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.