Rehabilitation of Injured Birds In Suffolk


By Peter Merchant and Eddie Bathgate

Peter Merchant, a member of SOG, told the Harrier about his work as a Defra-registered Bird Rehabilitation Keeper.

Any injured or immobile bird found in East Anglia may well end up in the temporary care of Peter Merchant. Peter specialises in raptors and owls, but has also cared for other species including Swifts, Nightjars, Woodpeckers and Turtle Doves.

Under the Countryside Wildlife Act 1981, Rehabilitation Keepers may house injured birds for the purpose of tending to and then releasing them.

Early days

In the early 80s, Peter held a Birdkeeper’s Licence, which often meant that injured birds were passed to him for care. During this time he was involved in a captive breeding programme for Barn Owls under which owls were released with the co-operation of local farmers and landowners. Peter released 14 Barn Owls in 1983 alone, with ringing returns suggesting a 40% survival rate.

Following on from this experience, in 1984 Peter applied for and received a Bird Rehabilitation Keeper’s licence and was mentored by Reg Snook, the Defra Area Inspector.

Barn Owl hunting-B Baston

Barn Owl hunting (Photo: B.Baston)

Birds that come to Peter for care are principally victims of collisions with traffic, fences or cables, or are suffering from mal-nourishment and exhaustion. He has not dealt with a poisoned bird since 2000 or a shot bird since 1995 though incidents have been dealt with by others. Injured birds usually come to him from vets and local wildlife organisations. It’s a reciprocal arrangement where he gets access to expertise and facilities in return for the birds’ pre-release care. Vets do not charge for their services on wild birds and he has always found landowners extremely co-operative when it comes to release time.

Any birds handed in are first weighed and physically inspected. It is often purely a case of feeding them up to their normal weight before they are ready for release. Recently, a female Kestrel was handed in weighing only 180g. Mal-nourished, its first pellet was soil, indicating it had been surviving by eating worms. Initially force-fed small morsels, the bird soon fed naturally and was released after eight days, having achieved a weight of 245g. Barn owls are often found in ditches after continual periods of rain, suffering from exposure and unable to fly. These typically take 7-10 days to feed up for release.

After veterinary assessment and any required treatment, Peter keeps the birds in close confinement, moving them to an internal aviary when they are able to stretch their wings. Except during examination, contact with people is non-existant to avoid any risk of human imprinting. In the later stages when they’re fit for release, they progress to an external aviary, which is constructed so that their only view is of the sky.

Whilst the imperative for resident species is to release them close to where they were found as quickly as possible, migratory species are housed over winter until the first migrants return.

Orwell Peregrines

Peter has had close ties with the Orwell Bridge Peregrine project. Not everyone is in favour of this project, however, and Peter has, from time to time, had to deal with unpleasant telephone calls from the racing pigeon fraternity.

Two Peregrines – one from the Mill Building and found on a street in Ipswich and the second a fledgling rescued underneath the Orwell Bridge – were both successfully rehabilitated. The Orwell Bridge survivor was however struck and killed by a lorry at Cattawade just five weeks later. An Osprey on migration was discovered in a state of exhaustion, again under the Orwell Bridge, and swiftly re-released.

Peregrine-chicks-Orwell_B Baston

Peregrinechicks Orwell (Photo: B.Baston)

Recent cases

Some species react better than others to rehabilitation. Sparrowhawks are particularly difficult to examine and treat, being highly strung, so their survival rate is poor. Tawny Owls by contrast are much more robust. One owl hit by a train leaving Felixstowe clung to the windscreen wiper until being rescued by the Westerfield Stationmaster. The owl, suffering from concussion, was handed over to Peter and released back in Felixstowe just two days later.

Two Rough-legged Buzzards were found immobile on the coast. Whilst one was released after regaining its normal weight, the other one did not survive and is now on display – stuffed – in the Ipswich Museum.


Of the 12 birds handed to Peter this year, ten have been released to date. He is currently caring for a Common Buzzard as it awaits the moult of its damaged primary feathers, and a Turtle Dove which will be released in the spring. The preceding two years saw 27 birds come and go. Any captive-bred birds can also end up in Peter’s care, although since 1990 these cannot be released back into the wild, with the exception of certain rarities under special Defra licence. Attempts are made to pass non-native species on to zoos and falconers, but native species can be used to foster recuperating fledglings. Peter retains a pair of captive-bred Barn Owls he uses as foster parents, as well as a pair of Great Horned Owls waiting for a permanent home following the bankruptcy of their original owner.
Peter feels it is both a privilege and a pleasure to be involved in such important local birding work. Anyone finding an injured raptor should contact Peter Merchant on 07860 829060.