Avian Haven

Friday was a slow day at the center. My coworker, Pete, and I were fielding questions and running the shop while visitors came and went as usual. Towards mid-afternoon we got an interesting phone call: a family camping nearby had found an injured bird that “looked a little like a puffin” and needed to know what to do next. I took down the relevant information, grabbed a cardboard box, and headed off towards the local campground. I was reasonably sure that the bird in question wasn’t a puffin: the camp is in a sheltered area of the bay and at this time of year the puffins have headed out to the open ocean. Whether it was a cormorant or a crow, the critter was in need of rescuing, so I was happy to answer the call of duty. I was greeted by two girls at the front gate, who led me down to the water and explained the situation. They’d first seen the bird while swimming and noticed it was holding its wing awkwardly. It made several feeble escape attempts when they approached, diving under the surface to evade capture. Eventually were able to corral it and bring it ashore. I arrived on the scene to find a young boy guarding a feathery bundle nestled in a bed of seaweed: a fledgling Black Guillemot. It seemed alert, but largely inactive, barely protesting when I moved it into the transport box. I was a little concerned for the bird’s chances, but I made some phone calls and scheduled a delivery to the best care center in the area: Avian Haven.

Project Puffin has worked with this rehabilitation team before, whenever injured or captured birds come through our office. Earlier in the season we sent several Great Horned Owls which were trapped while feeding on our tern colonies to the Haven. After a getting a quick check-up and a fancy new identification band, the raptors were released inland. Other wounded birds found on the islands have become AH patients over the years, provided with the best care possible to either get them up to snuff or make them comfortable at the end. I was confident that the staff there would be eager to help us with this newest case, and it wasn’t much more than an hour’s drive away from the camp. I thanked the kids for caring enough to call, loaded up the guillemot, and turned my vehicle north toward the town of Freedom.

Black Guillemot fledgling

Black Guillemot fledgling

The drive up was quiet and uneventful, save for my unlikely copilot audibly shifting position when I braked or turned. Due to birds’ dependence on visual and auditory cues, the darkness and relative silence of a box minimizes stress. With very little sensory information available to it, I’m sure the feel of the road was a strange sensation for a seabird. Avian Haven is located on a long, wooded road that stretches through multiple towns, so it proved somewhat tricky to find. When I finally arrived, the staff gave me a warm welcome and brought the guillemot into the main office for examination. I hadn’t looked too closely at the bird when I first picked it up, in an effort to reduce handling time, so I was surprised when lifting its left wing revealed a large, tumor-like growth. My reaction was magnified when this discovery led to cries of “Not another one!” Evidently, a guillemot fledger brought to the center earlier this season had a similar growth on its face. No one knew the cause or had seen anything like this in previous years, which is more than a bit concerning for researchers and rehabbers alike. The workers gave the very thin bird some fluids and placed it in an intensive care unit (ICU). An appointment was scheduled to remove the growth and get it analyzed, and I was offered a tour of the facilities before I had to leave.

I’ve been to a number of wildlife rehab centers in my day, but I was exceptionally impressed with Avian Haven. All of the enclosures are constructed for the unique needs of the different varieties of birds housed there. A number of small, incubated cages are kept in the main office, filled with the countless nestlings and fledglings that are brought in each year. Young robins, cardinals, sparrows, warblers, doves, and waxwings were all loudly calling for feeding time when I arrived, dutifully attended to by the staff. Adult songbirds were kept in aviaries out back, where they could be easily monitored and accessed as needed. There was an aquatic bird house with several pools of various sizes. Loons, ducks, and auks could swim here while they regained their strength. Meals were supplied live, allowing the birds to pursue small fish underwater. I got to meet a baby loon and watch it dive from feet away (not a perspective you typically get to enjoy). Ravens and crows, geniuses of the bird world who get bored easily, are provided with countless toys, puzzles, and side-tunnels for exploration. However, the most impressive facilities by far were the raptor barns. In contrast to the smallish, rectangular cages seen at most establishments, Avian Haven’s structures are huge, circuitous hallways. The largest of these was about 12 feet wide and over 150 feet in diameter. This allows birds as large as eagles and as fast as falcons to fly continuous laps instead of having to stop or turn around. One worker mentioned that a Peregrine once flew enough loops to cover a distance of 1.5 miles, all within the safety of “captivity.” The flight tunnels that connect other enclosures can be opened or sealed as needed when more birds of different species are present, making a customizable, efficient system that suits the needs of both the winged patients and the workers.

Unfortunately, I received word yesterday that the little guillemot did not survive its first night in the center. At the very least, it was provided with the best possible care and died safe and warm at the Haven. Additionally, tissue samples from its growth have been preserved in formalin for analysis, meaning that there is still information to glean from this case. What we learn from its death may yet save other birds or provide a greater understanding of possible threats to our marine wildlife. The staff have promised to keep me informed of the situation as it develops, and I will follow up here with any updates. Although this particular tale didn’t have a happy ending, what I saw at the center assured me that many stories have been rewritten into successes by the knowledgeable, caring, and inventive workers of Avian Haven.

UPDATE: Months later, I heard that the tissue sample from the young guillemot revealed it was afflicted with avian pox. This information could prove valuable with treatment of any similar cases that come forward.

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About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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