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The New York Times, Sunday, March 12, 2000
To Upstate Schoolchildren, He is the Birdman; to 1,700 Birds, He Is a Hero.
Grafton, N.Y., March 11, 2000
Like a stern father, Peter Dubacher stands back warily as a pair of sandhill cranes caw invitingly and flutter their velvety gray feathers. The harder they try to catch his attention, the more he resists the din turns deafening.
"They're playing with us. If you go over to there, they'll nail you."He said glancing ruefully at a scar on his hand left by the territorial cranes. "It's a defense mechanism for them. If you put yourself in a compromising position, it's your fault. You have to respect these creatures."
Mr. Dubacher has grown wise to his feathered charges in the 26 years since he turned his parents 20-acre farm, nestled on the edge of the Berkshires, into a sanctuary for injured and unwanted birds. By his count, he has cared for 1,700 birds - including 15 eagles, 2 Peregrine falcons and 19 emus - in a maze of greenhouses and wooden pens.
New York city dwellers drive four hours to hand-deliver pigeons crippled by a careless driver or a cruelly aimed stone. Wildlife officials across the country entrust him with their casualties, from an eagle mauled by a bear in Alaska to cranes left over from a breeding program in Maryland. Last month, Belmont Park Race track sent over 475 chickens that, instead of calming the horses in their stalls, overran the barn.
Mr. Dubacher, 51 makes room for them all because he cannot bear the thought of what would happen otherwise, "It's not that I want another eagle: I just want to save his life," he said. "I'm not a religious person, but I do believe, as humans, we all have a responsibility, whether it's taking care of birds or taking care of one another."
These efforts have earned him a national conservation award from the Daughters of the American Revolution, and letters of praise from President Clinton and Governor George E, Pataki, among others
- Thousand of school children from upstate New York, Massachusetts and Vermont visit the sanctuary every year on field trips. Albany natives know him simply as "the Birdman."
"He is the Mother Teresa of the wild bird world," said Ward Stone, the wildlife pathologist for the State Department of Environmental Conservation,, who has sent injured Canada geese and ducks to the sanctuary. "Peter is often the last resort for birds if they can't be released to the wild, and he keeps them going for years."--- The sanctuary, which cost $40,000 a year to run is a rough-hewn place pieced together largely from donations. Visitor never come empty-handed; they bring timber and wire, cash and checks.
The Environmental Conservation Department sends road kill to feed the falcons. And the United States Postal Service has flown injured eagles from Alaska to the sanctuary.
Mr. Dubacher, a gregarious, ruddy-faced man, seems an unlikely savior of birds, having no degree in ornithology or zoology or formal training in wildlife care. He was never particularly fond of birds while growing up in a home full of cats and dogs, he said. What he knows about wild birds he learned by reading and rescuing.
Mr. Dubacher, whose father was an executive chef for United Airlines, lived with his family in San Francisco and Honolulu before moving to Maplewood , N.J. and then to West Hempsead, on Long Island.--- After high school he became an Army chef, cooking for generals on a military base in Panama.
It was there he was drawn to exotic birds, crammed into squalid cages and offered for sale by children on the streets. With $5 a week, he would buy as many as he could, just to set them free. "It's a haunting thing when you see them like that," he said. "You come to a feeling that you want to make a difference."
After the Army, Mr. Dubacher was a cook in Switzerland before returning in 1971 to his parents' summer home in Grafton. He worked his way up to head chef at a local restaurant, but it did not bring him the kind of fulfillment he found he needed.
So he filled the backyard with chickens and geese and bait pens and greenhouses to shield parrots and other tropical birds from snow. The neighbors began bringing him strays and unwanted pets - and not just birds. Thirty-five deer, a mustang and a goat now roam the pens.
His parents, who still live on the farm, were skeptical but did not object. "We taught our children to be kind and decent to animals," said his mother, Christina Dubacher, a German immigrant. "We help. A few nights we had to catch the birds when they broke out."
Mr. Dubacher eventually gave up his job to tend the birds full time, but the decision has not come without sacrifice.
He eats out just twice a year, almost never goes to the movies and took his last vacation 16 years ago. He met his wife of seven years, Betty Ann, 42, a physical therapist, only because she drove past the turnoff for Grafton Lake and ended up at the sanctuary.
"It's very different than how I used to live," Mrs. Dubacher said. "I'm much less selfish and more peaceful, I think. When there are so many animals that need to be taken care of, it takes the focus off me."
The Dubachers have tried to teach these values to their 5 -year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and share their love of birds with the community. Mr. Dubacher has taken emu eggs to his daughter's school, and bald eagles to local Boy Scout meetings. The volunteers at the sanctuary have become their extended family.
"We live meagerly, but at the same time, we are blessed in many ways," Mr. Dubacher said. "How many people can say they have Bald Eagles in their backyard."