How a California crow named Clover made Jenni Boonjakuakul central Iowa’s ‘bird lady’

By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register

Dec. 3, 2019

The 20-year adventure for Jenni Boonjakuakul from a college student turned crow caretaker to a trusted “bird lady” in Des Moines began with a commotion under a car at a Northern California apartment complex.

Boonjakuakul was a student at the University of California-Davis on the day in 1999 she found a baby crow under a car surrounded by feral cats who wanted much more than play.

Boonjakuakul scooped up the crow with a towel and put it into a cat carrier to take inside.

She called one of her professors who had raised a baby robin in his office. She brought a can of cat food to the crow, whom she named Clover.

The first week in her care, Clover couldn’t stand. He hopped around on the patio area. He eventually moved to a tree, hobbling down to Boonjakuakul when she brought him food.

Clover “was sort of like a roommate living on the patio for free,” Boonjakuakul said.

She and Clover became close, too close for Clover’s own good. Scientists call this bond on a wild bird “imprinting,” and it prevents birds from rejoining the wild and fending for themselves.

“I made a lot of mistakes that summer,” Boonjakuakul said. “When he did learn to fly, I could call him and he would fly right to me, which is obviously not a good thing.”

Crows are corvids, some of the most intelligent birds, and are especially territorial.

Clover began dive-bombing neighbors. Police were called. Cops told Boonjakuakul it was illegal for her to keep a wild bird as a pet.

Boonjakuakul called a local aviary for help. She surrendered Clover so he could learn to be a wild bird again.

Her experience with Clover excited something inside Boonjakuakul.

“I have always been an animal lover,” she said. “Clover definitely changed my life.”

The next summer, Boonjakuakul, still a UC-Davis graduate student in microbiology, started taking classes on bird rehabilitation.

She learned bird nutrition and caging. She treated medical needs such as cat bites, which can be infectious.

She learned to bandage wings and set legs. She rarely sutured wounds, but would dress them and take the birds to vets who specialized in wild birds.

Boonjakuakul worked mostly with songbirds and waterfowl.

What began as a single crow friend spread to more than 50 birds in a two-bedroom apartment “with a boyfriend and some cats,” Boonjakuakul said.

Boonjakuakul moved to Iowa for post-doctoral studies at Iowa State University in 2007. She and her husband continued fostering birds.

Boonjakuakul got permits from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the federal government to be in line with both state and federal laws governing wild birds.

Boonjakuakul soon developed a reputation as the person to whom you brought battered birds. People came to her with birds whose nests had fallen from trees, those who’ve flown into windows and other assorted avian catastrophes.

It began with a handful of birds at their Beaverdale homes. But soon the animal shelters in West Des Moines and Des Moines found Boonjakuakul.

“Our facilities aren’t really set up to care for wild birds,” said Tom Colvin, CEO of the Animal Rescue League of Iowa. “We take in pets — parrots, parakeets and cockatoos — so having someone as knowledgeable and properly accredited as Jenni is a real asset to the community.”

Boonjakuakul’s kindness for feathered friends may seem like a fevered hobby, but it is actually an important act of conservation.

A recent study published in the scholarly journal Science found the bird population in North America had declined by 3 billion birds since 1970, a drop of nearly 30%.

About 1 in 8 bird species is threatened with global extinction, according to a report by the conservation group Bird Life International, which cites as factors expansion of agriculture, logging, invasive species, hunting and climate volatility.

“While it may seem unimportant if we lose one … species, it matters because all species are connected through their interactions in a web of life,” Renee Cho wrote for the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “A balanced and biodiverse ecosystem is one in which each species plays an important role and relies on the services provided by other species to survive. Healthy ecosystems are more productive and resistant to disruptions.”

Driven by environmental crises or simply fondness for animals, demand for Boonjakuakul’s services ballooned. Some 700 to 800 birds a year came into Boonjakuakul’s care by 2017.

Her husband runs an acupuncture clinic in Urbandale. Boonjakuakul left microbiology to take over the clinic’s business operations — and take care of more birds.

Birds need to be fed every hour. During the summer, she would pack 50 or 60 bird cages into her car and leave it parked in the lot with the windows down.

“The birds aren’t bothered by the heat because they’re used to being outdoors,” she said.

She takes a break from the clinic to feed each bird hourly. She keeps an incubator under her desk for smaller birds with specialty needs.

Boonjakuakul went to the Drake University Legal Clinic, where she got help setting up a nonprofit organization called Iowa Bird Rehabilitation. She can now take donations to help offset the costs of caring for so many birds, which in peak times of the summer surpass $200 per month for everything from specialized bird seeds to meal worms.

She has received generous support from Bone-A-Patreat and other organizations, she said. Volunteers help her, but there are limits.

“Right now, we do everything in the basement of our house, which means I have to be there while the volunteers are feeding the birds or doing chores,” Boonjakuakul said.

She wants to build an aviary on her property that will allow volunteers to come and go throughout the day. She hopes to raise $15,000 to $20,000 for the project, which she hopes to open by spring.

As ambitious as her plans are, Boonjakuakul’s mission remains largely the same as the day she took in Clover 20 years ago:

Find a bird.

Help it heal.

Get it flying.

Register Storyteller Daniel P. Finney grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. He wrote his first story for the Register in 1993 at age 17. He has stacked paragraphs ever since. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or dafinney@dmreg.com. Follow him on Twitter at @newsmanone or Facebook at @danielpfinney.

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