Imagine a quiet fall morning; two staff members and a few volunteers open the wildlife rehabilitation center’s doors at 8 a.m., coming face-to-face with 64 furry orphans—all clamoring for their first meals of the day RIGHT NOW! Picture the scene: 64 squirming, wriggling baby squirrels to weigh; 64 complex formulas to mix; 64 servings to calculate and draw up; 64 mouths to fill. And once everyone has had their first feedings, it’s time to start all over again. Sound intriguing? Then wildlife rehabilitation might be for you.
This page has some overview information about wildlife rehabilitation, places to find emergency information if you’ve found an animal that might need help, what being an animal care volunteer is like from my experience, other ways you might be able to help, and an overview of write-ups about the natural history of the most common birds in rehab in CO that I wrote for the weekly volunteer newsletters. Click on any of these links to skip to that particular section.
Wildlife rehabilitation is the treatment and temporary care of injured, diseased, and displaced indigenous wildlife by a licensed individual, with the goal of the subsequent return of healthy animals to appropriate habitats in the wild. You can find a good overview of issues involved with wildlife rehabilitation and a number of links here. Generally speaking, all dealings with wildlife are regulated by state wildlife organizations and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). As a result, a person needs to be licensed to handle or possess nearly all species of wildlife. Most migratory bird species fall under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act; as a result, regulations tend to be uniform across states. But regulations governing non-avian species vary by state. Check your state’s wildlife agency for its regulations around wildlife; if you’re not sure what the agency is, you can check here. You can also search here or here to see if a rehabber might be in your area. One of the best things you can do is to figure out who and where your closest rehabber is. Once the baby seasons begin (here in CO, that’s March – October), it can be difficult to get in touch with her or him—everyone is just too busy with the on-going feedings, cleanings, and caregiving to answer phone calls promptly.
If you find an animal that you think needs help, you can find good information at the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association Web site or here. If you can, it’s always best to call a rehabber and describe what you’re seeing. If you’re not sure where the nearest rehabber is to you, you can try here; just enter your zip code and it will provide a list within a certain range. Sometimes animals that look as if they need help may actually be just fine. (For example, did you know that a cottontail that is only the size of a tennis ball is fully functional in the wild, no matter how helpless you might think it looks?) A call to a rehabber before you act may help to avoid an unnecessary intervention.
I have been a volunteer at a local wildlife rehabilitation center since 2005. At that time, I had decided to cut my time at work to 75% and was casting about for ways to spend the extra free week each month. I considered volunteering at one of our local animal shelters; but I worried that I’d want to take home every adorable dog or cat that showed up. Since we already have 2 cattle-dog mixes, that was problematic. I figured that the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) wasn’t going to let me take home a really cute fox or heron, so I signed up at the rehab center.
At this center, animal care volunteers have a variety of duties. (Centers vary considerably in what volunteers are allowed to do; your local center may have very different rules.) We clean cages A LOT. Indoor cages hold animals that are recovering from a variety of different physical problems (e.g., hit by a car, window strikes, caught by a domesticated animal, orphaned, natural disasters…) or are babies that need to be hand-fed. Outdoor enclosures house animals acclimating to the weather and learning (or re-learning) their independence and wariness of humans. Responsibilities to the wildlife vary by these 2 settings. With indoor caging, you do your best to stress the animals as little as possible (although some stress is inevitable). With outdoor caging, your responsibility is to keep the animals continually wary of your presence. Some people volunteer because they love and want to coddle wildlife; but those who truly love wildlife want to scare the bejeezus out of them in the outdoor “wilding” enclosures. A docile and friendly bird or squirrel is a dead bird or squirrel. It’s just that simple.
Another important task for animal care volunteers is the preparation of food for the animals. Each species has a different “menu,” which needs to be followed carefully. For example, fruit is a common food for many bird species. However, the size of the fruit varies by the size of the bird’s beak. Larger species, such as crow, benefit from larger pieces of fruit; smaller species such as finches need very finely chopped fruit because they have very small beaks. You really need to think about each bird’s anatomy in order to prepare food that it can actually ingest.
Volunteers also do a lot of mundane tasks that are absolutely critical to the center: laundry, dish-washing, scrubbing and bleaching perches and dishes before using them with any other animals. But perhaps the most important thing that volunteers can do, especially as they gain experience with the different species, is to notice any odd behaviors or (yes, this is true) poops as they are cleaning cages and outdoor enclosures. Once you learn what’s “normal,” you become an invaluable reporter of possible “abnormal.” You aren’t always right, but sometimes you are—and it’s really, really important when you are.
At this center, volunteers progress through various levels of animal care. Folks start with outdoor enclosures, cleaning and refreshing food for the animals that are nearing release. After working for a certain number of hours, they can move to the nurseries–perpetually lively from the first baby squirrel season (March – April) through the baby bird season (April – August) and to the 2nd and larger baby squirrel season (August – October). For volunteers who show responsibility and skill/aptitude (and who know when to ask questions and when to just do the work), there is the option of Intensive Care Unit (ICU) assistant. ICU has the most critically injured or ill animals, or the youngest and most vulnerable babies. The paid staff deal with the specialized medical treatment; but volunteers can help lighten the workload by quietly and quickly cleaning cages, refreshing food, and providing an extra pair of hands whenever and wherever needed.
Beyond animal care, though, most centers have a number of other positions that are equally important: writing grant applications (a 2nd capacity I serve in, since I’m a grant writer in my “real” job), rescue/transport of animals, organizing fund-raising events, facilities management and maintenance… So even if animal care might not be your thing, your local rehab center probably has lots of different ways you can help. Surely one will capture your fancy.
In addition to volunteering your time, you can always provide more concrete support. You can donate money. You can check the “wish list” to see what supplies might be needed (e.g., toilet paper, paper towels, canned dog and cat food, past-date fruit, old t-shirts and sheets, laundry detergent, bleach…) You can organize a fund-raising event in your area. Get creative. Just do it.
It should be noted that not all rehabbers are affiliated with a center. A good number are home-based, donating their own resources to care for wildlife 24/7 while trying to balance family issues. These folks are a very special crew and deserve our deepest appreciation and support. If a home-based rehabber is in your area, consider contacting her or him to see if you can help in any way. Or make an in-kind donation of food, paper towels, t-shirts—whatever they might need. Or write them a check and proffer a word of appreciation for just being there.
Many people think that rehabbers and rehab centers are funded by state or local governments. With very few exceptions, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Most rehab centers receive funding primarily from private sources such as individuals, small foundations, and corporate grants programs. Most home-based rehabbers use their own money and resources, which can be a very hefty burden. If you ever take an animal to a rehab center or a home-based rehabber, please, please, please consider giving a donation toward that creature’s care.
The links below will take you to write-ups I did for the center’s volunteers, focusing on the bird species that are brought in most often. Many of the volunteers don’t know much about the specifics of the various species. So these short pieces were included in the volunteer newsletters e-mailed each week to provide an overview of natural history and information about the course of a species’ development. For instance, we had an issue with volunteers wasting wild bird seed on young American Robins. Robins are not seed-eaters; if they ingest seeds while eating fruit, they either regurgitate them or they pass through undigested. Also, we found volunteers putting expensive (and, in the summer of 2008, extremely difficult to purchase) mealworms in the cages with young House Finches. House Finches are dedicated fruit and seed eaters; mealworms will simply die needlessly in their cages. Also, I was a bit surprised that a good number of volunteers didn’t know what the adult birds looked like, so I tried to include some photos from Web sites that they could click on. Remember, though–it is illegal for a non-licensed individual to have most birds in his or her possession, except to transport it to a licensed rehabber. (Major exceptions are Rock Pigeon, European Starling, and House Sparrow.) So please don’t try this at home, children…
- Waterfowl and wading birds (American White Pelican, Snowy Egret, Canada Goose, Mallard)
- Corvids (Blue Jay, Black-billed Magpie)
- Larks and Icterids (Horned Lark, Common Grackle, Bullock’s Oriole, Western Meadowlark)
- Passeriformes not categorized elsewhere (Barn Swallow, American Robin, Black-headed Grosbeak, Dark-eyed Junco)
- Finches (House Finch, American Goldfinch)
- Suboscines and non-Passeriformes species (Western Kingbird, hummingbirds, Mourning Dove, Northern Flicker)
© 2009 Tina Mitchell