Friday, June 22, 2018

Target Training with LA – the vision.

by Nathan Thoele
Environmental Educator 

What’s the point of this? To give her a way to show herself off on stage. To let people see how goofy it is when a vulture gallops around. To put people in a good mood so I can talk to them about difficult topics. To help me help people fall in love with vultures. To help me monitor her health. To get her from point A to point B. Los Angeles is a black vulture and a tennis ball is her target.

Target-training Los Angeles (LA) will help with three major elements of her life. First, it’ll help her perform in programs and be an effective ambassador for vultures. Second, it’ll help us take better care of her. Third, it’ll keep her life new, spicy, and enriched.

An ambassador for vultures
When all is said and done, I hope to be guiding LA around campus via the tennis ball. People who come here, at the right time, will get to meet her; see her walk; and hear not only her story, but the story of all vultures. Let’s be honest, who doesn’t love a goofy walk?


LA's first time targeting outside at about 30 feet.

Since we’re still being honest, who knows how important vultures are for the world? I can tell you all about it here, but it’d take up way too much of your time which you’d probably rather not spend staring at a screen. Better to come to VINS and meet LA to hear exactly how large scavengers help protect everyone from rampant disease and prevent mass carcass buildup on our roadways. When you do get here, you may find LA strutting her stuff on stage in a live bird show or walking the campus like she owns the place. Don’t worry, I’ll be right there with her to make sure nothing happens to her. But that’s not all.

Keeping her healthy
LA being targeted to the scale.

As with all the birds we care for, we need to be able to weigh LA on a daily basis to help us monitor her health. Targeting her to perch on a scale is an unobtrusive way to get a weight on her. Similarly, we need to be able to transport her long distances in a car – maybe for a visit to the vet or maybe for a visit to a school. Have you ever tried putting a seat-belt on a vulture? Probably not, but I can assure you it won’t go well. So what do we do? We put her in an animal crate. With targeting, we can guide her into the crate, put the crate in the car, buckle the crate in, and set off for our destination. Targeting helps us be prepared. Of course, there is more to keeping a bird physically healthy. Mental stimulation goes a long way in promoting good welfare in any creature. 



A spiced up life
Although vultures in the wild spend a huge chunk of their time doing nothing but sitting and preening (a form of self-grooming for birds), they live in a dynamic and unpredictable world that encourages them to think on their toes. Life as an ambassador-vulture isn’t as dynamic as it would be in the wild, but we can try to keep things exciting. Training of any kind is basically a series of puzzles that the bird must go through in order to get food. Sometimes the puzzle is simply figuring out how to jump from one person’s hand to another person’s hand. Sometimes the puzzle is navigating a strange room with strange objects that could be new and intimidating or provide food. Either way, training allows us to give the birds something to think about and something to do. This, in return, will keep them psychologically healthy. 

Other humans will be joining in LA’s training from here on out. 

Los Angeles is here due to an injury sustained years ago that left her with one eye. Unable to survive in the wild, she makes a living by helping us teach people about vultures. While we can never completely emulate life in the wild, it’s our mission to get as close as possible while keeping her healthy and letting her be useful. Training is how we achieve that.

Stay tuned for more updates...

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Easy Ways to Reduce Your Plastic Waste Today


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.” June’s call to action is to reduce our use of plastic, to help eliminate this choking devastation on our ecosystems...

When you go to the beach this summer, think about this: the greatest threat to wildlife on land is the loss of habitat, but the greatest threat to life in the ocean is plastic garbage.

It seems that more and more often, we hear a news stories about a whale or seabird that has died from eating plastic waste. Despite the fact that the Earth’s oceans are incredibly vast, covering 70% of the planet’s surface, human life has made an unmistakable impact on the wildlife that calls the sea home.

We can easily help fix this problem, just by making choices about our lifestyles now. Though the actions appear small, the cultural shift actions can bring about has the potential to be one of the most important environmental triumphs we have ever seen.

Here are just a few ways you can help. Can you think of other we’ve missed?

1. Carry a reusable water bottle or coffee cup, and don’t buy bottled water. Tap water is no less healthy, and much safer for the planet.

2. Use reusable shopping bags. Many stores encourage this practice now, and will actually give you discounts for using your cloth shopping bags!

3. Say no to plastic straws and cutlery. Paper plates are better—but better still are your own dishes and metal utensils. Absolutely need a straw for that thick milkshake? You can buy metal ones!

4. Choose foods packaged in paper rather than plastic. There are many great examples—bread, fruits and veggies in paper bags, boxed laundry detergent, eggs in recycled paper containers. Glass is also preferable for things like peanut butter and soda.  

5. Bring your own containers to restaurants to package leftovers. Don’t waste food, or Styrofoam—bring a glass container to put your leftovers in.

6. Use bar soap (packaged in cardboard) over liquid body wash (packaged in plastic).

7. Use paper to wrap delicate packages, instead of bubble-wrap. Got junk mail? Crinkle it up into balls and help cradle your items that way.

8. Avoid food with excessive packaging altogether. We all know the ones—a single lollipop packaged in 4 layers of plastic. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but do you really need all that?

9. Use a metal razor or a bamboo toothbrush over a plastic one. The metal can be recycled, and the bamboo will biodegrade within 6 months.

10. Just think twice. Before you buy something made of plastic or packaged in plastic, ask yourself if there might be an alternative. Get in the habit of examining all your options, and thinking about the long-term as well as the short-term impact on the environment.

Join us in our effort this month at VINS to eliminate our plastic waste! Together we can help keep our environment clean and healthy.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Target Training with LA – the beginning.

by Nathan Thoele, 
Environmental Educator


What are you doing? I’m convincing this black vulture that right now, in this moment, in this context, there is nothing in the world more important than touching this ball with her beak. I’m building up my relationship with her by reminding her that, when I’m around with my trusty tennis-ball-on-a-stick, she gets food. Los Angeles (LA) is a black vulture and this tennis ball is her target.

‘Targeting’ is the behavior of touching an object with a part of your body. You ‘target’ when someone holds their hand out for you to shake. LA targets when I hold a tennis ball out for her to touch. The thing with black vultures is, though, that you can’t just tell them to put their beak to the ball. You have to shape the behavior with them.

Positive reinforcement is the behavior shaping technique I like to use. In short, positive reinforcement is the act of adding something pleasant to the trainee’s environment as a consequence of their performing the behavior the trainer wants – poking a ball. In practice, it’s the act of giving the vulture a piece of food for poking the ball. 


This method helps me build a nice relationship with LA and helps me inform her that she’s done something right, something she wants to do again.
  
“Even once the behavior is established,
a trainee may find other activities more interesting."

The first step I took in target-training LA was to find what her motivation is. That shouldn’t be hard. She’s a vulture. She loves to eat meat in large quantities, right? Well... I found that she doesn’t like mice all that much. Or rats. Or rabbit. Chicken is okay. Quail is alright. Insects are useless. Organs. Loves organs – slimy and mushy organs. That is her favorite meat. Now we can continue.

After finding her motivation, I found myself in her mew, tennis-ball-stick in one hand, clump of organ meat in the other. She wasn’t about to poke that ball for no reason, so I took it upon myself to poke her with it first. It’s okay, it was a gentle poke and she immediately got a juicy clump of organ meat for it. I did it again. She got more food. Again. More food. Was that drool coming from her beak? This next time, I held the ball a few inches from her face. After a few seconds, she leaned forward and poked it.


“Poke!”
I cued her to the ball again, this time a few inches farther away. Reluctantly, she stretched her neck as far as she could without moving either of her feet and poked it. Once again, she was promptly rewarded. I cued again, farther still. Now she had to step toward the ball. Then again, two steps. Again, three steps. Each time she poked the ball she got a piece of meat. By the end of ten minutes, she was chasing the ball all around her mew. 


“Because LA is so quick and sloppy in her eating, it’s easier for me to hide
the food in my hand and let her fish it out with her beak."

Thus concluded the first session of target-training with LA. The future holds many more similar sessions but with more activity. Using a tennis ball, I will be able to train her to step onto a scale for her daily weighing, walk into a crate, participate in natural history programs at VINS, and explore new places. I suspect it won’t always go so quickly as it did in this first session, but that’s half the fun of it all. While she learns, so do I.


Stay tuned for future blog posts on Nathan and LA...

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:

http://www.nwrawildlife.org/page/Found_Animal_Help

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: www.birdyourworld.org.

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