Wednesday, October 16, 2019

2019 Monarch Tagging Season Wrap-Up!

by Jim Armbruster
Environmental Educator

Female Monarch butterfly
You may have noticed that this year was a big year for monarchs. At VINS, we were right in the middle of what is being called a "banner year" for these butterflies. Now that fall is in full swing, many of them are on their way south for the winter. Hopefully the large numbers of butterflies in the north will equal big numbers of butterflies on their wintering grounds in Mexico. 

Visitors help release a tagged butterfly
This year our tagging season started on August 27th with five individuals caught and given a tiny unique sticker as a tag. The big day was September 3rd when we caught 38! We ran out of tags on September 25th after our 200th butterfly was tagged. That number is more than double last year’s and we continue to see Monarchs in the meadow into this month.

This year we had two Monarch tagging events open to the public. Participants learned how to net and safely handle butterflies while helping staff to tag them. We had around 90 people come out to get involved. Next year we hope to add more tagging events, and even have a special event day to celebrate all things Monarchs!

Now comes the hard part--waiting for recovery reports to filter in. The findings from the wintering grounds will not be posted until next summer. With 200 butterflies our odds of a recovery improve, but with millions of Monarchs that end up in Mexico we may not hear anything back. All we can do is hope for a good migration for all the butterflies heading south!

Environmental Educator Jim Armbruster demonstrating proper Monarch handling technique.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

NestWatch Season Wrap-Up 2019

by Anna Morris
Lead Environmental Educator

American Robin eggs!
I am often floored by how quickly the seasons go by, from our brief spring in Vermont, to the flurry of autumn colors. But what I find even more impressive is the speed of the full nesting cycle of our native songbirds. Despite this season’s length—our first Eastern Bluebirds were checking out the meadow boxes on March 2nd, and the last American Robins made their great leap skyward on August 26th—the lifespan of a single nesting attempt is surprisingly brief. The average incubation period for the songbirds we commonly see is just two weeks, and the average length of the brooding period, or time from hatching to when the babies leave the nest, is just 17 days. The whole cycle for one nest is over in a single month.

Due to this relatively short time commitment for one clutch, multiple clutches are not uncommon. As with last year, our resident Eastern Bluebird family raised two sets of five young in one of our meadow boxes, one right after the other. Several pairs of American Robins, never to be one-upped, raised three or even four clutches in a row. That last family of robins fledged on August 26th, having raised three clutches out of the same nest since beginning the season over three months prior, on May 15th. But this was long after the Tree Swallows were done, the last of their young fledging in mid-July.

American Robins, just a few days old
A lot of the difference in this timing has to do with the types of food available to a growing family, and how abundant that food is at different times of the year. For aerial insectivores like Tree Swallows, who grab flies and other insects right out of the sky, that food source has a peak, and quickly tapers off as the weather cools, requiring them to migrate to follow the abundance. American Robins, by contrast, can subsist on a variety of ground-dwelling insects, as well as berries, which are available much later into the summer and fall.

How do we learn this about our local species? Through the citizen science project NestWatch, run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the staff and volunteers at VINS spent a little time each week checking on some 30 nest sites around the Nature Center. We collected data on the number of eggs, the ages of the hatchlings, and the behavior of the parents and reported this information to the NestWatch website. There, Cornell scientists pool our data with others from thousands of NestWatch volunteers all across the country.
Eastern Bluebirds, close to fledging

VINS is Vermont’s only NestWatch chapter, and we encourage our visitors and members to participate in nest monitoring on their own through training workshops in the spring. Our brave little state could use more data: over half of all the Tree Swallow and American Robin nests monitored this year in Vermont were right here at VINS. Would you like to get involved with citizen science projects at VINS or at home? Do you know of a nest near you? Join the effort! It’s free, and helps contribute to real science. Check out or contact for more information.

We also want to extend a special thank you to Aine and Ian, our stellar Citizen Science Volunteers, who made this very busy summer’s data collection possible. Without their weekly dedication to monitoring our Tree Swallow and Eastern Bluebird nest boxes, we would not have been able to make these vital observations that are aiding our understanding of breeding bird biology.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Lichen or Not: The Fascinating World of a Symbiotic Organism

by Anna Caputo
AmeriCorps Member

A diversity of lichen in Brownsville, VT

Carl Linnaeus. The Linnaeus. The guy who documented and classified a sizable chunk of Earth’s known species, the father of taxonomy, the guy you learned about in high school biology and immediately forgot, insulted one of my favorite taxonomic groups. I don’t know what the eighteenth century botanist had against Lichens, but he described them as “the poor trash of vegetation,” classified them into one genus, and paid them little attention thereafter. I speculate that his opinion of them was skewed because Lichens aren’t plants. They aren’t technically fungi either. In fact, they’re a bit of an anomaly when it comes to categorization, yet these perfectly balanced symbiotic communities are some of the strangest macro-organisms in forests, or on rocks, fence posts, roofs, and sidewalks.

Common Greenshield (a foliose lichen)
To explain why they are so unique, one has to appreciate symbiosis. Symbiosis is defined as an interaction between different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both. There is symbiosis between clownfish and the stinging anemones they reside in, between rhinoceroses and oxpeckers who perch on their backs, and even between humans and the microbes that live in us. Symbiosis is a partnership. The symbiotic relationship in Lichens is a profound one, so much so that the word 'symbiosis' was originally coined in 1877, by biologist Albert Bernhard Frank, just to describe them.

A single Lichen is a community: multiple organisms working together to survive. They are two to three codependent entities at any given moment. This relationship starts with the scaffolding: the part that gives Lichens their strange shape and structure, which is provided by fungi in the family Ascomycota, also know as the cup mushrooms. The thing that sets Lichens apart from the rest of the cup mushrooms is that they have essentially dropped their mycelium (the root system of a mushroom) and picked up agriculture in its stead.

Bristly Beard Lichen
The “crop” that they grow is algae. Algae live inside the Lichens, and provide the symbiotic community with food: glucose and carbohydrates. For a group of Lichens known as Parmelia macrolichen, there is a third partner. They have a yeast (the same stuff used to make bread and beer) that was discovered in the mix for the first time in 2016. Lichenologists speculate that the yeast acts like the Lichen's security guard, producing chemicals that help protect it from predators or microbes.

That’s all in one lichen! None can exist without the other, but what can a fungi, an algae, and a yeast do together that other plants or mushrooms cannot do on their own? Lichen is the life-form that can grow where no plant has grown before. They are among the first organisms to colonize inorganic material like bare rocks. Take a lifeless place, a barren slab of blackened volcanic rock and try to grow something on it, without soil, scoured by sun and sea water. No ordinary plant could grow here, yet somehow, despite the extreme conditions, Lichens attach themselves and thrive.

Smoky-eye Boulder Lichen (a crustose lichen)
There are three different lichen types: fruticose (the plant-like ones), folios (the leafy ones; think of the word foliage), and crustose (the crust-like ones). Crustose Lichens most often brave the uninhabitable rock face. You can easily find this type in round patches on the surfaces of boulders or stone walls. These lichens secrete an acid which breaks down solid rock and enables them to attach strongly. This is how primary succession, the process in which bedrock develops into a fully-fledged ecosystem, is jump-started. When the lichens die, their decomposing skeletons create the first layer of dirt. Then mosses come in, grow on the dead lichen, and eventually die themselves. Other plants soon can root on top of the dead moss. Even Linnaeus admitted the importance of Lichens by saying, “though hitherto we have considered theirs a trifling place among plants, nevertheless they are of great importance in that first stage in the economy of nature.” It’s a back-handed compliment, but a compliment nonetheless.

Pixie Cup Lichen (a fruticose lichen)
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like much has changed since Linnaeus’s time. When compared to other vegetation and fungi, Lichens have gone unnoticed and are understudied. As an environmental educator, I’ve talked to loads of people who have told me that they had never noticed Lichens until I pointed them out. In addition to their fascinating biology, Lichens serve an important function in the world.  Greenshield Lichens are a crucial part of the nest material for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and Prothonotary Warblers use the long, stretchy strands of Bristly Beard Lichen to construct their nests. They are food to slugs, snails, insects, and frogs. Some Lichens absorb air pollutants like sponges, making them indicator species for air quality. These strange organisms are everywhere. We just have to learn to see them.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

A Summer of Mothing

by Caitlyn Robert
Environmental Educator

A mothing tent set -up
Once the sun is set, a whole new world awakens. While owls are hooting, thousands of insects start buzzing. Needing only a light and a sheet, “mothing” is the amazing experience of observing the hundreds of moths and other insects you can attract right in your backyard. No prior experience is needed to enjoy these nocturnal creatures. This summer is a perfect time to learn a new way to experience nature.

This past Saturday, I had the opportunity to attend the late night Annual Moth Ball in Athol, Massachusetts. For more than twelve years, the Athol Bird and Nature Club has hosted this incredible mothing event at the home of the club’s president Dave Small and his wife Shelley. It brings together all types of naturalists, from biology students learning more about the world of insects, to those who have been identifying moths for more than 50 years, to young children seeing their very first Luna Moth. Everyone can marvel at the amazing shapes and colors of our New England moths.

adult fishfly
In their backyard, Dave and Shelley set up a mothing tent on the edge of the woods. The arrangement was a well organized but simple structure with a strung up sheet, a couple UV lights and a mercury vapor bulb. These bulbs are effective at attracting night time fliers, but you can be quite successful with just your porch light.

The evening started at 9:00pm, and as many folks filtered in and out for the following hours, so did the moths. The night started slowly; among the tiny micromoths we successfully attracted other types of insects. Right from the start, there were many caddisflies, and an impressive fishfly. After 2-3 years living as aquatic larvae, fishfly emerge as adults to use their new wings to find mates and are very attracted to lights.
Rosy Maple Moth

The Rosy Maple Moths arrived early on. Common in New England, their bright yellow and pink markings make them a favorite. The thousands of scales that cover the wings of moths and butterflies give them their color which also inspires their scientific name: Lepidoptera or “scale wing”.

Adult Luna Moth
Male Luna Moth, showing "feathery" antennae
The Luna Moths said hello soon after, flying confusedly and colliding into many people, even landing and resting for half an hour on someone’s pant leg or back. As seen on this individual, most male moths have large feathery antennae to detect the pheromones of females.

With their chunky bodies and interesting wings, sphinx moths are a definite highlight. This Virginia Creeper Sphinx stayed front and center for most of the night. Sphinx moths get their name from their defensive posture as caterpillars; they raise their thorax and tilt their heads resembling a sphinx statue.
Virginia Creeper Sphinx Moth 
Globally, scientists have identified 150 000 moth species, almost ten times more than butterflies. 2200 species of moths are found in Vermont and more are identified each year. One can never stop marvelling on the different sizes and shapes and colors these creatures can be.

If you are curious about how you can start doing this at home, visit our mothing station during our annual Incredible Insect Festival on Saturday, July 6th, 2019 and come join us for a late night exploring the world of moths and other night time fliers.

At VINS this July, you can attend our new late-night Mothing Adventures. The first event will be on the night of July 6th, after a day of exploring the Incredible Insect Festival. Folks of all ages are invited to join us from 9pm-11pm.

Our second event will be during National Moth Week, a global citizen science project that is identifying moths around the world to learn more about their distribution and natural history. Join us July 20th for another opportunity to observe these special creatures!

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Ogden's Egg

by Anna Morris
Lead Environmental Educator

It’s been a hectic spring at VINS. The Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation’s ongoing renovations meant we have had to move some of our education birds from their accustomed aviaries to other enclosures temporarily. Change can be stressful, so we were closely monitoring the behavior of our oldest, most “entrenched” resident, a 38-year-old Turkey Vulture named Ogden. With VINS since 2002, but retired from demonstrations in 2018, we thought Ogden would have the hardest time with the sudden move.   

Ogden the Turkey Vulture (Anna Morris)
The last thing any of us expected was that she would embrace the change so thoroughly.

“Bren to Education Team,” came a radio call from the Wildlife Keeper last Saturday afternoon.

“Go ahead?”

“I think…I think Ogden laid an egg.”

Sitting in our offices, the educators poked our heads out into the middle of the room, then simultaneously bolted off towards the Education Bird Mews, where Ogden is housed.

There, Bren cradled in his hand a 4 inch long cream-colored, speckled egg, weighing nearly 3 ounces. It was lightly pointed toward one end, the shape of egg laid by birds that fly over long distances (like vultures).

We all stared at the egg, then took turns holding it. It was cool to the touch—Ogden had evidently not been incubating it since it was laid, and it would not have been fertile anyway (she hasn’t even seen a male Turkey Vulture in at least 20 years). The predominant emotions in the room were joy at her accomplishment, and confusion at her motivation. After so many years, why now?

Ogden's egg (Anna Morris)
When she was found injured on the side of the road in Ogden, UT in 1981, Ogden’s right wing fracture had already begun to heal. It had formed a callous, and had set in the wrong position, leaving the rehabilitators treating her pessimistic about her recovery, and Ogden unable to fully extend the wing, grounding her permanently. She was placed as an education ambassador first at Wildlife Experiences in Rapid City, SD, and then transferred to VINS in 2002.

This is the first spring that Ogden was retired from programs, an activity which likely prevented her, in her mind, from having the time and energy to start a family. She also, for the first time, has a rather low, wedge-shaped platform in her enclosure, which perhaps seems like a cave, a place where Turkey Vultures would naturally nest. Birds do not experience menopause or reproductive senescence, and so can go on laying eggs right up until the end of their lives. The oldest known wild bird of any species, a Laysan Albatross named Wisdom, continues to lay an egg every year on Midway Atoll even at 68 years of age.

At a minimum age of 38, Ogden is not even the oldest Turkey Vulture. A male Turkey Vulture named Lord Richard lives at the Lindsay Wildlife Experience in Walnut Creek, CA, and is 45 years old this year. But this longevity only belies the dangers vultures face in the wild. The oldest known Turkey Vulture who lived its whole life as a wild bird was found dead at age 16. Hit by cars as they forage for roadkill, electrocuted on improperly configured power-lines, hit by wind turbines, and poisoned by people who don’t understand the importance of scavengers, vultures in the wild need our help often, and live longer lives when they are shielded from these dangers.

Show your support for vultures like Ogden by slowing down when scavengers are near the road, switching to non-lead ammunition for hunting, and picking up plastic waste in the environment. They just need a little appreciation!

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Erie the Northern Harrier

by Grae O’Toole
Lead Wildlife Keeper

Erie (Hawk Creek Wildlife Center)
VINS is excited to announce our newest raptor ambassador, “Erie,” a female Northern Harrier! Erie can be found on exhibit with our male harrier, “Freedom”.  They are quite the pair and provide a great opportunity to see how strikingly different male and female harriers are from one another, as one of the few raptors with different plumages between the genders. Males have blue/gray feathering throughout their body,  and females have dark brown, mottled feathers; both sport a big white rump patch, a key identifying feature in the field.  Both also have large facial disks, a physical feature more commonly found in owls to help funnel sound to their large ears.  Harriers can be found in Vermont’s open grassy or marshy plains where they hover and hunt for prey in the open expanses.

Erie is only four years old, and has a bit of a mysterious past.  She was found on the side of the road in Ithaca, NY in October of 2015, when a caring member of the public brought her to the Cornell Wildlife Clinic for help. She still had her juvenile plumage, suggesting that she had hatched that spring. She was extremely emaciated, dehydrated, weak, and lethargic, but oddly enough, no major external injuries were found.  After weeks of supportive care (treating her for parasites, administering fluids, and providing ample food) she started perking up.  But then, staff at Cornell became concerned when she began making food-begging calls as people walked by her enclosure.  This behavior suggested that she was imprinted on humans, and therefore would not be releasable.

Imprinting happens early in development, during the stage when a bird identifies its parents and this influences their own identity.  Imprinting is something commonly seen in raptors, waterfowl, corvids, and doves, and if a bird is raised by something other than her own parents, she may identify herself as that particular species: in this case, a human. Unless federal and state permits are held for caring for young raptors, it is illegal for someone to raise a raptor they found in the wild.  VINS is permitted to take care of baby raptors because we have the tools and knowledge necessary to raise young specifically for release back into the wild.  Many precautions are taken to prevent imprinting, all medical needs are addressed, and proper nutrition for a growing bird is provided from day one.  Unfortunately, Erie did not have access to any of this as a baby, may have been given an improper diet, and as a result would not survive in the wild.

Once Cornell determined she was non-releasable, she was placed at Hawk Creek Wildlife Center in Aurora, NY as an exhibit ambassador.  To combat the possible imprinting, Hawk Creek decided to remain as hands-off as possible once she arrived. In their experience, she never exhibited behaviors that suggested imprinting, and believe that she may have suffered severe head trauma from being hit by a car. She may have habituated to the staff at Cornell, and once in new surroundings began to “wild up.”  Regardless, both facilities agreed that her behaviors were not that of a healthy, wild harrier.

Regardless of her past, we are excited to have her as part of our team. She was put on exhibit with Freedom at the end of March this year, and they seem to be getting along very well.  They are certainly a beautiful pair and we cannot wait to see how they interact with each other and guests in the future.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Project FeederWatch Season Summary (Winter 2018-2019)

by Anna Morris
Lead Environmental Educator

Common Feeder Birds (Project FeederWatch)
Another season of the citizen science program, Project FeederWatch is behind us, and it was a very big winter! Now in its 32nd year, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s winter bird-watching project aims to connect people with the wildlife in their backyards, and with the world of scientific research.

This is the 3rd year that VINS participated in the project, and this season we decided to count birds at 3 different sites each week. One site was visible out of our classroom window, in the roundabout overlooking the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation. Another was right behind the Crawl Space, which was itself turned into an entire exhibit about Project FeederWatch. The third was just outside a window in the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation, so even our busy rehabilitators could join in on the count!

A total of 48 two-day counts were submitted to Cornell (16 per site), containing observations of a whopping 30 different species. This is the most we have ever counted in one winter with this project, and we heard reports from other bird-watchers in the state of the diversity they were observing. Highlights at the VINS feeders included both Sharp-shinned AND Cooper’s Hawks, a Pileated Woodpecker, a Hermit Thrush, a Carolina Wren, a Field Sparrow, and a pair of Mallards. (And yeah, yeah, a Barred Owl; they seem to have been EVERYWHERE this winter).

Though many of us were missing the usual flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos at our feeders this year, over half of FeederWatch sites in Vermont did report the little gray birds consistently throughout the winter, with an average group size of just over 3. Still, this is quite low compared to last year, in which more than 80% of sites consistently reported Juncos, with an average group size of nearly 7.

American Crows were more frequently seen as the winter progressed, showing up at 44% of FeederWatch sites in Vermont during the last week of March. A similar trend was seen in Barred Owls, who had a rough time dealing with the thick ice layer covering the snow, which prevented many from hunting their usual mice and voles in their subnivean tunnels.  Evening Grosbeaks were seen across Vermont early in the winter (November & December), but gave way to Common Redpolls and Pine Grosbeaks later (February & March). And though a Carolina Wren stuck around the VINS feeders all winter long, only about 10% of Feederwatch sites in Vermont ever reported one as a visitor.
Field Sparrow, Spizella pusilla (Flickr)

By far, our most unusual visitor was the Field Sparrow. This scrubland-dwelling bird is normally only seen in Vermont during the summer breeding months, but one showed up to our feeders in early December, and again in mid-February. Though Field Sparrows are common, their populations have been experiencing a steep decline over the last 50 years.

Many thanks to everyone who contributed observations, and a super-huge thank you to Citizen Science volunteers Aine and Ian, who made nearly all of the Crawl Space observations. They watched the feeders with extreme dedication every weekend for 2 hours, and counted 13 species.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Spring Brings River Otter Pups

by Karen Ruth Richardson
VINS Volunteer

One morning, a January dawn, I walked the VINS trails before my volunteer shift. I turned on a trail which ran alongside the icy river. I heard a crack in the ice. I crouched down and held still. This was the crepuscular time of day (at dawn) when many mammals and birds are active. Suddenly, in a part of the free flowing river, three huge forms rose up. They threw themselves to the bank and rolled in the snow. They chased each other; they ran; they bounded and dove back into the water to repeat. I had just witnessed a rare sighting of North American River Otters at play.

North American River Otter (Wikimedia Commons)
With spring arriving river otters are taking to dens as birds to their nests. With the Ottauquechee River running alongside VINS's property, the woods, fields and marsh lands will be filled with new life. Can I spot an otter pup? Perhaps--but very carefully!

River otters are plentiful in North America. They prefer non-polluted water and inhabit both marine and fresh water in streams, ponds, rivers, marshes and coastal-ways. Their food source is mostly fish, but they eat turtles, salamanders, and mollusks. At VINS, educators often find hatchling turtles on the property, and help transport them to the pond for a improved chance at life.

Otters are muscular, streamlined mammals with beautiful waterproof fur consisting of the rich brown pelage: the stiff, oily guard fur and the thick silvery underfur. Otters are sleek, powerful swimmers with webbed feet. They have the third, nictitating eye membrane, allowing them to see in murky waters. When otters want to chat, they usually sound like a low frequency chuckle.

These characteristics are important to know as I go “otter observing” in springtime.

It is the start of birthing season for river otters. The female will find a good den. She is creative and will use an old beaver lodge, hollow tree or she will dig one in the riverbank. Either way, she keeps it scrupulously clean. 2 to 3 pups are born from March through May. They nurse until about 7 weeks of age. I may first see them when they emerge from the den for solid food and then throughout the summer. So spring and summer will be great months to attempt the covert observation of otters!
Otter tracks (Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife)

I first look for signs of their habitation. Otters spend much of their day marking their territory and grooming.  I can, therefore, observe along the banks of rivers and streams for their prints in the mud and soft earth. Look for their oily scat which mostly consists of fish scales and sharp, tiny bones. Their prints are about 3 inches across with 5 toes atop a heeled pad. Also look for any paths approximately 7 inches across in either mud or leftover snow and slide marks in the banks. With their high metabolism, otters hunt frequently--mostly at night, but also in the hours of dawn and dusk. Hopefully, I’ve scouted a feeding, play or nesting site.
Otter scat (Karen Richardson)

Then, I will go to a high, covered spot amidst shrub or trees where it will be difficult to hear or smell me, like before. While otters have a very keen sense of smell and hearing, they are nearsighted and will not see me if I am extremely quiet. I will never approach an otter too closely, however, as a female with pups can be quite unpredictable. I have to wait patiently. With binoculars and silent stealth, I may just encounter another of these splendid creatures.  To see an otter play in the wild without fear is a chance, elusive meeting. To spot a pup would be a wonderment.

This Spring, join me hidden and silent, by the banks of a river, for just that chance.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Dewey: The Wild Resident Barred Owl of VINS

by Anna Caputo
Americorps Member

Dewey. Photo by Emily Johnson.
This winter has brought some interesting wildlife to VINS. Boreal migrants like Pine Grosbeaks and Common Redpolls have come into the rehab center with broken wings or head trauma. A Pileated Woodpecker came to the suet at our bird feeders. Even subnivean or “under-snow-dwelling” mammals like ermine have poked their white furred heads up from the snow to peer at the goings-on. The most frequent visitor by far has been our wild Barred Owl. In the tradition of how we name our captive education birds, we named our wild resident Dewey after Dewey’s Pond located at the edge of the VINS campus. We are not sure if Dewey is male or female, though I suspect male because he has boisterously hooted back and forth with our 27-year-old retired female Barred Owl, Milton.

Dewey is a typical Vermont Barred Owl, light grey with chocolate brown stripes across his plumage and startlingly large eyes. We first noticed him occupying the tree branches near our campus bird feeders, much to the chagrin of our chickadees and red squirrels. He usually sits drowsy and basking in the morning sunbeams, his eyes squinted shut in the warmth. More often than not, anxious songbirds or peeved corvids berate him from the surrounding boughs. Slowly you’ll see him turn his head, as if ever so slightly interested in the chaos, but ultimately deciding that effort of flying away isn’t worth giving up the sunshine.

Lately, we have all noticed our “lazy” Barred getting bolder in his choice of perches. He seems to have no qualms about sitting comfortably above pathways trafficked by humans. At first it was a spectacle; Dewey would appear at our Owl Prowl events perched casually on top of the Songbird Exhibit or lurking in the forest on the second day of Owl Festival. Then he started coming a little too close for comfort. Recently, he’s been cozying up on the railing of the wooden bridge on the path to the administration building or on the roof of the new bird enclosure building. There was a time where I walked out of the bird enclosures to see him napping in the lower branches of a hemlock, 15 feet away from a path frequented by educators transporting our raptors.

This has been a tough winter for non-migratory predators. Usually, winter weather hardly ruffles the feathers of Barred Owls. They are well equipped to hunt hidden rodents in the network of icy tunnels which make up the subnivean zone. Using their acute ears, they can hear the pitter-patter of mouse paws under two feet of snow. They triangulate the source of the sound as they swoop down on silent wings, adjusting their trajectory to match the pace of their prey and breaking through snow crusts with their talons. However, this winter has pushed some owls, like Dewey, to their limits. The weather patterns of bitter cold temperatures, interspersed with the occasional warm day and a ton of precipitation, has caused snow to pile up and crust over; layers of ice and snow stacked on top of the earth like a crumb cake. With each new layer comes a thicker barrier between owls and their sustenance.
Dewey's excellent camouflage. Photo by Linda Conrad.

That is why Dewey has been edging closer and closer to the bird feeders and live animal exhibits. Other Barred Owls are behaving in similar ways. We’ve been getting a whole slew of inquiries regarding fearless owls perched on backyard feeders, places where food is more accessible for a “sit and wait” predator. This may also provide an explanation for Dewey’s seemingly lackadaisical demeanor. It could be lethargy coupled with a push to conserve as much energy as possible. Going multiple days without a successful hunt causes Barred Owls to make tough decisions: expanding their hunting hours to include the day shift or suffering through the mobbing of smaller birds.

But don’t go feeling sorry for our wild resident just yet! On March 3rd, against the odds of the prolonging harsh winter, Dewey caught himself a vole. The evidence was imprinted in that most recent snowfall. Just outside of the new bird enclosures, at the bottom of the sloping hill was an almost comical outline of wings and tail feathers, a bit of blood splotched in the deep hole of snow where he punched through the ice crust. Turns out that there was a method to his madness after all!

Friday, March 15, 2019

Don't Feed That Owl!

by Bren Lundborg
Wildlife Keeper

In the midst of an early March snowstorm, we received yet another bird that many of you have probably been seeing in high numbers: a Barred Owl. While they are normally a common patient of ours, this winter we have been receiving greater numbers than usual coming in for treatment (as I write this, we have 15 in care).

A Barred Owl just arrived for treatment at VINS.
This particular owl showed up with what was becoming an increasingly common condition : it was emaciated, weak and had lost around a third of its body weight. We did a quick exam, found it was dehydrated and hypothermic, and placed it in an enclosure to warm before starting fluid and nutritional support. As I saw the owl’s rescuer out to their car, another person pulled up, with another owl, and another emaciation case.

There are probably multiple factors to explain the number of struggling Barred Owls that have been seen near roads, houses, and bird feeders, but a big one is the weather. The deep snow, in combination with periods of warm and cold weather, have led to hard layers of packed snow and ice that the owls cannot punch through to catch their rodent prey. Many of the struggling owls are first year birds, for whom winter is always a tough time, but have even more difficulties when the weather is uncooperative. This has led many to move closer to human habitats in search of more plentiful rodents near buildings or bird feeders.

When seeing these owls hunting around your home in broad daylight, stalking your feeders where they never have before, it is tempting for many to offer them food to help them along. Although I know this may be a tough statement to accept, it is never a good idea to feed wild owls.

There are a number of reasons for this. Barred Owls have evolved to hunt and survive for the winter, and though it seems like many are faring poorly, there are many more who are doing alright. Deep wooded territories that humans rarely see can be held by successful Barred Owls, who are doing very well for themselves.

This patient has graduated to solid food after days of intensive care.
In addition, owls, especially young owls, tend to habituate quickly to human presence and feeding. This may lead to birds causing issues with pets and livestock. Though it is unlikely they will actually go after your cat or poultry, we do receive many calls from people concerned about owls stalking their chickens and ducks. A more common problem with habituation is that these owls are more likely to hunt near roads. Vehicle collisions are another one of the most common injuries that we see in Barred Owl patients, who present with fractures, head trauma and eye damage.

If you find an owl that cannot fly, it is even more important that you don’t feed it. Feeding an emaciated owl too much solid food before it is properly warmed and hydrated can kill it. In fact, it can take 7-10 days of supportive care before an emaciated bird is even able to safely consume a fully solid diet. For context, imagine the shape a healthy 150 pound person would be in if they suddenly lost 50 pounds.

The little things we anticipate showing up in spring!
Upon finding an injured or weak owl (or any bird), calling a wildlife rehabilitator for advice is the best option. VINS wildlife rehabilitators can be reached during our open hours at 802-359-5001 x212. If no one is available to talk, gently coaxing the bird into a box or pet carrier with a towel or broom, or using the towel to wrap them up and place them in a box or carrier is the next best thing. Even when very weak, they will use their talons to defend themselves, so we recommend wearing thick gloves. We also cannot stress enough the importance of keeping yourself safe, particularly if you find a bird near a busy roadway.  Until you are able to get in contact with a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, keep the bird in a warm, dark place without food or water and minimize interaction with people or pets.

In the meantime, spring is approaching, soon the snow will melt, and before long the next generation of Barred Owls will be learning the ways of the forest. If you find an owl you think needs help, don’t feed it; please reach out and ask for our advice. We are here to help!

Please consider donating to help us take care of these owls. Thank you!

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Join the VINS Volunteer Transporter Rescue Network

by Caitlyn Robert
Avian Rehabilitation Intern

Do you want to help wildlife? Do you live in Vermont or close by in New Hampshire? Are you able to drive long distances? We need your help! Join our Volunteer Rescue Network and you can provide the lifesaving transportation injured birds need to reach medical care at VINS!

Every day, staff at the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation answer dozens of phone calls from members of the public who have found a wild animal that appears to be in distress. These calls range from Barred Owls that were hit by cars and are unable to fly, to nests full of baby American Robins fallen out of a tree, to exhausted Ruby-throated Hummingbirds found stuck in a shed. During the call, we provide advice and determine the best way to get the bird help. In some cases, that advice is that the bird is behaving normally and should be given space, while in others, the bird needs to reach medical care as soon as possible. The best chance an individual has to recover and be healthy enough to be released back into the wild is to get to VINS as soon as possible. A lot of the time, the rescuer can box up the bird and transport it to VINS where we evaluate and treat the injuries. Other times, the rescuer is unable, and that is when we rely on our Volunteer Transporter Rescue Network.

Transporters play the essential role of getting injured birds to VINS fast enough to have a decent chance of recovery. As soon as we have a volunteer who is able to transport the bird, we share contact information and the rescuer and transporter coordinate the transfer. Sometimes, that is simply picking up the boxed bird where it was found, at a store or at a private home. Other times, the rescuer is able to meet halfway and the transfer is done at a Park and Ride right off Highway 89.

Every year, VINS rescues and rehabilitates around 500 wild birds from all over the state of Vermont. Last year was a record year with 652 birds. All of these rescues require individuals caring enough and willing to go out of their way to help an animal in need in whatever way that they can. This starts with members of the public calling in, to those willing to capture and box it up, to the individuals able to donate their time and fuel to ensure that the bird gets to the care it needs in the fastest way possible. Only with the help of all of these individuals can the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation succeed and the more transport options that we have across the state, especially in remote areas, the better we are able to help Vermont’s wildlife.

If you are interested in being a volunteer transporter, you are encouraged to send in your application today by mail or by emailing to before the Training Event.

Once you have applied, you are invited to the Transporter Training Event on April 7 from 1-3pm. The training is not required, but provides a lot of helpful information and resources. If you plan to attend the training, please contact Caitlyn Robert at

Get more information about this and other volunteer opportunities at VINS here and apply today to become a volunteer!

Join us for the training if you can!
Sunday, April 7, 2019
1pm-3pm in the VINS Classroom
Vermont Institute of Natural Science
149 Natures Way, Quechee, VT 05059

Please Contact Caitlyn Robert for any questions:

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Winter of the Pine Grosbeak

By Anna Morris
Lead Environmental Educator

For many of us at VINS, this winter has been remarkable. In addition to the cold, snow, and ice, the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation has seen record-breaking numbers of patients. But one of the most interesting things about those patients was who they turned out to be.

Last winter the northeast experienced an irruption—a term biologists use to describe a sudden change in the population density of an animal—of Snowy Owls. Large numbers of these normally arctic tundra-dwelling raptors found themselves moving south through the United States, looking for open territories and good hunting grounds for small rodents and birds. This winter we are once again experiencing an irruption, but this time of boreal songbirds.

Adult Male, wikimedia commons
Boreal songbirds are birds that breed in, migrate through, or otherwise rely on North America’s boreal forest habitat, according to the Boreal Songbird Initiative. This unique habitat, consisting of mostly spruce, pine, and larch trees, covers 1.5 billion acres of land in Canada and Alaska. The boreal forest not only provides a safe haven for more than 300 bird species and large mammals like caribou and wolves, but the trees sequester large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, slowing the effects of climate change.

Evening Grosbeaks, Bohemian Waxwings, Common Redpolls, and Pine Grosbeaks are among the boreal songbird species that bird-watchers all over Vermont have been seeing in unusually high numbers this winter. Professional “finch forecaster” Ron Pittaway of the Ontario Field Ornithologists documents the abundance of boreal bird food crops like conifer seeds and berry-bushes each winter, and predicted that these four species would be abundantly seen due to the low amount of their normal food resources in the summer of 2018.

He appears to have been exactly right. At the VINS Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation, we have seen 7 Pine Grosbeaks as patients since the beginning of December 2018. (In 2017 and 2016, we saw none at all). Pine Grosbeaks are large, frugivorous (“fruit-eating”) finches, a food source which is highly variable year-to-year, and so occasionally drives them to seek out more resources further south than their normal range. Their 10 inch length and 2-3 ounce bulk may not seem “large”, but you might spot Pine Grosbeaks foraging in large flocks in the winter for nuts and seeds as well. Their scientific name, Pinicola enucleator, means “pine tree dweller, who removes the kernel”, as from seeds.
Adult Female, wikimedia commons

Of our 7 Pine Grosbeak patients this winter, nearly all came in with head trauma, which was likely sustained from colliding with windows. These northern birds have little experience with human settlements, and clear glass confuses them, causing injury. There are many ways to minimize window collisions by birds, and save lives. Putting up ultraviolet reflective stickers or protective screens will help birds recognize an unsafe place to fly.

Our patients in December came from towns farther north in Vermont, and those recent comers have been from right at our latitude, so it has been interesting to track the southward movements of this species in our own state. Three of our Pine Grosbeak patients were able to be released back into the wild, and one young male has joined our resident songbirds on exhibit at the VINS Nature Center.

Stop by VINS soon and meet our newest songbird educator, Hanover. Hanover the Pine Grosbeak came into our care on January 17th, 2019 with a fracture to his left radius/ulna (forearm bones) near the wrist. Though he was in a body wrap for a week to try to heal the fracture properly, it was deemed too severe for release as he is unable to get enough lift for flight even after 3 weeks of healing—bird bones heal a lot faster than humans, and so by this point we know that Hanover’s injury is permanent. He sits near the top of the enclosure, and we’re sure he’s eager meet his new fans!

Monday, February 18, 2019

Meet Windham!

by Bren Lundborg
Wildlife Rehabilitator

Windham, a female Cooper’s hawk, was brought to the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation in early February of 2017. She was still in her juvenile plumage and having a rough first winter. Cooper’s hawks often injure themselves due to their aggressive hunting style (one study found over 20% had old healed fractures), and the first winter for any raptor is a difficult trial. When Windham arrived, she was coated in oil, had several puncture wounds around her pelvis and was not standing or able to properly use her feet. Fortunately, she was in good body condition, and after a day of stabilization with warmth, fluids and pain medications, rehabilitation staff was able to clean her wounds and give her a bath to remove the oily substance.

Windham, covered in oil and struggling to stand before her first bath.

The next morning, although she was standing, she was shaking and weak, clearly struggling to keep herself up. Most of her toes curled underfoot. This indicated to rehabilitation staff that she likely had some neurological damage, which may have several potential causes. She may have ingested some of the oil and been suffering from toxicity. The wounds around her pelvis were in the area where nerves from the spinal cord branch out to the legs, and may also have been causing limb issues. To complicate matters, Cooper’s hawks often fly into windows while chasing other birds, so Windham may also have had some previous head or spinal trauma that had led to her current condition. Over the next 10 days, she continued to receive supportive care, including fluids, pain medications and antibiotics for her wounds, as well as twice-daily hand feedings until she began eating on her own. During that time, it took two more baths to get her clean, and several more sessions of cleaning and removing dead tissue from her wounds to allow them to heal quickly and properly. After five days of care, she was standing on her own, but her foot posture was still not improving. We taped flat “shoes” to her feet and began physical therapy to help improve her posture and foot use.

Windham being bathed. Several tubs of soap and rinses were used to get rid of the oil.
The hood over her eyes serves to reduce stress during these procedures.

Finally, after almost two weeks of care, she began eating on her own, and her wounds had healed nicely. Despite daily physical therapy sessions, which involved flexing both feet and each individual toe, she had shown little improvement; she was able to stand but had almost no gripping strength. Still, staff persisted, and after a few more days she started to show some gripping strength. We then moved her to a larger enclosure to see how she was able to get around, and saw she was able to perch and use her feet to hold down food while she tore at it with her beak. Gradually, her gripping strength improved.

Raptors have a behavior called “footing” when attacking or defending themselves, in which they grab their target with their powerful taloned feet. Obviously, it is not a good thing to be footed by a raptor because their long talons can cause significant damage. Around the three-week mark of physical therapy, a coworker exclaimed, “She’s footing me!”

 “Awesome!” I responded (again, this is normally a very bad thing). It was not a powerful grab, and my coworker was unharmed, but the incident showed that Windham’s strength was improving. After almost a month of physical therapy, her feet were finally strong enough to end physical therapy.

Windham clean and dry after several days of care.

Unfortunately, when we brought Windham out to the flight cage, the results were very disappointing. She was only able to glide down from her perch and was not able to get any lift when leaving the ground. It seemed that her neurological damage had also affected her wings. She was unable to extend her wings fully, and even after a long period of rehabilitation and continued exercise, she never regained the ability to fly well. Additionally, we suspected because of her behavior she had some persistent brain damage. A falconer I know aptly described Cooper’s hawks as “bonkers”, as they will throw themselves into a wall or ceiling to try to get away as soon as they see you. However, Windham would sit still on her perch and allow staff to walk up and place food right on her feet. When Windham was stressed, her left foot would clench uncontrollably, a persistent neurological defect from her injuries. Because of these conditions, we made the decision that she was non-releasable.

Windham has now taken up residence for the winter in our broad-winged hawk enclosure. The broad-winged hawks spend the winter indoors because in the wild they would be wintering down in Central America. Windham settled down quickly, even eating on the first night in her strange new setting. She has undergone her first molt into adult plumage, and her eyes have begun to turn from their juvenile yellow color to the fierce red of a mature Cooper’s hawk. While we also have a male Cooper’s hawk, we cannot house them together for the male’s safety. Windham is over one-and-a-half times his size, and females have evolved to hunt birds that are often similar in size to male Cooper’s hawks. In the wild, males must approach females cautiously, and may often present them with a gift of food and wait for them to accept it before coming near. Life is dangerous for Cooper’s hawks, male and female alike, and while Windham may not return to her wild lifestyle, she will continue to inspire and educate people for years to come.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

2018 in Wild Bird Rehabilitation

By Lauren Adams
Lead Wildlife Keeper

2018 was a big year at VINS for a lot of reasons.  Here in the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation, you may not have been able to tell from the outside, but we had a LOT going on inside our little building.  Around the middle of the summer, it felt pretty busy around here.  I decided to check our rehab admissions data from the prior year, just to see where we stood in comparison.  We were well ahead of 2017, so I checked our previous record-high year, 2016.  We were even ahead of that year, by a lot!  And we stayed that way ending the year with 652 total patients, over 100 birds more than the previous VINS record.

This could be attributed to a lot of different factors.  Certainly wild birds face many challenges in the wild that can affect their abilities to survive and increase their likelihood of becoming injured, found, and then brought into a rehab center.  Things such as habitat loss, climate change and environmental pollution can all impact a bird’s ability to successfully hunt, forage, nest, breed, migrate, or perform any of their natural behaviors.  VINS has also made a significant effort to spread the word about our Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation in order to facilitate getting help to the wildlife in need around our region.

It is really difficult to say whether or not this increase is a singular spike, an anomaly year in the grand scheme, or whether it represents a trend.  For now, I’ve put together some statistics and information about our patients in 2018 so that you can have a sense of what the year looked like behind our doors.
Patients seen by CWBR 2000-2018

2018 rehab by the numbers
Total patients = 652
Total species = 88
Total releases = 263
Overall release rate = 40.2%
Overall survival rate = 44.8%
Release rate for birds that survive >24hrs = 68.8%
Raptors only
Total number of raptors in care = 120 (18.4% of total)
16 species (5 owls, 11 diurnal raptors)
39.2% of all raptors were released (adjusted for Transfers, Pending: survival rate = 43.3%)

What was the ultimate fate of birds in our care this year?
Where are all these birds coming from?
Rehab within the 1st 24 hours of care
For birds that survived past the first 24hrs, 68.8% were released
An unfortunate fact:  41.5% of birds do not make it past 24hrs
For all birds that were euthanized, 72% were euthanized in the first 24hrs
For all birds that died, 63% died in the first 24hrs

Top 10 species 2018

Top 10 species made up 48% of total intakes
1. American Robins (82) AMRO
2. Barred Owls (45) BDOW
3. Broad-winged Hawks (32) BWHA
4. Rock Doves (29) RODO
5. European Starlings (25) EUST
6. Mourning Doves (24) MODO
7. House Sparrows (22) HOSP
8. Cedar Waxwings (19) CEWA
9. Blue Jays (19) BLJA
10. American Crows (18) AMCR

Top 5 causes for admission 2018          
1.  Unknown Trauma (236...36%)
2.  Orphaned (77...12%)
3.  Vehicle strike (62...10%)
4.  Fell from nest (58...9%)
5.  Cat bite (55...8%)

Hopefully this gives you a glimpse into the world of wild bird rehab at VINS.  A huge, heartfelt thank you to all of our staff, volunteers, visitors, donors and friends for making 2018 so wonderful.  And of course, to all of the birds! Also, enjoy a sampling of the more adorable of our patients this year:
Barred Owl nestling re-united with its parents. 

Common Grackle nestlings eager to be fed. 

Broad-winged Hawk hatchling

Merlin nestling

Carolina Wren fledgling

Ruffed Grouse adult

Black-capped Chickadee fledgling

American Kestrel nestling

Cedar Waxwing fledgling

Ruby-throated Hummingbird fledgling