Saturday, May 11, 2019

Ogden's Egg

by Anna Morris
Lead Environmental Educator

It’s been a hectic spring at VINS. The Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation’s ongoing renovations meant we have had to move some of our education birds from their accustomed aviaries to other enclosures temporarily. Change can be stressful, so we were closely monitoring the behavior of our oldest, most “entrenched” resident, a 38-year-old Turkey Vulture named Ogden. With VINS since 2002, but retired from demonstrations in 2018, we thought Ogden would have the hardest time with the sudden move.   

Ogden the Turkey Vulture (Anna Morris)
The last thing any of us expected was that she would embrace the change so thoroughly.

“Bren to Education Team,” came a radio call from the Wildlife Keeper last Saturday afternoon.

“Go ahead?”

“I think…I think Ogden laid an egg.”

Sitting in our offices, the educators poked our heads out into the middle of the room, then simultaneously bolted off towards the Education Bird Mews, where Ogden is housed.

There, Bren cradled in his hand a 4 inch long cream-colored, speckled egg, weighing nearly 3 ounces. It was lightly pointed toward one end, the shape of egg laid by birds that fly over long distances (like vultures).

We all stared at the egg, then took turns holding it. It was cool to the touch—Ogden had evidently not been incubating it since it was laid, and it would not have been fertile anyway (she hasn’t even seen a male Turkey Vulture in at least 20 years). The predominant emotions in the room were joy at her accomplishment, and confusion at her motivation. After so many years, why now?

Ogden's egg (Anna Morris)
When she was found injured on the side of the road in Ogden, UT in 1981, Ogden’s right wing fracture had already begun to heal. It had formed a callous, and had set in the wrong position, leaving the rehabilitators treating her pessimistic about her recovery, and Ogden unable to fully extend the wing, grounding her permanently. She was placed as an education ambassador first at Wildlife Experiences in Rapid City, SD, and then transferred to VINS in 2002.

This is the first spring that Ogden was retired from programs, an activity which likely prevented her, in her mind, from having the time and energy to start a family. She also, for the first time, has a rather low, wedge-shaped platform in her enclosure, which perhaps seems like a cave, a place where Turkey Vultures would naturally nest. Birds do not experience menopause or reproductive senescence, and so can go on laying eggs right up until the end of their lives. The oldest known wild bird of any species, a Laysan Albatross named Wisdom, continues to lay an egg every year on Midway Atoll even at 68 years of age.

At a minimum age of 38, Ogden is not even the oldest Turkey Vulture. A male Turkey Vulture named Lord Richard lives at the Lindsay Wildlife Experience in Walnut Creek, CA, and is 45 years old this year. But this longevity only belies the dangers vultures face in the wild. The oldest known Turkey Vulture who lived its whole life as a wild bird was found dead at age 16. Hit by cars as they forage for roadkill, electrocuted on improperly configured power-lines, hit by wind turbines, and poisoned by people who don’t understand the importance of scavengers, vultures in the wild need our help often, and live longer lives when they are shielded from these dangers.

Show your support for vultures like Ogden by slowing down when scavengers are near the road, switching to non-lead ammunition for hunting, and picking up plastic waste in the environment. They just need a little appreciation!

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Erie the Northern Harrier

by Grae O’Toole
Lead Wildlife Keeper

Erie (Hawk Creek Wildlife Center)
VINS is excited to announce our newest raptor ambassador, “Erie,” a female Northern Harrier! Erie can be found on exhibit with our male harrier, “Freedom”.  They are quite the pair and provide a great opportunity to see how strikingly different male and female harriers are from one another, as one of the few raptors with different plumages between the genders. Males have blue/gray feathering throughout their body,  and females have dark brown, mottled feathers; both sport a big white rump patch, a key identifying feature in the field.  Both also have large facial disks, a physical feature more commonly found in owls to help funnel sound to their large ears.  Harriers can be found in Vermont’s open grassy or marshy plains where they hover and hunt for prey in the open expanses.

Erie is only four years old, and has a bit of a mysterious past.  She was found on the side of the road in Ithaca, NY in October of 2015, when a caring member of the public brought her to the Cornell Wildlife Clinic for help. She still had her juvenile plumage, suggesting that she had hatched that spring. She was extremely emaciated, dehydrated, weak, and lethargic, but oddly enough, no major external injuries were found.  After weeks of supportive care (treating her for parasites, administering fluids, and providing ample food) she started perking up.  But then, staff at Cornell became concerned when she began making food-begging calls as people walked by her enclosure.  This behavior suggested that she was imprinted on humans, and therefore would not be releasable.

Imprinting happens early in development, during the stage when a bird identifies its parents and this influences their own identity.  Imprinting is something commonly seen in raptors, waterfowl, corvids, and doves, and if a bird is raised by something other than her own parents, she may identify herself as that particular species: in this case, a human. Unless federal and state permits are held for caring for young raptors, it is illegal for someone to raise a raptor they found in the wild.  VINS is permitted to take care of baby raptors because we have the tools and knowledge necessary to raise young specifically for release back into the wild.  Many precautions are taken to prevent imprinting, all medical needs are addressed, and proper nutrition for a growing bird is provided from day one.  Unfortunately, Erie did not have access to any of this as a baby, may have been given an improper diet, and as a result would not survive in the wild.

Once Cornell determined she was non-releasable, she was placed at Hawk Creek Wildlife Center in Aurora, NY as an exhibit ambassador.  To combat the possible imprinting, Hawk Creek decided to remain as hands-off as possible once she arrived. In their experience, she never exhibited behaviors that suggested imprinting, and believe that she may have suffered severe head trauma from being hit by a car. She may have habituated to the staff at Cornell, and once in new surroundings began to “wild up.”  Regardless, both facilities agreed that her behaviors were not that of a healthy, wild harrier.

Regardless of her past, we are excited to have her as part of our team. She was put on exhibit with Freedom at the end of March this year, and they seem to be getting along very well.  They are certainly a beautiful pair and we cannot wait to see how they interact with each other and guests in the future.