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Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary; A safe place for a bird

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The coastal highway running down the Gulf of Mexico from Clearwater snakes through communities where sky- tickling condominiums, low-slung resort motel complexes, and stucco-covered efficiency rentals compete for a place in the sun.

Just off the asphalt here, tucked between the "no vacancy" signs and palm fronds, is a cluster of cages and buildings called the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary Inc., a place where injured birds are cared for and prepared -- if possible -- for release back into the wild.

"We'll take care of everything from sparrows to eagles," says zoologist Ralph Heath Jr., pointing to a cage where a scruffy-looking immature eagle is hunched on a limb. Mr. Heath, founder and director of the nonprofit sanctuary, has been helping birds for nearly a decade.

It all began with a broken-winged cormorant, rescued by Mr. Heath from the side of the road in 1971. He named the bird Maynard, and after taking it to a veterinarian, he began looking after his new ward himself. Over the next few months, he became the guardian for several other injured birds and by May 1972 the sanctuary was officially christened.

Since then the sanctuary has taken care of more than 35,000 birds.

Situated on an odd-shaped 1 1/2-acre slice of beach-front real estate, the sanctuary has grown from a backyard project into a bird rehabilitation center with a national reputation. There are currently about 500 birds residing here, including more than 150 brown pelicans.

The sanctuary receives 15 to 20 injured birds on an average day. Most are brought in by the public, but various government agencies also call on its services. In addition to the birds brought in, the sanctuary usually runs its own patrol boat in the inland waterways between Clearwater and St. Petersburg -- spanning 25 miles -- looking for birds in distress.

"When we don't personally run the patrols, that doesn't mean the work doesn't get done," Mr. Heath says, explaining that when business in the sanctuary hits full tilt, there are always friends who take up slack by patrolling with their own boats.

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