Kayla Letterman

Class of 2016
Major/Minor: Biology

Aspiring veterinarian Kayla Letterman ’16 has spent her summer saving the lives of baby birds and gaining valuable knowledge about our feathered friends.

The chance to expand the breadth of her experience with animals was what drove biology major Kayla Letterman ’16 to devote her summer vacation to an internship at Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research in Newark, Del. She currently works as a bird caretaker, helping with feeding, cleaning, and general monitoring of both adult and baby birds. In addition, she has gotten some experience in the world of veterinary medicine through holding birds for evaluation or checking health during routine monitoring.

Having completed Dr. Jennifer Carr’s ornithology course, Letterman already had a functional knowledge of birds, so she was well-prepared for the day-to-day work at the rescue center. She was able to dive right into a job where the coolest aspect is “a very close tie between holding a large raptor and getting to care for the tiniest little baby birds!”

Of course, not every part of a job can be fun. Working with sick and injured animals brings with it the inevitability that some will die. The first time Letterman lost a bird was the most frightening experience of her summer. “I came in to start feeding babies in the morning and found a Carolina Wren dead. It was the first time I had seen a death there, and I panicked. I ran to tell someone, and she calmly explained to me that it happens a lot with babies.” There have been more emergencies since then, but luckily, the good of knowing she’s making a difference outweighs the bad for Letterman.

The birds seem to think so, too. Some of Tri-State’s former patients still recognize the people who helped them even after they’ve been released. Rehabilitated birds often visit the rescue to beg for food, including a trio of tufted titmice that Letterman helped care for. “They still sometimes come up to me if I whistle,” she says, noting that the rescue also has a wild blue jay bold enough, or maybe hungry enough, to dive-bomb and land on the Tri-State staff.

Letterman’s time with Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research has helped her develop patience around her tiny and often difficult patients. “Birds do have personalities,” she says, adding that she had to get used to working with uncooperative animals, since wild birds usually have no desire to spend time with humans. “They are more afraid of you than you are of them.”

The internship has been “a great opportunity” for Letterman to expand the breadth of her animal knowledge, since a variety of experiences in animal care and the sciences makes her a better candidate for veterinary schools. Plus, the experience of watching the birds grow and heal has been quite rewarding. “[It’s] an awesome thing to see, knowing that you helped save that bird’s life,” she says.