Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Adoption Option: What you should know before you do

By Jordan Daley
Research and Education Coordinator

When I was young my family adopted a polar bear family for Christmas. My youngest brother having recently been born, I eagerly awaited the day my polar bear would come home from the hospital. Clinging to a new stuffed white bear, gazing at the framed picture of two snowy cubs I hoped the nurses wouldn't name them something dumb while I was waiting. My brother, Jack, told me they sometimes did that. He said that was how I got my name; they weren't sure if I was a boy or a girl.

Not very different from my own siblings' interactions.
Photo: National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

I'm sure my mom agonized over telling me the truth, but she mustered up her best you'll-understand-one-day voice and gave it to me straight. The polar bear wasn't going to live with us in New York. What did I expect? My parents wouldn't even entertain the idea of a dog. I was briefly crestfallen but Jack's habit of reading National Geographic animal encounters aloud quickly dampened any desire I had for living with a thousand pound predator (for your viewing discretion).

Following a particularly graphic chapter, I was content to receive occasional photos updates and imagine the adventures my arctic siblings were getting into. They became the subjects of many early stories and likely a subconscious part of my future career choice.

Adopting an animal, through a wildlife conservation group or a nature center can be a powerful tool for instilling the value of wildlife in a child. It is also a concrete way to support an organization that has a direct affect on the quality of care provided to the animals.

So here is what you need to know about adopting raptors with VINS.

1. Raptors aren't the only option. Our songbirds, vultures and ravens need specialized care too. Our cardinal lives at VINS in the songbird aviary. We always feed our birds as close to their natural diet as possible. For this cardinal that means a variety of seeds and fruits.

2. Your donation really is dedicated to the birds. Whether it is diet, heating, enclosure repairs or medical care, the costs that each bird accrues throughout the year are covered in part by their adoptions.   

3. Adoption is also a learning opportunity. Your package includes details about the bird you've adopted, natural history and a photo. The chance to learn doesn't end there. Feeling responsible for the welfare of an animal can be a huge step in building empathy and stewardship. What begins as a small donation towards one birds well being can often develop into a lifetime of conservation. Use your adopted bird as a platform for digging into healthy habitat for birds. What can you do as a family to provide winter food to a species in the area? How can you preserve water quality in your area rivers? 

4. Of course, they don't live with you. Our enclosures are suited to the specific needs of each bird. The snowy owl on exhibit has extensive wing damage and isn't able to fly. His enclosure is filled with low perches and ramps to make his movement comfortable. Plus, your hot stuffy home would have this arctic species over-heating in a heartbeat. And much like the polar bears, these really are wild creatures, though not quite 1,000 pounds, their predatory nature is much better suited to our facilities than yours.

5. That doesn't mean you can't come visit them. Unlike my polar bears, the VINS birds can always be found right here at the Nature Center and an adopt package includes passes to come back and visit the birds. Return in different seasons and year after year to track your bird's development, changes in plumage or behavior and watch your gift in action.

This holiday season consider adopting a bird as a gift or for your family. Our holiday special includes four birds for $100. Your purchase will provide care for our Cardinal, Red Tailed Hawk, Snowy Owl and Great Gray Owl. This package can be a single gift or divided into four.

At VINS our adoption program provides funding for the specialized care our unique residents require. Adopting one of our birds ensures that they will be well fed and receive necessary medical care. Supporting our residents with your adoptions means that we can do even more in our wildlife communities through conservation, education and rehabilitation. By adopting our resident birds you enable us to keep wild birds in the wild. 

The season is here and cold weather and frosty mornings have got me thinking of my arctic wards. I wonder how they're faring in this changing climate and hope the work I've done is helping in some way. My family's polar bears have long been a source of wonder and amusement, what could our birds be for you? Click Here to take the leap right now. Or come visit us to meet your adoptees in person before your commit.

Note: The VINS Adopt-a-Raptor program is tax deductible.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Nevermore: Returning a Raven to the Wild

by Jordan Daley
Science Outreach Coordinator

Halloween is not my favorite holiday. Shadows obscuring a midnight sky, dry leaves rattling against my window, scary stories, haunting and ghosts; none of these are among my favorite things. I like to spend the weeks surrounding October 31st partaking in entirely un-creepy activities, like baking or yoga. As a kid, on Halloween, my mom and I would spend our evening watching movies set in tropical places and absolutely not changing the channel in case a neighboring station was showing some horror flick.

But here in New England the Halloween spirit is hard to ignore. The seasonal changes in Vermont bring out deeply embedded traditions, even in the most reluctant of us. The weather here seems to be an active participant in all of our holiday traditions. This Halloween is no exception and not even I am immune to the changing colors, blustery days and one particular bird that really changed my mind.

About 5 weeks ago, the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation received a common raven from Pittsford, VT. This bird, in unfortunate circumstances, was very lucky to have been discovered by a VINS transport volunteer. She found the bird at the intersection of two creeks on a public conservation area. The raven was hopelessly tangled in fishing line and hanging over the water from its left wing. You can see him in this photo; the black shape to the right of the trees.

This kind of rescue can take a lot of patience and hard work. Thankfully the transporter was ready for the struggle and worked for a long time to free the raven and eventually got the bird to our rehab facility.

The young raven, in its first year, arrived underweight, losing heat, dehydrated and in shock. His left wing was askew, drooping away from the body; likely suffering from nerve damage.

The rehab staff spent the following weeks monitoring the bird, fearing that the damage would be permanent. Then he surprised everyone.

Within a couple weeks of admission, the raven took his first flight. Four days later he was transferred to a flight cage where his strength grew and flights improved. It was an improbable recovery for this lucky bird.

This is where I come into the picture. In my role with the education department, I only occasionally get to spend time with our patients. So when Annie came in on a sunny October day looking for a co-pilot, I jumped at the chance to join her for the release.

It is our protocol to release a rehabilitated bird as close as possible to the site where it was found. We loaded up the bird and drove for about an hour and a half before we found the trail head at the Cooley Covered Bridge in Pittsford.

Here is Annie carrying the raven to its picturesque release site. At the intersection of two streams, the Green Mountains rising in the backdrop, the bright blue of a fall morning welcomed the bird back to the wild, we opened the container and he flew off.

His first flight out of our facility was a testament to one note a rehab intern wrote in his file. "Had a bit of trouble catching this one! Banking turns and flying all around!"

The raven perched in a tree near by, preening his feathers and getting his bearings.

Knowing how smart corvids are, I wondered how aware this bird was of his return to the site of his nearly fatal accident. Corvidae is a family of birds including ravens, crows, jays, that are considered the most intelligent of all birds. Different species in the group have exhibited tool building and facial recognition. They've been known to recognize, remember and respond to threatening people or situations. They have self awareness and even fear death.
It seemed strangely appropriate to be releasing this eerily smart, darkly perceived bird who narrowly escaped death so close to Halloween. Even for a skeptic like me, the day reeked of supernatural significance.

It was only a few days later that the Northern Stage's youth actors performed Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven at our Halloween celebration. I watched the cast, clad in all black, bringing to life Poe's dark classic, and for the first time I didn't avert my eyes when it got creepy.

I think I'm going to enjoy Halloween this year.

Friday, September 11, 2015

What the Cat Dragged In

by Becca Novello
Intern, Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation

We keep a kitten rescue cam streaming in our break room just in case we ever need a pick-me-up. Here in the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation at VINS, we tend to get a somewhat bleak view of the natural world – if we do our job right over the rescue hotline, the only birds that come into our care are injured, ill, or orphaned. So while some days are filled with the absolute joy of recovery and healing, others are colored by death and euthanasia. On those days, the kitten tumble-fest gives us a healthy dose of brightness – it helps us to see the beauty around us when it has become otherwise unrecognizable.

That said, some days even the kitten cam doesn’t quite fulfill its therapeutic duty. We’ve had a complicated relationship with cats these days, or really with their owners, to be more accurate. Of the hundreds of birds that come through our rehabilitation facility each year, 10-15% come in for injuries sustained by outdoor cats. In 2014, we saw the results of 39 cat attacks, and we’ve already seen 43 this year. When we’ve just had to euthanize a fledgling robin with a leg snapped in half by a cat on the hunt, all we can do is hope that those kittens on the screen are going to homes where they’ll be raised as happy, healthy indoor cats.

A fledgling House Wren that was released after two weeks of rehabilitation for injuries sustained from an outdoor cat 

Anyone who has owned an outdoor cat knows the joy of finding a fresh kill (a “present” of sorts) on the porch.  We think of it as a small-scale occurrence – after all, what’s that one cardinal or chipmunk in the overall ecosystem, right? Unfortunately, over the past few years we’ve been learning that our occasional gifts are only a tiny glimpse into a world of hurt. In 2012, National Geographic and the University of Georgia teamed up to take a look at what was really going on in our pets’ private lives by attaching small cameras to outdoor cats. They found that cats bring home less than a quarter of their kills [or near-kills], meaning that we’re typically blind to the vast majority of their hunting. A comprehensive study in 2013 blew previous estimates out of the water, finding that free-ranging cats kill between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds in the U.S. each year. The truth is that the cumulative effects of our small-scale choices can have catastrophic effects on bird populations. In fact, according to a 2010 University of Nebraska study, cats are responsible for the extinction of 33 species of birds worldwide.

Especially in the summer, when vulnerable baby birds are being sent out into the world, outdoor cats have the potential to do incredible amounts of damage. Most songbirds fledge from the nest well before they’ve actually learned to fly; they’re still being cared for by their parents, but they’re defenseless against predators that can scoop them right up off the ground. Even if a cat isn’t looking to kill and the bird makes it away with only a few scratches, they’re not out of the woods. Cats carry powerful bacteria in their mouths and on their claws that are extremely dangerous to birds, and tiny scrape or puncture wound can rapidly lead to a fatal infection.

Bright BirdsBeSafe collars can help adult birds locate and avoid cats

So what can you do? Attaching bells to a cat’s collar doesn’t actually do any good – cats, clever as they are, can quickly learn to silence it while they hunt. The bright, clown-like collars made by BirdsBeSafe ( go a long way to protect adult birds but don’t do much for flightless fledglings. To be honest, the best solution by a long shot is to transition a cat to an indoor lifestyle. It can be tough, but it’s doable! And it’s worth it. If not for the birds, do it for your cat; the average lifespan of an outdoor cat facing cars, disease, and predation is between two and five years, while that of an indoor cat is between 12 and 20 years. For tips on how to transition your cat to an indoor lifestyle, visit If you have any additional questions, feel free to give us call on our hotline at (802) 359-5001 ext. 510.

So whether you want to save wildlife, create a healthy lifestyle for your cat, or just give us a bit of a break here at VINS, start taking steps to move your cat inside today!

Additional Resources:

American Bird Conservancy on keeping cats indoors

“The Truth About Cats and Birds” by Andrew C. Revkin (The New York Times)

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Patient Profile: Eastern Phoebe

by Becca Novello
Intern, Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation

Species: Eastern Phoebe

Age: Fledglings

Cause for Admission: Abduction - Healthy birds removed from nest and parents

These three Phoebes came to us on June 17th as fledglings, but their road to rehab actually began ten days before that. After finding their nest at a construction site, some members of the public took the nestlings into their own care. Though the intentions were good, the Phoebes became seriously malnourished over the course of those ten days – baby birds require a very specific diet and can’t develop properly without it.*

By the time they arrived in our care, the Phoebes were in bad condition. Their feathers were tattered and broken, so the birds were unable to maintain their waterproofing or regulate their core temperature. They would have had no way to protect themselves from the weather in the wild, and they would have been forced to spend precious energy producing heat that they couldn’t even hold onto. Beyond that, some of the birds hadn’t grown any tail feathers at all, though they were old enough that those feathers should have been well developed. 

Proper tail feather development is important to all birds, but Phoebes in particular rely on their tails to facilitate some pretty impressive maneuvering. They primarily eat flying insects, so they have to be able to catch their prey right out of the air. They watch closely for insects from low perches; when they see a potential meal passing by, they flit off the perch, snag it in their beak, and swing right back to home base. They sometimes even hover in midair to glean insects off of foliage! Their quick changes of direction require incredible control of movement, and Phoebes use their long, thin tail like a rudder, constantly making tiny adjustments. Without the proper feather condition and fully-grown tails, these Phoebes wouldn’t stand a chance on their own. And besides, what would a Phoebe be without its characteristic tail twitch? 

Status: Ongoing assessment with an expected release
Though the consequences of the Phoebes’ malnutrition will take time to overcome, their overall condition has improved greatly since their arrival. We’ve had them on a proper diet that’s rich in protein, and their tails are growing in beautifully! They’re in an outdoor enclosure now, developing skills that will be necessary to them as adults in the wild. They make longer and more controlled flights each day, and they recently figured out how to smack their prey against their perches to kill it – including their cooked egg and soaked kitten food. Over the coming days and weeks, we will be evaluating their flight and watching for their tails to fill out. We’re hoping that a release is in the cards for these guys – we’ll think of them whenever we hear a raspy “PHOE-be!” through our windows.

*Please remember: Besides the fact that wild birds require incredibly specific and intensive care, keeping them without a license is illegal.  If you see a bird that you believe to be injured, ill, or orphaned, call the VINS hotline immediately! We can advise you on how to best deal with the situation and what to do if interference is necessary. If we aren’t there to answer the phone, be sure to leave us a message with your name, number, and situation, and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.