Blue Jay, after week 2 (1)

Clinic Case Study: Raising a Baby Blue Jay

By Michele Wellard, Assistant Wildlife Rehabilitator

On May 13, this baby blue jay, likely having fallen from his nest, was brought into the Wildlife Clinic. The people who found him couldn’t locate the nest to return him, and so they brought him to the clinic. Over the last few weeks, this little blue jay has had many people involved in his care, from dedicated volunteers to our wildlife rehabilitators. Raising a songbird baby can be a real challenge, with a particular diet, a special nest to ensure his legs grow straight, and regular feedings until he’s old enough to feed himself. At the clinic we are careful to make sure the blue jay does not become tame or imprinted, so he can be released into the wild once he’s old enough.

BLue Jay, week 1 (1)These photos show the little blue jay, just two or three days old, upon admission to the clinic. Songbirds like him are born naked, blind, and helpless, and with a strong urge to “gape” (i.e. beg for food). How did we know he was a bluejay? There are several clues. His dark skin is different from other baby birds, who are often more pink. He has absolutely no fuzz on him, whereas other songbird hatchlings sometimes do. The color around his beak is pink – many songbird babies have yellow “lips” called the gape flange. The gape flange, together with the beak color inside the bird’s mouth indicate to the parents exactly where to deposit the food.

By the second week of his life, you can see many changes starting to the blue jay’s appearance, as he grows at a rapid rate. He is fed every half an hour from sun up to sundown by clinic staff and volunteers, just as his parents would. He is fed insects, a mush called “songbird diet” and some berries. You’ll see that he has become “fuzzy” in places (right), and his wing feathers are starting to develop. At this point they are still “blood feathers” (they have a blood supply to nourish the developing feather) and look like little sticks. Tiny spurts of the beginnings of feathers are beginning to emerge from his head. He has almost doubled in weight and has gotten much bigger.

After the second week, our little patient is starting to look more like a bird, particularly a blue jay. He has gotten some real feathers and is looking distinctively fluffy. He can hold his head upright when at rest, and those blood feathers are starting to sheath of the coating and open up at the tips. He’s also starting to get the beginning of that famous jaunty blue jay crest.

By the third week, our little bird is becoming unmistakably a blue jay.  His wing feathers are opening more, showing a variety of white and blue. The feathers on his face are also coming in, creating his distinctive facial markings. At this stage he is still a “nestling,” too young to leave the nest.  However, he is starting to have an urge to open his wings and flap a bit.  He can’t perch yet, but should be doing so soon. Then he will be moved to a small mesh cage, with a training perch to strengthen his feet and leg muscles and give him experience perching and hopping.

On May 29, the blue jay took his first flight, fluttering for a few seconds before landing on the ground.  He’s learning to perch in his small mesh indoor aviary. He will go into an outdoor aviary in early June, and be released in late June.

Blue Jay, June 12By June 12, the blue jay has moved to a larger indoor aviary.  He’s sharing space with several slightly younger blue jays now, enabling them to for social bonds and care for each other.  He’s also beginning to chase crickets and meal worms.

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From tailess to tail in a matter of hours…

“Imping” a Cooper’s hawk’s damaged tail

Last week the staff of the wildlife clinic did something remarkable, especially for those of us who make our living working at a desk.  They rebuilt a bird’s tail.

The bird in question, a Cooper’s hawk, was brought into the clinic in February with multiple injuries, including head trauma and a severely damaged tail.  The clinic nursed the bird for several weeks as it recovered from a concussion and regained its strength.  The bird’s tail feathers, however, were still in tatters, preventing proper flight.  As I learned from our clinic director, Rick Schubert, “a bird’s tail is its steering and its brakes. Without it, there’s no control.”

Waiting for new feathers to grow in could have necessitated months of captivity, putting an unhealthy amount of stress on the bird.  So instead, the clinic decided to fix the tail and send the hawk on his way.

Using a millennia-old falconer’s technique known as imping, the clinic grafted new tail feathers onto the hawk’s badly damaged tail. According to rehabber Michele Wellard, it’s not unusual to replace one or two feathers this way.  The wonder of this operation was its scope: the bird’s tail was practically destroyed, requiring a dozen new feathers.

Imping is an intricate procedure, as each replacement feather must match the original in size, type and placement, as well as the angle and positioning of the feather.  Before beginning work on the live bird, clinic staffers carefully examined, sorted and laid out all the donor feathers with labels indicating their designated position on the bird’s tail.

feathers

replacement feathers are sorted and labeled

Next, the tips are cut off of the donor feathers and patient’s torn feathers are cut down almost to the base, exposing the hollow interior of each feather.

Finally, Rick used small bamboo skewers and epoxy to attach the new feathers to the old. For each feather, one end of the skewer is glued into the donor feather; the other end is then slid into the base of the existing feather until the two feather tips meet.   When done correctly, the skewer is completely hidden inside the hollow feathers and everything works as good as new.

completed tail

a new tail

The hawk was sedated and hooded during the procedure, to reduce its stress.  Afterwards, “it looked a little confused at first,” says Michele, but it soon took to its new tail.  After a few days of practice flights, the hawk was successfully released back into the wild.

For the whole story, check out this piece from WHYY’s NewsWorks: Roxborough’s Schuylkill Center helps injured hawk take flight.

Naomi Leach, Marketing and PR Coordinator

Saving Animals: The Coolest Thing We Do

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The Schuylkill Center does a lot of exceptionally cool things: we teach thousands of people, protect hundreds of acres of habitat.

But just maybe the coolest thing we do is save animals. Lots and lots of animals.

Yesterday, WMMR’s Pierre Robert was given the honor of releasing a snapping turtle—a remarkably ancient predator—into the Schuylkill River, the same turtle he brought to our Wildlife Clinic almost 14 months ago. After 14 months of TLC—at great cost to the center—the world is richer by one turtle.

Pierre and Thomas Share a Parting Moment Together

But consider the animals still at the center today: about 55 opossums, 20 raccoons, 20 baby cottontail rabbits, 20 baby robins and rock doves each, 10 screech owls, a dozen mallard ducks, six red-tailed hawks, 2 vultures, and an entire rainbow of additional animals from scarlet tanager to blue jay. In all, more than 260 critters are crowded into our clinic, all getting the extraordinary attention of rehabbers Rick Schubert and Michele Wellard and their team of 70 volunteers.

All of these animals are brought here to us by people like my next door neighbor, who found a baby mourning dove on her deck, its wing bleeding from a fall out of it’s nest, or my neighbor across the street, who found a baby sparrow on their porch Sunday, called me in distress, and, with great relief, brought it to the clinic.

Or people like Pierre Robert, who saw a turtle crossing Conshohocken State Road in Gladwyne, a street where traffic moves fast. He had the presence to stop traffic—and bring it to us.

Here’s how important, no, vital, our clinic is: last week, we housed first a baby peregrine falcon that fell out of City Hall’s nest, and then a baby peregrine found dazed and confused on a Center City street (but that had hatched on a nest on the Walt Whitman bridge), and then the red-tailed hawk that had fallen out of the Franklin Institute’s nest, breaking its leg on the fall to the sidewalk. Three of Philadelphia’s most famous birds, in our clinic.

Peregrines, the world’s fastest birds, are highly endangered species, by the way.

That’s the clinic, a hard-working staff tirelessly taking in and repairing thousands of animals, maybe 15 or even 20 new ones every single day this time of year, as babies fall out of nests and mother opossums are hit by cars, leaving babies to fend for themselves.

Ironically, the day Pierre Robert released the turtle he nicknamed Thomas into the Schuylkill, guess what was brought into the clinic? A whoppingly large 40-pound snapping turtle. Just another day in the clinic.

If you agree that this is just about the coolest thing we do, please join me in supporting our campaign for the clinic by making a contribution online or by mail..

I post this early in the morning, and 20 more animals will find their way to our safe haven today. Won’t you help them? Thanks so much.