VINS reports record number of wild birds needing care in 2019

  • This baby barred owl was brought to the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science's after the tree his nest cavity was in was cut down. The owl was one of 77 barred owls that was treated at the nonprofit in 2019. (Grae O'Toole photograph) Grae O’Toole photograph

  • This black-billed cuckoo was brought to the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation at the Vermont Institute of Science as a nestling and was raised to adulthood before being released. It was one of a record-setting 705 wild birds treated at the center in 2019. (Grae O'Toole photograph) Grae O’Toole photograph

Valley News Calendar Editor
Published: 1/25/2020 10:40:21 PM
Modified: 1/25/2020 11:11:51 PM

QUECHEE — Last winter, barred owls began arriving more frequently at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee.

Many were emaciated, the harsh winter conditions and hard-packed snow crust making it difficult for them to hunt the rodents that are their primary source of food.

The 77 barred owls that staffers at the VINS Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation treated contributed to a record total of 705 wild birds. By comparison, in 2018, VINS treated 45 owls, which were part of the 652 birds who were at the center. VINS can assist only birds found in Vermont, though people from any state can call for advice and referrals to wildlife treatment centers in their areas.

“We weren’t expecting the influx that we received (last) winter,” said Grae O’Toole, the lead wildlife keeper at VINS. “They’re just not able to punch through the ice to get to prey on their own.”

Of the 77 barred owls brought to VINS, 55% recovered.

“When we do receive many of the birds, a lot of them have very, very severe injuries, so we’re pretty happy with a 55% release rate,” O’Toole said.

Emaciation cases can be more difficult because by the time the bird gets to VINS they are usually in poor shape.

“You can’t really catch a barred owl until it’s reached a point where it can’t fly away,” O’Toole explained. “You reach a certain point where, if you try to feed them solid food, their body can’t break it down anymore.”

Depending on their condition, the owls are brought back to health starting with a liquid diet.

“That can sometimes take two weeks before they even get solid food just so their body can handle the nutrition,” O’Toole said.

In addition to the barred owls, staff also treated a pine grosbeak and a Bohemian waxwing, songbird species that are typically found further north in Vermont.

“We are seeing a lot more species that we normally wouldn’t,” O’Toole said. “Birds are moving in different patterns, and a lot of birds you’d only see in the south are up here and getting into trouble. A lot of birds are displaced.”

One of the driving causes of injuries are collisions with windows or vehicles, including raptors eating roadkill.

“We get a bunch of head trauma cases and we get a lot of songbirds who accidentally fly into windows,” O’Toole said. “A lot of the birds tend to fare fairly well with that prognosis.”

In addition to the weather, O’Toole credited the public for becoming more aware about birds that are in distress.

“Overall, we’re just receiving more birds because rehabilitation is becoming more well-known,” she said. “We do receive a lot more calls, and people know what to do if they find injured birds.”

In the warmer months, VINS also cares for a growing number of baby birds and relies on volunteers to help feed them.

People looking for ways to help owls and other raptors can do so by not using poison to treat rodent problems because birds who eat poisoned critters can get sick. Additionally, avoid using fishing equipment that contains lead, which can also sicken birds.

“Don’t litter! Litter attracts wildlife,” O’Toole wrote in an email. “A lot of litter and food waste is found on the sides of roads. This attracts rodents and raptors who like hunting those rodents. This encourages predators to hunt and forage in unsafe locations that may cause injury or death.”

So far, it’s unclear if this winter will be a repeat of the last one.

“I anxiously await for what next month might bring,” O’Toole said.

Editor’s note: For more information about the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation at VINS, visit

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at or 603-727-3221.

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