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: