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)

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Patient Profile: Eastern Phoebe

by Becca Novello
Intern, Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation

Species: Eastern Phoebe

Age: Fledglings

Cause for Admission: Abduction - Healthy birds removed from nest and parents

These three Phoebes came to us on June 17th as fledglings, but their road to rehab actually began ten days before that. After finding their nest at a construction site, some members of the public took the nestlings into their own care. Though the intentions were good, the Phoebes became seriously malnourished over the course of those ten days – baby birds require a very specific diet and can’t develop properly without it.*

By the time they arrived in our care, the Phoebes were in bad condition. Their feathers were tattered and broken, so the birds were unable to maintain their waterproofing or regulate their core temperature. They would have had no way to protect themselves from the weather in the wild, and they would have been forced to spend precious energy producing heat that they couldn’t even hold onto. Beyond that, some of the birds hadn’t grown any tail feathers at all, though they were old enough that those feathers should have been well developed. 

Proper tail feather development is important to all birds, but Phoebes in particular rely on their tails to facilitate some pretty impressive maneuvering. They primarily eat flying insects, so they have to be able to catch their prey right out of the air. They watch closely for insects from low perches; when they see a potential meal passing by, they flit off the perch, snag it in their beak, and swing right back to home base. They sometimes even hover in midair to glean insects off of foliage! Their quick changes of direction require incredible control of movement, and Phoebes use their long, thin tail like a rudder, constantly making tiny adjustments. Without the proper feather condition and fully-grown tails, these Phoebes wouldn’t stand a chance on their own. And besides, what would a Phoebe be without its characteristic tail twitch? 

Status: Ongoing assessment with an expected release
Though the consequences of the Phoebes’ malnutrition will take time to overcome, their overall condition has improved greatly since their arrival. We’ve had them on a proper diet that’s rich in protein, and their tails are growing in beautifully! They’re in an outdoor enclosure now, developing skills that will be necessary to them as adults in the wild. They make longer and more controlled flights each day, and they recently figured out how to smack their prey against their perches to kill it – including their cooked egg and soaked kitten food. Over the coming days and weeks, we will be evaluating their flight and watching for their tails to fill out. We’re hoping that a release is in the cards for these guys – we’ll think of them whenever we hear a raspy “PHOE-be!” through our windows.

*Please remember: Besides the fact that wild birds require incredibly specific and intensive care, keeping them without a license is illegal.  If you see a bird that you believe to be injured, ill, or orphaned, call the VINS hotline immediately! We can advise you on how to best deal with the situation and what to do if interference is necessary. If we aren’t there to answer the phone, be sure to leave us a message with your name, number, and situation, and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.