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Summer Hours: Eileen McIlhagga feeds the birds and bunnies at the SPCA

A choir of starlings squawk, demanding food as fast as Eileen McIlhagga can serve it up. They are fed “baby bird bug batter.”


Published July 15, 2022

Editor's note: Summer Hours is a photo series focusing on UB staff members who use the longer days to pursue interesting hobbies, causes and other endeavors outside of their day jobs.

It’s time to feed the baby birds. Again.

SPCA wildlife volunteer Eileen McIlhagga, the business reporting manager for the School of Dental Medicine, opens the zipper to a chorus of bird calls, loudly demanding food. She restarts the timer, measuring off just 30 minutes until the next feeding starts again.

“They don’t have their mom anymore and they need to be taken care of,” McIlhagga says. “Basically, whatever mom would do for them, we have to do now.”

The birds are fed “baby bird bug batter” from paint brushes until they can take mealworms. Each needs to be hand-fed.

A baby robin stretches for a paint brush delivering food. The baby birds are fed every 30 minutes.

SPCA staff member Valerie “Val” Villazon (left) and McIlhaggga talk in the baby bird room. Villazon has been with the SPCA for about 10 years and helps McIlhagga with questions and tasks throughout the volunteer’s shift.

There is no typical day as a volunteer in the Wildlife Department at the SPCA Serving Erie County in West Seneca, according to McIlhagga, who started volunteering in February 2022. She has worked with a variety of songbirds, squirrels, opossums, snapping turtles, geese, ducks, hawks and more. Her favorite is working in the baby mammal room, taking care of the bunnies.

“They are really cute and fuzzy,” McIlhagga says with a smile.

The tiniest bunnies need to eat through a feeding tube. Placing the tube can be tricky; you have to guide the tube to their stomach and not down the trachea. It’s a job not many volunteers are willing to take on, but McIlhagga says she thrives on it.

“It’s kind of scary, but really exciting when I know that they’ve each been fed,” she says. The process starts with McIlhagga making a “bunny burrito” by wrapping the wiggling baby in a receiving blanket, tucking in their legs. She coaches them, whispering “come on” and “you can do this” throughout the feeding process.    

Working in the small mammal room is McIlhagga’s favorite task with the SPCA's Wildlife Department.

The smallest bunnies are tube-fed a special formula. McIlhagga is one of the few volunteers who enjoys this task.

The SPCA’s Wildlife Department helps approximately 4,000 animals annually, according to John Lattimer, veterinary technician, licensed wildlife rehabilitator and founder of the department. In the summer months, staff can see as many as 30 to 50 new animals daily. He praises McIlhagga as one of their “best bunny tubers.”

“She’s turned out to be an awesome volunteer, always available when we need help,” Lattimer says. “She’s caught on very quickly, and you can see how much there is to learn.”

In the coming months, McIlhagga hopes to complete the steps needed to become a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. She has finished the coursework and test, but is still waiting for an interview with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Her volunteer hours are part of her efforts to eventually work as a seasonal employee with the SPCA.

A flat-tailed flying squirrel came to the center with head trauma. He was going home with one of the employees for foster care to aid in his recovery.

Although she doesn’t see many of the animals released back into the wild, McIlhagga says it’s nice when she returns each shift to a different collection of animals.

“It’s nice to know when you come back the next week, if somebody is gone, to know that you made a positive impact on them being successful.”

UB alumna Eileen McIlhagga, BS ‘92 and MBA ’94, has worked for the School of Dental Medicine for 25 years. She has eight pets at home and opted to work with wildlife as a compromise with her husband: “[He] said that it would be too much of a temptation for me to bring more dogs and cats home.”

Editor’s note: UBNow is looking for faculty and staff members who pursue interesting hobbies, causes and other endeavors outside of their day jobs. Contact University Communications photographer Meredith Forrest Kulwicki.