The wildlife whisperer – meet the ‘bird lady’ who paddles into freezing water to save animals | Wildlife

The first animal Tracey Parsons rescued was a fledgling song thrush she found hopping in and out of the road. It had lost its mother. Parsons was seven. She kept it in her bedroom, where it flew around the room. She went to the library to learn how to feed it. Worms, she read. Parsons dug up her mother’s garden. The bird started following her around. In the morning it would fly up to her bunk bed and sing “the most beautiful song,” she recalls. “It made me feel like Snow White. I’ll never forget it.” Eventually, it flew away.

Parsons, who is now 35 and runs the Blackbird Boutique shop in Blackheath, south-east London, doesn’t know how many animals she’s rehabilitated since then. Thousands, she estimates. “I like animals,” she says, “because they’re pure and reflect the delicate beauty of nature. And they don’t have their own voices, so someone has to be their voice and protect them.”

Any time an injured bird or animal is found in the area, odds are it will find its way to Parsons’ home. People bring them to her front door all the time. She has rehabilitated peregrine falcons, buzzards, owls, squirrels, kittens, sparrows, deer, foxes and ducklings, all with her own money. She estimates she spends thousands of pounds a year on feed and medication. “The most animals I’ve had at one time was 17,” she says. Songbirds are the hardest to care for. You have to feed them worms every 15 minutes between 5am and 8pm, she says. Squirrels have to be fed every four hours, around the clock.

Parsons is currently only caring for a rabbit and a squirrel, but things will pick up come spring, when people start bringing abandoned ducklings and baby squirrels to her door. Once the animals are rehabilitated, Parsons either discharges them into the wild; takes them to Whitby Wildlife Sanctuary if they’re not able to live independently; or rehomes them with loving families if they can live as domestic animals. (She recently rehomed a kitten that had been rescued from the Thames with a neighbour.)

“I’ve known Tracey for more than 10 years,” says her friend Diane Blackwell, “She paddles into freezing pond water to rescue ducklings. She’s dashed over to my place to rescue a badly injured fox at 10pm. She doesn’t have an off switch for her rescue work. She’s driven in the most wonderful way.”

Around Blackheath, people know Parsons as “the bird lady”. “Or the squirrel lady, if it’s squirrel season,” she says with a laugh. The local farmers’ market donates scraps for her to feed the ducklings.

When asked which animals stand out in their three-decade-long career as an amateur wildlife rehabber, Parsons is at a loss. “I could tell you so many stories that would seem unbelievable,” she says, “but they’re real.” One day in 2019, Parsons was at her shop. Both the front and back door were open. When she opened the changing-room curtain she saw an injured fox cub. It ran away, but returned the next day, and every day after that.

Tracey Parsons with her new sheet music. Photographer: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

“I called him Amber,” she says. “He’d jump in my lap, follow me around and sleep in the window display.” People think foxes are aggressive, but that’s not true, she tells me. “They’re friendly, loving creatures. Deers are adorable, too.” Last year, she rehabilitated Jacob the deer and Amy the fox.

Sometimes, the number of animals that need care is overwhelming, but Parsons looks after them because nobody else will. “I don’t know why I do this,” she says. “I must be nuts.” Last year, she rehabilitated 95 squirrels in total. This is in addition to her work as a small business owner. “It’s physically and mentally draining,” she says.

Music is one way she deals with the stress. “It’s a good emotional outlet,” she says. Parsons has a piano in the boutique, where she composes songs. But as she’s not classically trained, she has no way to write down the notes. “It would make me really happy,” she says, “to be able to have it written down.”

Whisper of the soul is a piano piece she began after a walk on a snowy day. She had the initial melody in her head, but was at a loss for how to complete the song. A client then entered her shop and asked Parsons to play the piano for her. She agreed, and just like that, the rest of the melody came to her.

When asked to choose a treat, Parsons knew straight away: she wanted her music set down in a written score. Pitch Perfect music services offered to put it together, and a beautiful book of sheet music arrived at the shop a few days later.

“It was such a nice surprise,” says Parsons. “It’s strange, seeing your work in visual format. But it’s so lovely. Thank you.” The animals of Blackheath and the surrounding areas return their heartfelt thanks.

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