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.