The forlorn little mass of wrinkled skin and pinfeathers makes a peeping sound from its paper towel-nest. A baby sparrow that's nearly all mouth wants its food.

Arlington residents Carl and Lynda Roper substitute their pinkie fingers for a mother sparrow's beak and stuff the gaping mouth with high protein dog food softened in water.

The Ropers found their first bird in 1984 and, amid bird cages lining the walls of their dining room, claim they "can't live without them now."

They are two of 30 active Wild Bird Rescue League volunteers in Northern Virginia. As league volunteers, they care for injured or orphaned songbirds, raptors (birds of prey), mammals and reptiles referred to them and other federally licensed wildlife rehabilitators by area animal shelters, parks and veterinarians. The volunteers are licensed to perform almost all forms of care except surgery, euthanasia and some medication.

The Northern Virginia chapter of the rescue league was started by Eva Bell, a 21-year resident of Falls Church. After several years of working with the Maryland network, Bell began training people in Northern Virginia and her loose network of volunteers was incorporated in 1983.

The league's mission, Bell said, is more than rehabilitating animals so they can go back to the wild.

"It's getting people to understand and appreciate their relationship with the natural community, and that involves education," Bell said.

"It's an obvious highlight to release a wild animal, taking it from a mass of hurt gristle and bone and getting it back to a survivable critter," said Roy A. Geiger Jr., coordinator of education at the National Wildlife Federation. Geiger, a league member who specializes in raptor rehabilitation at his home in Sterling, has worked with birds of prey for 11 years.

He has two permanently crippled red-tailed hawks and a couple of barred owls, one of which is blind in one eye from a collision with an automobile.

Emphasizing the importance of educating the public, Geiger travels frequently with his birds, saying that, "holding a hawk that can exert 500 pounds of bone-crushing pressure per talon point holds audience attention."

The league volunteers do a great deal of public speaking and individual counseling, said Linda Willen, executive director of the Animal Welfare League of Arlington.

Area shelters sometimes confer with league volunteers 10 times a day, referring callers and injured wildlife to them.

"The shelters just aren't set up to handle the wildlife," Willen said. "I know how busy we are at this time, and they're a lot busier. We wouldn't be able to manage without them."

While the busiest time is spring, there's fall migration, squirrels and rabbits that have litters twice a year, pigeons that breed year round, doves and sparrows that bear young from early spring through the fall.

Paula Coffey, a Fairfax mother of two who cared for an injured pileated woodpecker for months, added, "every season has its casualties. In January there are ice storms, and March has high winds."

Besides the effect of natural disasters on wildlife, Northern Virginia's dramatic increase in population also has affected wild animals. According to Martin Ogle, chief naturalist at the Potomac Overlook, the larger animals that need the most space are being pushed away.

The smaller animals, however, still continue to find niches. Opossums, raccoons, chipmunks and squirrels are common. Users of the W&OD trail report seeing fox and an occasional deer, and beavers are found around Four Mile Run.

"You have to realize the foremost thing to preserve is land. Without habitat, you can save all the animals you want but to no avail," Ogle cautioned.

Geiger said Fairfax County is doing well in maintaining corridor space (a strip of land away from humans), while developing the county.

He cited examples of an array of mammals and birds on the 43 acres at the National Wildlife Foundation in Vienna, and "Wolf Trap had a flock of turkeys."

Though "man must learn to compromise with nature," as Coffey said, the fact is that birds and mammals are hit by cars, cats catch fledgling birds, and an occasional cruelty case arises.

League coordinator Jackie Freitag, a mammal rehabilitator in Manassas, said that this was the first year she feared "we would have to put some birds down {destroy them} simply because we couldn't handle all the baby birds this spring."

"Now that the community recognizes us and the shelters use us, we must have a central facility," Freitag said.

"We're investigating some property for a wildlife center that will serve all of upper Northern Virginia."

The center would provide an enclosed facility for injured animals, a couple of outdoor flight pens for rehabilitating birds and an employe to counsel callers.

Most rehabilitators, as does Lynda Roper, enjoy working from their homes, but they agree there's a need for a center to take "overflow or when we want to go on vacation," Roper said.

"With this kind of an organization, the center will need all kinds of people," Coffey said, "which is good because not everyone can devote the time to being a rehabilitator, yet they want to be affiliated with the group."

Rehabilitators must be committed to their animals, and it can be frustrating and time-consuming to do the job well, according to league volunteers.

"What makes it all worth it, though, is that it gives a lot of folks an opportunity to experience the environment on a personal level," Geiger said.