Thursday, October 29, 2015

Nevermore: Returning a Raven to the Wild

by Jordan Daley
Science Outreach Coordinator

Halloween is not my favorite holiday. Shadows obscuring a midnight sky, dry leaves rattling against my window, scary stories, haunting and ghosts; none of these are among my favorite things. I like to spend the weeks surrounding October 31st partaking in entirely un-creepy activities, like baking or yoga. As a kid, on Halloween, my mom and I would spend our evening watching movies set in tropical places and absolutely not changing the channel in case a neighboring station was showing some horror flick.

But here in New England the Halloween spirit is hard to ignore. The seasonal changes in Vermont bring out deeply embedded traditions, even in the most reluctant of us. The weather here seems to be an active participant in all of our holiday traditions. This Halloween is no exception and not even I am immune to the changing colors, blustery days and one particular bird that really changed my mind.

About 5 weeks ago, the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation received a common raven from Pittsford, VT. This bird, in unfortunate circumstances, was very lucky to have been discovered by a VINS transport volunteer. She found the bird at the intersection of two creeks on a public conservation area. The raven was hopelessly tangled in fishing line and hanging over the water from its left wing. You can see him in this photo; the black shape to the right of the trees.

This kind of rescue can take a lot of patience and hard work. Thankfully the transporter was ready for the struggle and worked for a long time to free the raven and eventually got the bird to our rehab facility.

The young raven, in its first year, arrived underweight, losing heat, dehydrated and in shock. His left wing was askew, drooping away from the body; likely suffering from nerve damage.

The rehab staff spent the following weeks monitoring the bird, fearing that the damage would be permanent. Then he surprised everyone.

Within a couple weeks of admission, the raven took his first flight. Four days later he was transferred to a flight cage where his strength grew and flights improved. It was an improbable recovery for this lucky bird.

This is where I come into the picture. In my role with the education department, I only occasionally get to spend time with our patients. So when Annie came in on a sunny October day looking for a co-pilot, I jumped at the chance to join her for the release.

It is our protocol to release a rehabilitated bird as close as possible to the site where it was found. We loaded up the bird and drove for about an hour and a half before we found the trail head at the Cooley Covered Bridge in Pittsford.

Here is Annie carrying the raven to its picturesque release site. At the intersection of two streams, the Green Mountains rising in the backdrop, the bright blue of a fall morning welcomed the bird back to the wild, we opened the container and he flew off.

His first flight out of our facility was a testament to one note a rehab intern wrote in his file. "Had a bit of trouble catching this one! Banking turns and flying all around!"

The raven perched in a tree near by, preening his feathers and getting his bearings.

Knowing how smart corvids are, I wondered how aware this bird was of his return to the site of his nearly fatal accident. Corvidae is a family of birds including ravens, crows, jays, that are considered the most intelligent of all birds. Different species in the group have exhibited tool building and facial recognition. They've been known to recognize, remember and respond to threatening people or situations. They have self awareness and even fear death.
It seemed strangely appropriate to be releasing this eerily smart, darkly perceived bird who narrowly escaped death so close to Halloween. Even for a skeptic like me, the day reeked of supernatural significance.

It was only a few days later that the Northern Stage's youth actors performed Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven at our Halloween celebration. I watched the cast, clad in all black, bringing to life Poe's dark classic, and for the first time I didn't avert my eyes when it got creepy.

I think I'm going to enjoy Halloween this year.

Friday, September 11, 2015

What the Cat Dragged In

by Becca Novello
Intern, Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation

We keep a kitten rescue cam streaming in our break room just in case we ever need a pick-me-up. Here in the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation at VINS, we tend to get a somewhat bleak view of the natural world – if we do our job right over the rescue hotline, the only birds that come into our care are injured, ill, or orphaned. So while some days are filled with the absolute joy of recovery and healing, others are colored by death and euthanasia. On those days, the kitten tumble-fest gives us a healthy dose of brightness – it helps us to see the beauty around us when it has become otherwise unrecognizable.

That said, some days even the kitten cam doesn’t quite fulfill its therapeutic duty. We’ve had a complicated relationship with cats these days, or really with their owners, to be more accurate. Of the hundreds of birds that come through our rehabilitation facility each year, 10-15% come in for injuries sustained by outdoor cats. In 2014, we saw the results of 39 cat attacks, and we’ve already seen 43 this year. When we’ve just had to euthanize a fledgling robin with a leg snapped in half by a cat on the hunt, all we can do is hope that those kittens on the screen are going to homes where they’ll be raised as happy, healthy indoor cats.

A fledgling House Wren that was released after two weeks of rehabilitation for injuries sustained from an outdoor cat 

Anyone who has owned an outdoor cat knows the joy of finding a fresh kill (a “present” of sorts) on the porch.  We think of it as a small-scale occurrence – after all, what’s that one cardinal or chipmunk in the overall ecosystem, right? Unfortunately, over the past few years we’ve been learning that our occasional gifts are only a tiny glimpse into a world of hurt. In 2012, National Geographic and the University of Georgia teamed up to take a look at what was really going on in our pets’ private lives by attaching small cameras to outdoor cats. They found that cats bring home less than a quarter of their kills [or near-kills], meaning that we’re typically blind to the vast majority of their hunting. A comprehensive study in 2013 blew previous estimates out of the water, finding that free-ranging cats kill between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds in the U.S. each year. The truth is that the cumulative effects of our small-scale choices can have catastrophic effects on bird populations. In fact, according to a 2010 University of Nebraska study, cats are responsible for the extinction of 33 species of birds worldwide.

Especially in the summer, when vulnerable baby birds are being sent out into the world, outdoor cats have the potential to do incredible amounts of damage. Most songbirds fledge from the nest well before they’ve actually learned to fly; they’re still being cared for by their parents, but they’re defenseless against predators that can scoop them right up off the ground. Even if a cat isn’t looking to kill and the bird makes it away with only a few scratches, they’re not out of the woods. Cats carry powerful bacteria in their mouths and on their claws that are extremely dangerous to birds, and tiny scrape or puncture wound can rapidly lead to a fatal infection.

Bright BirdsBeSafe collars can help adult birds locate and avoid cats

So what can you do? Attaching bells to a cat’s collar doesn’t actually do any good – cats, clever as they are, can quickly learn to silence it while they hunt. The bright, clown-like collars made by BirdsBeSafe ( go a long way to protect adult birds but don’t do much for flightless fledglings. To be honest, the best solution by a long shot is to transition a cat to an indoor lifestyle. It can be tough, but it’s doable! And it’s worth it. If not for the birds, do it for your cat; the average lifespan of an outdoor cat facing cars, disease, and predation is between two and five years, while that of an indoor cat is between 12 and 20 years. For tips on how to transition your cat to an indoor lifestyle, visit If you have any additional questions, feel free to give us call on our hotline at (802) 359-5001 ext. 510.

So whether you want to save wildlife, create a healthy lifestyle for your cat, or just give us a bit of a break here at VINS, start taking steps to move your cat inside today!

Additional Resources:

American Bird Conservancy on keeping cats indoors

“The Truth About Cats and Birds” by Andrew C. Revkin (The New York Times)