Thursday, December 30, 2010

Look For It Now: Pine Siskin

By Sara Eisenhauer
VINS Wildlife Keeper

It’s a brisk 24 degrees outside this morning as I step out to top off my bird feeders. The usual customers are waiting: black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, and American goldfinches. As I fill a tube-feeder, I hear a high-pitched zip -- almost like a coat zipper that is being pulled up. I shout out loud, “I know that sound!” To my delight, a small flock of pine siskins are also waiting for a seed refill!

The pine siskin (Carduelis pinus) is a small finch-like songbird that is commonly found in the northern provinces of Canada during the breeding season. Siskins are known as “irruptive species,” which means they will occasionally migrate south into the United States if food availability is low up north during winter months. The best way to see a pine siskin would be to place multiple feeders in your yard filled with sunflower seed or thistle. These winter visitors will usually join a flock of goldfinches in their search for food, which can make it difficult to distinguish them. What you should look for is a goldfinch wearing a pin-stripe suit. Siskins have a distinct striped belly and back, as well as hints of bright yellow on their wings and tail. They also have a very thin, pointed bill which makes it easy to pull seeds from wild thistle plants or your feeder.

Even though the winter months are cold and sometimes longer than we’d like, there are always opportunities to see rare winter visitors. So fill up your feeders, grab your binoculars, and enjoy what winter has to offer! (Photo above by VINS volunteer Bob Heitzman.)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Best of Luck, Young Loon!

This time of year, most of the waterbirds whose songs we've savored over the summer months have long since left for warmer waters. Loons -- one of my favorite birds of summer -- have vacated Vermont to head to the ocean waters of the lower New England coast.

Watch a video of the loon's release!

Well, except for one particular young loon I came upon Christmas Eve. I had received
a call from Poultney on the 24th that a loon was stumbling through the snow in a person's yard. "It couldn't be," I thought to myself. But sure enough, a VINS volunteer picked up the struggling bird and brought it to my home that night. It was indeed a loon. And a huge one at that!

Loons, if they accidentally land on a surface (someone's lawn, a parking lot, etc.), cannot take off for flight. Their bodies are designed so that they can take off to fly from water, and from water only. Many loons become "grounded" when they land on the ground, and must be carried to water so they can fly.

On Christmas morning, I
brought the loon to work with me and examined him with the help of a VINS volunteer. I was happy to find this juvenile loon quite healthy: no fractures, no parasites, no emaciation, no feather damage, no head trauma. This young bird was the picture of health -- he had just been grounded, and now needs to fly himself down south before the rivers freeze here in Vermont! Many first-year birds (meaning born this spring) have a tough time learning the ropes of survival. Hunting, fishing, migration and avoiding predators -- while instinctual to a degree -- are skills perfected over time. Many first-years aren't skilled enough to make it to their second year alive. And I believe that's what was going on with this loon.

So later that day, me and four VINS volunteers (who graciously helped me with my animal care duties on the holiday) went down to a large opening on the Connecticut River, and bid this loon farewell.
See our video
. He swam off well, and we wish him the best of luck in migration.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Little Christmas Cheer

Happy Holidays! This brightly colored fellow came into Wildlife Services on December 17 after being found on the Middlebury College campus, unable to fly. We found that his right wing was drooping and missing feathers, which made us suspect that a cat had done the damage. He has undergone treatment to prevent infection caused by cat bite and is wearing a bandage to stabilize the injured wing. When his wing heals, we'll test his flight to see if he's ready to return to the wild.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Lucky Duck!

After more than a month of rehabilitation, our female mallard recovered from lead poisoning and was ready to be released into the wild. We asked for your help and you delivered: multiple callers and Facebookers responded with ideas of local mallard populations that our duck could join.

The one we picked ended up being the perfect spot: the junction of two rivers with a resident mallard population. After a few moments of tentative paddling, our duck spotted a group of mallards across the river, and with a few loud quacks, she flew off to join them. Thank you to everyone that called in and wrote on our
Facebook wall with suggestions! Watch the mallard release here.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Look For It Now: Wing Tracks

When birds land and take off in the snow they can leave behind more than just footprints. Whether you have three feet of snow or just a dusting, as we do in Quechee at the moment, you can find these lovely signs in the snow. Look for the delicate little lines where their wings flapped to help them get off the ground. Check on the ground near your feeder or under conifer trees where birds forage for food, and look closely for these exquisite little tracks in the snow.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Got Mallards? We Need Your Help!

The VINS Wildlife Services department needs your help! We have a female mallard in our care who is ready to return to the wild. Problem is, we don't want to send her off on her own!

Do you know of any mallard populations in Vermont's Upper Valley, or within a 1/2-hour drive of Quechee? We'd like to get this gal a posse to hang with, as ducks are social animals and we do not feel she'd fend well on her own. Returning her to where she was found is not an option, so we're putting feelers out to see if anyone has the scoop on local ducks.

This mallard made a complete turnaround from when she was first brought into our care weak, emaciated and on death's door. We discovered the poor girl had swallowed a lead sinker (from a fishing line) and was suffering from lead poisoning. We got the sinker out, got the lead out, have fattened her up, and she's now eager to return to the wild.

If you have mallard ducks frequenting your local river or lake, please let us know -- we'd like to get get our gal in with your group. You can reach the Wildlife Services department at (802) 359-5000, ext. 212, or email me, Meghan Oliver, at Thank you for your help!

January 6, 2011 - After more than a month of rehabilitation, our female mallard recovered from lead poisoning and was released into the wild. View our latest entry - Lucky Duck!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

All Owls, All the Time

These days, it seems as though our incoming patients are all barred owls, all the time. In the past month, the VINS Wildlife Services department has received 15 injured barred owls, making us wonder if we'll have a repeat of the winter of 2007-08.

During that winter, VINS received more than 40 (yes, forty! That's
four-zero!) barred owl patients. The owls were coming in emaciated, hypothermic and sometimes with head trauma or other injuries. A low vole population further north brought many Canadian barreds down to Vermont to scrounge for food, making it a competitive hunting season for local owls. Add that scenario to our super-deep snowfall (we got more than 100 inches that winter), and all owls were having a tough time punching through the snow to grab the critters moving below.

Well, there's no serious snow accumulation as of yet in Vermont's Upper Valley, so we're a bit curious as to why we're seeing so many barred owls. These birds are all coming to us for the same reason: hit by a car. We're splinting legs, wrapping broken wings, bandaging wounds and treating head trauma galore. No matter the reason, we're happy to give these downtrodden birds a hand to get them back on the wing.

So far this year, VINS has admitted 476 injured, ill and orphaned birds into our rehabilitation department! That's nearly a record for us, and the year's not over yet. Please consider making a donation to support our work to help injured birds return to the wild. And thank you!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Raptor Research at VINS

One of the ways VINS motivates people to care about the environment is through research. Recently, Tufts grad student Jana Thomas came to VINS’ Wildlife Services Department to record data on raptors for her Master’s thesis. Below, she summarizes her project. In the photos, VINS intern Katie Christman (right) assists Thomas in handling our red-tailed hawks.

By Jana Thomas
Tufts graduate student

I'm working on a Masters project with veterinary medicine program at Tufts University, trying to improve the options available to us for pain management in birds. Our project investigates pain management from both the behavioral and the neurological angle, with a special focus on red-tailed hawks.

The behavioral component is what we came to VINS to work on. We are using a holistic model of testing that first looks at normal behavior and then at how that behavior changes in painful or non-painful states. This includes behaviors like grooming, normal motion, vocalization, etc. There are differences in what a normal behavior is between species: for some animals, being healthy and comfortable means being calm and not moving much, while for other animals, a healthy individual will be more active. In a crow, for example, you might expect a healthy bird to be curious and constantly in motion, while we think of healthy red-tailed hawks as being more tranquil. We need to quantify these behaviors, however, to actually have any grounds for investigation.

To obtain a control animal for normal behavior of birds in a non-painful state, I went to VINS. I spent two days there videotaping normal behavior of two resident red-tailed hawks. Because these red-tails experience human handling and changes in their environment on a regular basis, we would expect them to be relatively unstressed by these events. My video recordings therefore show the normal behavior of a healthy red-tail in captivity. We'll compare this data from VINS to recordings of injured and recovering birds at the Tufts Wildlife Clinic, and are hoping to ultimately construct a system where we can use behavioral scoring to assess pain status. This would also allow us to quantify relief from pain, since effective pain management typically restores pain-related behaviors to normal behaviors. It's an ambitious project and may not be completed this year, but we are grateful to VINS for letting us use their red-tails for our research!