For the Birds

updated 03/20/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/20/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

IT'S A BIRD! IT'S A PLANE! IT'S A...hey, it's a bird in a plane! More precisely, it's Terry Stevens, professional pilot and amateur avian rescuer, ferrying another wayward hawk, owl or pelican back to its proper habitat or, in the case of injured birds, to a nature sanctuary. Whenever need and opportunity coincide, Stevens, 46, who works for Phoenix-based America West Airlines, hitches a ride on a scheduled America West flight. He usually sits in a jump seat behind the copilot, the bird in a box at his feet. "I don't get much kidding over this," he says. "In fact I get a lot of support."

Stevens' career as avian rescuer began in 1989, when he found a goose that had been mauled by a dog near his house in Chandler, a Phoenix suburb. While calling around for help, he learned about the Liberty Wildlife Foundation, a rehabilitation organization for injured wild animals. Liberty referred him to a vet, and Stevens soon volunteered his time—and his pickup truck—to transport sick birds. In 1992, after he learned the group had found a pelican blown inland from California by a storm, an idea took wing. "I thought, 'Geez, we have six or eight flights a day going to San Diego,' " he says. After Stevens got his corporate superiors to clear him and his birds for takeoff on their planes, his shuttle was in business. "He has saved us thousands of dollars," says Jean-Marie Hing of Liberty Wildlife, which would otherwise have to ship the birds as cargo. Stevens has learned from his mistakes. For instance, he says he will never overstuff a cockpit again, as he did in December with four hawks and a great horned owl. He has also found it's better for pelicans to ride in the cargo hold because of their feather mites and fishy smell.

Though a frequent flyer—Stevens copilots Boeing 757s on runs from Phoenix to the East Coast—he is not a frequent fryer, having given up all meat, including chicken. "I was rescuing these guys and then going home and eating them," he says. "It's much easier for my peace of mind not to."

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