Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Cruel Act

In the winter, Canada geese leave Vermont for warmer climes where open waters abound. When flocks gather and head south, it's the injured geese who are left behind. The VINS Wildlife Services department receives many calls in the winter about geese who are by themselves, trudging through snow to find water that hasn't iced over. Many come to us with a severe, old injury, such as a broken wing that never healed. These birds are often emaciated as well, as they have not been able to find food on snow-covered grounds or iced-over lakes.

So we were a bit puzzled when a Canada goose -- found wandering alone in a busy shopping center parking lot -- was brought in December 17 and showed no fractures, no wounds and no sign of emaciation. Why was this goose, pictured above, walking in a heavily trafficked area? Why hadn't she flown south like the others?

In the final part of the goose's exam, Wildlife Services Director Allison Stark stretched out both of the bird's wings to see if there was any disparity between the wings that might reveal a problem. Although she hadn't felt a fracture when she felt each wing separately, she thought comparing the two might reveal something. And reveal it did.

The primary feathers on the goose's right wing were inches shorter than they should be, with perfectly straight edges, instead of the normal rounded tip of a bird's feather. Without a doubt, a person had cut this bird's primary feathers in an effort to prevent the bird from flying away. People sometimes do this when they have a pair of wild geese visiting their pond, and want to keep the geese on their pond -- almost like pets. Cutting a bird's primary feathers prevents it from flying. This is not only illegal, it is cruel and poorly thought out, as the goose needs to fly south once the waters freeze over.

The goose is now in our care, being fed a mixture of cracked corn, pellets and lettuce. We will have to keep the goose in our care until she molts and regrows her flight feathers, which may mean keeping her to spring. It is unfortunate this goose is denied her natural, wild existence, but we will take the best care of her until she is able to return to her home in the wild.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bounty of Barreds

It's that time of year again when the snow flies, the temperatures dip, and the barred owls come in droves to VINS. While the snow and colder weather make for a winter wonderland, they also put many animals in the wild to the ultimate test of survival.

When the snow piles up, it's harder for animals to find food. First-year birds -- meaning those born this spring and summer -- may not have honed their hunting skills, and snow upon the ground doesn't help. Without successful hunts, raptors such as the barred owl may become weak due to hunger, and a weak bird has a much greater of chance of sustaining injuries while on the prowl. Many such owls -- first years and adults -- are admitted to VINS suffering from head trauma or broken bones after being struck by a car. They are more easily struck by a car while flying over a road when they are weak. While we treat the head trauma and fractures, we often find ourselves treating starvation and emaciation as well.

Above, Sara Eisenhauer of VINS hand-feeds a barred owl in rehabilitation chopped mice. Above right, the owl prepares to eat a mouse.

One of the five barred owls we currently have in our care is just such a case. He was admitted to VINS Wildlife Services on December 11, weak, thin and with signs of head trauma from a vehicle collision. While we began the owl on fluids, he is now able to digest chopped mice. This owl is progressing nicely in our rehab department, and will likely be eating whole mice and other rodents on his own soon. He is a likely candidate for release back into the wild.

The Language of Snow

By Rick LaDue, Manager, VINS Manchester

Growing up upon on the eastern end of Lake Ontario I became very aware of the significance of snow to everyday life, for plants, animals and humans. Although I could walk through the woods behind my parents’ house and see, touch and sometimes taste the different forms of snow blanketing the ground, I didn’t have the words to describe this experience in detail.

The work of Canadian snow ecologist William Pruitt, based on studies conducted by the Russian researcher Alexander Formozov, introduced me to the language of snow. The language of snow did not evolve in a warm, wet maritime climate such as England as the inhabitants rarely encountered snow. Thus the English language lacks many of the descriptive words for snow compared to the languages of other, northern cultures like the Russians, Finns and native peoples living in close proximity to the Arctic Circle. A glimpse at the work of Formozov (and Pruitt) will reveal that “qali” (Inuit (Kovakmiut) term for “snow on the trees”) is what fell on the blossoming fire of the character in London’s “To Build a Fire”, essentially sealing his fate. The next time I encounter a hole in the snow where an animal has plunged for shelter I will be able to use the Finnish word “kieppi”.

Now I await the day “Terms for Snow” becomes a category on Jeopardy. Until then, VINS-Manchester is presenting a series of programs designed to get folks young and old out into the woods to explore the fascinating winter world. Winter vacation Junior Snow Ranger programs, tracking programs and a hike to the Mt Equinox landslide are all scheduled for the coming months. Please check out the VINS-Manchester page for more details, or give us a call at (802) 362-4374 to register.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Ruff Break

If you often take walks through the woods of Vermont, you've likely heard the heart-stopping blast-off of a ruffed grouse taking flight from the forest floor. These well-camouflaged birds seem to lie in wait until you are a few feet from them before they suddenly take off, flapping their wings with a thumping ferocity that startles even the most experienced hikers and woodsmen.

On November 24, an adult ruffed grouse made her way into VINS' Wildlife Services department for care. The bird was found injured on the road, so we suspect she was struck by a car. The grouse came in appearing disoriented, and upon examination we discovered a broken keel. The keel is a large bone that is an extension of the sternum, and is where the bird's wing muscles attach. Unlike a broken wing or leg, there is no way to wrap or splint the keel bone, so it is simply left unwrapped and alone. Keels can heal on their own, although they won't necessarily heal back perfectly to their original condition. But birds can often survive with keels that have been broken and have healed imperfectly.

Above, the ruffed grouse is tube-fed.

So for this grouse, we handle the bird very carefully each time we pick her up. While she is eating a small amount on her own, her weight has been dropping so we've been tube-feeding her three times a day with a nutritious liquid diet. When she first came in, she was given a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory for several days to help minimize the pain from the break.

We will continue to monitor the progress of the grouse's keel daily, with hopes it will heal so the bird can be returned to her life in the wild... where she can continue to spook unsuspecting people in the woods.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Oh, how they grow!

Would you believe that this bird is the same little guy that came in as a feather-less, pink baby just one month ago? Baby birds grow quickly... very quickly! Look here to see how this bird appeared when he was first brought to VINS in October.

For the past month, VINS' wildlife services team have been "Rock Dove Mom" to this young bird, making sure he is kept warm and feeding him as his mother would -- which, in the dove world, is no small feat! Instead of the rock dove mom placing food into the baby's mouth as other mom and dad birds do, the baby rock dove will stick his head into his mother's mouth -- way down deep into her crop where she stores food that she herself has gobbled up. To simulate this odd feeding style in a rehabilitation setting, we fill a bottle with hull-less seed, and cover the top with a soft fabric. We then cut a slit into fabric top. The baby bird will stick his beak (and occassionally his whole head!) into that slit while we hold the bottle upside-down. The bird opens his mouth up wide and the seed slides right in. It brings a whole new meaning to bottle-feeding a baby. This juvenile rock dove is now eating on his own. He's been seen flapping his wings and getting some air beneath his feet. In no time, this bird will be able to fly, and we'll return him to his home in the wild.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Let’s Take a Walk

With the beautiful fall days we’ve been having, it’s a great time to get out for a walk in the woods. Some may think of November as a dreary month, but all around us life endures. In full display this time of year are the Clubmosses, one of several species of plants that belong to the plant family Lycopodiaceae. Princess pine, ground cedar, tree clubmoss and running pine are all members of this same family, and are often referred to simply as Lycopodiums. Among our favorites is the princess pine or flat-branched tree club-moss (Dendrolycopodium obscurum) shown here.

If you brush your fingers against the plant, a small cloud of yellow spores fills the air. These little plants – and their tiny spores - actually have a big place in the history of early commerce. The mature spores are flammable, and give off a small flash explosion when ignited, leading to their extensive use in early flash photography and even in fireworks! The spores are so tiny that they were used at one point as a way to measure things on the microscopic level. And they have even been used in medicine!

So take a walk in the woods today. Explore your backyard, your favorite hiking trail, or better yet come to VINS and enjoy our scenic trails. You never know what you might find.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

VINS Says Goodbye to a Friend

Fourteen years ago, an American kestrel was born, beginning her journey into the public eye as an ambassador to her species through VINS' educational programs. On November 4, this elderly bird took her last breath and passed away, leaving behind the great accomplishment of connecting people from all walks of life to the wonderment of nature.

A charming little falcon, this kestrel served in numerous VINS’ education programs throughout New England. Due to her gentle (though occasionally feisty) nature and small stature, she was the first bird that staff and volunteers trained with when learning how to handle VINS' education raptors.

Born in the summer of 1995, this kestrel was taken illegally out of the wild as a baby and raised by humans, leaving her imprinted. Once imprinted, a bird cannot return to the wild as it will not know how to survive on its own. In June that year, she made her way into VINS' care where she spent the rest of her life meeting everyone from young children at school programs to elderly citizens at nursing homes.

VINS Nature Center Programs Manager Chris Collier reflects on the kestrel’s life.

“My memories go back to when she was a flight program bird,” Collier said. “We’d take her on the road along with a barn owl -- also flighted -- and a hawk. We’d display the hawk on glove and then would fly her and the barn owl. She was not always a consistent flyer, being upset by big scary robins and the like, but many ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhhs’ were pronounced when she came out of the crate.”

And she was quite the adventurous soul. In September 1999, the kestrel flew away during an educational program, only to be found two weeks later in the neighboring town of Woodstock! Luckily, she returned to us in good health.

“Overall, I think about the vast numbers of people that interacted with her,” said Collier, “either by being an audience member or being one of the many staff and volunteers that worked with her. She had a big attitude at times for such a diminutive creature, which -- just like the attitude of a red squirrel -- made me like her even more. It would be a very difficult calculation, but thousands of people learned about raptors and falcons though her.”

Please join us at the VINS Nature Center, in Quechee Vermont on November 28 at 12:30 p.m. to pay tribute to this lovely and important bird. To support the work of VINS and the care of our rehabilitation patients and education birds, please visit our website at

Saturday, October 31, 2009

When a Bird Can't Go Back to the Wild

Not every bird that comes into our care is able to heal. Although we try our best with each bird -- no matter what kind of bird it is -- we are not always able to help every patient return to his or her home in the wild.

Recently, a red-tailed hawk was admitted to VINS' Wildlife Services department after striking the front window of a car. The driver of the car initially brought the bird to a local vet, who noted severe eye damage from the accident. However, once the bird was transferred to our care, we could see that the eye damage was quite old and happened well before the car accident. In fact, the bird probably flew into the car because of his eye injury and not being able to see well.
The hawk's left eye was completely missing, and had been for some time judging by the color and texture of the wound. The bird was also very emaciated (thin, or starving), as he probably could not hunt well -- if at all -- due to his missing eye. Hawks need both eyes to hunt in the wild. If they can't hunt, they can't eat. Upon examination, we knew right away this bird would not be returnable to the wild for this reason.

Unfortunately, being a red-tailed hawk, hopes were not high that we could find placement at a nature center for this bird to live out his days. Red-tailed hawks are very common throughout North America, and many nature centers already have a red-tailed hawk on exhibit or for education programs. Placing a red-tailed hawk is not easy -- it's often impossible. VINS itself has 2 red-tails on exhibit, and 2 who serve as educational birds for our programs. We simply could not take another.

After careful consideration, the staff here made the difficult decision to humanely euthanize this bird. While our goal is always to return a bird to its home in the wild, sometimes it is just not possible. We can take comfort that we ended the suffering of this injured and starving bird.

But some birds who are non-releasable get a second chance at life... a new life.

Remember the juvenile crow who was rescued from a couple's apartment by a Vermont game warden? Read her story here, if you need a refresher. Well, things are looking up for this special gal. See for yourself in her "before and after" photos below.
After observing her for a month we can see she is habituated to humans, which means she is unafraid of people. She is also used to being taken care of and fed by humans, and would likely not be able to fend for herself in the wild. All of these facts add up to a bird that we cannot release to the wild. Lucky for this little bird, there is an Audubon Center that is looking for a crow!

The crow is a great candidate to be an exhibit or educational bird, as she is comfortable around people, and even seems to enjoy our company! We wish this funny crow the best of luck at her future home. We will miss her funny cackles and odd howling noises. Hear and see this entertaining bird here.

Below, see how great the crow looks in her outdoor enclosure here at VINS, with all her new feathers. What a treat for the eyes!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lots of Hooting to be Had!

What would Halloween be without an owl? Maybe some creepy crawlies? How about a bat cave? Well don your costume and see all up-close -- and much more -- at VINS' annual Hoots and Howls event.
Hoots and Howls features a fun, non-scary guided tour around the VINS grounds, where guests can meet critters that crawl, watch a skit, listen to nature stories, see the Ghost Owl, explore the habitats of nocturnal animals and more.

Local Vermont newsman Jack Thurston of WCAX stopped by VINS recently to chat with educators Beth Roy and Chris Collier about Friday's Hoots and Howls. Read the article and see photos and video of a few special VINS' owls.

Hoots and Howls takes place Friday, Oct. 30, rain or shine, from 5:30 – 8 p.m., with the last tour leaving at 7:30 p.m. Reservations are encouraged. Call (802) 359-5000 x246 or e-mail events@vinsweb.org. Admission is $6 for all ages, $3 for VINS Members and free for children under 2 years of age.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Kestrel Out!

An American kestrel -- a small falcon -- was released from rehabilitation at VINS Oct. 23. The kestrel came into our wildlife rehab department with a fractured wing. As you can see from the photos below, she was quite happy to take flight back into the wild. Watch a video of the release and learn more about this bird's story here.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Surprise Guest

Summer is so long-gone. We've already had our first snowfall here in Vermont, and many of the trees are completely bare of leaves. Pumpkins dot the doorsteps of homes throughout town, and many birds have high-tailed it south.

So what is this we have here? Who is this warm, pink blob with downy yellow feathers? Who is this peeping away, night and day? Certainly it cannot be a baby bird. Baby bird season has left with the summer.

But it is a baby bird! On October 22, the VINS Wildlife Services department received a baby rock dove. While typically their breeding season ends in August or September, there are exceptions. And this particular exception is quite exceptional!

This sweet baby bird was found alone in a nest during construction work on a bridge. One of the workers felt the young dove was in danger, with nightly temperatures now dipping into the low 30s. The baby was brought here, and the staff has taken over as Mom. We're feeding him a liquid diet appropriate for seed-eaters, and will soon move him onto solid foods. He's being kept warm and snug in a cozy enclosure that sits upon a heating pad. Luckily, rock doves stay in Vermont year-round, so we'll be able to release the bird once he's grown and flying, despite the cold weather.

As a side-note, all birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Act. It is illegal to remove birds from nests unless there are dire circumstances, such as both parents being dead or an injury to the baby bird. In this case, the construction work may have scared off the parents, leaving the baby rock dove unable to fend for itself. In most cases, though, construction work is not a legitimate reason to take a baby from its nest, or to disturb the nest. The work must be held off until the baby birds have fledged.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Day in the Life

If there's one thing that holds true in the field of wildlife rehabilitation, it's that one day is never quite like the next. Monday you may be hydrating a red-tailed hawk subcutaneously (beneath the skin), and Tuesday you might find yourself suturing an open wound on a ruffed grouse.

To give you an idea of some of the things we do here at VINS Wildlife Services, take a peak at the photos and videos I've posted.

Above, Wildlife Services' staff Audrey Gossett (right) and Sara Eisenhauer examine an injured crow that had just been brought to VINS by a member of the public. Below, Audrey examines the bird's wing and leg, carefully feeling for possible fractures and checking for wounds. Watch a video of the entire examination.

After a full examination, the crow was found to have a break in his leg. To heal this fracture, we knew the best thing to do would be to splint the crow's leg, which we did while the crow was under anesthesia -- see below. We anesthetize birds who may become too stressed during certain medical procedures.

The crow's fractured leg will be checked periodically, to see how it's healing. Once the fracture has healed, the splint will be removed and physical therapy may be performed to loosen up the leg muscles. From that point on, the crow will be upgraded periodically to larger and larger enclosures, ending finally in our flight cage where he can build up his muscles before returning to the wild.

Another patient recently admitted is shown above undergoing a common routine: he's being weighed! All of the birds who come into our care are weighed once a week, if not more often. Monitoring a bird's weight is vital to ensuring the bird's return to health. A sudden drop in weight or no weight gain when needed is a sign something is wrong. Above, Audrey prepares to weigh a barred owl. In the video you'll see that the owl's head is covered with a towel. This helps keep the owl calm during the weighing process. This owl "got his bell rung" when struck by a car. Beyond minor head trauma, the owl is doing well and is expected to make a full recovery.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Bye-bye Barred!

A juvenile barred owl was released from rehabilitation October 3 as part of Raptor Appreciation Day at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science. Wildlife Services Intern Jessica Katz had the honors of sending this young raptor back into the woods.

The owl, found orphaned as a baby, was part of a trio of young barreds who made their way into our care this summer. The VINS Wildlife Services staff raised the owls over the summer, taking care not to imprint the impressionable youngsters. Above, watch a video of the owl's release. See a larger version of this video here.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Snapper Time!

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So, if you ask me, we’ve added quite a beauty to our exhibits here at VINS. Featuring powerful jaws and a snorkel-like snout, this Common Snapping Turtle – now on exhibit in Fledgling Corner – is sure to turn heads.

Recently acquired by the VINS Wildlife Services department from a local university that used the snapper for education, this native turtle is set up in a 150-gallon tank where she is clearly visible for visitors to get a great look at her.

The turtle’s debut here is perfectly in sync with a very special time of year for snappers: hatch time! It’s time for snapping turtle eggs – laid and buried by mother snappers in the spring – to crack open and let loose tiny hatchlings who will dig their way up through the soil.

Watch a video of these special little turtles making their way in Vermont.

If you’ve been to VINS this summer, you may have seen areas roped off to protect buried eggs laid by snapping turtles on our grounds. Right now, hatchling snappers – with carapaces (shells) about the size of a half-dollar – are hatching and scrambling across the grass and paths here at VINS and instinctively heading toward bodies of water. With one female snapper laying 25-80 eggs each summer, it’s time to tread gingerly along the walkways here at VINS and to keep one’s eyes peeled for babies! In the photo above, two hatchlings takes their first few steps.

Snapping turtles, common in Vermont and through most of the eastern half of the United States, are the largest freshwater turtles in North America. These big reptiles can weigh up to 35 pounds with a carapace spanning up to 20 inches. They get their name from how they quickly snap their powerful jaws in defense or when biting at prey, so caution is always advised around snappers. While in the wild, these turtles might eat fish, insects, rodents, amphibians, smaller turtles and the occasional bird. Here at VINS, we’ll feed our snapper deceased mice a few times a week.

Its snapper time in Vermont! Come to VINS and get an up-close, clear view of this beautiful chelonian (turtle, or tortoise), like you’ve never seen before.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Grease & Pigeons Don't Mix

If you've ever lived in the city, you've probably been lucky enough to hear the purr of a pigeon from the ledge outside your apartment window. Their gentle coo is a welcome treat amid the cacophony of traffic and sirens. Of course, there are some who have been known to call pigeons "flying rats," but I won't go there...

On August 8, a pigeon -- more formally known as a rock dove -- was brought to VINS Wildlife Services in poor condition. The pigeon was found outdoors behind a restaurant's kitchen drenched in cooking grease. The pigeon must have accidentally fallen into an open vat of discarded cooking oil. While no animal would like to be dunked in grease, it's a particularly bad situation for birds to get into, as such feather damage can mean flight problems for birds.

Birds themselves have a special oil they self-apply to their feathers, which helps to waterproof the bird. The oil comes out through their skin via the uropygial gland -- a small opening above their tail that they can rub their heads against, abstracting oil coating it over their feathers using their head. Without preening using the uropygial gland, birds feathers may become become so saturated with water or bogged down by various matter that the bird is unable to fly.

Dawn dish soap is great for cutting grease, so once we got this pigeon settled into her enclosure, we began daily baths of warm water and dish soap. We used a toothbrush to gently scrub away the oil. After a few weeks of daily bathing, the pigeons feathers began to look fluffy and dry.

Today, the pigeon is flying with beauty and strength in our songbird aviary, and is scheduled for release within the next week.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Up, up, and away...

A great blue heron, pictured above, was released recently by the VINS Wildlife Services department. The heron was transported to VINS August 7 when a member of the public saw the bird looking weak. Indeed, after examination, the heron was found to be emaciated and lethargic. Read more about this bird's stay in our rehabilitation department and see a video of her eating. The photos above capture her release from our care back into the wilds of Vermont. In the top two photos, VINS staff member Kristen Rzemien lets go of the heron. Photos by Brian Bowen.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Countdown to Migration

If you're a broad-winged hawk, it's time to skedaddle. September through about the first week in October is migration time for these small buteos. Traveling in huge flocks called kettles, broad-wings leave their breeding grounds in North America and head on down to northern South America. Pictured above is a broad-winged hawk perching in his outdoor rehabilitation enclosure here at VINS.

Now if you're a broad-winged hawk undergoing rehabilitation during the month of September, this presents a problem for you. As of this week, the VINS Wildlife Services department has three broad-wings who are still recuperating from various injuries. Two of the hawks have severe eye damage, while one is a juvenile with an elbow injury. While their release date is unpredictable at this point, we are pretty sure they will not make it out of rehab before migration season ends. Besides fully recovering from their injuries, the hawks will still need time in our flight cage to build up their flight muscles. Additionally, they will have to be live-prey tested before they are released: we will need to see that they can catch live rodents to ensure they will be able to hunt in the wild.

Above, VINS Wildlife Services Intern Audrey Gossett takes one of the broad-winged hawks out of his enclosure so we can take a closer look at his eye. Below, you can clearly see the damage to this bird's eye is still quite severe.

These three hawks' injuries could take weeks longer to heal, and once they are flighted and their hunting skills tested, we could be well on our way to winter!

But don't worry: we won't leave these hawks out in the cold!

Migrating birds that cannot make it through their recuperation here at VINS in time to head south before winter hits will be "over-wintered" in the Wildlife Services department. In other words, we'll provide them a comfortable, warm enclosure and feed them their preferred foods of choice until spring. While we always prefer to get birds out the door and on their way to their most natural setting in the wild, we sometimes have to make exceptions for migrating birds.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Confiscated Crow

I love crows. I love them so much that I've nearly driven off the road trying to catch a glimpse of them as they fly overhead while I'm driving. I love all birds, but crows -- and their corvid cousin, the raven -- are at the top of the list for me. I can't quite explain it, but there's something about crows and ravens that makes me feel as though I'm in the presence of something very special.

Watch a video, posted below, of the crow pictured above, who was confiscated by a Vermont U.S. Fish & Wildlife game warden.

Last week, the Wildlife Services department here at VINS received a call from Vermont Game Warden Jason Batchelder. He had confiscated a juvenile crow who had been raised in a couple's apartment after receiving a call from the couple's landlord. This is illegal. In fact, it is considered a criminal offense to raise wilds bird in your home in the state of Vermont, and in all other states, as dictated by the Migratory Bird Act. Wild birds raised in people's homes by those who do not have the proper training or licensure are almost always unhealthy, malnourished birds. Birds that come into our rehabilitation department after even just a week of improper human care come in suffering from a possible mix of malnutrition, severe feather damage, parasites, bone deformities and other injuries and illnesses.

Note the damage to the crow's tail feathers in the above photo, and her overall shaggy appearance.

The crow Sgt. Batchelder brought in had been in the couple's apartment since the week of May 24. The bird came in reeking of cigarette smoke, and with incredible feather damage. It is unclear if the couple tried to clip the bird's feathers to prevent her* from flying away, or if the feathers broke when the crow perhaps thrashed about in a cage. Her growth appears to be stunted, as she is small for her age. This is likely due to the very inappropriate diet the bird was fed, which included milk. As birds are not mammals, they do not drink milk. Birds do not nurse from their mother: their mother brings food to their nest and feeds them via her beak. White feathers on the crow also indicate malnutrition.

The game warden has pressed charges against the couple, which may result in a fine and a loss of hunting, fishing and trapping permits for one year.

But the biggest loss is for this young crow, who did not have the chance to grow up in her natural environment, where she could have learned best from her parents. We have high hopes for this bird, however, as we've taken in human-raised birds in the past (including a raven), and successfully released them to the wild. We'll just have to be sure we can "wild" her up, and perhaps pair her up with another crow or two so she can figure out that she is a crow herself. Read about a similar situation regarding a raven who was habituated to humans, but was successfully rehabilitated at VINS and returned to the wild.

As for now, we are feeding the crow a balanced diet, and are pleased to see her putting on weight. We eagerly await the proper regrowth of her beautiful, black feathers.

* You may notice some blog entries have a specific gender associated with the bird being profiled. While in some cases you can tell visually what sex the bird is, in many cases you cannot: only a blood test can truly confirm whether some birds are male or female. Crows are such birds. I, however, prefer to call animals he or she rather than "it" - so I ocassionally "assign" a gender to them if the bird's sex is not clear.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Fab Five

Five baby goldfinches made their way to VINS Wildlife Services last week. The little birds were brought to VINS when the tree the goldfinch family was nesting in was cut down.

Received as nestlings, this quintet of black and gold cuties is beginning to fledge... causing just a bit of chaos (and lots of laughter) in our baby bird room. Watch our video posted here to see how challenging it can be to feed five fledgling goldfinches.

Goldfinches are known to have broods late in the summer, when the thistle and aster -- a common food for goldfinches -- is in bloom. These small birds have a light and chipper contact call, which some say sounds almost like "potato chip! potato chip!"

The birds will likely remain in our care for another few weeks or so, being released back into the wild once we observe them all eating on their own and flying well in the songbird aviary. Don't forget to see the fab five in action!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Botulism: Nothing to Quack About

At the end of summer, things can get a little run down... a little past prime. The goldenrod is browning; leaves have long since lost their spring green; and there are brown stalks where day lilies once bloomed.

For one juvenile mallard duck, an end-of-summer occurrence brought him to VINS Wildlife Services with a case of avian botulism. When August heats up the environment, decomposing vegetation becomes the perfect spot for the botulism bacteria to grow, according to the U.S. Geological Services' web site. Vegetation found in and around the edges of waterbodies can rot and carry botulism, which produces toxins. Ducks and other waterfowl can directly ingest such toxins by eating this vegetation.

On August 25, a Vermont man spotted a mallard duck on his property near a lake. The man suspected the bird had been hit by a car, as the bird was unsteady on his feet and unable to keep his head held up. When examined by Wildlife Services' staff, the bird was found to have no broken bones, no feather damage and no signs of head trauma or internal bleeding. In other words, the bird was probably not hit by a car. However, the bird's inability to properly use his legs to stand or hold his head up are both signs of avian botulism.

We have treated the duck with ToxiBan, which contains activated charcoal to absorb toxins in an animal's body. The mallard was also given a sequence of homeopathics to treat his symptoms.

Today, the duck is standing on his own, holding his head high and eating hardily. If things continue to progress, we see a successful release of this duck back into the wild!
Images: Above right, the duck is tube-fed a liquid diet. Above left, the duck takes a sip of water. Below, watch a video of the duck eagerly drinking down a bowl of fresh water.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Tall Drink of Water

In early August, VINS Wildlife Services department received a call about a great blue heron seen standing in the driveway of a home. The bird appeared weak, the caller said. VINS staff instructed the person on how to capture the heron (tip: always wear eye protection when dealing with a heron!), and the bird was transported to us in Quechee, VT.

The heron was indeed weak. He was very thin and dehydrated -- not all that uncommon for first-year birds. Many birds have a tough go of it their first year, once they've fledged and left their nest and parents behind. Hunting or foraging for food isn't always easy when it's a recently-acquired skill, and birds can consequently suffer emaciation and even death in their first year of life. Herons, being as big and tall as they are, are often more noticeable in this weakened state to the human eye than, say, a warbler. A sickly-looking heron, who may be dragging his wings or hanging his head, is pretty hard to miss. As a result, we see quite a few herons come into Wildlife Services in this particular condition.

The heron was initially tube-fed a high-protein, nutritional liquid diet as to not shock his weakened system with whole foods. Since he took the fluids well during his first few days here, we now have the bird on solid food -- fish, of course -- and he's happily snacking on about 36-50 live fish each day. See this heron eating his lunch (and hear a raven in the background!) in the video above.

You'll notice in the video the heron has the option of walking behind a privacy screen of sorts that we've set up for him. It's just a sheet hanging over a perch in his enclosure, but it's enough to afford him a bit of privacy -- as if camouflaged -- so that he feels less exposed, especially when we enter his enclosure to replenish his food. Herons in the wild often try to blend in with their surroundings.

You'll also notice the heron's wings droop a bit. Although there are no fractures in the bird's wings, for some reason his wings seem to be a bit floppy and hang to his sides. We'll continue to monitor his wings for signs of improvement.

If the heron's progress toward recovery continues, he'll eventually be moved into our flight cage where he can rebuild his flight muscles before being released back into the wild.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

This Is the Good Stuff

Two red-tailed hawks who came into VINS Wildlife Services department as fledglings were released August 10. A longtime supporter of VINS had the honor of having both raptors released on his property in Bradford, VT.

I myself had the honor of releasing the birds from their rehabilitation setting and into the wild. This is the good stuff -- seeing two young hawks who spent nearly two months in rehabilitation literally fly away from your outstretched arms. To know that the following morning these two birds awoke among a new world of towering spruce trees and acres of open hunting meadows makes the long hours of rehabilitation for all birds in our care worth it.

The red-tailed hawks came into rehabilitation separately in June. Both had fallen from their nests too early to survive on their own, and suffered as a consequence. One was found roadside, so we suspect it may have been struck by a car. Although there were no broken bones, the bird was a bit on the thin side and too young to be on its own. The VINS staff took the hawk in to raise the bird until ready to go it alone in the wild.

The other hawk was found in the yard of a woman who knew red-tailed hawks nested on her property. She found one of the babies on the ground, laying still and covered in flies. Although the bird -- based on size -- was likely close to fledging, the bird was found to be emaciated upon examination. The flies, we discovered, were coming from maggots that had burrowed into the hawk's ears. We were able to successfully remove the maggots from the bird's ears while he was under anesthesia.

Both hawks were kept separate until they were old enough to be moved to an outdoor enclosure. The pair was then transferred to our flight cage, where they could build up their flight muscles and practice flying. After each passed a live prey test -- proving to us they could hunt in the wild -- the birds were up for release.

Watch our video, posted below, of the hawk release. In the video, one hawk has already been released, as the second awaits his turn. In the background you'll hear the sound of alarmed robins, who were in the tree where both red tails landed. Below the video, see a photo of one of the red-tailed hawks when he was first brought into VINS.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Incubator Potatoes

VINS Wildlife Services has gotten its second wave of babies. Bird moms and dads are busy with their second clutches of babies, and that means we're busy taking care of those that have become injured or orphaned. (Above: Two young robins asleep in the baby bird incubator; one dangling his head over the edge of the nest!)

Our incubator keeps our nestling birds -- the youngest babies -- warm and toasty. In the wild, being squeezed between brother and sister birds and cradled by the nest -- not to mention being nestled beneath mom's tush -- would keep these young birds warm. At VINS we use an incubator, set at around 85-90 degrees Fahrenheit, to provide the proper heat.
Watching nestling behavior in the incubator each summer, you get a sense of how certain kinds of birds act. There are the red-eyed vireos, who literally vibrate while you're feeding them. There are the European starlings -- perhaps the naughtiest of the bunch -- who try to hog all the food and are seemingly endless pits of hunger. The chickadees are the sweetest as nestlings -- their small stature making them a precious group of birds.

Then you have the American robins.

The other day, as I watched two robin babies sleep away the day in the incubator while other birds hopped about the incubator preening their feathers or trying out their legs, I asked my co-worker, "have you ever noticed how lazy the robin babies are? They are big oafs in that incubator, only ever moving to stretch their necks out for food."

My co-worker agreed. "They're the couch potatoes of the baby bird world. Actually, they're incubator potatoes."

And so they are. Young robins in the incubator are known for hanging their heads over the sides of the nests as they sleep. They almost look as if they've passed out from fatigue, simply unable to keep their heads upright. The fact that robins are on the larger side for baby birds only adds to their incubator-potato status.

Check out a video clip of these incubator-potato robins, as well as many other birds in the incubator at VINS' Wildlife Services. See for yourself these potatoes in action... or inaction, as is most often case.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

What's Cookin' at VINS? Rachael Ray!

Food Network star Rachael Ray made a stop at VINS July 22. While Ray wasn't at our Quechee location to cook up a meal, she got things cookin' with the release of five yellow-bellied sapsuckers who were patients in the VINS Wildlife Services rehabilitation department.

The sapsucker release was part of a tour Ray and husband John Cusimano took of VINS, which will be a featured segment on the cook's travel show, Rachael's Vacations.

The five young sapsuckers originally came to VINS June 23, when a man noticed he accidentally destroyed their nest after cutting down a tree in the yard. Sapsuckers are cavity-nesters, and can sometimes be found nesting in holes in trees. The parents flew off and did not return once the tree fell, so the staff of VINS Wildlife Services took over as sapsucker parents -- feeding the birds and keeping them warm as their parents would have. Sapsuckers like to eat -- you guessed it, sap -- from trees. While we don't have ample access to sap, a mixture of good ol' Vermont maple syrup and water does the trick. The sapsuckers also received plenty of peanut butter mixed with mealworms, stuffed into logs. That's an ideal treat for these woodpeckers to peck at, as they would drill into trees in the wild for sap and insects.

Ray and her husband each had the opportunity to release one of the sapsuckers. Cusimano held one of the sapsuckers before releasing it, while Ray opted to open the box containing the birds to release another sapsucker.

VINS rehabilitates and releases back into the wild hundreds of birds each year. Please join Rachael Ray as a friend of VINS by making a donation today and support this important work.

Rachael's Vacations will air the segment on VINS Nature Center in early 2010. In the photo above, from left to right, John Cusimano, Rachael Ray, and VINS staff Sara Eisenhauer and Chris Collier.