Judy Fentress: Dedicated to helping our native birds in their time of need

Department of Conservation —  11/04/2023

By Carisse Enderwick.

Meet Judy Fentress, one of Waikato’s dedicated native bird rehabbers as she tells her story from the incubation machine to the struggles of bird rehab.

Judy Fentress with one of the paradise shelducks she has in her care.
📷 Carisse Enderwick, DOC

It began with an egg

Judy Fentress grew up on a beef ranch in Colorado.

Like many children raised on farms, she learnt some early lessons about the nature and cycle of life and how – despite our very best efforts – we will all experience the initiations of birth and death. When it comes to birds, Judy has seen countless births, and has known many deaths.

Very much an animal lover, Judy, who is based in Waikato with her husband David, began her journey into bird rehabilitation by chance. One day, 30 years ago, a neighbour knocked on her door and presented her with a mallard duck egg.

“Put this under a lamp,” her neighbour said, handing the egg to Judy.

And so, she did. Twenty-eight days later something happened – a wobble, a peck, a crack.

“You’d better hurry up!” Judy urged down the phone to her neighbour. “It’s hatching!”

Sitting on the floor in the hallway with a bottle of wine, the two women waited like expectant hens in the small hours of the morning, eager to greet new life under the soft glow of a lamp. 

Years later, Judy received a similar call in the night.

“You’d better hurry over! The kiwi egg is hatching!” said the voice.

Judy had dedicated many hours to the Ōtorohanga Kiwi House and learnt how to incubate and raise many native birds. This would be the first time she’d witness a kiwi chick emerge from its egg.  

At her property, Judy has 23 purpose-built aviaries for rescuing, rehabilitating and rearing birds of all kinds which, during the busy season, might house up to 200 birds. A neighbour- a professional fence builder – built the aviaries for her over two years. Today they’re a temporary home to two kererū, a couple of kingfishers, a ruru, two harriers, and a pair of spur-winged plovers.

Judy holds a DOC permit to incubate and rehabilitate native birds, a requirement when handling and holding native birds protected under the Wildlife Act 1953.

The juggle is real

One of the biggest challenges for bird carers like Judy is the cost of rehabilitating birds. Food costs, electrical bills, vet bills, maintenance costs and travel all add up. Food costs are one of the highest expenses of the entire operation.

Diets and feeding habits vary between species and the feeding schedule for up to 200 birds can be hectic.

“There are baby birds demanding a feed every two hours; kingfisher / kōtare fledglings requiring fresh fish daily; several bird species feasting on their own special diet of grains and seeds; and a pair of Australasian harriers / kahu that can each eat a whole chicken per day,” says Judy.

Fresh fish is expensive, so Judy has started breeding fish to feed the kingfishers, and at the time of visiting, the harriers had already been lodging there for two months.

Funding all the costs herself, Judy spends an estimated $20,000 a year to keep her bird rehabilitation facility running, with little to no outside funding. To help with costs, she rears and sells exotic pheasants, doves, and Carolina wood ducks and provides an incubation service for breeders of show birds. Every extra bit of income helps.

“During the nesting season which starts in August and continues through to March, when there might be an influx of eggs and chicks, heating bills rise,” says Judy.

“It’s not unusual to be paying upwards of $300 extra a month just to keep the incubators and warming lamps running.

“My work starts with feeding the birds at 9am.The nursery birds are hand fed every two hours, and then I feed the birds outside,” she says. “I replace and wash towels – usually one to three washing loads a day during nursery time. The seven ponds are cleaned at least once a week, and in summer two to three times a week. By 1pm it’s all done… until 4pm, when I start all over again.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking this is Judy’s full-time job. It’s not. While caring for birds, Judy runs a business with her husband, David, providing accounting software support. All this, among the usual life admin of maintaining a home and garden.

“Staying on top of it all can be a challenge,” says Judy. “I’ve done it for so long now I know what I’m doing, but it takes a lot of energy. I’m now 77 years old and it’s a 24-7 job. The older you get, the slower you become.”

Judy has been a part of many native bird’s most crucial moments in life, from hatching to rehab.
📷 Carisse Enderwick, DOC

The community servant

But Judy is committed to the birds and to helping the public when they’re at a loss about what to do with an injured bird.

“I try to keep the public happy and do as much for them as I can. I have stopped taking non-native birds because I’ll get whole nests full of babies requiring hourly feeding for weeks. I can’t do that anymore, as well as look after the native birds.”

Judy describes what she does as a community service, as all her birds come to her via the public.

“I don’t think the public understand what’s involved when they hand a bird over to me,” she says. “They might think I’m subsidised, or that I receive sizeable donations. It requires a lot of work on my part to take care of these birds and then find an appropriate place to release them. It all adds up. As hard as it is, I do it for the birds and I do it for the people who care about them.”

To find out how you can support Judy and her birds, contact judysbirdsnz@gmail.com

Every little bit helps. 

Judy holds a DOC permit to incubate and rehabilitate native birds, a requirement when handling and holding native birds protected under the Wildlife Act 1953. To find out more about wildlife permits, click here.

10 responses to Judy Fentress: Dedicated to helping our native birds in their time of need

    LaVerna Leach 02/06/2023 at 1:31 pm

    Wow Judy! What a great article! Lucky me! – we were able to visit you & Dave and see you care for your birds. I even got to fee a baby Parrot while visiting. Grown male parrots came to your yard to visit the female you had in the cage on your patio. Yes, Judy, you are a lively caring person. So glad you are my cousin. Michael and I wish you the very best. Love, LaVerna

    April Breading 05/05/2023 at 1:15 pm

    Inspiring dedication. The sacrifices you have made to constantly care for the birds with never a day off is mind blowing. I have aviation housed budgies and that’s a commitment that requires friends to help when we wish to have a holiday. You deserve every praise you are given. April B, Ashburton

    Karen McCrae 02/05/2023 at 11:41 am

    I’m impressed with Judy’s dedication and care with the birds she looks after. What a special woman!

    Robyn Newman 18/04/2023 at 5:11 pm

    Great article Judy, and well deserved. Long may your dedication continue !


    Judy is one of a kind. Her care and dedication is admirable. Her love for the birds is what makes her so valuable to our feathered friends.,!

    Peter John Cumming 18/04/2023 at 7:55 am

    We have known Judy for for over 25 yrs and been her neighbour for a good part of that,what you see with her and Dave is just pure joy for what they do she deserves public recognition Peter &Janice Cumming

    Nancy F. Hyams 18/04/2023 at 3:37 am

    Judy, your heart and ministry for your native birds are amazing. We have been honored to have had you and David visit with us in our old Kentucky home! a few years ago, when we had our mini Fentress Reunion. Your little bird sticker left on your guess bathroom mirror is waiting for yours and David’s return visit! You are loved and appreciated!

    Jim and Nancy Fentress Hyams


    I met Judy and Dave in the mid-seventies in Switzerland where they had an amazing house (where friends gathered every Christmas), a Porsche, motorbikes and an enviable adventurous lifestyle. What touched me most was Judy’s passion for hedgehogs. Her immaculate cellar had hibernating families in the Swiss winter.
    One Christmas (without notice) the guests sat on crates ready for New Zealand. The Fentresses left Switzerland for their holiday love affair, leaving friends and hedgehogs behind.
    We have stayed in touch and there have been glimpses and news of her rare bird enterprises. However the modest tone of the Christmas letter never disclosed the extent of her commitment. Thank you Carisse Enderwick for your narrative focusing on Judy’s dedication to saving birds.
    It is spirits like Judy who shine a light of hope on our planet. ❤️


    Great story Judy! ♡♡♡


    What an amazing woman. Beautiful story!