Thursday, January 19, 2012

My, what a long beak you have.

Woodpeckers need strong, long beaks to jackhammer their way into trees and get to the insects and sweet sap below the bark. But this downy woodpecker spotted in Hartland, VT? His long beak is grossly oversized.

Throughout the United States, biologists are finding birds sporting extra-long beaks. Known as avian keratin disorder, this deformity occurs in numerous species of birds (and especially black-capped chickadees and northwestern crows) when the keratin layer of the beak becomes overgrown. Keratin is protein, and in humans, it's what makes up our skin, hair, and nails.

While the cause of avian keratin disorder has yet to be nailed down, some scientists believe the deformity may be caused by pollutants in the environment such as organochlorines, which are found in some pesticides. They are also looking at nutritional deficiencies and disease as possible causes. Studies on these deformities -- which may also include crossed beaks, overgrown talons, enlarged leg scales, and feather discoloration -- show that baby and juvenile birds are spared, suggesting it's likely not a genetic disorder. But much research remains to be done to target the cause.

As you can imagine, deformed beaks can make feeding and drinking difficult for birds, and some birds will die of starvation as they are unable to properly eat. The woman who observed this woodpecker several times in her yard said the bird appears to have adapted. He is able to eat suet, drink from her bird bath by laying on his side, and has eaten seed. She has even seen him attempt to drill into trees.

If you observe birds with deformed beaks or talons, report them to your local Fish and Wildlife office. You can email photos to Meghan at VINS at

Read more about beak deformities and see more photos here.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

It's all about brumation, baby.

By Katie Christman
VINS Education Intern

To freeze or not to freeze? That seems to be the plight of many critters in the winter, but for many species of reptiles and amphibians, the decision to freeze or not to freeze can determine whether they make it through our Vermont winters.

Being ectothermic species, reptiles and amphibians rely on the outside temperature to control their body temperature, unlike us mammals or birds.

At this point in the winter, most animals have either migrated, entered into torpor, or started hibernation. For a snake, turtle, or frog, they enter a state of dormancy called brumation.

So, what is brumation? It’s a process similar to hibernation, but reptiles and amphibians, unlike some mammals, are not living off fat reserves to make it through the winter. A turtle, like the one you see here (a baby painted turtle who lives at VINS), will overwinter under submerged logs, bury themselves in mud at the bottom of a pond, or use beaver or muskrat burrows for their period of brumation. The turtle then slows down all of its metabolic processes to the point where, if found, it may look dead.

Snakes, on the other hand, are commonly found using communal hibernacula. Researchers have found around 30 to 50 snakes overwintering in the same site -- and not all are the same species! Common gartersnakes, eastern ratsnakes, timber rattlesnakes, milksnakes, and others have all been known to share the same hibernacula. Imagine stumbling upon all of those snakes!

While you can commonly find species of reptiles like toads buried under the mud in a pond, there are other species of reptiles who are the front runners for surviving freezing temperatures. Species like wood frogs, spring peepers, and gray tree frogs can adapt to stressful and harsh environment by literally freezing their bodies. By releasing glucose (sugar) throughout their body, water content is greatly reduced within the body and dispersed away from major organs. As the frog continues to freeze, all bodily functions cease. Don’t despair though, after a few hours of thawing, these frogs are active and reanimated!

Friday, January 6, 2012

A Case of Schizochroism

Who is at this feeder? Could someone's canary have gotten loose?

Nope, this lemon-yellow fellow is a good ol' American goldfinch with a case of leucism, a genetic mutation affecting pigmentation. While it's similar to albinism, a leucistic bird maintains some normal coloring. As you can see in the photo, this finch's eyes are not red, but the normal dark brown-black color. Same with his legs.

Barb Wendt of Meriden, N.H.,took these photos of the goldfinch a few days ago. In addition to sending them to VINS, she posted them on the Cornall Lab of Ornithology's Facebook page, where readers responded with their thoughts on this bird's coloring. One response in particular gave Barb a bit more detail on the bird's condition: "Though it's commonly known as partial albinism, it's actually partial leucism. In this case, the eumelanin pigments responsible for black and brown are gone, leaving only the yellow phaeomelanins. It's called Phaeo schizochroism."

You may remember awhile back we posted photos of a leucistic red-tailed hawk who had gotten into a man's chicken coop. The photos are worth checking out, and the blog post goes into more details of leucism.

If any of you have photos of leucistic birds, we'd love to see them. Email them to Meghan at

Phaeo schizochroism. Right in Barb's backyard. Imagine that.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Duck Gets His Winter On

Sometimes, you just have to wonder how birds get into the situations we find them in.

Watch a video of a duck's return to the wild.

This mallard duck, found December 27, was spotted sitting under a ski lift at Okemo Mountain Resort in Ludlow, VT. Was he flying past the mountain, and hit wires on the lift? Could he have gotten disoriented, and thought he was landing on a lake? Or was this duck a thrill-se
eker, skiing down the mountain on his webbed feet for fun?

Well, he probably wasn't skiing, but we're not quite sure how this guy landed on a mountain. After we examined him, we found no visible injuries, but he was thin. We hydrated him with clear fluids and eventually bumped him up to solid foods. He put on weight, waddled nicely, quacked a lot, and could fly. After nine days in our care, this drake was ready to go.

Above, VINS intern Katie Christman watches as the duck makes his way across the ice. Below, Katie (left) and intern Hannah Goldman prepare to release the duck. Below that, an up-close shot of the mallard.

Since we couldn't release him back on the ski mountain, we took him to a river where hundreds of mallards were spotted just days before. As you can see in this video, he takes to the ice quite well (is he an ice skater, too?!), but takes some time getting accustomed to his new surroundings. The women who released him said in about 10 minutes, he flew up into the air and then joined the sord of ducks further down the river. All in all, a very happy return to the wild for this sporty winter duck.