and his wing would need more serious attention than she could provide. It was obvious from the get-go, she said, that he needed to be brought to the Center.

This was 2003, and what is today known as the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center had only recently become part of Lees-McRae College. At the time, the center was not yet the fully outfitted wildlife medicine hub it is today, but Whisnant knew Senior Instructor and Director of the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center Nina Fischesser had a facility at her home, along with resources at Lees-McRae that would give Nelson a better chance at healing.

Whisnant poses with Nelson on her arm under the supervision of Fischesser during the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center’s presentation at the Catawba County Library. “When they said his name, I knew it had to be my Nelson,” Whisnant said.

Although they have never been able to determine the exact cause, Fischesser said she quickly realized Nelson’s injuries were more serious than she had bargained for. Nelson had a broken wing that was fractured in a spot that made healing particularly difficult. While it would heal, the injury would leave him flightless for the rest of his life. After taking him to the vet to confirm her suspicions that his injuries would deem him un-releasable, Fischesser began the process of transitioning Nelson’s permit from a rehabilitation designation to an educational designation. By this point, Nelson’s injury was already healing and required minimal medical attention, but he still found his place at the Center.

“It wasn’t something I needed to do anything with, so I kind of just let him wander around the clinic while I was feeding babies and taking care of animals, and he would just be walking around the floor,” Fischesser said. “I didn’t really want to keep him at first. I thought, ‘I’ll just find a placement for him,’ and I tried, but crows are a dime a dozen, so I was not successful. By that time, I was hopelessly attached to him, so we put him on our permit.”

Nelson appeared to be attached to Fischesser too. The Corvidae bird family─which includes Nelson, an American Crow─imprints quickly, and remembers faces for many years. According to Scientific American, crows are incredibly intelligent; in one study the birds exhibited reasoning skills on par with three- and four-year-old children. This high level of intelligence has been well documented. There have been instances of wild crows bringing trinkets to humans who have fed them, and dropping nuts on hard surfaces to crack them open more easily. It is obvious to all who meet him that his species’ intelligence is evident in Nelson, a finicky, opinionated bird who is particularly picky about who he lets into his inner circle. He took to Fischesser quickly, however, and happily followed her around. It wasn’t long before his injury was healed, and it was time to find Nelson a job at the center.

Due to his skittish nature and not being glove-trained, Nelson was not able to become a wildlife educator at first. To become an educator, animal ambassadors must undergo extensive training through partnerships with Wildlife Biology students to ensure they are ready to participate in community presentations. Even though Nelson wasn’t able to undergo this training at the beginning of his time at the Center, he was still able to make meaningful contributions in other ways.

“He was kind of like a foster dad,” Dakota Beck ’09 said. “We would put Nelson out in a flight cage, and when we got crows to the size they could go out there we would put them out with him. We would let him be a surrogate dad and teach them to pick up food and stuff. He’s not flighted, so he wouldn’t teach them to fly, but he would take over so they would wild up.”

Beck studied Biology with a Wildlife Rehabilitation concentration, and is now an Animal Services Deputy in Durham County, North Carolina, where she regularly responds to calls about injured wildlife. She said she references back to what she learned at Lees-McRae every day, but that the relationship she formed with Nelson throughout her time in the program was, and continues to be, particularly impactful.

Although he was not glove trained until after she graduated, Beck remembers working with Nelson and forming a strong bond with him beginning in 2005. Because the program was much smaller at the time, Wildlife Rehabilitation students were not assigned to specific animal ambassadors as they are today, but Beck said she was always drawn to the crows that came through, particularly Nelson.

Beck visits the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center often to give guest lectures, and always makes sure to stop by and visit Nelson. In 2013 Nelson felt comfortable enough to perch on Beck's hand without a glove.

These days, Wildlife Rehabilitation and Wildlife Biology students work with specific animal ambassadors throughout their time in the program. In many cases students are assigned to their ambassadors, and sometimes they even get to choose who to work with, but when it comes to Nelson the process of taking on a new student is much more complicated.

“With all the other birds you kind of start from ground zero and build a relationship from just being around them; getting them used to your voice, your presence, your energy. But Nelson will let you know right off the bat if he doesn’t want you around. I don’t know if he can see auras, if he can see your energy, or if it’s a piece of clothing you wear,” Fischesser said. “Whenever I assign a student to him, there’s always a caveat—he may not accept you. If he doesn’t you can try for a little while, but usually he makes up his mind and that’s it.”

According to Fischesser, it’s very easy to tell if Nelson doesn’t like the color of your aura. Screaming from his perch is one thing, but once he hops down to peck at and bite your feet and ankles most students realize they might have to take on another ambassador after all. As obvious as he can be about his dislike, however, Nelson’s affection for those he does accept comes just as easily. Those who work with Nelson know one of the most surefire ways to gauge his mood is if he gives kisses. “Giving kisses,” as the team at the Rehabilitation Center calls it, is when he sits on his perch, ducks his head, and bobs up and down while making a clicking noise.

“I think the first time I realized that we really clicked is when I went into his cage to clean his water and all that stuff. Nelson does what we call giving kisses, and he really only does that when his favorite people are around,” Beck said. “When I went into the cage and he did that I remember Nina being like, ‘oh, you’re one of his people now,’ and he still does that. I come back and guest lecture to the classes every year, and every time I go in his cage, he still does it.”

Despite the close relationship she formed with him, Beck said she knew Nelson was not yet ready to be trained like the other birds at the Center. During her time in the program she tried, but never could get him to take that first step onto a glove. It wasn’t until a few years later that Nelson was finally able to take that leap onto the glove of Yartiza Acosta ’12. Fischesser said she remembers the day Acosta approached her and asked if she could begin trying to train Nelson for programs.

Acosta studied Pre-Veterinary Medicine at Lees-McRae and now works as a Rehabilitation Manager at Pelican Harbor Seabird Station in Miami, Florida. She counts herself among the lucky few who Nelson took to right away, and his high intelligence was the motivating factor behind Acosta’s decision to train him. Because he is so smart, she thought taking him off site and giving him an opportunity to see the world would give him a more enriching life. Although it was a long process involving lots of treats and even more patience, Acosta remained committed to Nelson’s training throughout her undergraduate career.

“He definitely was tricky because of how smart he is. There were days when he was just not about it, or he would bite more than I would have liked him to, or he was just really vocal for some reason,” Acosta said. Once the pair built a rapport, however, Acosta did what she could to help him experience the world he never had the chance to explore because of his injury. “Once I had him glove trained, we would go down to the creek there by the Center. I would let him just bathe in the little pool of the creek. He really liked that.”

Nelson perches on Acosta's glove.

Nelson enjoys a trip to the creek that runs by the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center with Acosta.

By the time she graduated, Acosta said she thinks she got him to a good place where another passionate student who connected with Nelson could take over. Today, all the hard work Whisnant, Fischesser, Beck, Acosta, and others put into helping Nelson heal, grow, and learn has paid off. He can now confidently participate in community wildlife presentations alongside his fellow animal ambassadors, just like the one where he was reunited with Whisnant, the first in a long line of passionate caregivers. It seems like Nelson does not take any of this love for granted, and Whisnant, Acosta, and Beck said they are sure he remembers them, whether they visit often or if it has been 20 years.

“They have incredible facial recognition,” Fischesser said, referencing Nelson’s reaction to reuniting with Whisnant. “I was blown away by how cooperative he was with her because it’s not like a stranger can just go in and put him on a glove, but she did, and she talked to him, and he listened. It was like, ‘woah, he remembers her.’”

By Maya JarrellJuly 31, 2023