Winter Woes

After one of the coldest, snowiest winters in recent memory, rehabbers and birds alike are happy it's finally spring.

Stephen Fredericks was walking through Central Park on the January morning when New York was expecting a record blizzard (that didn’t come) when he came upon a Mallard stuck in the snow.  “It was sopping wet and I could tell that it was freezing to death,” he says. The artist and bird-lover is a member of the Wild Bird Fund, a non-profit organization on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that rehabilitates injured birds and wildlife. He knew that was where this bird needed to go.

Fredericks delicately picked up the soaked Mallard and waved down a NYC Parks Conservancy SUV. He explained the situation to the Parks employee and asked if he could help. The driver agreed to keep the bird in the back of his truck while Fredericks called another Parks employee, who was luckily free to drive them. A short while later the bird was safely in the hands of volunteers who could begin to dry off its feathers with a hairdryer and treat it for a Clostridium, a bacterial infection in the intestines. They named the (male) mallard Maria, after the Parks employee who helped bring him in.

He was just one of hundreds of birds along the East Coast that suffered during this year’s cold, snowy winter. Waterfowl, raptors, and dozens of other bird species that call the Northeast home during the winter months showed up at rehabilitation centers emaciated or with hypothermia or frostbite, according to Rita McMahon, founder of the Wild Bird Fund. Many could not find food, thanks to record accumulations of packed, frozen snow. Some raptors desperate for nourishment resorted to eating dead animals full of rodenticide.

“They were suffering across the country,” says McMahon. "Every rehabber thinks of this time of year as the slow season, but we all experienced record numbers of birds coming in."

Injured birds were rescued by private citizens, animal control offices, and municipal employees, including fire departments and rescue squads. Rehabbers worked overtime to warm birds, feed them, and address all health problems including infections or broken bones. Most birds had to spend at least a couple weeks at a center before being released back into the wild. Many migratory birds’ ailments caused them to miss their “release window,” during which they would be naturally traveling through, so they had to stay through the winter.

This was particularly true in the Boston area, which experienced a record 9 feet of seasonal snowfall for the 2014-2015 season (this past February was also the snowiest month on record in Massachusetts according to NOAA).

By March 3, there were more than 100 waterfowl and seabirds at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Grafton, Massachusetts, according to Dr. Florina Tseng, Director of Wildlife there. The past two years have been busier than any other winters she’s known—she’s helped Mallards, Hooded and Red-breasted Mergansers, Mute Swans and Goldeneyes.

As a result of blustery winter storms, seabirds such as Common Loons and Common Murres were blown inland where they were stranded. “These birds need to get a running start on water to get airborne,” Tseng says. Grounded seabirds often ended up covered in contaminants, which disrupts their ability to repel water and stay warm. To correct the problem, rehabbers wash feathers with a solution of dishwashing detergent and rinse them off with a high-pressure hose. Tseng says that rehabbers then work to put weight back on the birds and make sure that their waterproofing is perfect prior to release.  

Many birds had high levels of toxicity in their system because they were scavenging for food on busy roadsides sprinkled with toxic de-icers, says Chris Soucy, director of The Raptor Trust in Millington, New Jersey. “The highway was like a morgue,” he says.

Once temperatures started to rise in late March in New York City, members of the Wild Bird Trust gathered in Central Park to watch two Mallards (including Maria) and one Black Duck return to the wild. Fredericks and his family were among the crowd that watched as Maria flew out of his cage and settled in Central Park’s duck pond.

Editor’s Note: To help birds during future rough winters, keep birdfeeders stocked and install bubblers in ponds to keep the water open for ducks, geese and swans. Read more here