Susie Niwa is the kind of person who, when she goes to a store, will often park far from the entrance so she can pick up trash as she walks from her car. On any given day, Niwa can be seen collecting recyclables at the Granada Hills Recreational Youth Center.
One time, after seeing a man dump cigarette butts and ash on the ground, the Granada Hills resident went over and picked up the trash — then dumped it back into the offender’s car, much to his surprise and indignation.
“If everyone picked up a piece of trash, the world would be a beautiful place,” Niwa said.
Niwa can say that because she’s an example of what one person can do.
She does more than just pick up trash when she sees it. Niwa is also a volunteer “rehabilitator” of hummingbirds and non-native birds for the California Wildlife Center. She cares for them in her home until they are ready to be released again into the wild.
She readily admits that birds “have taken over my life.”
Niwa supports their care in a variety of ways. She gets newspapers donated by neighbors, and from several stores around her neighborhood, to put at the bottom of cages, on some walls and the floors in one of the rooms in her house.
The money she gets from recycling aluminum cans and plastic bottles, and even the pooped-upon newspaper, help pay for bird food and the purchase of cages and other items she needs for her “babies.”
Nothing is wasted.
Visitors can hear the incessant chirping and singing of parakeets. The buzzing created by the rapid flapping of a hummingbird’s wings isn’t coming from the Cuckoo clock in her house. It’s from the birds Niwa is currently nursing back to health.
In between, she runs back and forth cleaning the Granada Hills Recreation Youth Center.
Niwa has been known to take care of up to 30 birds at once. Some may be in cages; others simply fly around the bird aviary she built at her house.
Yes, she’s also very good with a hammer and nails.
She talks to all her birds, names them and lives surrounded by them. Niwa says she experiences a bittersweet emotion when returning them to nature — happy they are free and worried they are on their own.
Some birds may take only 4-6 weeks to rehabilitate. Others may need as long as four months of care.
Then there are others like “Lucy and Ricky,” (named after the stars of the “I Love Lucy” television show), a pair of “handicapped” Indian Ringneck Parakeets. They both have splayed legs and cannot stand like normal birds. Someone dropped them off at Birds Plus, a store in Van Nuys she works with, to be euthanized when they were merely 10 days old. Now they have a permanent home in Niwa’s house.
The bond she shares with the birds is easily noticeable.
The parakeet “Lucy” gives Niwa kisses on the mouth without biting. “Hope,” a hummingbird, won’t go to sleep until Niwa comes and feeds her at night. She happily cleans her wings when Niwa sprays water on the cage — resembling what wild birds do in the rain.
And she feeds the baby hummingbird “Theresa” from a syringe she holds over her beak as would her real bird mother.
“I’m their ‘unfeathered mother,’” says Niwa, who is unmarried and has no children.
“This is my life right now. I love it.”
While her bird volunteerism began five years ago, Niwa has always been an animal lover. At the age of four, while learning to water ski, she saw someone throw a beer can into the water and went after him for polluting and killing the fish.
But she wasn’t always this single-minded.
For decades, Niwa worked a 96-hour week in the movie industry. But she became “burned out,” and quit her stressful job. She said she felt a different destiny calling her.
“As I was leaving my house on my way to a job interview at the Gas Company, a baby hummingbird fell into my path,” Niwa recalled.
At first she thought it was a cockroach and was about “to step on it.” But when Niwa realized it was a bird, “something clicked immediately” inside her.
So instead, “I called the person I was meeting at the Gas Company and told them I had a family emergency and couldn’t make it,” Niwa said.
She nursed that baby bird back to health, then released it with the assistance of Birds Plus.
She eventually connected with the California Wildlife Center, and has never looked back. Last year, she helped rehabilitate more than 200 wildlife critters and spent more than $5,000 on cages, food and other supplies.
“God had a bigger calling for me,” Niwa said.
This Friday, April 22, is Earth Day — a day devoted to remind people that we all should do our part in keeping the planet clean and healthy, not only for ourselves, but also for future generations. Globally, there are Earth Day events in 141 different countries.
But you don’t have to remind Susie Niwa of this annual commemoration.
“Earth Day should be everyday,” the Granada Hills resident says. And she adds that “everyone should take part in it, not just me.”
That statement is as good as any Earth Day message.
The city of Los Angeles is hosting an Earth Day event on Saturday, April 23, at Hansen Dam, located at 11770 Foothill Blvd., from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Lake View Terrace. There will be free plant giveaways, an eco challenge and other activities.