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Arline Thomas, the Gentle Birdlady of Queens, Keeps 'em Flying

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There is a glossy ibis nonchalantly wading the waters around Florida’s Sanibel Island who may not know that it owes its life to the Birdlady of Queens. Found frozen and starving in a Jamaica Bay, N.Y. marsh last December, the scraggly fowl was brought to Arline Thomas, 62, who revived it with a raw egg and then fed it smelts for the month it spent in her shower stall. When the ibis was well enough to travel, one airline flew it south free of charge.

Caring for a sick ibis is all in a day’s kindness for Mrs. Thomas, the widow of a New York State Supreme Court clerk. She has fed, watered and doctored thousands of wild birds. Her comfortable Tudor-style house in Jamaica, Queens is never empty. A falcon with a broken wing resides in the entry, a ring-billed gull has moved into the cellar, and the front porch is aflutter with birds ranging from a partridge to two tiny yellow-bellied sapsuckers.

Her first patient, a white-breasted nuthatch with a wounded wing, made an unscheduled appearance at her door 25 years ago. “I barely knew a jay from a thrush,” she recalls. “My husband and I just liked looking at birds in our garden.” She nursed the nuthatch back to health, and now she is the author of two books about birds and appears every weekend with a current member of her aviary on the CBS-TV children’s show Patchwork Family.

From concerned bird-lovers, the New York-born Mrs. Thomas, an Audubon Society volunteer, receives as many as two dozen telephone queries a day. What do you feed a baby mockingbird? She gives her formula: a spoonful of mashed hard-boiled egg with wheat germ every half hour. Or, what do you do for a grackle whose head feathers won’t grow? (Answer: Rub its bald spot with wheat germ oil.) A busy summer day can bring the Bird-lady as many as 20 patients. A schoolteacher flew in recently from Washington, D.C. to drop off a helpless young sparrow. A whippoorwill that had collided with the U.N. building was deposited by a Polish delegate. Mrs. Thomas, who keeps raw beef on hand for birds of prey and frozen fish for water birds, estimates she spends $400 a year on bird food.

She remembers some of her patients with special fondness. One was an extroverted blue jay that became attached to a rabbit she was sheltering. The two had to be separated when Mrs. Thomas found the jay was storing cashews in the animal’s ears.

Mrs. Thomas is well aware that, even after loving care has revived her birds, they face not only natural hazards but such man-made threats as oil spills and pesticides. “Sometimes,” she says, “I feel as if I have my finger in the dike. But I love my work and I do what I can. You could call it my outlet to sanity.”