Dane County Humane Society’s (DCHS’s) Wildlife Center has admitted approximately 2,000 individuals of 129 unique species this year through early November (2023). Over 500 of these animals were admitted between the months of August and October, which includes the tail-end of the summer breeding season here in Wisconsin (pun intended) and the start of the avian fall migration. Rehabilitators take extra steps during that time to monitor migration patterns so that animals in their care can be released back into the environment with others of their same species, if needed, based on their natural histories. Migration can even continue into December for some, but the timing is dependent on many factors, such as the amount of daylight, local food or habitat availabilities, average temperatures, and change in weather patterns.
Many birds were successfully rehabilitated and released from DCHS this season. Baby birds were hand-reared to independence, and adult birds were treated after being found sick, injured, or exhausted. Here are a few special stories that staff would like to share with our wildlife supporters about the work they helped us accomplish:
Five orphaned Chimney Swifts were admitted to DCHS at the end of July from two separate locations in Southern Wisconsin. Three hatchlings (#23-1199, 1200, and 1201) fell from their nests in Janesville, WI and a few days later, two more fledgling swifts (#23-1230 & 1231) were found orphaned in Sauk City, WI. The sibling groups were approximately 1 to 2 weeks apart in age, but they were similar enough to house together. Being in a group despite their age differences would be these swifts’ best chance at survival in rehabilitation and offer a better environment for behavioral development.
Young swifts vocalize to each other and beg for food from their parents, chattering loudly at feeding time. Adults feed their hatchlings with beetles, bugs, and flies at an average of every 20 minutes throughout the day, catching insects from dawn to dusk, for about one month until the fledglings take a first flight out on their own. DCHS’s Wildlife Center’s licensed wildlife rehabilitators spent seven weeks hand-feeding these swifts every 30 minutes from open to close with mealworms, waxworms, and crickets in order to mimic this process. Every night, the babies were safely contained in a mock-chimney until feeding time the next morning. They would stretch their wings as their feathers grew, take to the air, and practice aerial flight maneuvers in outdoor songbird aviaries. As soon as they were flying around consistently and returning to the chimney on their own, we knew they were ready for release. The next step was to find a larger flock of swifts for them to join and follow through the fall migration.
“My favorite thing about feeding swifts is how they fight over the food and entangle themselves together, opening their huge mouths for insects and sometimes mistaking their siblings’ heads for a meal instead! I also love how you first walk into the cage and can only see their little eyes peering up over the chimney, waiting.” –Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitator Kaylie Gilliland.
Swifts are incredibly social birds – staying in family groups during the nesting season and migrating in large numbers every spring and fall as they move between North and South America. Some swifts even participate in something called cooperative breeding, where individuals, either unrelated or distantly-related relatives, help to raise a clutch of babies together alongside the true parents. They are known to be “helpers” to each other, and young swifts learn from adults in all ways from feeding to flying and more. Equipped with this knowledge, DCHS’s Wildlife Center partnered with Badgerland Bird Alliance (formerly Madison Audubon) to release these five, first-year swifts at a known roosting site that historically receives hundreds or thousands of Chimney Swifts every year.
On September 6th, the birds were federally banded and released on a drizzly, gray-sky evening while thousands of other Chimney Swifts swooped down around Cherokee Heights Middle School. Every few minutes, swifts would seemingly aim and strategize about when to drop into the chimney for the night. Cheering them all on, a group of donors and supporters joined DCHS staff until the end, waiting until the last five birds, presumably our birds, were the last to enter the chimney. It was a great success for these individuals and for aiding in swift conservation.
–Jackie Sandberg, Wildlife Program Manager at DCHS's Wildlife Center
Staff and volunteers were caring for numerous Tennessee Warblers this fall migration season. DCHS’s Wildlife Center seemed to be admitting one after the other for a few weeks as the species was migrating through our area in Wisconsin. Tennessee Warblers fly in the spring from Central and South America to their breeding grounds in Canada and the northern United States, and in the fall return to warmer climates for winter.
In September, DCHS’s Wildlife Center admitted five Tennessee Warblers, four of which recovered and were successfully released! These birds were all admitted as observed or suspected window strikes. Window strikes happen in both daylight because birds see reflections of vegetation or feeders, and at night because of lighted windows. When birds hit a window, they need additional care and monitoring, just like people with significant head injuries. Previous advice was to wait and see if these birds would recover and fly away, but this is no longer considered the best advice. Birds that initially fly away could still be suffering from internal bleeding or a concussion, so any birds that strike a window should be immediately contained and brought to a licensed rehabilitator for evaluation.
We are glad so many of these warblers did well. Two of the warblers were even able to be federally banded at the same time before their release. The banding process does not hurt the birds, and they are soon ready to fly!
–Sarah Karls, Senior Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitator at DCHS's Wildlife Center
“Teacher, teacher, teacher!” – what is that you hear? A loud, repetitive noise is coming from somewhere on the ground, but you can’t quite pick it out. Is there a bird down there? All you can see are the leaves: brown and tan, yellow and orange, some red, all fallen down from the trees around you. Yes, it must be a bird – now you see movement in the brush. There’s a small, circular clump of feathers moving. It looks like it’s tan with brown stripes. Is there a hint of color in the crown? There it goes again! “Tea-cher, Tea-cher, TEA-cher!” it keeps calling. Is it trying to ask you a question, or is it asking for a teacher? What can you even learn from a bird?
If you didn’t already guess it, then you’ve just been introduced to the mnemonic of the Ovenbird, a warbler species that visits Wisconsin during the spring and fall migration periods. Mnemonics are a way to help people remember patterns, such as putting words to sounds. This tactic is often used to study bird vocalizations, where an audible sound is changed into something visible in order to memorize individual species’ calls. As wildlife rehabilitators, having a list of mnemonics at the ready can help in the process of identifying birds when intake volumes are high. Being able to identify avian species by sight is difficult, especially for birds like warblers, sparrows, and flycatchers, and sound can help differentiate similar-looking species. Making the correct species identification is crucial to being able to effectively rehabilitate a bird so that they receive the right foods, enrichment, and caging.
Ovenbirds have one of the best-known mnemonics using the word “teacher” to describe their songs. DCHS’s Wildlife Center has admitted 19 of these warblers since 2014, with three of them being admitted this fall for rehabilitation. All of them experienced trauma after a window strike event and had significant injuries. Some birds experience mortality from window strikes, and others are too “stunned” to fly away. Our team believes in assessing any bird that hits a window, to ensure that no injury goes un-noticed, and creating a safe, quiet space for wildlife to recover, even if their stay is short. Of the three Ovenbirds that were admitted this year, one sadly passed away in care, but two of the others were successfully treated and released!
–Jackie Sandberg, Wildlife Program Manager
Have you ever wondered how many Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have been admitted to DCHS’s Wildlife Center? Fun fact: in almost 10 years, the number is a staggering 237 individuals! Check out the interactive map below, made by Assistant Wildlife Rehabilitator Emelia Rogers, that shows all hummingbirds of different age stages that came to our doors between 2014 and 2023: