Friday, November 26, 2010

How Many People Does It Take...

... to feed a cormorant?

On the eve of Thanksgiving, a double-crested cormorant was found on a road in Springfield, VT -- certainly no place for a waterbird. The bird was likely struck by a car, given the signs
of head trauma and the internal bleeding. The cormorant is slightly thin and has wounds on both his right wing and foot.

Although the bird is more vibrant and active than when he first arrived at VINS, he is still struggling to recover. We're currently feeding the cormorant a fish slurry, which entails blending a whole fish in the blender and straining out the large bones (yuck!). It makes for a pretty stinky task for staff here to do, but it's a nutritious and appropriate meal for this fish-loving bird. The bird is still too weak to eat on his own, so tube-feeding him slurry is the way to go.

In the above photo, Wildlife Services staff handles the cormorant to tube-feed him. Below, Americorps member Jessamy Schwartz holds the bird for his injection of vitamin K.

Tubing this guy can be challenging. He's got a long, wiggly neck that writhes around when we try to place a tube into it, so we often find it takes three people to get the job done: one to hold the bird, another to hold open the beak and control the neck, and a third to do the actual tubing. Watch staff tube-feed the cormorant in our video.

In time, we hope to start feeding the cormorant his diet of choice -- live, whole fish -- and eventually get him healthy and back to his home on the water.

Training Time

By Katie Christman
VINS Education Intern

Have you ever wondered what it takes to get a dog to fetch, your kids to pick up their dirty laundry, or VINS' birds to fly in our educational programs? Well it has to do with some positive reinforcement, a lot of patience, and a willing subject.

In the photo, VINS staff Noella Girard (left) and Kasey Hopkins practice "V-jumps" with our educational harris' hawk. The hawk jumps up from the perch (bottom right) up to the gloved hand of an educator, and is rewarded with food. Watch a video of this hawk in flight training earlier this year.

Now that we’re deep into November, the busy seasons of summer and “leaf peeping” have gone and training season has come. This is our opportunity to work on improving and fine-tuning our educational programs, and to continue to maintain the behaviors that our ed birds have learned throughout the year. Our education birds get a break from the hustle and bustle routine of the summer and fall, yet we want to make sure that their lives are continually enriched throughout the year.

So what does training a wild bird look like? Well, first it’s important to recognize that training starts with the human first! Knowing the natural history of the birds at VINS helps guide our interactions and responses to the birds with which we’re working.
When we start training a bird, food is a great positive reinforcement. (Food works great for both animals and humans!) We know -- and our birds know -- that they want to eat. If they do a certain behavior, for instance, fly to our glove, they’ll get a piece of food. If they do an unwanted behavior, (if they don’t fly to our glove, for example), then we don’t reward them with food.

Sounds simple, right? Not always! Some birds need to be challenged more than others and pick up skills more quickly. A well trained harris’ hawk for example can learn a new skill in a week. Other birds like the owls will sit and wait for 10 or more minutes until they take that food (their positive reinforcement). How a bird responds to training has much to do with their natural history behaviors and the patience of their human trainer.

It is our diligence that keeps these birds active, responsive, and stimulated that makes them such wonderful ambassadors of wildlife in our educational programs. And though our busy season may be over, there are still plenty of educational programs featuring our live birds (and other critters and subjects) every day at VINS. Check our web site's calendar for more info!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Road to Recovery

By Katie Koerten
VINS Wildlife Services Intern

Vehicle collisions are the number one cause of admissions to our rehab facility at VINS. Otherwise healthy birds can sustain broken bones, head trauma and a host of other problems this way, and the prognosis is not always good.

The nitty gritty: watch a video of the owl's wound care. The photo above shows how the owl looked when he first arrived at VINS.

For one barred owl, life was looking pretty grim upon his arrival at VINS: not only did he have head trauma, but internal bleeding and soft tissue wounds too. Most worrisome, however, was the fact that he couldn't see, and as we all know, a barred owl that can't see is an owl that can't hunt. But we had hope; and since there were no troubling broken bones or other apparent severe internal injuries, we had good reason to remain optimistic about this owl.

We addressed the head trauma, vision loss and internal bleeding with homeopathic medicine and gave him a dose of anti-inflammatory to deal with any pain. His soft tissue wounds were of concern as they were large and vulnerable to infection. But in order to appropriately examine them, the owl would need to be anesthetized, which requires the patient to be in stable condition. Judging by his closed eyes, listless manner and the fact that he wasn't standing on his own, he wasn't there yet.
Before long, though, things were looking up. In just a few days, the owl was standing on his own, wide-eyed and alert. Best of all he was responding to our movement, indicating his vision was back, at least partially. Since he was stable, we could begin to care for the wounds on his wings. See the owl's wound get cleaned and bandaged in our video.

For now, the owl is receiving daily wound care as we continue to monitor his eyesight and overall health. We hope in time he'll return to the wild an active, able-bodied barred with full vision.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Webbed Farewell

It's not all forest-loving birds sporting talons and sharp beaks here: sometimes patients come to VINS fresh from the shore on webbed feet.

In late September, the Wildlife Services department welcomed a ring-billed gull into its care. The bird was found sitting in the middle of the road in St. Albans, VT.

In the photo, VINS Wildlife Keeper Sara Eisenhauer releases a ring-billed gull back into the wild. Watch a video of the release!

The bird came in to VINS thin, with mild head trauma, a broken blood feather, and a slight limp. While we can't say for sure what happened, we suspect he may have been struck by a car, given his grounding on the road.

After plumping the bird up and treating him for suspected nerve damage in his left leg, the gull spent some time in our outdoor flight cage where we could see this white-winged wonder do his thing. Here at VINS we're accustomed to seeing large raptors fly with muscled power back and forth in the flight cage, perch-to-perch. The gull, however, offered a nice change of scenery -- gracefully flapping his thin wings, hovering above us as he rode the wind and casually flew around, yellow legs dangling down.

On November 14, we released this gull back into the wild at a local lake known to have a gang of gulls frequenting its waters. See this fellow's triumphant flight back into the wild in our video.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Your Standard Red-Tail

Now this is how a red-tailed hawk is supposed to look: dark brown eyes, mottled brown feathers and a rusty red tail. Compare her to the leucistic red-tailed hawk seen recently in Vermont -- what a difference! See a video of the red-tail shown below being released.

Above, VINS Education Intern Katie Christman releases a red-tailed hawk.

This red-tail came to VINS after being found on the ground in a person's backyard. Upon exam, we found the hawk to be slightly thin with a bit of soft tissue damage. She was also missing a talon on her left foot. Our first thought was that perhaps the loss of a talon was effecting her ability to hunt, resulting in her losing a touch of weight. But after some care and recuperation, we were able to place this hawk in our flight cage and live prey test her. She's a beautiful flier, and had no problem hunting 3 live mice we placed in her enclosure. We suspect she probably flew into something or was struck by a car, resulting in her temporary grounding.

So after just a month of care, we sent this red-tail back to the skies. See her release here.

Friday, November 5, 2010

It’s a cormorant! It’s a loon! It’s a …

By Katie Koerten
VINS Wildlife Services Intern

Last week in Wildlife Services we were presented with every bird nerd’s dream: a mystery bird. Both the person who found the bird and the person who brought it to us were scratching their heads about what it could be.

Click here to see this mystery bird get released!

It was clearly a water bird, indicated by the long neck and placement of feet far back on its body. Its head shape and angle of its bill pointed suggested a loon or cormorant, however we quickly eliminated cormorant because our bird lacked the hook at the end of its bill. It had the long, pointed bill of a loon, yet its body seem
ed small, even for a juvenile loon. Its plumage was gray with little variation, and even a loon in winter plumage has distinct, albeit dull patterns on its feathers. Yet, our bird was aggressive, striking out with its beak when we tried to retrieve it from its carrier, and loons are notorious for being fierce in captivity.

However, one characteristic of this bird stood out among them all: its remarkable lobed toes. Unlike the webbed feet of a loon or duck, the feet of this bird had four separate toes, each one with wide lobes for paddling through the water. These feet belonged to none other than a grebe, and judging from the yellowish beak and all-over gray plumage, a red-necked grebe in its first year. Later, this grebe will develop a rusty red throat, but for now its neck was only slightly pink. In Vermont, red-necked grebes are migrants, passing through on their way to winter nesting sites.

After its examination we determined this bird to be healthy, but disoriented from being grounded during migration. Like loons, grebes can mistake our highways and parking lots for water during migration and try to land. Since their feet are placed so far back on their bodies, grebes are extremely awkward on land (some species are incapable of walking altogether!), and taking flight from the ground is nearly impossible. We decided this bird was ready for immediate release, and there, in the Connecticut River, the grebe displayed for us its special talents: swimming and diving. Once back in the water, it was a natural! Click here to watch a video of the grebe release.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

That's No Chicken

While the bird sitting in this chicken coop sure looks white and feathery like a chicken... that ain't no chicken. But this odd-looking bird was just what a local Vermonter found sitting in his coop the other day.

What you see there is actually a red-tailed hawk with leucism. A leucistic animal is similar to an albino in that there is a genetic mutation affecting pigmentation, but a leucistic animal maintains some normal coloring. So while this hawk's feathers have a reduced pigmentation (giving her the white feathers), her skin and eyes are normal in coloring. Albinism includes a complete or partial absence of normal pigments in the skin, eyes and hair (or fur or feathers).
If this hawk was albino, her skin would be pink and her eyes red. In the photos below, you can see the cere (skin above the beak) and feet are a nice, bright yellow -- standard hawk color. Her eyes are also a normal dark brown.

Hawks often work their way into chicken coops with great determination encouraged by a hungry belly. But getting back out of the coop is often tricky for them. Fortunately, the fellow who found this bird was able to release the hawk out of the coop (now shy one chicken), and she flew away.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Mighty Flight

The juvenile bald eagle we released Friday is the talk of the town... and then some! Thanks to local and national media coverage, our eagle's release made the airwaves and print throughout the country.

Once considered an endangered species, it's big news when an eagle makes such a grand recovery.
In our video of the eagle's release on the Connecticut River in Vermont, VINS President John Dolan gives a little background on our raptor patient, while U.S. Fish and Wildlife's Sal Amato discusses the investigation into the bird's shooting. Vermont Fish and Wildlife's Wildlife BiologistJohn Buck, who was in attendance at the Oct. 28 event, was instrumental in coordinating the bird's release and is assisting the federal agency with the investigation.

See (and hear!) the eagle flap his enormous wings as VINS staff members Sara Eisenhauer and Kasey Hopkins release the young male raptor back into his home: the wild. Enjoy!