Thursday, April 5, 2018

Helping Wildlife in Spring

by Lauren Adams
Lead Wildlife Keeper

Spring is a magical time in Vermont.  From endless piles of snow and bleak, gray skies, we are starting to see signs of life.  Bluebirds are gathering nesting materials, pairs of Canada geese are returning to freshly thawed ponds, and bears have emerged from their winter slumbers.  Springtime is a big deal for wildlife.  As warmer weather and longer days fuel the budding and blossoming of native flowers and trees, insects begin to arrive, busy at their task of pollinating the world. Before we know it, Vermont will be green and lush again.

Wildlife takes full advantage of this awakening of life.  This is the perfect time to nest and mate, with nature’s all-you-can-eat buffet to feed newly hatched or born young.  Baby animals will spend the summer getting their fill of nourishment and learning the ropes of the wilderness so that, by the time next fall’s cold air begins to blow in, they are strong and healthy and ready to confront their most difficult missions: surviving the harsh winter or embarking on a long journey of migration.

What a great time to shake off our cabin fever and venture outside to experience Vermont’s wilderness.  There are so many opportunities to view wildlife during the spring.  This is also a very vulnerable time for the brand new life that walks, crawls, slithers, swims or flutters around.  Before they have mastered the behaviors and skills they will need to survive in the wild, young animals are susceptible to injury, defenseless against predators and other dangers, and at risk of becoming orphaned before they are ready to be independent.  

Many factors, both natural and human-caused, can subject inexperienced young to these unfortunate perils.  

Thousands of baby wild animals, kindly rescued by caring individuals, are cared for and raised at wildlife rehabilitation centers every spring and summer around the world. 

As we enter this special season, it is important to know how to co-exist peacefully with wildlife and how to avoid interfering with the intricate process of nesting, mating, breeding and fledging that animals are working so hard at.  Also, what to look out for: when and if an animal needs rescuing, how to rescue it, and when to leave the situation alone, and just observe from a distance.  Many baby animals in the wild may appear orphaned, or even injured, but are in fact healthy and being cared for by unseen parents.  

First, even before you start to see young emerge, there are things to keep in mind so that you don’t disturb nests.  BEFORE you trim trees or clean out gutters, check thoroughly for nests.  It is actually illegal, thanks to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, to disturb, destroy or relocate an active wild bird nest.  If you see eggs or nestlings, you have to wait until after the breeding season to trim.  BEFORE mowing your lawn, check carefully for rabbit nests.  These can look like little tufts of grass, sometimes barely visible, but already containing infant rabbits who would really not appreciate a visit from a lawnmower.  

The most important thing to remember when assessing a baby wild animal is that animals are good parents.  The best chance at survival for a baby is to remain with its own mother and father.  The first choice is always to reunite an animal with its parents, or to leave it where its parents will return to find it.  Sometimes this involves waiting and watching for a while.  

Please follow these instructions to help our wildlife thrive.

If you find a baby deer:

If you find a baby bird:

If you find a baby mammal:

If you find a baby turtle:

Baby turtles actually don’t spend any time with their mother after they hatch, so usually they are fine if left alone.  Most likely, you will see a new hatchling making its way from its nest site on land to the closest wetland.  IF the baby is in a dangerous location, such as the middle of the road, you can help it out by carrying it across.  Try to assess which direction the turtle was going, and carry it that same direction, otherwise it may turn around and cross the road again.  If there is a wetland nearby, you can carry the turtle all the way to the edge of the water and set it down.  

For more information, check out the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, NWRA:

Of course, if you are ever in doubt, please call VINS or your local wildlife rehabilitation center.  If you aren’t sure, contact your region’s Fish and Wildlife Agency, and they should be able to refer you to the right place.

We all want to protect and enjoy our beautiful wildlife.  Help us keep this world safe for them, so we can continue to celebrate the miracle of nature in springtime.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Beauty of Native Wildflowers

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.” March’s call to action is to cultivate gardens full of native and wildlife-friendly plants...

Here in Vermont, it might be hard to imagine gardening when there are still a few inches of snow on the ground. But it’s never too early to plan! This year, participants in the Year of the Bird’s 12 months of action for wildlife are making an effort to plant native flowers—and you can too!

Planting native plants is a simple and highly effective way to make a positive impact on the environment--just as important as recycling, turning off lights, and using less water. The Audubon Society has even made it incredibly easy to find which plants are native to your area, and which nurseries sell them. Type in your zip code to their Native Plants Database, and discover hundreds of trees, flowers, shrubs, and vines that are native to your neighborhood.

Think native flowers aren’t as colorful and pretty as exotics? Think again. Here are just 5 (and it was hard to choose!) of the most beautiful native Vermont flowers to grace your garden with this spring:

This gorgeous perennial bluebell attracts hummingbirds with its sweet nectar, and without the constant refilling your plastic feeder requires. Known also as the "harebell" in the British Isles, this plant grows native across the northern hemisphere. Durable and opportunistic, Bluebell-of-Scotland will grow well in sun or shade, in cooler climates like New England, and actually flourishes in dry, nutrient-poor soil. You may already know of some patches growing out of cracks in stone walls.

Aster blooms are a sign of the arrival of fall in New England, and those beautiful, multi-colored flowers will stay out through October to greet the changing leaves. They love a moist, acidic soil in part shade. Providing nectar for monarch butterflies, the aster also is a source of food for seed-eating birds, including sparrows and finches.

Though smaller than our modern image of a "sunflower", this forest-dwelling perennial blooms bright and confident even in dry, sandy soils. In sun or shade, just like any sunflower the bloom deflects toward the source of light, tracking the sun throughout the day. Woodland Sunflowers will bring countless birds to your yard, among them cardinals, waxwings, warblers, orioles, wrens, and thrushes, as well as caterpillars and butterflies.

Named for the cluster of white or lavender-tinged two-lipped flowers that are thought to resemble turtle’s heads, this perennial is also a late summer bloomer that grows best in wet, acidic soils. It is the host plant of the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly, and attracts a variety of nectar-loving birds, including vireos, hummingbirds, and thrushes.


Lobelia is a showy, bright blue flowering plant that blooms in late summer. Its counterpart, also native, the Cardinal Flower, is brilliant red and sports the same tube-shaped flowers. Though toxic to humans, this plant attracts a wide variety of birds, including hummingbirds, orioles, cardinals, thrushes, wrens, and vireos, as well as caterpillars and butterflies. One important requirement is wet soil—this plant will not tolerate droughts.

What is your favorite native plant in your area? Share your pictures!

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!