Saturday, December 6, 2014

Our Tiniest Patient: the Northern Saw-whet Owl

by Calah Beckwith
Lead Wildlife Keeper

Hawks, falcons, eagles, owls. We treat a variety of raptors, each with his or her own unique challenges and needs. These predators of the sky range in size from the 10-pound bald eagle to the 1/4-pound American kestrel. Without exception, we know that regardless of size all raptors have extremely sharp talons and beaks made for tearing flesh. However, some raptors possess tools that are much more dangerous to humans than others. Eagles, for example, are incredibly large and powerful with talons and beaks that can cause great injury to those providing care if not handled with respect, confidence, and composure.

One day after his admission, the
little owl is feeling the effects of
his collision with a car.
On the other end of the scale is the diminutive northern saw-whet owl. It's almost hard to believe that a raptor this small exists in the forests of New England. This owl is 7-8 inches in length from head to tail, and it weighs between 75 and 100 grams (0.15 - 0.22 pounds). Saw-whet owls are one of the most common owls in the forests of the northern U.S., but they are very rare in avian rehabilitation. They are very secretive, and their tiny stature makes them difficult to spot in their forest habitats. 

Nearly one month ago, we were surprised and honored to receive a northern saw-whet owl at our Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation. The little owl struck the side of a car while flying across a road - likely in pursuit of a meal. He sustained severe head trauma, damage to his right eye, a fractured furcula (similar to your collar bone), and trauma to his right shoulder. He weighed in at 70 grams (about the same size as an American robin) and is likely a male based on his particularly small stature.  

Now in a larger enclosure, the
northern saw-whet owl is bright-eyed
and well on his way to a full recovery.
While this little raptor has much less intimidating weapons, he must be handled with the same care and respect as the larger birds. Small birds respond to the stress of human interaction and captivity with much more intense physiological symptoms than their larger counterparts. Without a proper understanding of bird behavior and an ability to recognize signs of stress, it is certainly possible for a bird to die simply as a result of being handled by humans. We, therefore, had to be very careful with this tiny patient. We performed all treatments with speed and efficiency, limiting handling times and frequency.

We splinted his fractured wing, gave him special drops for his damaged eye, and gave him medications for pain and swelling. In general, he has handled the stress of captivity quite well. His splint has been removed, and he is now in a large enclosure where he can stretch his wings. Soon, we'll move him to a large outdoor enclosure where we can truly evaluate his flight ability. We're hopeful that he will have the flight skills necessary for survival in the wild - the prognosis is certainly good. 

We have felt truly blessed to be a part of this little owl's story and to help him find his way back to nature.         

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A Hawk Hullabaloo and a Barred Owl Bonanza

At the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation, we serve myriad bird orders: raptors, songbirds, waterfowl, wading birds....the list goes on. However, each season brings us a new "assortment" of avian patients. During the spring and summer months, we are inundated with baby birds, mostly of the songbird variety, but we also see a number of ducks and geese as well as a few wading birds and raptors. 

This Broad-winged Hawk experienced severe nerve damage
and head trauma. He recovered successfully and was released
just in time for fall migration.
Once fall migration is in full swing, raptors dominate our patient logs - particularly broad-winged hawks. Between August and October, these rambunctious raptors are amped up for a migration that takes them thousands of miles from Vermont to South America for the winter. They are in a frenzy, and nothing can stand in the way of their instinct to move south - nothing except a car or a window. All 14 of the broad-winged hawks we have received into our care since August 1 have suffered injuries related to either a collision with a car or a window. More than 1/2 of these birds suffered mortal injuries from which they were unable to recover. A lucky few sustained relatively minor head and/or internal trauma. Describing these injuries as "minor" truly is relative, as a swelling brain and bleeding internal organs are very serious and unpredictable injuries. Fortunately, these remaining patients had successful recoveries, and we were able to release them in plenty of time for migration.

This little guy suffered a fracture of the humerus
near his shoulder. His wing is splinted to secure the
fracture sight. 
Barred Owls have also ruled the roost here in Wild Bird Rehab this fall. This woodland owl encountered a similar obstacle as the migrating Broad-winged Hawks - cars. While this hooting owl doesn't migrate, and adults of the species likely remain in the same territory throughout their lives, young Barred Owls may move quite a bit - particularly in the fall when they are forced to disperse from their natal areas. As the majority of the Barred Owls we have received into our care have been youngsters, it is likely that their increased movements to find new home ranges placed them in harm's way. Another possibility is that their pursuit of prey tempted them to cross dangerous roadways. Roads are fantastic open spaces on which prey is easy to detect. Many raptors are drawn to roads and the potential buffet they may provide, but many times this hunting strategy ends in a collision with a vehicle. 

This lucky Barred Owl prepares for release in a large outdoor
enclosure where he can stretch his wings.
As with the hawk patients, only half of the 12 owls presented at our hospital had treatable injuries. Many of the surviving patients experienced eye injuries, nearly all suffered internal and head trauma, and a few had wing fractures. We have already released two successfully rehabilitated owls, and we currently have four receiving treatment. These patients have a good prognosis, and we're hopeful they'll all make a full recovery!