Thursday, April 26, 2012

PHOTO CAPTION: Catherine Greenleaf checks the heart rate of an injured brown pelican at a Florida wildlife rehabilitation center.

Reprinted with permission from The Bridge Weekly Sho-Case

Diary of a Wildlife Rehabilitator

By Catherine Greenleaf

I’ve just returned to New Hampshire after six weeks in the Florida Everglades. There is truly no other place like it on Earth. I am always left nearly breathless by the sheer wildness and untamed beauty of the area.

The Everglades, the second largest wetlands area in the world, stretches southward from massive Lake Okeechobee for 100 miles across a limestone shelf all the way to Florida Bay at the bottom of the state.

As Marjory Stoneman Douglas, guardian of the Everglades, wrote in her famous book, River of Grass, these interconnecting sawgrass marshes are part of a unique and complex ecosystem that also include tropical hardwood hammocks, cypress swamps, pine rockland, the estuarine mangrove forests of the Ten Thousand Islands region and the Florida Bay itself.

While the Everglades originally consisted of 5 million acres, development and agriculture have taken their toll. However, two million acres are now protected for the public to enjoy.

The area is Nirvana for bird lovers. I couldn’t look up at the sky without seeing roseate spoonbills, anhingas, great white herons, limpkins, purple gallinules, snowy egrets, wood storks, white ibis, cormorants, black skimmers, ospreys, and, of course, brown pelicans. I often saw a dozen or more roseate spoonbills roosting on the branches of a single tree.

This year, I decided to stay in an old fishing cabin on Chokoloskee Island, right at the edge of the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve near Everglades City. Everglades City, a favorite of fishermen, is a quaint little hamlet with one gas station, a post office and a supermarket. Each day it was 80 degrees and sunny with blue sky as far as you could see. The underneath of my cabin was sealed in hardware cloth to prevent snakes from making their way up through the floorboards. There was a sign posted at the front office requesting guests to watch where they travel at night because of Florida panthers.

Driving up and down Rte. 41, I came upon various roadside stands beckoning me to pay $20 to have my photo taken holding an alligator. I also passed the occasional crab shanty with walls that slanted decidedly in one direction thanks to the latest hurricane. Then, of course, there was the Skunk Ape Museum, which exhibits evidence of the existence of the ever-elusive “Bigfoot of the Everglades.” But for the most part it was just mile after mile of unbroken and beautiful wildness.

When I’m in Florida I remain on-call to help out fellow wildlife rehabilitators. Over the last 10 years, I’ve logged many hours working with Florida’s bird species. Rehabbing in Florida is like working in a M.A.S.H. unit. You treat “incoming wounded” all day long and far into the night. Rehabilitators in Florida have drop-off cages at the entrances to their facilities. Injured birds are dropped off by caring rescuers at all hours of the night. These rehabbers in the Sunshine State are always relieved to get some help, and often I will also agree to work a night shift so someone can go home and get some sleep.

Why the constant influx of injured and sick birds? Florida becomes mighty crowded during winter tourist season and there are many collisions between human snowbirds and wild birds.

When I’m down there I treat birds hit by cars, RVs, and jetskis. They come in with injuries from boat propellers as well as starvation because they have become entangled in monofilament fishing line left behind by fishermen and cannot free themselves to feed or fly. I have treated ospreys clipped by aircraft at local airports and military bases, drowning hawks pulled out of swimming pools, and birds poisoned after eating fish tainted by oil spills and bilge dumping from pleasure yachts. Sad to say, I see more than my share of birds intentionally injured by college students during the spring break period.

One species that comes in for rehab quite a bit is the brown pelican. I am always amused by the look of a pelican -- at once prehistoric with his large, long head, leathery pouch and 5-foot wingspan -- but also comical because of the clown-like way he waddles when walking on the ground.

The pelican is a real moocher, and will follow boats in order to grab bait fish. So it was no surprise one day when a fisherman walked into the rehab center where I was working holding a big cardboard box with a very weak pelican inside.

I placed the pelican on the examining table and opened his mouth. I couldn’t believe it. Jammed inside his pouch and throat were at least a half dozen good-sized fish. But for some reason he seemed unable to swallow them. I felt along his keel. There was no fat on him. He was nothing but bone. This bird had a mouthful of food and yet was starving to death.

I tried removing the fish in his throat. I had removed five of the six fish when I felt some resistance from the last one. I swung the overhead light around and carefully aimed it into the long tunnel that is a pelican’s throat. There in the bright light I could make out the metal barb of a large fishing hook sticking out of the flesh of the bird’s throat. The hook was deeply embedded and there was quite a bacterial infection brewing at the site. I put the bird under anesthesia and pulled out my needle-nosed wire cutters. I clipped the hook at the curve. I slowly backed out the barb to avoid internal hemorrhaging and was just about to pull it up when I noticed two more barbs. He had swallowed a titanium treble hook! If there had been a “Moocher of the Year” award, this pelican would certainly have won.

Most fishermen are good-natured and if they snag a pelican on their line they will slowly reel the bird in and gently remove the hook as I described above. But for some reason in this case the fisherman opted to just cut the line, creating a perilous situation for the bird.

I injected Moocher with blood-clotting medications for safety’s sake, dosed him with some heavy-duty antibiotics and put a tube down his throat filled with special avian electrolyte fluids to help revive him. A few weeks of R & R out in the back cages with the other recuperating pelicans did the trick, and Moocher  was released back into the wild so he could do what he does best – steal from fishermen!

Catherine Greenleaf is a state licensed and federally permitted wildlife rehabilitator and director of St. Francis Wild Bird Hospital in Lyme, NH. The NH Fish & Game Department would like to remind readers that only a licensed and permitted wildlife rehabilitator is allowed to treat and keep wildlife.

Copyright 2014

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Rehoming Raptors -- The New Methods

by Catherine Greenleaf

What does the term "rehoming raptors" mean? Rehoming raptors is a practice that more and more wildlife rehabilitators are adopting each year. This practice involves getting a nestling raptor back into its nest with its parents as quickly as possible. Many rehabilitators often receive phone calls about nestling hawks, owls, ospreys, kestrels or eaglets being found on the ground after having fallen out of the nest.

Nestlings can fall out of the nest for several reasons: a tornado or microburst can knock down the tree where the nest is situated; a lumberjack may fell a tree, not knowing there is a nest cavity of baby birds present; an animal predator may kill and eat most of the sibling nestlings but leave one alive; a nestling can accidentally tumble out if the nest is too shallow; and there are even cases of siblicide, in which the oldest sibling pushes its younger siblings over the edge to reduce competition for food.

For years, the only option was to pick up the nestling and bring it to the rehabilitator's facility, where it was raised for weeks or months with other nestlings who had undergone similar nest disruptions, until it could be released back into the wild. This often involved the use of a surrogate adult bird already in captivity, to act as a parent.

However, in recent years, rehabilitators have developed a system for putting the nestling hawk, owl or eaglet safely back in the nest with its parents. New methods have also been developed for repairing a broken nest that is still intact or replacing it with a new nest.

This allows the nestling to go back to its parents, who without question are the best suited to feed and raise their young. Your average raptor parents spends months teaching their young how to hunt and feed. This training is crucial to the survival of the nestlings in their first year.

The ability to rehome is beneficial in many ways. First, the bird goes back to its natural habitat; second, the risk of imprinting on humans is dramatically reduced; and three, rehoming nestlings frees up space in already over-crowded rehabilitation facilities.

I will just add here: only a wildlife rehabilitator can legally rehome nestling raptors. If you are a homeowner in New Hampshire and have found nestling raptors on the ground, call me at 795-4850 as soon as you are able!

If you are a wildlife rehabilitator thinking about trying rehoming, please be sure to take some classes and educate yourself. It is not an easy task, but is very rewarding when successfully done.

This year, I will be attempting to rehome as many raptor nestlings as feasibly possible. More on this fascinating subject as the season progresses!

Copyright 2014