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Injured Baby Birds: Debunking Common Myths and Dispensing Practical Advice

Injured Baby Birds: Debunking Common Myths and Dispensing Practical Advice

This blog was written by Helene Van Doninck, wildlife veterinarian at the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Truro, Nova Scotia, and edited by Samantha Nurse. Spring is the busiest season of all for wildlife rehabilitators. It’s baby bird season! This is the season that rehabilitation centres start to stock up on supplies and prepare for an exponential growth in phone calls. The first priority is to help injured, sick, or orphaned wildlife; however, we often spend a considerable amount of time talking to people to help us decide if an animal is really orphaned or in distress. Many times people just aren’t familiar with the natural history of that species and many situations that look like an animal in peril, really are just an animal exhibiting normal behaviour. We uncover the truth behind some of the myths associated with baby birds, as well as tips on what to do if you find a baby bird in your yard!

Myth #1: Baby birds found outside the nest have been orphaned.

[caption id="attachment_34262" align="alignright" width="394"]Image of a Bobolink feeding young Bobolinks feeding its young[/caption] It’s not common knowledge that most baby birds (especially songbirds) spend a lot of time alone once they fledge from the nest. People often see a young bird alone and assume it is an orphan  this is usually not true. Songbirds will hatch from their egg in a nest and are called nestlings at this point. When they make that first leap out of the nest (and are now called fledglings), they often either fall or flutter to the ground and spend several days on the ground under the watchful eye of the parents. The parents likely have up to five or six fledglings that have left the nest over a period of a few days. Both parents are working at top speed to find food from dawn till dusk.  They not only have to feed these young birds (one bug at a time!), but they need to keep track of where the babies are (they are often guided by the calls of their babies) before racing off to find the next morsel of food. They also protect them from predators,  try to lead them to areas where there is cover, and eventually teach them to forage and fly on their own. These behaviours are often learned by observing the parent, though the flight is instinctual for most birds. Young birds are at a high risk of predation. Other wild birds and mammals can prey on them, and in most parts of the world, the domestic cat is also the cause of millions of songbird deaths. We regularly ask people to keep cats as indoor pets, or at the very least limit their outdoor time during baby season. There are some types of birds that will spend most of their time with the parents, again due to their natural history. Birds like ducks, geese, and pheasants keep their young with them and many people have observed these species with the hatchlings following in a tight cluster. These species don’t manually feed their young; instead the young observe the foraging and pecking behaviour of the parents and learn to feed themselves in this manner. For this reason, anytime a down-covered young of any of these species is found alone it requires intervention, especially if it is calling loudly with no response from a parent.

Myth #2: Baby birds handled by humans are rejected by their parents.

A common myth we hear is that if a young bird is touched and has human scent on it, the parents will reject it. This is untrue as birds have an extremely poor sense of smell (though we don’t recommend handling wild birds unless it is absolutely necessary). We have successfully returned young birds back to their parents up to four days after they were taken. However, keep in mind that parents may abandon a nest that is repeatedly disturbed, so try to avoid this, especially when the young are very new. At this age they require high volumes of food and warmth and the parents need to be very vigilant to ward off predators. Excessive disturbance by curious humans may disturb normal activities, resulting in the loss of the nest. What can you do if you find a baby bird? [caption id="attachment_36370" align="alignleft" width="449"]Photo of Juvenile Western Wood-Pewees by Tony LePrieur. Photo of Juvenile Western Wood-Pewees by Tony LePrieur.[/caption] First, you need to determine if it is a baby bird. If it has no feathers or very few feathers, that makes it more obvious. Fledglings, however, are usually mostly feathered but have some obvious differences in comparison to adults:
  1. Fledglings have wispy or fluffy down feathers poking through the regular feathers, which are most commonly seen on the head.
  2. They have shorter tail feathers and often have gape flanges which look like large yellow/beige/orange “lips” protruding from the sides of the beak.
  3. They may also have only feather shafts, which look like a drinking straw with a feather growing from it, where one would expect to see flight or tail feathers.
Naked nestlings found on the ground from a destroyed nest always need help. The best option is to re-nest the birds if possible. If that can’t happen, an artificial nest can be constructed from a hanging plant basket or other basket, making sure there are drainage holes in the bottom. The best placement for this basket is as near as possible to the original nest and hopefully shielded somewhat from direct sunlight and rain. You can then back away and watch from a distance with binoculars. Once the nestlings are hungry and call, the parents will usually feed them in an artificial nest. They may be suspicious at first, but instinct often overrides that and the parents should accept this situation. If not, please contact a wildlife rehabilitator or your wildlife officials for more advice as these birds may need to be taken into care. We ALWAYS try to reunite the parents and young as the parents are much better at raising the offspring than any human. Fledglings by definition have left the nest. Sometimes well-meaning people who have been monitoring a nest will put them back, only to have them jump out again. This is normal! If you are unsure if a fledgling has parents tending to it, the best option is to watch from a distance with binoculars. The parents will stay away if you stand too close. If all is well, you will likely see a parent bird land next to the fledgling, poke a piece of food into its mouth and take off again to find more food. If you are unsure about this, another thing you can do is check for feces. Young birds will poop frequently when they are being fed regularly. If the parent is tending to them they usually produce poop after every feeding, often every 20 minutes to one hour. You can even place a shallow lid under the bird to look for this. If the parent bird is not showing up and the fledgling is calling repeatedly for hours with no response, this may be an orphan and you should call a rehabilitator. There are several other situations that warrant rescue of a bird, including obvious blood or injury, being  handled by a dog or cat and knowing for certain that the bird is an orphan. Keep in mind however, that most young birds on the ground are normal fledglings with parents. If you find one in a perilous situation, you can try to coax it to an area with cover or put it on a low branch, realizing that it may jump down again immediately. People often ask us what they can do to help baby birds. Reasons for songbird population declines are complex, but from our perspective, we have three key pieces of advice: 1- Preserve habitat: Leave brush piles for cover and preserve large trees and snags for cavity nesters. 2- Do not use pesticides birds need insects to feed their young. 3- Keep your cats indoors. These steps will lead to more young surviving the fledgling stage, which will lead to more breeding adults for the future. Watch more videos of baby birds under the care of the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre. 
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Give a Green Gift this Holiday Season!

Give a Green Gift this Holiday Season!

Helene Van Doninck, a wildlife veterinarian at the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre and a regular contributor to the Nature Canada blog, shares 11 great green gift ideas for friends and family this holiday season. 

Image of Jams
Homemade jams. Photo: kayakeverwhere via Flickr
The holiday season is rapidly approaching, and with it  comes the task of finding gifts for loved ones. In my world, most people are trying to decrease the amount of “things” in their homes , so I honour that when selecting gifts. It is also important to me to pick items that are green or earth friendly.  Doing this doesn’t mean changing my entire strategy or even the traditional  categories of gifts for people. It just means altering choices to pick items that are less harmful to the environment, and many of these gifts end up being more meaningful to the recipient.
Green gift strategies can apply whether you enjoy  the process of finding the perfect gift  for everyone, or if you normally dread the decision making process and want it to be as quick and painless as possible. Gift suggestions will follow but some general guidelines for making your holiday spending ecologically responsible include:
  • Buy locally, from independent services, stores, crafters and artisans. This will keep dollars in your community and decrease the footprint of your purchases. Farmer’s markets and craft cooperatives are fun places to shop.
  • Choose products whose components are sustainably obtained.
  • Consider gifts of experiences, events , or outings which appeal to the recipient. This supports local businesses and won’t add more possessions to the person who is trying to scale back.
  • Avoid excessive packaging, both in your purchase and when you wrap the item. Tea towels and  fabric throws make great re- useable wrapping and homemade cards can be fun for the giver and the recipient.
  • Reduce, re-use,  and recycle are always good principles to keep in mind.

11 Green Holiday Gifts:

1. Gift Certificates - Often thought of as the easy way out,  but they are really the perfect gift: satisfaction guaranteed and no returns. Even better: support stores and services that have a good environmental record. 2. Concert/event tickets – Tickets to an event, series, or a gift certificate to a local cultural centre will give the music/arts lover on your list something to look forward to in the new year. 3. Outdoor Gear – Anything that encourages people to get out and experience wilderness is bound to convert them to  active stewards of their little piece of the world. Consider things like binoculars, bird guides, backpacks, snowshoes, skis,  and outdoor clothing. 4. Green  Stars – Bicycles, bicycle gear, public transport passes, composters, wind-up radios and flashlights, re-useable insulated ceramic or steel coffee mugs, or anything that encourages a lower footprint. 5. Food – Choose items that are local and ethically sourced, or fair trade.  Even better are items you make yourself such as a tin of cookies, preserves or anything homemade. Farm cooperatives are now widespread and a membership  will provide  fresh local vegetables and support farmers. 6. A Night Out – This can include movie passes, restaurant gift certificates, and even babysitting services. 7. Donations/Memberships to Environmental Organizations – These can be very meaningful  to both the organization and your loved one. Consider symbolic adoptions of animals for rescue/wildlife groups and concepts like symbolic donations of medical care, education and sustainable food/enterprise to developing countries. Our wildlife rehabilitation centre produces a wildlife calendar as an education tool each year , featuring  past patients . Supporters have purchased this as a holiday gift and it has become a major fundraiser for us.  Supporting Nature Canada is a great a way to help protect local wildlife and habitat. 8. Green Up Your Traditional Gifts – If you generally buy clothing or bath products , purchase items made from organic cotton, bamboo or hemp, and choose bath and cosmetic products made from ethically sourced ingredients that are not tested on animals. Local crafts are always good choices too. 9. Wildlife Friendly Gifts – A gift certificate for trees,  shrubs , plants or gardening services redeemable in the spring will provide habitat for local wildlife. Tuck this in a  basket of gardening tools. Bird feeders and nest boxes are great presents too and will provide years of enjoyment. 10. Educational Gifts – Think about books on environmental topics,  vegetarian cooking, or even an e-reader.  Gift certificates to workshops, courses, or lessons that fit your recipient are also fun. Maybe they have always wanted to  learn to ski,  make pottery, build bird houses,  cook,  weave, etc. 11. Gifts of Time and Memories – Creative gifts include  handmade gift certificates for things like babysitting, cooking a meal, pampering, or yard care. A CD ,  DVD , or album featuring a compilation of family photos or videos is a cherished gift. Also remember that the holiday season is a particularly difficult time of year for some people , so remember to visit, contact, or include these people in festivities if possible.
Happy Holidays and have a safe and Happy New Year!

7 Tips to Help Migrating Birds
Common Terns (Sterna hirundo) at Pelee Point, Point Pelee National Park, Onatrio, Canada. Canada's most southern tip, located just meters below the 42 nd. parallel.

7 Tips to Help Migrating Birds

[caption id="attachment_22916" align="alignleft" width="150"]Image of Samantha Nurse Samantha Nurse, Web and Social Media Coordinator[/caption] Helene Van Doninck, wildlife veterinarian at the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, shares her tips on how you can help migrating birds reach their destination this fall. This blog was edited by Sam Nurse, Nature Canada's Website and Social Media Coordinator. Once again autumn has arrived in Canada and for billions of birds this signals the ancient event of migration. No matter where you reside, you will see the populations of birds in your local area fluctuate as some birds leave for more southern climates, and some birds arrive from northern latitudes. There are of course many year-round residents that will hold tight to their territories, but they will soon be hosting some new visitors. Migration itself is a fascinating biannual movement that has ignited countless theories and driven many people, scientists and non-scientists alike, to wonder about the exact mechanisms and routes taken by individual species. The intricacies of migration will be fodder for a future blog post, so stay tuned! For now, we’ll concentrate on  tips that may help migrating birds get to their destination, or at least provide them with some fuel and energy for the voyage. 1. Leave Out Your Hummingbird Feeders Contrary to popular belief, leaving your hummingbird feeders out will not cause delayed migration in hummingbirds. Migration is a powerful instinct and leaving the feeders out until all birds have left may well provide some extra nutrition for young birds that may need an extra boost, or for some that are merely passing through. As always, clean and change all feeders regularly to prevent the spread of disease. [caption id="attachment_16934" align="alignright" width="300"]Image of a Hummingbird by Shauna Stevens A Hummingbird at the feeder by Shauna Stevens[/caption] 2. Re-Stock Your Regular Bird Feeders As with the hummingbird feeders, the availability of extra food in regular bird feeders may help passing migrants fuel up on the way to their destination. Every little bit helps! 3. Do Not Disturb Shorebird Fueling Stations Each autumn billions of shorebirds gather in huge flocks to eat as much as they can over a short period of time. At the CWRC we live near one of these very important areas: the Bay of Fundy. Getting enough food during these stopovers is absolutely critical to allow these birds to fly for long distances to reach their southern destinations. Please respect these areas and keep disturbance to a minimum. 4. Look for Hurricane and Weather Refugees Extreme weather can interrupt migration, send birds on errant paths, and damage food supplies and habitat. Watch for unusual birds in your area after weather events and if it seems that a bird is in the wrong place, let wildlife officials know or contact a rehabilitation centre. Often birds in the wrong place can re-direct themselves, but sometimes they need a helping hand. 5. Turn off the Lights Millions of migrating birds are killed every year by something we never even think about: office towers that leave lights on overnight. This is particularly an issue when downtown cores are in the middle of migration corridors. One of the most problematic areas in Canada is downtown Toronto. Become educated about this problem in your local area and if it’s an issue, try to convince building managers to shut lights off at night. Other migration hazards include power lines, windows, wind turbines and other sources of light at night (including industrial flares). Become educated on these issues and let your government officials know you want policies that reflect your concerns. To learn more about the dangers birds face, check out our Save Bird Lives initiative. [caption id="attachment_15802" align="alignleft" width="300"]Black-throated Green Warbler Black-throated Green Warbler[/caption] 6. Provide Natural Food Supplies Items like apples, rosehips, berries, snags and fruit trees provide important nutrition for birds. Plant native species that provide food sources for migrating birds and don’t be too quick to pick up things like fallen apples. 7. Cut Out Pesticides It is encouraging to see more and more municipalities banning the use of pesticides. Insect eating birds are on the decline throughout North America with habitat loss, climate change and loss of food supplies being among the cited reasons for the declines. Please avoid the use of pesticides. Insect eating birds rely on an abundance of different species of insects, and do a great job of keeping their numbers under control in an environmentally friendly way. Most importantly this migration season, enjoy being a spectator for what is arguably the most remarkable natural phenomenon. Consider recording first and last seen dates for different species and make it an annual tradition. Spend time outside and enjoy the spectacle in your own backyard, you never know what you might see!

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Preventing Bird Deaths from Lead Poisoning

Preventing Bird Deaths from Lead Poisoning

In her second guest post, wildlife vet Helene Van Doninck shares troubling stories about human-wildlife interactions. Lead poisoning is the topic of this entry – Helene tells us how you can prevent unnecessary bird deaths that result from this toxic substance. As a wildlife veterinarian and rehabilitator, I get a first hand glimpse into what happens when wild birds and humans interact. While many of these encounters are positive, I often see the results when the outcome is negative for the bird. More than ninety percent of the admissions to our rehabilitation centre are a direct result of interaction with humans or our structures. Each year we analyze the reasons birds and other wildlife are brought to us seeking medical aid.  The top reasons for admission include birds that are: hit by a vehicle, victims of cat predation, poisoned (lead poisoning in particular), injured from striking a window, orphaned, oiled, and shot. We spend a considerable amount of time trying to provide education that will help to decrease the number of animals that are victims of human interaction. People who bring us birds often ask how they can help. For several of the causative reasons listed above, the solution is obvious. Thousands of wild animals are struck by vehicles every year and simply driving slower and being more aware during dawn and dusk-periods of increased activity may help decrease collisions. Birds of prey and scavenging species are often struck when they opportunistically consume other vehicle collision victims. To help prevent this (not for the faint of heart), I personally carry a shovel in my vehicle and if it is safe to do so,  will move dead animals to the ditch or well off the road to prevent another wildlife death. In 2010, we admitted 2 bald eagles that had been struck while scavenging. Both died of their injuries despite medical care. In recent years we have seen an increase in bird deaths due to lead poisoning. Sadly, these deaths are easily preventable. It has been known for years that lead is toxic, yet it is still used to make hunting and fishing gear and in the manufacturing of other items. Lead shot was banned in waterfowl hunting years ago, but it is still legal to use for hunting other species. The most common species to get lead poisoning are bald eagles and common loons. Eagles can ingest lead shot (just one ingested pellet or sinker can kill) when scavenging bodies or remnants of bodies left behind by hunters. Some animals are also wounded but not killed and then scavenged by eagles. Loons can ingest lead sinkers or lures left behind on lake beds – lines are often cut when the sinker or gear gets entangled under the water. It is thought that loons either see the reflective lure and go after it, assuming it is a fish, or accidentally ingest the sinker when picking up bits of rock on the lake bed, which is necessary for proper digestion. Lead poisoned loons are weakened and unable to fly or dive. They will stop eating, have seizures, and get diarrhoea and paralysis of neck muscles. Lead poisoned bald eagles are usually found on the ground unable to fly in a weakened and thin state. They often have a drooped head and wings and are unable to respond to threats by other predators. The poisoning is fatal without treatment and can be fatal even with treatment if the lead levels are high enough or the animal goes too long without receiving care. Anytime we receive a bald eagle that is unable to fly, but with no signs of injury, lead is my first suspicion. The bird is x-rayed to look for lead, though absence of lead on an x-ray still warrants further investigation in a symptomatic bird. If the eagle ingested the pellet more than two weeks ago, the powerful muscles and presence of other grit in the digestive tract will grind the lead down and release it into the blood stream, making it undetectable by x-rays. In these kinds of cases, a blood sample is sent to confirm the diagnosis and then we start the long process of chelation therapy to try and remove the lead from the victim. This means injections for five to ten days, follow-up blood work, intravenous fluids and tube-feeding to support an animal too sick and weak to ingest food or water. These birds require high maintenance, supportive care until they can stand and eat on their own – they will be in recovery for weeks to months if they survive. One typical case we received involved a loon seen swimming in circles and unable to dive. The people who noted this were unable to capture it and monitored the loon for one day. The next day the bird, a mature male, was found on land in a weakened state. It was brought to us and died within hours despite medical therapy – it was simply too far gone. We confirmed a diagnosis of lead poisoning with x-rays, blood tests and an autopsy. One lead sinker killed this bird. The person who found the bird called me several days later to tell me that its mate swam back and forth near where the poisoned loon beached, making distress vocalizations for days after its mate died an unnecessary death. How can you prevent this? The answer is simple. Avoid using products containing lead, and in particular, do not use lead shot or fishing gear. Alternatives such as steel and bismuth do exist and are available.  Ask for and demand these alternatives in tackle, hunting and bait shops. You may just save a life.
An x-ray of a lead sinker inside the body of a loon admitted to Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre

Injured Birds: How Can You Help?

Injured Birds: How Can You Help?

 Helene Van Doninck is a veterinarian at the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Truro, Nova Scotia, Canada. The CWRC is a not for profit charitable organization dedicated to providing veterinary care to sick, injured and orphaned wildlife. Helene took the time to share her extensive experience caring for injured birds with us in this post:

Have you ever been in a situation where you have discovered a bird in distress and wished there was something you could do to help? 
Luckily, you can help if you contact a wildlife rehabilitation centre where volunteers dedicate their time and skills to helping injured, orphaned and sick birds. As a wildlife veterinarian who operates such a centre, I deal with people who want to help birds that they find, but need some advice and assistance. I give the best advice and care that I can and stress that it is important to bring injured animals to trained individuals, as they often need medical care.
Injured birds can be captured and transported using common objects. 
While some of the larger birds can be more dangerous to handle and require special advice (raptors, loons, herons are some examples), most birds can be captured by dropping a towel or blanket over them and scooping them into a plain cardboard box. Remember to poke air holes in the top section of the box, tape it securely and place a towel or other secure footing on the bottom of the box to prevent the bird from sliding on a slippery surface during transport.
Rehabilitation centres are busiest during the spring and summer months when young birds are fledging, but winter months come with their own perils. Our most common reasons for winter admissions include birds that are: 
  • Hit by cars or have had some other type of trauma
  • Injured from striking a window
  • Victims of cat predation
  • Poisoned by lead
  • Oiled
  • In a starvation state often due to extreme weather conditions.
Spring and summer admissions include all of the above admission reasons as well as animals that are: 
  • Orphaned or presumed orphaned
  • Contaminated with oil, poisoned, or trapped,
  • Victims of gunshot, electrocution, and entrapment.
Rehabilitation centres often will admit all native species unless they specialize in certain groups. At the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre we will admit all bird species, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians. We do have special expertise and interest in raptors, seabirds, and oiled wildlife and our caseload and species diversity changes every year. For instance, in 2010, our most common patients were bald eagles, closely followed by other species of raptors, songbirds, and seabirds. 
One of our most recent success stories was the rescue of a barred owl that had been trapped in a coil of wire in a barn for several days in bitter cold before being discovered by the property owner. We received this bird in a weak, dehydrated and semi-comatose state. It needed several days of intensive medical care, but once it survived the initial problem, it simply needed to be fed properly and housed in a safe environment until it was strong and ready for release. It was returned to home territory last week and released in the grateful presence of the finder. 
Photos 4-6 courtesy of Sherry Martell
This week brought us a young red-tailed hawk that was hit by a car and received a broken leg, a head injury and some eye damage. The head and eye will heal in time, but the leg is now sporting four metal pins that were placed during a two hour surgery this afternoon. The implants will stay in place until the bone heals. After the pins are removed, the bird will undergo rehabilitation until we are sure it is in the best state possible for release into the wild.
While not every bird brought into our care has such a happy ending, it’s these type of cases that keep us  motivated to continue helping birds in distress every day.

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