What is Wildlife Rehabilitation?
The official definition of wildlife rehabilitation is the treatment and temporary care of injured, diseased, and displaced indigenous animals and the subsequent release of healthy animals to appropriate habitats in the wild.
But what does this mean, really?
At Tri-State, it means we work 365 days a year to provide professional and compassionate care to the native wild birds that are brought to us for treatment. For more than 40 years, we have worked continually to improve the treatment our patients receive, and we are proud of the high-quality care that we provide.
We know that most of the birds brought to us have been injured, directly or indirectly, by humans. Birds collide with glass and automobiles or are attacked by unnatural predators, like free-roaming domestic cats, that we have introduced into their habitat. We are dedicated to reversing the harm we humans have caused, and we must also take care to ensure that our actions do not lead to an increase in wild animals’ suffering. Much of what we do during the rehabilitation process is focused on reducing any physical pain or psychological stress the bird may be experiencing. Improving animal welfare is a critical component of our work.
We will always do what’s best for the patient. Sometimes this means medical treatment or surgery, sometimes it means handfeeding a baby songbird every 30 minutes for 12 hours a day, and sometimes it means ending a bird’s suffering through humane euthanasia.
We care deeply about wildlife and know that wildlife is not ours to own or claim. Wildlife is to be respected in the wild, not possessed. We rehabilitate wildlife not to fulfill our needs but to meet theirs.
National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (NWRA) www.nwrawildlife.org
Like the pet owner faced with an animal that cannot be saved, we humanely euthanize birds that we cannot return to the wild. It is not an easy decision, but after a thorough exam by one of our experienced and professional clinicians, it may be the most humane option for the bird. At Tri-State, we love and deeply respect wildlife. That’s why we’re here, dedicating our careers to saving all the wild lives we can. For the ones that we know have a chance to fly free again, we pour everything we have into their care. For the ones whose bodies will never be able to function well enough to survive in the wild, we release them from the terrible pain and suffering that severely injured birds experience.
It is important to note that through 45 years of experience and the experience of other rehabilitators, we have learned what we can and cannot fix. By the time any adult wild bird is injured or ill enough to be captured by a human and brought to us for treatment, it is already facing an uphill battle.
Releasing a wild animal from incurable suffering is not only the humane thing to do in certain cases, but it is also a responsibility that is required of us by federal law and the agencies that issue our permits. Euthanasia is also addressed in the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association’s (NWRA’s) Code of Ethics for wildlife rehabilitators.
Included in the eleven tenets of this Code of Ethics for wildlife rehabilitators is the following:
A wildlife rehabilitator should strive to provide professional and humane care in all phases of wildlife rehabilitation, protecting the welfare, respecting the wildness, and maintaining the dignity of each animal in life and in death. Releasable animals should be maintained in a wild condition and released as soon as appropriate. Nonreleasable animals have a right to euthanasia.
As our founder, Lynne Frink, so eloquently stated, “We have never euthanized a bird without our hearts breaking a little. But the lessons that have taught us which bird wouldn’t recuperate have also taught us which bird would. And watching that bird lift from my hand and fly free again is the greatest gift I know.”
Nature and wildlife are often romanticized in a way that hides the tough, unforgiving, life-and-death struggles wildlife faces every day. We know that birds must be in near-perfect condition to be able to survive in the wild. It is inhumane to return to the wild a bird that is unable to feed or defend itself, as it would starve to death or live in constant fear of predation it cannot avoid.
In general, adult wild animals are not psychologically suited for a life of captivity. Birds that have lived their lives without walls and have migrated, mated, and flown freely can experience extreme psychological stress in captivity. This stress can lead to self-destructive behavior, including feather plucking and self-mutilation. Further, a bird with a permanent injury that is likely to become worse over time is not a good candidate for life in captivity. Wild birds mask their pain—showing pain is a sign of weakness to a predator. If the pain is masked, it will likely not be noticed by a caregiver, and so will not be addressed and alleviated, resulting in an animal living a life of pain. In either case, the animal is experiencing poor psychological and/or physical welfare.
In rare cases, a young patient will have an injury that is unlikely to cause pain later in life, and the patient has a disposition that appears to be tolerant of captivity. In these cases, we may choose to locate an appropriate, permitted facility where we are assured the bird will receive excellent care, both physical and psychological, throughout its life. However, these situations are few and far between.
Non-native species directly compete with native species for food resources, habitat, nesting locations, and other aspects of life in the wild. They can carry diseases that are a threat to the native populations. Pigeons, for example, are a reservoir for trichomonas and paramyxovirus, which can cause disease in Peregrine falcons and other birds of prey.
We only rehabilitate injured, orphaned, and oiled native wildlife for release. We made this decision based on the responsibility to our environment, our hospital resources, and our staff hours. It is not a decision we made lightly, and it is important to us that the life of every animal is respected and handled with care.
While financial restraints are not the primary reason, no matter how much money or staff we have, we will never have unlimited resources, so any resources spent caring for non-natives are resources that are being taken from native species. Many rehabilitators who care for birds limit the kinds of birds they accept—many care for only songbirds or raptors or waterfowl, for example. We wanted to care for all types of birds, so we limited it in a different way. We decided to care for all native birds brought to us.
As native birds are federally protected, they must go to a wildlife rehabilitator that has been permitted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service; they do not have other options for care. Non-native species may be taken to other centers or veterinarians for care, depending on state and local laws.
Similarly, we do not rehabilitate any domestic, companion, or exotic species of birds. This includes domestic or farm ducks, chickens, pet birds, or parrots.
Non-native is a term many may not be familiar with. It refers to a species that was brought into an area, rather than one that naturally occurs there or migrated to the area. It is usually the result of people intentionally or unintentionally releasing an animal into a new area. Examples of this include the introduction of the Spotted Lanternfly, Emerald Ash Borers (traveling through people moving firewood), and people releasing pets and exotic animals into the wild. There are four main non-native bird species in our area. These include the European Starling, House (or English) Sparrow, Mute Swan, and Rock Pigeon. These birds were brought over from Europe and released in the United States over 100 years ago. Unlike species that naturally occur throughout the region, these birds are not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
It can be difficult to identify a wild non-native bird from a native one, especially when they are young. If you are unsure, we can help with identification. Please see below for some common non-native, exotic, or domestic species. For more information on invasive species, visit https://www.nwf.org/Educational-Resources/Wildlife-Guide/Threats-to-Wildlife/Invasive-Species.
Wild animals have very specific medical, dietary, and housing needs. The wrong care, diet, or even method of feeding can be fatal for these animals.
Young wild birds, especially songbirds, grow at a remarkably rapid rate, and their diets must be balanced to ensure proper feather and bone growth. We work with a rehabilitator and nutritionist who specializes in diet and nutrition to ensure the formula we feed our young songbirds will meet their high nutritional needs. Most songbirds go from hatching from the egg (naked, eyes closed, soft bones) to fledging from the nest (eyes open, strong bones, and a full set of feathers) in less than three weeks. The nutritional demand is intense, and even just one or two days of a poor diet can cause permanent damage to feathers and bones.
Just as you would take an injured pet to a veterinarian or an injured person to a physician, injured wildlife should be taken to a permitted wildlife rehabilitator. We have the knowledge, skill, and experience to give these animals their best chance of returning to life in the wild. We have many experienced staff members, including a wildlife veterinarian, who can properly diagnose and treat injured wildlife.
Finally, all native birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), making possession of a native bird or its eggs, nests, or feathers illegal without the proper permits from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Tri-State holds all required USFWS and state permits for rehabilitating native wild birds, including Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, and endangered and threatened species.