Wildlife & Nature

This Congress is for the Birds

Wildlife rehabilitator works out of her Providence home to heal the hurt and shelter the abandoned


Zia is one of the clinic’s two unfit-for-the-wild ravens Sheida Soleimani keeps in an outdoor enclosure. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — We first met under less-than-ideal circumstances. Sheida Soleimani has similar encounters all the time. On this unpleasant occasion, my gloved mitts, stretched over the wooden fence that surrounds her Congress Avenue home, handed the accomplished artist a cardboard box containing three different colored towels, heaps of grass, and two orphaned raccoons.

Her home health clinic is dedicated to the rehab of injured, sick, and abandoned birds. It also provides education and hands-on experience for a team of volunteers — 39 at the most recent count — who help feed and care for the facility’s long and interesting list of patients.

Volunteers are vital, since the clinic only has four unpaid employees and birds need to be fed every 20 minutes to every hour, depending on the species and the age. Volunteers (and staff) also cut up dead things — rabbit is a frequent menu item — to feed to the raptors in the clinic’s care. They also feed fledglings dead crickets and blueberries with tweezers; pick ticks off weary birds, also with tweezers and often under an illuminated magnifying lens; and, on this day at least, kept putting a wren back in the enclosure it kept getting out of. (After three great escapes and then humiliating captures, the escape hatch was finally sealed.)

The staff and volunteers also do a lot of cleaning and laundry. A lot.

“I never thought that I’d be cutting mice in half with scissors and shoving them down owl throats,” Soleimani said. “But here I am.”

Soleimani, an Iranian-American, has been on this journey for 34 years.

The wildlife rehabilitator, who is also an educator, was able to stabilize one of the kits and have it transported to the Wildlife Clinic of Rhode Island. That baby raccoon, however, is hardly the only animal Soleimani has saved. She’s been helping animals for as long as she can remember. Unfortunately, she has also felt plenty of death and suffering, like the kit’s unlucky sibling and her parents’ persecution.

A baby blue jay being fed a blueberry. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Soleimani, an assistant professor of fine arts at Brandeis University, and her life/animal-welfare partner Jonathan Schroeder, 43, a lecturer at the Rhode Island School of Design, began home health care for birds in 2019. The federally licensed rehabilitation and education center is called Congress of the Birds, and was incorporated as a nonprofit three months ago.

The federal designation was actually forced upon them, because a local wildlife advocate wanted to donate 42 acres to the nonprofit’s mission. Soleimani said many of the birds rehabbed at the clinic and ready for a return to the wild will be released in the forested property in Chepachet. They are grateful for the generous gift, and hope to use it in the future as an environmental and humanities educational and awareness tool for students. They also said they should have became a nonprofit years ago.

Congress of the Birds is one of three federally licensed rehabilitation clinics in the state, and the only one focused specifically on birds. Plenty of unwanted pets and injured wildlife have been left unceremoniously on the steps of Soleimani’s 1869 home, including a monk parakeet with its wings sheared, grotesquely, and two juvenile yellow parakeets in a bag.

“Chickens and ducks that people thought were wild animals, or they no longer wanted, started being dumped on our porch,” Soleimani said. “Now that people know that we’re here, a lot of people don’t tell us that they’re bringing things, and they just leave animals that need help on our front porch.”

Charmed by the sociability and personality of the bagged parakeet pair, Soleimani made them a part of her and Schroeder’s nuclear family, joining four cats, a parrot, a ball python, a great Dane named Alba, short for albatross, and a tarantula Soleimani has had since she was 15. The corner lot is also home to unkindness and murder.

Despite its name, however, Congress of the Birds isn’t just for feathered friends.

Sheida Soleimani has her hands full caring for animals, creating art, and educating college students. (Colleen Cronin/ecoRI News)

The clinic provides long-term care for birds, and for other animals, like the baby raccoons I delivered in May or a juvenile fisher a few weeks before that, serves as an emergency room. Once the non-feathered patients are triaged and stabilized, they are eventually transported to the Wildlife Clinic of Rhode Island in South Kingstown.

Soleimani and I met again about a month later. I didn’t arrive with injured wildlife, but I did bring along ecoRI News colleague Colleen Cronin, for a little therapy (my fellow journalist is frightened of birds) and for some multimedia assistance.

Our lengthy conversation with Soleimani and Schroeder began around a backyard table, not far from a screened-in enclosure that houses two ravens unfit for the wild. We would meet Zola and Zia later.

Soleimani was wearing a T-shirt decorated with birds, and drank coffee from a bird-themed glass — a cascade of chocolate-brown curls tumbling past her shoulders as she spoke with passion about the need to protect and care for the other animals we share space with. Both Soleimani and Schroeder have bird tattoos. He got his after meeting her.

While we spoke, the clinic’s affable handyman, Chris, worked on the construction of a new crow aviary. The current one holds two rescued corvids, Zephyr and Zero. Neither is suitable for release. Zephyr was shot with a BB gun and has a permanent injury. Zero was found habituated to people.

A group of crows is called a murder.

Caring for birds is an enormous time commitment. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Home health care

Soleimani bought her 19th-century home in 2018. For a birthday present a few years later, Schroeder turned the basement area — a former Tiki-themed hangout back in the day for Providence firefighters, police officers, and judges, he said — into an animal health clinic.

The black Victorian home with sky blue trim is hard to miss. An octagonal coop that wraps around a dying beech tree, built by Chris and home to ducks, roosters, and chickens, sits in the left-hand corner of the front yard. A hand-painted Congress of the Birds sign hangs just below a white historic home sign.

Baby mallards, rescued from a construction site, enjoy some sink time. (Colleen Cronin/ecoRI News)

On the day ecoRI News visited, the renovated whitewashed brick basement held 10 young mallard ducks hanging out in the stainless-steel sink slightly filled with water; six hawks and three great horned owls in a room partitioned off with draped blankets and a latched screen door; a month-old crow in a bird tent; juvenile killdeer, blue jays, finches, gray catbirds, grackles, and a mocking bird in more tents; fledgling wrens, robins, brown-headed cowbirds, and monk parrots nestled together in an incubator; and a baby black-capped chickadee adored by Soleimani but, like all the other patients, unnamed.

Soleimani noted there is a feral population of monk parrots in Warwick.

To feed the hawks, owls, and other raptors, human care providers must wear the clinic’s bald eagle mask, to ensure the birds of prey don’t come to rely on people to eat.

At the height of summer — peak bird season — the basement clinic will take in 20-30 birds a day.

During our nearly three-hour visit on a Tuesday in mid-June with the clinic’s co-founders and their convalescing feathered, furry, scaled, and shelled friends, Soleimani took at least six phone calls and received about three dozen texts concerning possible animals in need of medical attention or people looking for an update on an animal that had been admitted.

A baby black-capped chickadee getting a wellness check under a magnifying lens. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

The first call came from a Woonsocket resident who had found an injured red-tailed hawk in the breakdown lane of a local road. A volunteer, in this case the clinic’s director of operations, Jen Chicoine, went to pick up the injured raptor.

A few minutes later, a South Providence man called to say a baby bird had fallen off the roof. Soleimani told the man to send her a photo. He did. She said the bird looked dehydrated. A volunteer picked up the common starling.

Most days, especially in the spring and summer, are busy. Real busy. And that busyness doesn’t include full-time jobs or non-animal interests, although Soleimani melds the three.

Vacations are difficult — a three-day getaway to Maine in August is usually as good as it gets. Schroeder is hoping for five days this summer.

“People are like, ‘When do you guys get time to hang out?’ And we’re like, well, sometimes we’ll get a call at 2 a.m. from somewhere in Cumberland,” Soleimani said. “We’ll have our pajamas on and we’ll go pick up this owl.”

Or, Schroeder shared, “We’ll get a call from someone in North Smithfield at 11 [p.m.] and there’s a weird house with like five different compound areas, and they have found a hawk stuck 40 feet up a tree. They have a giant ladder they want us to go up to get the bird.”

A baby monk parrot. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

In the midst of our conversation — Schroeder had to leave early for an engagement in Boston — Soleimani had to meet Bristol animal control supervisor Heather Simmons at the front gate to trade a painted turtle with a broken shell for a dazed woodpecker that had flown into a window.

Shortly thereafter, Chicoine arrived with the badly injured red-tailed hawk. It had an open wound filled with maggots. The beautiful bird of prey had to be euthanized, not long after a fledgling morning dove, with a head wound and a broken leg, had to be compassionately put down.

Sadly, many of the animals brought to the clinic have to be put down — between 40% and 60%, according to both Soleimani and Schroeder. Last year, the clinic treated or euthanized 1,267 birds and another 200-300 animals, including fox pups, a few frogs, and an eastern rat snake.

“When I first started doing this work, I was like, ‘I’ll never euthanize anything. I could never do that,’ ” Soleimani said. “And then you start noticing that you get these animals that come in that can’t be fixed. I think a lot of people are delusional as to what could be possible.

“That squirrel, you can’t just amputate its leg. It’s a prey species. It’s not going to be able to live with an amputated leg. Or you have a bird and let’s say you need to amputate its wing. Well, it can’t fly. If it’s been wild its whole life, where is it going to go? That’s no quality of life.”

Soleimani views the clinic as a stopover from wild to wild.

At the bare minimum, the clinic costs $75,000 annually to run. For instance, it costs $10,000 a year to buy dead crickets. Congress of the Birds and the Wildlife Clinic of Rhode Island split the cost. Neither Soleimani, Schroeder, or Chicoine are paid, and the organization’s secretary, Thalia Field, also works for free.

Dr. Blaine Hymel, the veterinarian at the Wildlife Clinic of Rhode Island, and Providence-based veterinarian Dr. Seth Snow volunteer their time at Congress of the Birds.

Soleimani also noted surgical equipment has been donated by local hospitals, and Brandeis University, where she works, has donated other equipment.

Zia jumps for a stick. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

The ravens

Both Zola and Zia hatched in 2023. They both can say hello (salam) and other phrases in Farsi.

“The coolest thing about them, and I hope you do get it on the recording, is that they speak Farsi now … they’ve started imitating me,” Soleimani said. “It’s pretty crazy.”

We didn’t hear them speak at all, either in Farsi or in Rhode Island. “They say, in Chris’s accent, ‘Whatcha doing?’” Schroeder said.

The big birds, despite their young age, were a little shy, especially the female, Zola. Zia started to ham it up toward the end of our visit, catching grapes thrown by Soleimani and tossing her phone around.

Zia and Zola, the best of friends. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Zola arrived at Congress of the Birds from another rehabilitation center. She was extremely emaciated and tested positive for coccidia when she arrived.

Soleimani noted both wings looked to have been cut with scissors, in a manner that one would clip a pet bird’s wings to prevent it from flying. She said it was clear that someone had attempted to keep her as a pet, and after being unable to care for her, set her loose in the wild, to die.

Zola enjoys doing puzzles, caching her food in the slats of wood in her enclosure, and chasing balls.

Zia speaks Farsi, as does Sheida Soleimani. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Last June, before Zola arrived, a Rhode Island wildlife rehabilitator messaged Soleimani to report that she had received a “very large crow” at her facility. She noted the bird “walked right up to the finder, and into a carrier” — inappropriate behavior for a wild bird. Zia arrived severely emaciated, with various metabolic issues from poor nutrition, Soleimani said.

After months in care and multiple attempts to rewild him, Soleimani said it was obvious damage had been done during Zia’s nestling phase. She noted corvids are extremely impressionable birds that imprint on people easily.

Besides eating grapes and playing with Soleimani’s phone, Zia enjoys ripping up cardboard.

“They are very, very sweet,” Soleimani said.

A group of ravens is called an unkindness.

Young birds on the mend before they are released back into the wild. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

A family tradition

Our visit with Congress of the Birds was exhausting — for Soleimani and the two volunteers working in the basement clinic, not Colleen and I — and left one to wonder how Soleimani cares for all these animals, creates art worthy of being exhibited in a variety of galleries and spaces, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Providence College Galleries, and teaches full-time.

She offered an explanation. At first, the daughter of political refugees who escaped Iran in the mid-1980s kept her trio of identities in silos. She was an artist who, using photography, sculpture, collage, and film, explored the histories of violence linking Iran, the United States, and the Middle East. She was a professor who taught art and activism. She was an animal rehabilitator who nursed injured wildlife and forgotten pets to health.

Soleimani eventually asked herself why she was working so hard to keep her identities separate. They no longer are.

“In my own artistic practice I’m really starting to blend [my parents’] stories with what’s happening with the birds, thinking about care and boundaries and like, you know, taking care of creatures, or governing, in a sense, creatures that don’t have the ability to make decisions for themselves,” Soleimani said, “because they live in a world that’s dictated by human infrastructure, which really is the cause of why we have almost every single one of the patients that we do in the clinic.”

Schroeder explained further. “Humans don’t usually maliciously maim or kill animals, hopefully. However, humans indirectly maim or kill animals through the way that they create built environments and systems.”

“I think a lot about governments that basically are unjust and can’t care for their citizens,” Soleimani continued. “I think of that with my parents and what happened to them and how we are failing to provide care, you know, hospitable living conditions for the things that we live amongst.”

This blending of identities works for her and Schroeder, whose creative side is more aligned with carpentry. He built the backyard’s bird-adorned pizza oven, a writing “shed,” and a more traditional shed.

While Soleimani speaks Farsi fluently, she also makes many bird sounds with avian fluency. As a child, she spent hours playing bird recordings in her bedroom, specifically the sounds of birds of North America. She learned the practice of bird/wildlife rehabilitation from her mother, part of a cultural inheritance that also includes human trauma.

In Iran, the views of her pro-democracy parents put them in harm’s way. Her parents’ final decade in their birth country was punctuated by political ferocity, including a deposed shah and the subsequent Iranian Revolution.

Both her parents opposed the shah and Ayatollah Khomeini’s rule. A bounty was placed on her father’s head and he was forced into hiding before fleeing on horseback with smugglers over the Zagros Mountains to Turkey. Her mother endured a year of solitary confinement in prison, after being caught trying to escape the country, before being reunited with her husband.

“My dad was a big part of a leftist kind of Marxist group and was distributing pamphlets and giving out newspapers and writing articles and giving speeches, so he was really at the top of the list to be killed,” Soleimani said. “There were, like, wanted, you know, posters everywhere for him and bounties on his head.”

The couple eventually resettled in the United States. Soleimani was born in Indianapolis and grew up in Loveland, Ohio, where her parents still live.

Many of her works of art deal with international politics and oil commoditization. In her recent Ghostwriter photographic series, Soleimani took a more personal path. The stories are close to her heart and family, employing both the birds she rescues and her parents as subjects.

Feed me! (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

When Soleimani’s mother first arrived in the United States, she wasn’t able to practice nursing because of the language barrier. Instead, she rehabilitated birds and other animals in their Buckeye home. Soleimani said she grew up with birds, bats, and baby raccoons.

A young Soleimani became her mother’s little helper. They would watch hatchlings peck through their shells, and together they nursed injured, sick, and abandoned animals, mostly birds, to health.

“When she came to the States, she really missed caretaking, so she transferred all of her skills to animals,” Soleimani said. “My dad’s a doctor, so they would use our kitchen island as like a makeshift surgical zone, and they would try to rehabilitate these animals. I just grew up doing it with my mom.”

Their animal rescue operation spread from their neighborhood to other communities in and out of their small Ohio city just north of Cincinnati.

“When people started realizing what we were doing, it became this whole thing, like it was the neighbors and then it was like you found it injured and you’re in the neighboring town,” Soleimani said. “And then it kind of kept going.”

It eventually made its way to Cincinnati. When Soleimani took Interstate 71 25 miles south to go to college in Ohio’s third-largest city, she took caring for birds with her. She was quickly dubbed “Bird Girl.”

“I lived in an apartment and I converted my bathroom into a bird rehab station, and I was volunteering with a rehab organization,” Soleimani said. “At the time, there were people that would just bring birds to me in, like, the craziest containers, like takeout containers from restaurants with hatchlings in them.”

After a stay in Detroit, Soleimani’s passion for wildlife caregiving eventually found its way to Rhode Island’s capital city.

Congress of the Birds borrowed from the street where it can be found, but its name was derived from The Conference of the Birds, a 12th-century Persian poem by the Sufi poet Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār, in which the world’s birds search for a leader.

They may have found one in Providence’s West End.

Note: To learn what to do if you find a baby bird, click here. Courtesy of the Congress of the Birds. Also, eight roosters and a handful of male ducks are looking for homes.


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