Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Home Sweet Nest Box

'Tis the season for nesting. And if you love birds, it's a great idea to help them out by providing a nest box, which offers a protected, dry home for cavity-nesters. With deforestation on the rise, lots of birds are losing their natural homes -- trees -- and we should give them a hand.

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend my day off with VINS volunteer and master carpenter, Peter Mitchell, who showed me
how to build a nest box for small cavity-nesters such as chickadees and house wrens. Nest boxes range in size, and can be made large enough to house wood ducks or great gray owls.

Peter is an expert craftsman: building a nest box was easy for him. And surprisingly enough, it was easy for me, too. Whether you have your own wood shop like Peter or just a simple set of tools, making a nest box for your own yard is a great project.

Photos: Above right, the two nest boxes Peter and I made; above left, Peter using a table saw; bottom left, Peter's extensive and well-organized tool collection.

I recommend the book, Woodworking for Wildlife: Homes for Birds & Mammals, created by the Missouri Department of Conservation. It has easy-to-follow plans, and a great introduction on why nest boxes are beneficial to birds' lives and our own. The book also contains essential tips, such as making the entrance to some boxes small enough that a chickadee can get in, but a house sparrow cannot (house sparrows are non-native birds who take over other birds' nests and often kill their babies).

Peter and I created two nest-boxes together in just a few hours. Both boxes would be up-to-code per any bird's standards: they've got ventilation holes toward the top, drainage holes on the bottom for soggy days (note: drainage is so important for nest boxes! Don't drown the babies!), and no perch by the entrance hole (where predators themselves can perch and reach in for a baby snack!).

So if you have a few hours to spend and a heart for birds, why not build a home for the birds? You will undoubtedly feel satisfaction at having created a home for a feathered friend yourself, plus you'll experience the enjoyment of watching baby birds grow up and fledge before your very eyes.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

All That Glitters...

... will soon be gold! Come May, the male American goldfinches now frequenting your feeders will shed their drab green-yellow wardrobe in exchange for bright gold and black feathers. It's spring, and male birds need to woo their lady friends with handsome, eye-catching colors.

Now a drab gray, the female goldfinches will molt into a brighter -- albeit less brilliant -- gold for spring and summer.

A female goldfinch came into the care of VINS staff at the end of February. In the photo, you can just barely make out this little golden nugget held by a staff member for her weekly weigh-in.

The bird was initially found in a woman's yard unable to fly, and we suspect the goldfinch flew into a window. We examined the bird and found a fracture in her swollen left wing.

As you can imagine, a goldfinch's bones are very small and thin. To wrap a broken wing on such a bird, we wrap the injured wing to their body in a "body wrap." That secures the bones and allows them to grow back together, and prevents us from handling the wing's wee bones too much.

Less than a month later, this little bird is flying like a champ in our outdoor songbird aviary. She is ready to go back to her home in the wild!

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Toxic Event

Recently, an American crow was brought to the VINS Wildlife Services department after a man had found the bird sitting in the snow, not moving and flanked by two other crows. While the other crows flew off when the man approached, the sitting crow did not. The crow’s body appeared to be shaking, so the man brought him to VINS for care.

The crow presented in a bad state. He was shaking incredibly hard, while his eyes rapidly flickered open and shut and his beak chattered uncontrollably. While I was holding the crow, he wrapped his toes around my fingers, and I could feel the heat his small body was putting off: he had a very high fever, to boot.

While the intense tremors could be a sign of spinal trauma, his high fever indicated the likelihood of toxins in the bird's system, which can cause both tremors and a high temperature. What the toxins were, we don't know. He could have feasted on a rotten bit of food, or ingested some kind of chemical or oil left out or dumped by a human.

Luckily, with a few doses of activated charcoal mixed with sterile water, the crow's body was able to rid itself of the toxins. His fever and tremors were completely gone less than 24 hours after being admitted into our care. The crow is recovering nicely and is a likely candidate for release back into the wild.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Sharp-shinned Trauma

Members of the accipiter family, sharp-shinned hawks are small and built for quick maneuverability as they are aerial foragers, meaning these fast birds catch their prey on the fly.

Above, VINS staff gets ready to hand-feed the sharp-shinned hawk.
Watch a video of this hawk being hand-fed!

No matter the build of a hawk, hawks require both eyes to hunt well. So one of our latest patients, a sharp-shinned hawk -- or "sharpie" -- presented in a troubling state. The small bird came in with trauma to the right side of his head, and blindness in his left eye. We believe he probably flew into something, such as a window or a car. After a few weeks in our care, the bird still had not recovered vision in his eye, so we had a local veterinarian take a closer look.

Upon examination, the vet saw the blindness was caused by neurological damage to the brain, which cannot be reversed. You may have picked up in the previous paragraph I noted that while the trauma (meaning blood, swelling and suspected site of impact) was on the right side of his head, the eye that was blind was the left.

When an animal is struck hard against the head, the brain is knocked against the opposite side of the skull from where impact took place. So when this sharpie flew into something at a high speed striking the right side of his head, his brain knocked against the left side of the skull, thus damaging the left eye.

The good news is that the sharpie is eating on his own after weeks of needing to be hand-fed by staff. However, since he is permanently blind in one eye and cannot survive in the wild, the VINS Wildlife Services department will try to find a permanent home for this little raptor to live out his days. Many non-releasable birds live healthy lives at nature centers such as VINS, serving as ambassadors to their species.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Wild Woodpecker

Remember the pileated woodpecker we took into our care back in December? Well, she bid the VINS staff and members of the public adieu Feb. 29 at the VINS Nature Center in Quechee, VT, taking a beautiful flight back into the wild woods. More than 30 people gathered to watch this crested bird leave our care healthy and strong.

Above, VINS staff member Meghan Oliver releases the woodpecker in the woods at the VINS Nature Center.
Watch a video of the pileated woodpecker to learn more about her and see her amazing return to the woods of Vermont!

The bird originally came into our care with a fractured wing. The break had fully healed in February, and her last weeks here were spent in a large outdoor enclosure where we could observe her powerful flight.

Keep checking back the blog and the VINS web site,, to learn of future bird releases here at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Final Flight

By Chris Collier
VINS Nature Center Programs Manager

Tens of thousands of visitors to the VINS Nature Center; thousands of students in classrooms across northern New England; hundreds of summer camp children and countless staff members. All numbers, yes, but all represent the people that interacted with one very small being: our male American kestrel.

It’s difficult to gauge the impact of one animal in the lives of all these people. To some, he was an adorably cute little bird they saw fly in our educational programs. To others, he gave an up-close view of a raptor, demonstrating the quick flight of a falcon. Yet to the staff and volunteers at VINS who knew him best, our resident male kestrel was all those things and also an amazing colleague. His recent passing in early February due to complications from old age left us all saddened.

Raised illegally by people –- and consequently imprinted on humans –- he was very comfortable around staff and members of the public. Although those of us in the field work to prevent wild animals from being raised illegally in captivity, as an education bird, it made him quite the easy bird to work with and train. He was not afraid of humans and allowed most anyone trained in holding him to do so. Granted, he had a peculiar fear of hats, but everyone has their quirks.

Since he had no physical injury, our male kestrel was trained to fly in our programs, and for six summers he was one of the most popular birds we had. He flew long distances across the VINS property to show visitors the wing and tail shape of falcons, once even perching on the cut-out of a bird silhouette held by a young man attending the program. He would often skim right over the heads of audience members and fly to a nest box to display the cavity nesting nature of the species.

Occasionally he liked to take little hunting forays to catch grasshoppers during our outdoor education programs, and one day he had larger ambitions. He unexpectedly dove head first into some tall grass and did not come up. When approached, he was seen jerking his head up repeatedly in a strange way. Upon closer examination, we discovered that he had caught a huge vole and was in the process of killing it. Hopefully it was memorable for the audience that saw it. It certainly was a momentous day for he and I; both of us beaming with pride.

It’s never an easy thing to see a loved one pass, and although he was not a pet, he was most definitely loved. All the animals we work with here at VINS have different personalities, likes and dislikes, and overall wholly different attitudes. We give them the best care possible and strive to ensure that their quality of life is excellent. And for these efforts we are rewarded with extraordinary experiences shared with some of Earth’s most amazing animals.

Keep on flying, Little Man