Many people have bird feeders out and get enjoyment out of seeing birds in their back yard during the winter months.
If you pay attention you will have noticed that birds are well covered with a thick layers of warm feathers with the exception of their legs and feet, yet somehow these naked, spindly little legs and feet don’t freeze.
Birds actually have a nifty heat exchange system in their legs called Rete Mirabile which helps them prevent freezing. They share this system with some other animals such as fish and some mammals such as sloth and lorises.
In bird feet the arteries run really close to the veins causing warm blood heading from the body to the legs to warm the cooler blood flowing back to the body. This system reduces heat loss and is further enhanced by the arteries which relocate from a position closer to the skin during the summer more to the center of the leg during the colder winter month.
Bird lower legs and feet don’t contain muscles (just tendons). This causes the legs and feet to need very little energy allowing for reduced blood supply.
When it is really cold however even this system needs a little help and you will see birds sitting down with their feet tugged up into the downy feathers on their chest/belly to prevent their feet from freezing.
During severe cold spells we often receive calls from people who think waterfowl are frozen to the ice which most often is simply a case of a waterbird sitting on the ice using its feathers to keep its feet warm. They are often reluctant to move because exposing their naked feet to the cold can cause them to freeze, much like our fingers and toes.
Feet of a gull
Foot of a Grebe
Many healthy birds, particularly waterfowl spent a lot of time preening ensuring their plumage is perfectly oiled. The oil is produced by their uropygial gland which is located at the base of their tail. The oil repels water making it that the birds don’t get wet, but it also prevents them from freezing to the ice.
Waterfowl who are not healthy and therefore have neglected their plumage will often appear wet. These are birds who need help right away. In those causes don’t hesitate to contact you local SPCA, Humane Society, Animal Control or Authorized Wildlife Custodian.
Some of the birds of prey have adapted by growing feathers further down their legs and sometimes even feet reducing the exposed skin portion of the leg. This of course also helps reduce heat loss.
Close up of a Snowy Owl foot
Snowy Owl has feathered legs and toes
Rough legged hawk has feathers further down his leg than some other hawks
This past weekend (September 24-25th, 2016) I was part of a BioBlitz at Barrie’s Lake. A BioBlitz is a gathering of scientific professional and hobbyists to inventory the flora and fauna of a natural area.
Barrie’s Lake is an 88-acre wetland in North Dumfries bordering on the city of Cambridge. Bernice Beal who is better know as “the turtle lady’ owns 83 of the 88 acres of wetland. Bernice bought the wetland some 15 years ago and that is pretty much when the battle to protect this wetland and its inhabitants began. A battle that among other things caused Bernice to purchase and additional 10 acres of land to prevent a gravel company from blasting for gravel too close to the lake.
As an Authorized Wildlife Custodian I became aware of Barrie’s Lake last year after questioning the large number of injured turtles coming to me from the Roseville Road area. Bernice, her daughter Sue and a group of like-minded locals have been doing their best to prevent turtle road casualties for years. Some of the not so lucky ones end up as ‘guests’ at Hobbitstee. Despite everyone’s best efforts, hundreds of turtles get killed each year on Roseville Road.
I finally made it out to Barrie’s Lake in person not long ago. I was traveling around returning turtles back to their habitats after they had recovered from injuries sustained as a result of above mentioned collisions with cars and I was very taken by what I saw.
Barrie’s Lake was officially surveyed and designated a provincially significant wetland in 2004, but has not been resurveyed since. After speaking with several scientists I also learned that the wetland surveying is not intended as a full species survey like I had previously assumed making me think that a BioBlitz would be a great idea.
Over the years however scientists have visited Barrie’s Lake and particularly the migratory birds have been well documented. A recent survey of Shorebirds found a variety of 9 shorebirds and that list included Least Bitterns. Least Bitterns are listed as Threatened on the Species at Risk Ontario List, giving them and their habitat extra protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Over the years many other birds that are listed on the Species at Risk list have been spotted at Barrie’s Lake. Among them are the Bank Swallow (threatened), Bald Eagle (at risk), Barn Swallow (threatened), Chimney Swift (threatened) and after this weekends BioBlitz we can add the Rusty Blackbird (threatened) to the list.
The wetland also has been found a hunting ground for Bald Eagles, Osprey, Merlins and a variety of other birds of prey.
During the BioBlitz I had the pleasure of watching a large flock of wood ducks land, while the Sandhill Cranes took flight. It was amazing to watch the Belted Kingfishers dive for fish and the multitude of turtles bask. There was still a variety of butterflies busy visiting some wildflowers while many dragon flies practices their air-acrobatics.
One of the other great features of Barrie’s Lake is the presence of an Oak Savanna. Oak Savanna’s are not common in this part of Ontario. An Oak Savanna differs from an Oak Woodland by the openness of the trees. A lack of density allows for the trees to spread out in width and this creates a very unique landscape.
The presences of Wild Cranberries and Tamaracks are good indicators that Barrie’s Lake is a Fen. Fens are rare in Southern Ontario. They are very sensitive to slight alterations in pH and dependent on a certain nutrient consistency.
During the BioBlitz it was noted by experts that there is very little to no buffer zone between the adjoining farmland and Barrie’s lake. The subsequent leaching of nutrients into the wetland will cause a change in the nature of the wetland, which in turn will effect the water, vegetation, and inhabitants of Barrie’s Lake. To permanently protect Barrie’s Lake this should be rectified.
Realistically Barrie’s Lake and its inhabitants are constantly threatened by human encroachment from all directions and with each small victory another threat materializes. No amount of laws, designations or mitigation seems to be able to protect this sensitive wetland and its inhabitants from further harm. Our laws intended to protect amazing natural gems such as Barrie’s Lake appear to be full of loopholes allowing for circumvention of protection for the sheer purpose of profit.
After a recent win to prevent the building of a cell tower Bernice and her family are now faced with the threat of a proposed development of the Cambridge side of Barrie’s Lake, which will negatively impact this very sensitive wetland.
However, we need to continue to strive for and celebrate each small victory. This weekend was a success. We cataloged many species of Flora and Fauna for future use while we enjoyed the beauty and peace at Barrie’s lake.
Anyone who knows me has heard me say ‘Please don’t feed them’ over and over. This message can not be repeated often enough, but it was brought to my attention recently that I rarely take the time to explain why this is so important. My reason behind the lack of explanation is that it is a complex issue, but I have tried…(see below)
When you find what you perceive to be wildlife in distress there is a process to follow to determine if the animal truly needs your help. I have discussed that process many times and we will move on to why you should not feed them.
Often the animals are cold meaning they lack the energy to maintain their own body temperature and they are in shock. Usually dehydration of varying degrees is also an issue.
To give food to any animal compromised in such a way is a death sentence. It takes energy to digest food, energy a lot of compromised wildlife already don’t have enough of. Every last bit of energy is being used to maintain critical bodily functions and simply put to force energy away from these critical functions for something as non-critical as digesting food will cause organ failure and death.
The process we go through here at Hobbitstee when we receive wildlife (who are always compromised) is a very delicate one. The process starts with warming them up. Doing this takes away the energy requirement for the animal to maintain their own body temperature. We do this by using incubators, but also warmed IV fluids. This process takes a minimum of several hours and can take several days. We do not feed them until they are completely warm and re-hydrated. This is not something you can simulate at home. It requires knowledge, specialized equipment and products.
The question than becomes what do we feed them? We feed our mammal orphans specially formulated milk-replacers custom made for us and custom formulated to meet the nutritional requirements (to the best of our ability) of the mammal orphan in question.
I say to the best of our ability because not much research is being done into the nutritional requirement of many of the species of wildlife we care for. This means we are constantly tweaking the formulations to get the best possible results.
These milk-replacers are not commercially available, so it boils down to that puppy nor kitten milk-replacer is appropriate for wildlife mammals. Neither is cows milk, almond milk, human baby formula or anything else that you can purchase at the store.
When it comes to baby birds their nutritional requirements are even more complicated and it is very species specific. Some birds are insectivores and need a large variety of insects to thrive (meal worms nutritionally are no more than filler). Some birds strictly eat seeds, so their offspring needs an appropriate variety of hand feeding formula every half hour. Some birds are fructivores, so berries and such are what they need…Never mind the strict pscivores who can only eat fish.
A common mistake made is using bread. Bread is not a good food source for any specie of wildlife plain and simple. Don’t use it.
You see that all this can become very confusing and the wrong food to the wrong animal at the wrong time can also cause serious gastric upset or death. If the wrong food is given at the wrong time diarrhea is a common result. The animals in our care are already compromised in some way (that is why we have them in the first place) and their bodies can’t handle diarrhea on top of their other issues, so death is a common result of feeding the wrong food source at the wrong time.
Another question becomes; Do you know how much to feed them? We use complicated scientific calculations to calculate how much of what food source our wildlife need to eat to grow/develop normally or to recover from an injury.
Any website that gives you DIY information on injured/orphaned wildlife is by default wrong. It is illegal for people to have wildlife in their possession, so these websites are encouraging people to break the law. Aside from that there is no one-size-fits-all type of information I can give besides get the animal to a wildlife rehabilitator as soon as you can.
That is how you help injured and orphaned wildlife best. Make the time and take the time to get the animal the appropriate care as soon as you can. We need to make sure the animal in question is truly in need of care. We establish that by asking you questions. Please have patience with us, answer our questions and please do as we ask even if you don’t like it. We always have the wildlife’s best interest in mind and sometimes that means we have to hurt people’s feelings.
Only Authorized Wildlife Custodians are allowed to care for sick/injured/orphaned wildlife. Don’t get angry if we ask you to drive to us. We get hundreds of calls a day and we all operate on a non-for profit basis without any type of government funding. We simply don’t have the time or funds to drive and pick up each and every animal.
Help us by driving the animal out asap and maybe leave us with a donation towards the animal(s) you are asking us to care for if you can…and PLEASE DON’T FEED THEM
Today we received a Horned Grebe through one of the agencies we deal with regularly.
As many of you may know Grebes are unable to walk due to the placement of their feet. Those feet are ideal for diving, but on dry land Grebes are much like a fish out of water (unable to walk or to take flight). So, this time of year we regularly receive grebes who have mistakenly landed on dry land. This can be as result of them mistaking wet tarmac for water (it shimmers like water) or they simply get so tired looking for open water that they have to make an emergency landing.
Horned Grebes are listed as ‘Special Concern’ on the Species at Risk Ontario (SARO) list. Meaning that their numbers have dwindled low enough to receive extra protection by the Endangered Species Act (ESA)
What makes this Grebe so special (in a bad way) is that it was found by a concerned citizen who took it home and kept it for several days as she attempted to ‘help’ it. Not knowing much about this water bird she force fed it the same food she feeds her parrot…
She did finally turn it over to the agency who proceeded to transport it to me. However, instead of dealing with simply re-hydrating the bird and returning it to open water I am now dealing with a bird who has a severe gastro-intestenal upset with a bad case of diarrhea. Meaning that now the life of this SARO listed bird is on the line
Dealing with injured birds is not easy and you have to know what you are doing. To feed a dehydrated bird can have devastating results. Feeding a water bird who is a strict piscivore (fish eater) parrot food while dehydrated is even worse.
I know the lady who found it tried very hard to help this animal, but instead of helping she inadvertently made its condition worse. I understand people try their best, but wild animals are not pets and should not be treated as such. It is imperative to the animal’s well being that it gets into the hands of a wildlife professional as soon as possible.
Not only is it in the wild animal’s best interest to get to a professional asap, it is also illegal to be in possession of wildlife without proper paperwork as per the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act (FWCA). This Grebe as a migratory bird is protected under the federal Migratory Bird Conservation Act (MBCA) and because it is SARO listed it receives extra protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
At Hobbitstee we have a great working relationship with many agencies such as Animal Controls, Humane Societies, SPCA’s and many vet clinics. If you are unable to locate an Authorized Wildlife Custodian near you. Please don’t hesitate to contact your locale animal agency.
I know many of you reading this have heard me say this over and over, but I am going to keep repeating this message until I stop receiving wildlife who have been fed the wrong food at the wrong time.
‘Please do not feed any injured or orphaned wildlife unless directed to do so by a wildlife professional’
Every situation is different and all though the internet can be a great tool there is a lot of incorrect information on there i.r. to wildlife. There is no one size fits all solution. At Hobbitstee we do not adhere to regular business hours. We take calls around the clock, 7 days a week and on holidays to make sure we help as many wild animals as we can. We are a non for profit charitable organization and as such we do not charge for our services. We do however appreciate donations.