Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Outside Story: Winter Bird Rehabilitation

barred owlAn injured barred owl sat in the back seat of a four-door sedan, staring balefully out the window at its rescuer. “I saw him on the side of the road, just sitting there, trying to fly,” the young woman explained to Maria Colby, director of Wings of the Dawn Wildlife Rehabilitation and Rescue. “Other cars were stopping and then circling back around to see if I needed help. His eye looks messed up.”

Colby nodded, her spectacles perched on her nose and her hands protected by large leather gloves with gauntlets. She opened the car door, wrapping the owl up into a towel and whisking it inside her house, to her warm kitchen. The owl panicked, making clicking noises and trying to fly, but Colby kept a firm hold as she administered a few droplets of pain medication into its beak. Then she carried the owl into her triage room and placed it in a small pet carrier. She explained that she would let it rest for twenty minutes until the pain medication kicked in, then do an evaluation and consult with her local veterinarian. She would also report the owl to both federal and state fish and wildlife departments.

“Can I call you to see how it’s doing?” the young woman asked.

“Of course,” Colby assured her. “I’ll know more in a few days.”

Wings of the Dawn, located in Henniker, New Hampshire, has been rehabilitating wildlife for nearly thirty years. Colby is the organization’s only full-time staff member, but many others are involved, including a group of dedicated volunteers. With their help, in 2016, Colby rescued over 500 birds and 200 mammals. Her bird patients have included owls and hawks, bald eagles, loons, ducks, songbirds, pigeons, sparrows, and crows. She has also cared for foxes, skunks, fishers, raccoons, possums, and even a bobcat and a bear cub.

This time of year, Colby mostly sees barred owls. They may be hit by cars, fly into windows, or if there is heavy snowfall, simply be weakened from hunger. Day or night, including weekends and holidays, Colby’s phone will ring. “I’m always on call,” she said firmly.

Wildlife rehabilitation is especially tricky business in winter. The deck is stacked against animals that are vulnerable due to stress from an injury. Colby won’t even release rehabbed patients until late February or early March, in order to give them the best possible chance at survival. The exceptions to this rule are rescued barred owls that have no eye injuries; if an owl can fly and has full vision, she will release it as soon as it is healed.

The Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS) in Quechee, Vermont, also rescues and rehabilitates birds throughout the year, and takes special precautions to make sure that winter-released patients have a good chance of enduring the harsh conditions. According to Lauren Adams, Lead Wildlife Keeper at VINS, of particular concern are migratory birds that are injured or lose their flock. A bird that is meant to fly south for the winter is unlikely to survive up here, and VINS provides help by arranging transport down to another wildlife sanctuary in a more habitable climate.

VINS is also the frequent recipient of injured barred owls. At their wildlife hospital, just like at Wings of the Dawn, the first stage is triage. Large birds are placed in a pet carrier or cage that is covered with towels to reduce stress. Smaller birds are placed in towel-lined plastic tubs. Pain and anti-inflammatory medications are administered, as well as fluids to keep the bird hydrated. Once a bird shows signs of recovery, staff move it to a larger stall with perches and heat lamps. As the bird becomes even stronger, staff may place it in a large outside enclosure. Since standing water will freeze in the winter, wild birds often get fluids via their food. For raptors, VINS injects dead rodents with water and places them on heat disks to prevent an unappetizing mouse-cicle effect.

Eventually, recovering birds of prey are placed in a flight cage. The flight cage is approximately twenty feet long, and includes ladders, perches, and ramps designed to help the bird exercise its flight and hunting behaviors. The cage is “L”-shaped in order to facilitate and encourage the turning maneuvers required for hunting.

Like Colby, the VINS staff is careful about the timing of winter releases. According to Adams, another concern is that healed birds can re-injure themselves in captivity by attempting to escape, so once they are healthy enough to hunt and fly, out they go. The staff at VINS will check the weather and pick a nice day with no freezing rain in the forecast, and no heavy winds. “We know we’ve given them their best chance to survive,” said Adams. “We wish them luck.”

For more information about VINS and Wings of the Dawn, see: vinsweb.org and wingswildlife.org.

Leah Burdick is a freelance writer who studies law at Vermont Law School. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine, and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at editor@adirondackalmanack.com

4 Responses

  1. Charlie S says:

    ” Pain and anti-inflammatory medications are administered, as well as fluids to keep the bird hydrated.”

    A few summers ago my little girl came upon five baby birds behind the motel we were staying at in Indian lake.It was near dark and these birds were waiting for their mom who never showed up. I assumed the mom got hit by a car flying over a road or another animal grabbed it. I’ll never know. As dark was approaching I borrowed a basket from the motel owner filled it with grass and leaves for a bed,placed the chicks in it and left it hanging in a bush a few feet off the ground overnight. The next morning I discovered one chick was dead. I got in touch with the wildlife rescue people in Newcomb who told me not to give it liquids,not to do this,not to do that. Enroute to the rescue place I came upon heavy traffic on Rt. 28N east of Newcomb. They were working on the road. Bad timing. First one of the surviving chicks died,then another. There were two left. Another one died.

    Traffic was backed up and crawling at a snails pace. I knew I was never going to make it to the rehabilitator who lived all the way down Goodnow Flow Road I believe it was. Finally I make it past where they were working on the road to discover I passed Goodnow Flow Road. I looked and looked for a sign to this road and did not see one so I passed it.If there was a sign for this road on 28N it was not easily seen which is a very common thing in many areas in New York I have discovered…if there is even a sign at all!

    I ended up knocking on a door on the north side of 28N just past a small bridge that went over a creek east of Newcomb. I explained my situation to a lady who answered the door who, coincidentally, also happened to know about rehabilitating birds. She took the surviving bird and when I called her afterwards she said the bird was doing fine it needed water it was dehydrated. She also said it was a cedar waxwing (?).

    I bring this story up because I was reminded after reading the one line above. I have wanted to call these rehabilitators to inquire why they told me not to give them water which would have definitely kept them alive had I been told otherwise. It broke my heart watching those remaining birds die one by one especially after finding out that all’s they needed was water.

    Next time I come upon baby birds and there’s no mom around I’ll know what to do…..give them water to keep them alive! Sometimes we must learn things the hard way and it don’t always pay to listen to people who are supposed to know what they are doing!!

  2. Ethan says:

    Rehabbers! Long, erratic hours. No paycheck and often spend large sums from their own pockets.
    They are unsung heroes. I’ve often thought what a great gesture it would be for state wildlife agencies l, at the very least, to offer them a stipend.

  3. Steve Hall says:

    This is an excellent description of Winter Raptor rehab process. While driving around, you may encounter floundering birds of prey, who have likely been struck by cars. If you place a cardboard box in the trunk or rear of your car, and drop an old blanket in the box, you can become part of the rescue process. When placed in a dark environment, birds don’t struggle much, so you may drop the blanket over the injured bird, and gathering the blanket underneath the bird (mindful of bunching the fabric up under those talons). The bird will likely remain still and quiet. For those living in the High Peaks and surrounding areas, the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge and Rehab Center is in Wilmington, just a couple of miles from the Whiteface ski center, at 914-715-7620, or 855-Wolf-Man. If you live further south, call North Country Wild Care, which is a coalition of Rehabbers around the Albany to Southern Adirondacks area, at 518-964-6740. Final thought: most folks have figured out that you may toss out the car window, any organic food remnants, which will be grabbed by scavenging birds and wildlife. Don’t just drop it, however, as this will bring the rodents etc. up on the road, where birds of prey targeting the scavengers will be hit by cars. Hurling the food away from the road bed just may save a raptors life.

  4. Charlie S says:

    “Hurling the food away from the road bed just may save a raptors life.”

    Very good,and just,advice! I have known this for many years Steve so that when I toss banana peels or vegetable waste out my windows I always strive to throw them off to the sides as far off-road as possible. Not only animals suffer when food is discarded mindlessly so do insects,ie…bees & ants go to the sugar in discarded soda cans,or candy,etc..and oftentimes succumb due to drowning in the liquid or crushed by passing cars or foot traffic. Living things impress me and I have gone to extreme lengths over the years to keep them from harm or to limit their suffering. Surprisingly I have met others who do or have done the same.
    Also I have pulled dead animals out of roadways off to the sides….to save a raptors life!

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