Friday, February 16, 2018

Tiny Patient: Rehabilitating an Eastern Screech Owl

by Anna Autilio, Environmental Educator
and Grae O’Toole, Wildlife Keeper

The screech owl could barely open his eyes at first.
Early in the new year, a tiny treasure arrived at the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation—a beautiful Eastern Screech Owl in need of some serious care.

The bird was found in Orwell, VT, over 65 miles from VINS, but the family who found him knew he needed medical attention. They suspected he had flown into the side of their house, which is a sadly common cause of bird injuries. They often cannot tell a clean glass window from safe passage through their forest home, and end up colliding with it.

On intake to the rehabilitation clinic, our wildlife keepers found the owl was quite dehydrated and lethargic, but in good body condition and a healthy weight (over 200g!). Beyond this, he clearly had severe head trauma. His eyes were closed and he was reluctant to open them, but both pupils were responsive to light--a sign that he could still use them.

A fluorescein stain shows the eye ulcer (green patch).
To see if there was any further damage to the eye, the rehabbers conducted a fluorescein stain, a test which allowed us to see the starts of several ulcers which could impair the owl’s vision. The owl was given eye drops and pain medication, and injected with fluids to help re-hydrate him. A blood sample showed he was otherwise healthy, so the “focus” of his treatment became his eyes! 

After 2 days, the little owl was eating all on his own. On his one-week anniversary in the clinic, his eyes were stained again, this time revealing one of the ulcers in his right eye had gotten much larger. This was a bit of a setback, so the eyes drops and pain meds continued.

But, only for another week. A third stain showed that the ulcer had completely resolved! In the meantime, the owl was eating well, his eyes were more open, and he was active and alert. Finally, it was time to move the screech owl to an outdoor enclosure.

Ready for his live prey test!
The Eastern Screech Owl is now awaiting the chance to take his final test as a patient at VINS—the live prey test. This involves releasing a live mouse into the enclosure with the owl, and waiting to see if he can capture it. This is a very important part of the rehabilitation process for raptors that have suffered severe head or eye trauma, because their vision or mental state could still be impaired enough that they are unable to capture prey on their own. Without the ability to hunt for itself, the owl would starve.

If he catches the mouse, he passes the test, and will be released back into the wild shortly afterward. We hope to release him near where he was initially found, so that he can settle back into his own home territory.

Curious about our other owl patients at the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation? Join us on Saturday, February 24th or Sunday February 25th, 2018 for VINS’s Owl Festival! Register for the event here

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Bringing Birders Together: The Great Backyard Bird Count!

By Anna Autilio
Lead Environmental Educator

In 2018, we mark the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the most powerful and important bird-protection law ever passed. In honor of this milestone, nature lovers around the world are joining forces to celebrate 2018 as the “Year of the Bird.” February's call to action is participation in the Great Backyard Bird Count...

An old friend of mine lives in Boston, and rarely gets to see her father back home in the Pacific Northwest. They talk occasionally, but it’s not the same as being there. Sad to see themselves growing apart and remembering a childhood of helping her father rescue injured and abandoned wildlife around their home, my friend bought him a simple gift for the holidays: a bird feeder.

Cedar Waxwing - Linda Conrad.
Philosophers and scientists alike have long wondered what it is about nature, and birds specifically, that draws people to them. “There’s something about birds—” writes Mark Jannot in a recent article for Audubon. “Their beauty? Their grace? Their tenacity?—that pierces the heart and spurs the imagination.” At VINS we are well familiar with the looks of astonishment and awe that our raptor ambassadors inspire on the faces of our guests. 

And birds have the capacity to bring people together. Even those who might think that a list of all bird species encompasses “pigeon”, “seagull”, “hawk”, and “none of the above” are charmed by the first birdsongs of spring, the antics of a playful crow, and rush to the aid of a tiny, injured nestling that lands at their feet.

This spirit is what the Year of the Bird is all about, and in February, we're joining in the Great Backyard Bird Count—bringing friends and neighbors together over a common enjoyment of birds. Every February, tens of thousands of people all over the world participate in the Count, which is not unlike a certain upcoming sporting event. Last year, in just the 4 days of the count, participants were able to count birds of 5,940 species—over half of all recognized species on the planet. 

Participants in the Great Backyard Bird Count at VINS

Participation in the Count is completely free; all one needs is a view of the great outdoors, some good friends, a pencil and paper, and 15 minutes. Optional accompaniments include chips and salsa (for you, not the birds!). You don’t have to watch your backyard—take a walk through a local park, or sit by the subway stop and count. If people join you, all the better--more eyes watching means more birds can be observed. Then, enter your observations online (with these easy instructions).  

You especially don’t have to be an expert to join in the fun. There are tons of resources out there for helping you identify your avian visitors (yes, there’s an app for that). Better yet, take a picture of that unknown bird. The GBBC also hosts a photo contest with a chance to win prizes!

My friend’s father was hooked on watching his backyard feeder as soon as he filled it. Now he’s going through 10 pounds of seed in a week, and offering up two different brands of suet. When asked if he would be participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count for the first time this year, he was ready with his big weekend predictions: “Doves: 1, Starlings: infinity.”

We want to hear about your backyard birds too! Plan to visit VINS on February 17th and 18th to help us count birds and learn how you can do it yourself!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Celebrate the Migratory Bird Treaty Act! #YearoftheBird

by Anna Autilio
Lead Environmental Educator

2018 is the Year of the Bird, and the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. What is the MBTA and why is it still relevant?

When walking through the woods, it’s not uncommon to find a gorgeous feather lying on the ground. The iridescent plume seems like a natural keepsake, but it surprises many to learn that it’s actually illegal to keep wild bird feathers. Taking the loose feather doesn’t seem like a crime—what could be the reason for this law? The answer is fascinating, and deeply rooted in bird conservation and United States history.
Back in the 1800s, the “chanticleer”, or a hat made of bird feathers, was the height of fashion for women. Demand for feathers led hunters to decimate bird populations in pursuit of pure white plumes, and soon many species that once “blackened the skies” with their numbers were nearly or totally extinct. 200 years ago, there were no government protections for our wildlife, and so several environmentally conscious people took it upon themselves to begin the fight for birds. The very first Audubon societies were formed, often by women boycotting the fashionable hats, who hoped that one day wearing bird feathers would be seen as “a brand of ignorance”.

Many women pioneered early bird conservation efforts.
Eventually, the federal government caught up to these early conservationists. In a joint resolution with Canada, and later Mexico, Japan, and Russia, the United States passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (or the MBTA), which made it unlawful to “hunt, take, capture, kill, or sell birds” whether they are alive or dead, and protects bird parts “including feathers, eggs, and nests”. The logic behind the prohibition of parts is that Fish and Wildlife has no way of knowing whether someone killed the bird to gets its feathers, or whether the eggs were still viable when they were collected. Over 800 species of birds are currently listed, and many of them owe their continued existence to this law. Although raptors were not protected by the law until 1972 (the same year VINS was founded!) their inclusion reflected a realization of their importance to our ecosystems. 

The US Fish and Wildlife Service issues permits that allow certain people to conduct activities otherwise prohibited by the MBTA. Examples include those for taxidermy, falconry, captive breeding, scientific use, educational use, and depredation (such as removing birds from places where they pose a serious risk to humans or human activity).

VINS wildlife rehabilitators work hard
to keep our education birds healthy.
At VINS, we are always conscious of the MBTA and its sweeping impact. Because of the law, we are able to teach with some of the most magnificent creatures on Earth—wild raptors—as they still thrive and were not hunted to extinction. We also hold permits to rehabilitate certain species, and keep feathers for educational use. The permitting process is long and rigorous, to ensure we are taking the best possible care of these wild animals.

What if you find a feather at VINS? Again, you can’t keep it, but you can hand it off to a staff member. We actually use dropped feathers in a medical procedure called imping—literally implanting a new feather in the old shaft of a bird whose feathers have broken. The newly feathered bird can then get back into the wild much more quickly, and the old dropped feather gets to feel the wind beneath it again.

Want to do your part? Spread the word about the United States’ pioneering bird conservation! Sign this pledge to take a simple, meaningful action for birds each month this year:

Join us and our partners across the globe to make 2018 the Year of the Bird!