All three saw the dead chipmunk in the road at the same time and went for it. But Claire Reimann was more determined than the two crows, and she brought home the prize.

"I hated to take away their food" she said, "but I figured they could get more." She ignores the stares of passers-by during these road-kill retrievals, which are only one of the ways she finds food for her charges in the bird rehabilitation center she runs in her Clarksburg home, where she maintains a hot line for the Audubon Naturalist Society of the Mid-Atlantic States. She is one of several persons in the area who take injured-bird referrals from the Montgomery County Humane Society.

Last year, Reimann cared for 367 birds--all at her own expense. She digs up worms to feed them, catches bugs, breeds fruit flies, and won't let anyone mow over the anthills in her yard, another source of bird snacks. She keeps a large can of worms and a container of pulverized bugs on her porch, along with dog food, bone meal and cracked corn, which she mixes into a mush the birds like.

Reimann lives in a three-bedroom rambler with Curt, her husband of 27 years, their two teen-age children, two doves, two cats and a dog. The Reimanns also have two grown children. The house stands on an acre of land in rural Clarksburg.

There are cages in the basement, cages on the porch and cages in the yard. The family indulges her in her interest, but Reimann said they do not share the bird work.

Moving from the city to the country 17 years ago was all it took to spark Reimann's interest in wildlife. She said she gradually came to realize that the birds "are all different from each other," even within one species.

Others in the area share her interest: In the spring, the hot line she runs for the Audubon Society gets as many as 50 calls a day about baby birds.

Caring for the birds is expensive and Reimann's efforts are not subsidized. But she said she has never kept track of the cost.

Occasionally people contribute "a couple of dollars and tell me to buy bird seed with it," she said. Contributions go into a fund for a pool she plans to build that will be deep enough for adult geese to use.

The three-year-old bird rehabilitation center is Reimann's second entry into bird rehabilitation, which she began as a young woman and did for four years before the demands of raising her children forced her to suspend it. Days at the center begin at 4:30 a.m. (when she gets up to feed the birds that need an early meal) and last until 11 p.m. "I used to get up at 5," she said, "but that just didn't leave enough time to get everything done."

She structures her day around the patients. If there is a flicker, she must catch ants for its dinner. If there is a loon, Reimann must feed it by hand.

Activity at Reimann's center is largely governed by the seasons.

In spring, she raises baby birds that have fallen out of nests or are orphans. Although babies are the most time consuming, they are easiest to care for. Reimann keeps them in several small cages sitting on heating pads on her enclosed porch until they get old enough for larger cages outside.

Although Reimann continues to feed them, the juvenile birds learn to feed themselves from the earthworms and ant eggs left on the cage floor.

Reimann also keeps an incubator for the times she must care for the unhatched. In June, a boy delivered two goose eggs, retrieved when the mother was killed. The goslings grew up with a duck Reimann had raised.

By late July, Reimann thought the three were getting bored, so, after notifying security guards of her intentions, she took the geese and duck to the rolling grounds of the National Bureau of Standards in Gaithersburg and let them go. She always releases waterfowl at the bureau because the expansive grounds with their woods and water provide a small, protected environment for the birds' transition to the wild.

The spring babies are followed by the victims of summer injuries and accidents. She carefully checks each to see how badly it is hurt. Anything serious or complicated goes to a veterinarian.

In fall and winter, migratory birds that are forced to winter in Washington fill the ranks. Birds injured late in the year or very seriously may not be able to migrate. And some birds just get tired and don't leave with their flock.

Bad weather can be another problem. Birds can get "iced over" while flying and fall out of the sky. Others, such as the loon, require open water to take off.

The wintering-over facilities "can get pretty crowded," Reimann said. But clip-on floodlights can be moved around and large cages divided into smaller areas as needed. Hay, from a bale under the counter, is the floor for one cage; dirt, rocks, and wood chips cover the bottom of another.

"It's important to give the birds a natural environment for their feet," she said. "Otherwise, they may develop foot problems."

A large L-shaped cage at her house was once the temporary home of a young hawk. Although he had a tree stump and branch in his cage to perch on, sometimes he would hang from the side of the cage, letting his head flop over backwards. "It's their way of playing," Reimann said.

"At first, I hand-fed him. But when he stopped wanting his food here," she said, pointing to her throat, "and started wanting it here," pointing to her mouth, "I decided he could feed himself." That meant gathering road kills and led to her vying with crows for a dead chipmunk.

In the beginning, the hawk ignored the road kills put into his cage. But later he hid them behind the tree stump. He would bring out only the animal he was working on and hang it over the branch.

"He was quite a character," Reimann said somewhat wistfully.

The hawk was sent to raptor (bird of prey) rehabilitators Roy Geiger and Kitty Wilson Virginia to learn hunting.

He learned quickly and was ready for release within a few weeks.

One of Reimann's concerns is that many people who find birds in trouble don't know what to do. They may put the bird in a box and try to care for it themselves, without knowing how. Eventually, they might think of the Humane Society, the Audubon Naturalist Society, or some other group that will refer them to someone like Reimann. But that could be days later, when the bird's chances of survival are reduced.

The sooner a bird gets to a rehabilitation center the better, she said, since centers offer such important elements as natural habitat and contact with other birds. To get the state and federal licenses required to do bird rehabilitation, an applicant must prove he or she can provide proper facilities and care.

Reimann obtained her state license from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and her federal license from the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service. State licensing procedures vary; in Northern Virginia, for example, licenses are obtained through the local game warden or animal shelter.

If a baby bird is found, Reimann suggests first trying to put it back in its nest. She disputes the belief that a mother will reject her baby if it has been touched by a human. "Birds don't have a sense of smell," she said. But if a nest cannot be found or is unreachable, she suggests taking the baby to a rehabilitation center.

Asked why she does what she does, Reimann responds, "I like it. I think it's important. . . . With so many major problems on the world today, you have got to zero in on what's around you personally to effect a positive change in somebody's . . . attitude . . . . I tell kids, 'Don't snatch an egg from a nest. That egg is somebody's baby.' "

"It's not just birds, It's broader than you think -- environment and ecology. We're all part of this," she said, pointing to a picture of the earth.

"It's not just a fun game," she continued. "There are reasons for working with these creatures." Many birds are at the top of their food chains, where the effects of pesticides or other substances are concentrated and therefore readily apparent. When the top of the food chain starts to fall apart, she said, the problem is getting out of hand.

Children are another reason for Reimann's bird work. She invites any child who has brought her a bird to call and check on it. Some phone repeatedly, developing a friendship with "the bird lady."

The former second- and third-grade teacher said that her bird work also "gets me back in the schools." When invited, she puts on school programs, using her own photographs and stories.

Several dozen others who work with sick birds in suburban Maryland and Virginia also are independent volunteers. Nick Stefanelli, wildlife director at the Humane Society of Montgomery County, said that few people have the patience to rehabilitate wild birds. Without the efforts of Reimann and a few others, he said, birds taken to the Humane Society would have to be killed.

As it is, the Humane Society will send a bird it receives to Reimann or another bird worker if it appears the creature can be saved.

The Washington area is considered an excellent one for birds. It is on the migration route of many flocks. Wooded areas, as well as waterways such as the C & O Canal, Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River, are habitats for countless birds, including bald eagles. Craig Tufts, chief naturalist at the National Wildlife Federation, said that a dedicated bird watcher can see 220 to 230 types of birds here over a year. This includes migrants that may be in the area only a week or two.

Claire Reimann answers calls about birds at 972-0261. In Prince George's County, Dianne Pearce is coordinator for the Chesapeake Bird Sanctuary Inc. at 372-8799. In Northern Virginia, Eva Bell coordinates the Wild Bird Rescue League hot line: 356-1359.