Interview series: Working with birds - Jemma McLean

Interview series: Working with birds - Jemma McLean

Tune in, because every month we are going to be interviewing bird rehabilitators from all over New Zealand!

This week, our very own Jemma McLean, co-founder of Avian Empire 


- First off, the most important question... What's your favourite NZ native bird?

I'm a giant parrot nerd... so if i have to pick, might as well go with the largest! The Kakapo.

kakapo illustration

Illustration by Jemma McLean

- Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you have done?

I've always been super fascinated with birds. I was drawn to them from a young age. my attempts of rehabilitation may have not been as successful as they are today.. but the intention was there.

When I moved to Auckland almost a decade ago, I spent most weekends working for New Zealand Bird Rescue (now Bird Care Aotearoa) for years. Evelyn (Lyn) MacDonald has been a hugely inspirational person to me. She is an absolute wealth of knowledge when it comes to the care of birds. 

After moving back to Wellington I did a stint managing Wellington Bird Rehabilitation Trust (which was a steep learning curve) Luckily for me I have the most amazing support network.

Last year I had the absolute honour of meeting Karen Saunders (a bird kindred spirit) She entrusted me to man her small, but amazing facility, Native Bird Rescue Waiheke. I admire the high standard of care, passion and hygiene that goes into this place.

The collection of these experiences have given me a unique set of skills. I hope that I can use these skills to help as many people rehab birds to their best abilities.


rehabbing a hawk

Photo: from NZBR and WBRT

- What inspired you to pursue a career in wildlife rehabilitation?

I, like many young kids, wanted to be a vet. Somehow I ended up in fashion. 
Volunteering with birds was super rewarding for me. In terms of it being my career, I guess i kind of fell into it... maybe it was just meant to be. Either way I really enjoy what I do. There is so much variety and endless learning. It keeps my magpie mind very busy.


- What is the most rewarding part of the work for you? 

Helping others, help birds. I love the sharing of information, passion and support. I have made some really good friends working with birds.  

I really would to see rehab as one giant community where we can all learn from each other. 

Getting pretty sharp on my diagnostic skills is pretty awesome too! but that has come from many year, thousands of birds and many mistakes. 



Photo by Karen Saunders: Jemma McLean and Dr Bryan Gartrell with Kereru Patient.

- Hardest thing you have had to do or learn?

I think a lot of rehabbers are going to agree with me here, death. We get into this work to keep things alive, it's very confronting when you realise to make your work sustainable you have to be able to do two things well. Know how and when you have to give a quick end to birds that are suffering. Know your mental limits, don't push them.


- If you were to go back and tell your past self something, what would it be?

Stick to your guns. For rehab to be sustainable it needs to be operated more like a business. Having a saviour mentality will hinder your ability to see clearly and work in a way that is sustainable.



- What are some of the misconceptions/challenges that face this industry?

That rehabbers should accept poor wage or no wage at all cause it's passion work. I wholeheartedly think this in nonsense. The work is hard physically and mentally. There are so many hats to be worn if you single handedly run a rehab facility of any description. New Zealand is a bird country, this work is valuable and needs to be properly funded. 
tubing a swan

 Photo: Tube feeding a swan at WBRT

- Would you like to add anything else?

I've been contemplating volunteer work a lot of late, it's seriously lacking in a lot organisations. I'm not just talking about the people who show up clean pens, feed birds, scrub enclosures and organise hospitals. There is work for everyone, whether you are an accountant, lawyer, fisherman or social media wizard... chances are a bird rehab needs your kind of help too. Don't underestimate what value your skills are to these overworked organisations. Too volunteer time or funding (which ever you have) should be a responsibility we all carry. The more who help the lighter the load, wasn't that what we were taught!? :)


If you are interested in being interviewed for our monthly bird rehabilitation segment, feel free to get in touch
Back to blog