ANTIGO - Making about a 70 mile drive with an old beer box paid off for Kathleen Esqueda on Tuesday afternoon.
"It's not that big of a deal for me to help save a bird's life," Esqueda said.
Esqueda, who is retired, drove from Waupaca to Antigo with a sick robin inside that box. The bird was one of many that drivers brought to Marge Gibson's Raptor Education Group.
"If you can pick it up, that bird needs help," Gibson said.
The REGI Executive Director estimates she took more than 100 calls since the weekend's snowstorm dumped more than a foot and a half of snow across much of northern Wisconsin.
"To see [birds] needing help and to not offer it is, you know, it's not a humane thing to do," Gibson said.
Birds like robins, warblers, and even osprey migrate back to Wisconsin each spring, but the unusually thick snow pack and ice means the birds can't get to insects or fish, which means they're starving to death. Gibson says it's the worst spring season for bird health she's seen in her more than five decades doing her work.
REGI never turns a patient away, even when many are showing up with only half of their healthy body weight.
"We just work longer hours, that's all," Gibson said. "And I think that's happening. I mean, we're pretty tired already."
While gibson keeps taking sick birds in, Mark Naniot can't seem to get the turtles, swan, and raccoon he nursed to health back out of his Wild Instincts rehab center near Rhinelander.
"We've got all these guys that are just waiting to be released and every week it's, 'Well, maybe next week we can release them,'" Naniot said.
Naniot says there are a lot of sick and injured animals in the wild right now, noting "the list is really, really long." He says bears are coming out of hibernation, baby owls are getting knocked out of nests, and great blue herons (which have been back in the area for about three weeks) can't find much open water.
The snow is also keeping Naniot from building cages for animals that will need treatment this spring. While 30 animals currently in his care is actually low for this time of year, soon naniot expects to find deer, bears, and eagles needing his help.
"When it hits us, it's really going to hit, so we're just going to get inundated with animals and it's really going to hit us hard," Naniot said. "We may not be able to do any construction this spring."
It's the spring birds getting hit the hardest in Gibson's world, where some baby formula and a warm home should go a long way to saving some of her patients.
"Even saving one is really important... [The robin] has a chance to recover and to make it home again. That's pretty cool," Gibson said.
If you find a sick bird that you can pick up, put it in a cardboard box with a towel on the bottom, get it to a warm place, and call REGI in Antigo at 715-623-4015.
Gibson also suggests switching bird feed over from winter seed mix to a spring mix. Naniot asks people to keep bird feeders clean with soap and water about once a month, which can help prevent the spread of salmonella. He suggests feeding birds with freeze-dried meal worms, cut up apples, and raisins.