It’s unusual for a barred owl to visit a backyard bird feeder, but that’s exactly what was happening last winter at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science’s Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation in Quechee.

“We watched him very closely” for a few days, said VINS Lead Wildlife Keeper Grae O’Toole. “And then one morning he was on the ground next to the pathway leading right to the rehab center.” A coworker went outside and picked the owl up, being careful to protect herself from his talons, and brought him inside.

The owl was thin, dehydrated and hypothermic. The rehabilitation center staff put him on a heating pad, gave him fluids and vitamin supplements, and kept him in a small enclosure where he could eat and recuperate.

Their experience with this barred owl was right in line with 704 other avian patients that came through their doors in 2019, a record number, topping the previous year’s record of 652 patients in 2018. It was the start of the busiest year they had seen at the rehabilitation center.

It all began with a flurry of worried phone calls last February and March. Avian rehabilitation workers at the VINS rehabilitation center suddenly noticed a troubling pattern: Just like their own experience, other Vermonters were finding barred owls on the ground. Lots of them. The owls did not flee as humans approached. They were sitting in the snow, not flying, and residents were calling from across the state to report the downed birds and ask what to do to help.

The onslaught of bird patients was brought on by an unusually harsh, cold winter. Barred owl patients arrived daily, along with other species that rehabilitators don’t usually see, like a pine grosbeak and Bohemian waxwing.

Food was becoming difficult for birds to find, and barred owls in particular were struggling to eat. The crust of the snow was particularly challenging, and the birds were no match for the packed, icy crust that formed on the snow’s surface last winter, keeping the rodents they eat out of reach.

While barred owls typically weigh 800 grams, or just under 2 pounds, the most emaciated patient arrived at the rehabilitation center weighing just half of that. Other food sources grew scarce as well, which led to the unusual collection of species at the rehabilitation center in the winter of 2018-19.

“This past winter certainly brought new challenges for wildlife,” said O’Toole. Generally, rehab staff spends the winter decompressing from the busy summer and taking on projects to further their knowledge and care of birds. But in the winter of 2018-19, there was very little time to think back on the summer and re-evaluate protocols because the patient load had increased so dramatically. But, O’Toole added, “staff were very happy to help these birds that were in desperate need of our care and release them with a new lease on life.”

It wasn’t just the winter of 2018-19 that was busy, however. Summer is typically the height of the rehabilitation year, with baby birds arriving continually and the rehabilitation center extending their hours to meet increased demand for patient intakes and feeding hungry baby birds every few hours.

During the summer of 2019, center staff saw a number of new and challenging cases, including a young woodcock, a species that normally struggles under the stress of a rehabilitation environment. A ruffed grouse also arrived that was only a few days old. Both spent their early days at VINS before heading out into the wild world, fully rehabilitated.

An entire flock of young mergansers also flew out the door after being raised at VINS. September brought the arrival of a young bald eagle, which was rehabilitated and released after 86 days of treatment. The last patient to arrive in 2019 was a mourning dove, which came to the rehabilitation center on December 29, 2019.

So far in 2020, the rehabilitation center has had 10 patients, which O’Toole said is right on track for a normal year. Still, it’s too soon to tell if the center will see another busy season, since last winter’s influx didn’t start until February or March.

A rise in social media use among wildlife rehabilitators has likely led to the increase in patients over the past two years. O’Toole credits VINS and other rehabilitators’ presence on apps like Instagram and Facebook for increased knowledge among bird lovers. This means followers are better informed about what to do when they see an injured bird and, increasingly, those birds are making their way to centers like VINS.

But, O’Toole adds, most of the injuries they encounter are caused by human activities, such as window and car strikes, cat and dog attacks, or being accidentally caught in traps.

“Birds are becoming more and more impacted by human-related issues,” said O’Toole. “So that can also speak to the increased numbers over the years.”

While birds are in VINS’ care, they move from a small indoor enclosure where they can be closely evaluated, to an outdoor enclosure, and then a flight cage. The flight cage allows the birds to fly and move around so that they can build up strength for their return to the wild.

Twenty-seven days after bringing him inside, VINS staff released their own owl rescue back into the wild.

“It’s just the best feeling,” said O’Toole. “We’ve just gone through a month of care, we saw it at its worst. It’s the best feeling in the world.”

For those who are interested in learning more about bird rehabilitation, VINS invites the public to visit their live-bird exhibits and educational programs that feature resident birds such as owls, falcons, eagles and hawks that cannot be returned to the wild. VINS also recently opened the Forest Canopy Walk that gives a fantastic “bird’s eye view” of the forest.

To plan a visit or attend educational programs, visit their website at vinsweb.org or call 802-359-5000. All activities are included with general admission to the VINS Nature Center, which is $16.50 for adults; $15.50 for seniors (62 and over) and college students (ID required); $14.50 for youth ages 4-17; and free for members and for children 3 and under.

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