A Champion for the City’s Winged Creatures

Rita McMahon started The Wild Bird Fund by caring for injured birds and other wildlife in her Upper West Side apartment. Photo by Charles Chessler
By Mary Newman

The Wild Bird Fund began one afternoon in 2003 as co-founder Rita McMahon came upon an injured Canadian goose on the side of the highway. McMahon was on her way back to New York after rescuing a horse when she picked up the injured bird. Finding a place to rehabilitate a wild animal in New York City proved more difficult than she was expecting.

After four days of caring for the bird herself, the Animal Medical Center took the injured animal in and cared for it as best they could. They told McMahon to bring it to a wildlife rehab facility, but the closest she could find was two hours north.

At the time McMahon was working as an independent market researcher for NBC and other national television stations. She had moved to New York for graduate school at New York University from rural Connecticut to study art history. While continuing her day job, she wanted to help injured wildlife.

“People don’t realize how many wildlife animals there are in New York,” she said. “There is a real need for us.” According to McMahon there are over 355 bird species flying above the skyscrapers. “If people would just look up they would be amazed at the wildlife they can see.”

McMahon had been rehabbing animals in her apartment since finding that first goose, under the mentorship of Vivienne Sokol, a bird expert and friend. Sokol would bring her injured pigeons and sparrows, teaching her different ways to care for them.

At one point McMahon had up to 60 birds in her apartment. Knowing it was time to expand, McMahon partnered with Karen Keidgerd and began looking for a place to care for the animals. Through word of mouth, Animal General heard all of the good work they were doing and offered them space in their facility to expand their practice.

“The birds really just took over,” McMahon said. She never expected to make a career change and start caring for these animals full time, but with no other wildlife rehab facilities in Manhattan she knew “it had to be done,” and founded The Wild Bird Fund.

In their first year helped rehab over 1,500 injured wildlife animals. In 2014 they were able to care for 3,245 injured animals and are looking to grow even more. There is a vacant storefront next door to their current facilities at Animal General and McMahon is hoping to turn the space into an X-ray and intensive care unit.

Despite being called The Wild Bird Fund, McMahon and her associates care for any injured animals – except for raccoons and skunks. Their devotion to helping animals varies from injured squirrels and chipmunks to hawks with broken wings from flying into a window or getting hit by traffic on the West Side Highway.

The West Side community has happily welcomed their facility and McMahon hopes the non-profit will grow to reach every borough in New York City. “The response has been very warm, I think a lot of people are proud to have us here,” she said.

McMahon has lived on the West Side in the same apartment since 1973 with her husband and son Lincoln. She spends many nights enjoying a glass of wine watching birds fly by the rooftop of their building.

“I have counted up to 15 different species commuting south in one sitting,” she said with excitement. “New York City is a major stopover on the East Coast migratory flyway.” She also enjoys Riverside Park, recently spending Christmas day walking its entirety with her family.

“What I’ve loved about the West Side over the years is the large community of creative people, and they’ve given us such a warm response,” McMahon said. “In truth what we are trying to do is not just about the individual birds, it’s more important that we are changing people’s attitude towards wildlife in our city.”