Suffolk bird rehabber flying high

Published 5:31 pm Monday, January 15, 2018

The great horned owl was perched and alert inside the warm motor home parked at the Altons’ Keep Wildbird Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Suffolk on a cold December morning.

His vibrant yellow eyes were fixed on a sound that he picked up with his razor-sharp hearing, a hint not lost on Tommy White, 67, wildlife rehabilitator and co-founder of Altons’ Keep with his wife, Robin Alton-White.

“They can hear a mouse squeak at 900 feet in the dark, and they can triangulate the distance of the sound, then go get it without ever seeing it,” White said.


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White named the owl Tsgili — pronounced like “Gilly” — after the name given to the species by the Cherokee Indians. The male owl was found after he was hit by a vehicle in Chesapeake in 2013, when he was about 6 to 8 months old, White said.

Tommy White holds an owl he is rehabilitating.


White spent 16 weeks rehabilitating the owl at their Chesapeake residence.

“I was getting up at 3 a.m. and going to his enclosure in the basement, because that’s his time to be awake,” he said. “I would sit with him, and for 16 weeks he and I got to know each other.”

White said he grew up in a bird-loving family, combined with a deep interest in his Cherokee ancestry. The Vietnam veteran and retired Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office captain helped his wife take care of tropical birds through her own Altons’ Keep endeavor for more than a decade.

“It became a spiritual quest with me as well as just a love,” he said.

He started working with water birds like herons, egrets and grebes, since water birds were his favorites from growing up on the Lynnhaven River.

“At that point I had a barn that I leased in Virginia Beach that I had redesigned,” he said. “I built enclosures in there to take the large tropical [birds] and ‘resocialize’ them.”

There were some more difficult cases, such as a rowdy tenant in the old antique shop attached to the barn.

“I had a big cockatoo in there that was just mean,” White said. “She came out of a broken relationship with two women. She cussed, she screamed, and at about 5 o’clock she would get into this big, blast-out argument in two different voices.”

It was his longtime colleague Dana Lusher, owner of Nature’s Nanny Wildlife Rehabilitation in Chesapeake, who introduced him to three ospreys — one adult and two juveniles — that broadened his horizons in 2013.

“The folks that were training Dana came down to tell her that the Virginia Beach Marine Science Museum had agreed to take the birds, but they wanted them glove trained,” he said.

White was considered for the job, even though he had no permits at the time, he said, and ended up training the birds in about two weeks. The oldest has since died, while the two younger ospreys are still alive and well.

“’Baby’ and ‘Bo’ are still at the Marine Science Museum in the education program,” White said. “Dana named Baby, and I named the other Bo for ‘baby osprey.’”

White now possesses Wildlife Life Rehabilitation permits through Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries to rehabilitate water birds and raptors, plus a Federal Migratory Bird Rehabilitation permit and a separate Special Purpose — Possession for Education permit through U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he said.

As of Jan. 3, 2018, he is also one of only 10 Certified Wildlife Rehabilitators in Virginia through the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council. He can be found under his legal name, Harley White, in the online registry.

Owls are fascinating creatures, and perhaps nobody knows them better than Tommy White.


“I’m really proud of that one,” he said.

He and his wife signed a lease for four acres at the southeast corner of the 152 acres land in Suffolk owned by George and Joan McClelland for Altons’ Keep Inc. in March. The nonprofit endeavor estimated at $35,000 is made possible through donations, volunteer labor and White’s own funds, he said.

“I’ve had tons of people come out of the woodwork to send money and help build this place,” he said. “It’s been amazing,”

Along with 24 planned enclosures for the facility, including about a dozen being built by Boy Scouts for their Eagle Scout projects, White will have his “ark”: a flight enclosure for large-winged birds that will measure 100 feet long, 20 feet wide and 16 feet high.

A saltwater pond stocked with live fish will be installed to condition water birds like ospreys to be able to fend for themselves in the wild once again. That feature will be an utterly unique asset for the area, White said.

White walked across to the other end of the facility with Tsgili resting on his glove and found himself in the middle facility of a “school circle” of picnic tables with multi-purpose enclosures that can be readied with educational birds for private classes.

There will also be an office for full-time veterinarian Dr. Glenn Bouche that is already used as an intake room for birds, with 24-hour access available for Game & Inland Fisheries and Suffolk Animal Control personnel.

“Animal Control is very excited,” White said. “They’ve brought me a ton of birds this year, because they’ve never had a place to take them. I get calls from them all the time, and the birds get care quicker, so it’s an all-around good situation.”

White, who rehabilitated more than 200 wild birds in 2017, already educates children with Tsgili, a barred owl, and a red-tailed hawk he is permitted to use for his Altons’ Keep Educational Ambassador Raptor Program, which performed about 24 programs in 2017, White said.

Eventually, a bald eagle will be among the education birds at his disposal to make an impression on the children.

“To see these birds up close is to make them real,” White said. “They’re no longer just a picture in a book or a dot in the sky. They leave here knowing that this is a real, feeling, breathing and thinking creature that they hardly ever see.”

“They also learn that they’re a very important part of the environment on this earth, and they all have a very unique purpose,” he said as he scratched the owl on his glove. “If it weren’t for you, we would be overrun with rats, wouldn’t we?”