Keep birds safe

2018-05 Catio Jeffrey Gorges

A “catio” is a place for cats to hang out outside that keeps the birds safe–and the cats too. Photo by Jeffrey Gorges.

Published May 6, 2018 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Keep birds safe this time of year” and also at https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/keep-birds-safe-this-time-of-year.

By Barb Gorges

It’s that time of year that we need to think about bird safety —migration and nesting season.

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Bird Tape is available from the American Bird Conservancy. Photo courtesy ABC.

The peak of spring migration in Cheyenne is around mid-May. If you have a clean window that reflects sky, trees and other greenery, you’ll get a few avian visitors bumping into it. Consider applying translucent stickers to the outside of the window or Bird Tape from the American Bird Conservancy, https://abcbirds.org.

If a bird hits your window, make sure your cat is not out there picking it up. The bird may only be stunned. If necessary, put the bird somewhere safe and where it can fly off when it recovers.

How efficient is your outdoor lighting? In addition to wasting money, excessive light confuses birds that migrate at night. Cheyenne keeps getting brighter and brighter at night because people install lighting that shines up as well as down, especially at businesses with parking lots. It is also unhealthy for trees and other vegetation, not to mention people trying to get a good night’s sleep.

Do you have nest boxes? Get them cleaned out before new families move in. Once the birds move in or you find a nest elsewhere, do you know the proper protocol for observing it?

You might be interested in NestWatch, https://nestwatch.org/, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology citizen science program for reporting nesting success.

Their Nest Monitoring Manual says to avoid checking the nest in the morning when the birds are busy, or at dusk when predators are out. Wait until afternoon. Walk past the nest rather than up to it and back leaving a scent trail pointing predators straight to the nest. And avoid bird nests when the young are close to fledging—when they have most of their feathers. We don’t want them to get agitated and leave the nest prematurely.

Some birds are “flightier” than others. Typically, birds nesting alongside human activity—like the robins that built the nest on top of your porch light—are not going to abandon the nest if you come by. Rather, they will be attacking you. But a hawk in a more remote setting will not tolerate people. Back off and get out your spotting scope or your big camera lenses.

If your presence causes a young songbird to jump out of the nest, you can try putting it back in. NestWatch says to hold your hand or a light piece of fabric over the top of the nest until the young bird calms down so it doesn’t jump again. Often though, the parents will take care of young that leave the nest prematurely. Hopefully, there aren’t any loose cats waiting for a snack.

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Cats learn to enjoy the comforts of being indoors. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Loose cats and dogs should also be controlled on the prairie between April and July, and mowing avoided. That is because we have ground-nesting birds here on the edge of the Great Plains such as western meadowlark, horned lark and sometimes the ferruginous hawk.

There will always be young birds that run into trouble, either natural or human-aided. Every wild animal eventually ends up being somebody else’s dinner. But if you decide to help an injured animal, be sure the animal won’t injure you. For instance, black-crowned night-herons will try to stab your eyes. It is also illegal to possess wild animals without a permit so call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator like the Cheyenne Pet Clinic, 307-635-4121, or the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, 307-777-4600.

Avoid treating your landscape with pesticides. The insect pest dying from toxic chemicals you spread could poison the bird that eats it. Instead, think of pest species as bird food. Or at least check with the University of Wyoming Extension office, 307-633-4383, for other ways to protect your lawn and vegetables.

Are you still feeding birds? We take our seed feeders down in the summer because otherwise the heat and moisture make dangerous stuff grow in them if you don’t clean them every few days. Most seed-eating birds are looking for insects to feed their young anyway. Keep your birdbaths clean too.

 

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Hummingbirds fill up at a feeder on Sandia Crest, New Mexico, in mid-July. Photo by Barb Gorges.

However, we put up our hummingbird feeder when we see the first fall migrants show up in our yard mid-July, though they prefer my red beebalm and other bright tubular flowers. At higher elevations outside Cheyenne hummers might spend the summer.

Make sure your hummingbird feeder has bright red on it. Don’t add red dye to the nectar though. The only formula that is good for hummingbirds is one part white sugar to four parts water boiled together. Don’t substitute any other sweeteners as they will harm the birds. If the nectar in the feeder gets cloudy after a few days, replace it with a fresh batch.

And finally, think about planting for birds. Check out the Habitat Hero information at http://rockies.audubon.org/programs/habitat-hero-education.

Enjoy the bird-full season!

Watching one bird at a time

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“Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest” by Julie Zickefoose, c. 2016, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Published May 29, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Following individual birds brings new insights.”

 

By Barb Gorges

            There’s more to birdwatching than counting birds or adding species to your life list. The best part of birdwatching is watching individual birds, observing what they are doing.

            Thank goodness it isn’t rude to stare at them.

            While some species may skulk in the undergrowth, most of our local birds are easily seen, even from our windows.

            Every morning I check the view out the bathroom window and often there’s a Eurasian collared-dove sitting in the tall, solitary tree two yards down. By March I was seeing collared-dove acrobatics. The males, like this one, like to lift off from their high perches and soar in a downward spiral. I’m not sure what that proves to the females, but one of them has taken up with him.

            I saw them getting chummy one day, standing together on the near neighbor’s chimney cover. I can imagine their cooing reverberates into the house below. Then they kept taking turns disappearing into the upright junipers where last year they, or another pair, had a nest.

            But one day I caught sight of a calico cat climbing the juniper. The branches are just thick enough that I couldn’t see if the cat found eggs. Eventually she jumped out onto the neighbor’s roof and sauntered across to an easier route down to ground level.

            More than a month later, I have not seen the calico here again, but have seen a collared-dove disappearing into the juniper once more. I’ll have to watch for more activity.

            If I were authors Bernd Heinrich or Julie Zickefoose, I would be making notes, complete with date, time and sketches. I would be able to go back and check my notes from last year and see if the birds are on schedule. I might climb up and look for a nest. And I might do a thorough survey of the academic literature to find out if anyone has studied the effects of loose cats on collared-dove populations.

            However, most of us have other obligations keeping us from indulging in intense bird study and we don’t sketch very well either.

            But Heinrich and Zickefoose do. Heinrich is liable to climb a tree (and he’s no spring chicken) or follow a flock of chickadees through the forest near his cabin in Maine. Zickefoose, who has a license to rehab birds at her Ohio home, can legally hold a bluebird in her hand.

            Both have new books out this spring which allow us to look over their shoulders as they explore their own backyards.

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“One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives” by Bernd Heinrich, c. 2016, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Heinrich is known for his books exploring many aspects of natural history (my most recent review was of “Life Everlasting”). His new one, “One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives,” has 17 birds, one chapter at a time, in a loose seasonal arrangement. He has also portrayed each species in watercolor, directly from sketches he’s made in the field. This is sometimes as close as his own bedroom where he was able to rig a blind when flickers drilled through his cabin siding and nested between the outer and inner walls.

 

            Though Heinrich is professor emeritus, his writing style is pure, readable storytelling.

            Zickefoose’s goal in her new book, “Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest,” is also somewhat encyclopedic. From the woodland surrounding her home, she was able to document nestling development for 17 species. Finding a songbird nest, she would remove a nestling every day to quickly sketch it in watercolors, feed it and return it. Her drawings are like full scale time-lapse photography. Don’t try this at home unless you are a licensed bird rehabber.

            Although she has handled lots of birds in the course of her work, following individual nestlings gave Zickefoose an insight into how those of different species grow at different rates—ground nesters are the fastest.

            Either of these books can serve as inspiration for becoming a more observant birdwatcher, but they are also great storytelling, with the benefit that the stories are true and full of intriguing new information.

            If you find a nest this spring, consider documenting it for science. See www.nestwatch.org. The site’s information includes lots of related information, including plans for building nest boxes.   

Juveniles destroy swallow nests

Cliff Swallows

Cliff Swallows make their nests near water, by collecting daubs of mud in their beaks. The undersides of bridges are popular locations for nest building. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Published Aug. 9, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Donations sought for injured birds. Juveniles destroyed a dozen cliff swallow nests before throwing 50 hatchlings into Dry Creek.”

2014 Update: I haven’t heard of any more incidents like this. At many of Cheyenne’s busy street intersections, swallows swoop about, apparently preying on insects collected by cars.

By Barb Gorges

Donations of food and nesting materials or cash are being requested by Cheyenne bird rehabilitator Karin Skinner.

Last week, three juveniles destroyed about a dozen cliff swallow nests and threw the approximately 50 newly hatched young into Dry Creek where it crosses the Greenway at College Drive.

Thirty of the surviving young were brought to Skinner, an experienced bird rehabilitator who has state and federal permits to care for wild birds.

Fifteen swallows pulled through and are presently being cared for by volunteers at WildKind, a branch of the Humane Society in Fort Collins, Colo., because Skinner could not handle the every half hour feeding schedule and still care for her other bird patients.

Donations of nesting materials, such as a heating pad, toilet tissue and paper towels, and food, such as meal worms, wax worms, berries and vegetables, are needed to replenish Skinner’s stores depleted by the swallows, and to prepare for their return in a week or so, when their feeding schedule slows.

Skinner expects the swallows will be released towards the end of the month.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is considering how best to handle the case against the perpetrators of this wildlife crime.

Procrastinate for the sake of the birds

American Robin family

American Robin nestlings hatch naked and blind. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published June 14, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Putting off yard work helps wildlife. It’s best to delay some chores until young birds have time to hatch and leave the nest as fledglings.”

2014 Update: My robin saga continues in the column published June 28, 2001, in the post following this one.

By Barb Gorges

Procrastination can be a good thing. Spring snowstorms will melt off the driveway by midday if I don’t shovel, and fancy computers eventually are available at garage sales.

On the north side of my house is a deep, dark and quiet forest.

Sheltered by the next-door neighbor’s house, when the wind gets there it drops in speed – and drops litter.

The junipers probably were cute little shrubs when they were planted along the foundation 40 years ago. Today they are leviathans, reaching over my head, 8 to 10 feet high and as wide and deep.

I keep thinking I should cut a few branches at Christmas – especially ones shading the window by my computer. The evergreen smell would be nice. But then I forget, and it’s May or June before I dig out the pruning saw.

Why do I procrastinate gardening and yard work, which I enjoy?

Perhaps because my other obligations are less forgiving of missed deadlines. Other than the lawn, of which the boys have charge, things grow slowly enough around here there’s never a pruning crisis – especially since I cultivate the natural look.

Well, the stars finally lined up right last week, and I found the pruning saw and headed for the woods, intent on bagging a few branches.

Actually, the hunting euphemism doesn’t translate here. We don’t bag branches. We keep them for yard projects and firewood.

I sawed around the computer window and moved to the next window, but as I grabbed a branch, it squawked.

Mama Robin flew up out of her nest and chastised me from the edge of the neighbor’s roof as I hurriedly backed away.

Deep, dark woods may be the epitome of safe bird habitat, but this is the first time the robins have chosen it over the trees out front. In fact, the nest is not deep in the juniper branches, but sort of on top.

By pressing my forehead to the window from inside the house before Mama Robin settled back in, I could see at least three eggs. When she’s on the nest, she sits as stoically as an avian Buddha.

A few days later, I had a call from someone concerned because her family cat had slightly mauled a baby bird that fell out of its nest. What should she do?

Here are some suggestions in order of preference.

First, try putting the nestling back in the nest. Some young, however, will just fling themselves out of the nest again, or the nest may be too high for you to reach safely.

Or, if the baby is fairly well feathered and close to being able to fly, let the parents take care of it on the ground. Keep pets and children away.

Once, I tried making a nest out of a bucket, placing it where the parents would visit and feed the baby, but it evidently wasn’t cat-proof.

The next option is to buy worms where fish bait is sold and start feeding the baby yourself.

Kelly, who works at the Cheyenne Pet Clinic, said baby birds only need to be fed once a day.

If you are squeamish about worms, try foods from this list she recommends: brown rice (cooked), frozen corn, cooked pinto beans, crushed dog kibble, soaked millet, lean meat, white cheese, fruit (especially oranges), green vegetables, carrots or squash. For treats, try dabs of yogurt, cottage cheese or dried fruit like raisins—but no nuts.

Kelly also said technicians at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, located at the clinic, are happy to feed baby birds for you to get them ready for release.

Let me get on my soapbox here for two ideas.

First, nature doesn’t expect every seed to lead to a flower or every bird egg to lead to flight. Some progeny have to become food for others, whether it’s baby worms feeding robins or baby robins feeding hawks.

But on the other hand, bird blood on your cat’s paws is not part of the natural balance because domestic cats are not native to our area.

Letting your cat play with baby birds, besides doing damage to the individual birds and bird species in general, does nothing for the cat that you and a catnip mouse couldn’t do better indoors. And it’s safer for your cat, which won’t be exposed to bird-borne diseases and other outdoor hazards.

You could build a screened porch-type kennel like a friend of mine has for her cats. They still get to go outside, but everyone is safe. This is a great time of year to procrastinate over the right things.

Put off mowing the prairie, where killdeer and meadowlarks nest on the ground. Save the tree pruning and ditch clearing until the young have cleared their nests by June or July. Let the wild tangle at the back provide escape from predators.

According to Kenn Kaufman’s write-up on robins in “Lives of North American Birds,” I may have to wait 12 to 14 days for Mama Robin’s eggs to hatch and another 14-16 days for the young to fledge.

While I practice procrastinating pruning, if I open the window and let strains of Mozart float down to Mama Robin’s nest while the chicks are still in the shell, will they grow up smarter and survive better than other robins? Or will they emerge from the nest chirping the “Piano Sonata in B flat Major”?

When not to rescue wildlife

fawn

Fawns are left on their own while their mothers feed nearby. Rarely have they been abandoned. Unless you can verify the mother is not coming back, there is no need to rescue fawns. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published May 30, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “When not to rescue wildlife. The scenario: You’re hiking in the woods and discover a fawn lying under a shrub, no mother in sight. Does it need your help?”

2014 Update: The Nestling Nursemaid program continues this season.

By Barb Gorges

It happened to our family once. We’d walked off the trail to admire wildflowers and practically tripped over a deer fawn lying partially obscured under a shrub, no mother in sight.

The fawn’s instinct was to sit tight. Ours was to beat a hasty retreat, but apparently not all people have the same reaction.

Every spring deer and antelope fawns are needlessly “rescued” by well-meaning people who want the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to take care of them. They don’t realize the young are normally, and often, left alone while the mother is feeding out of sight.

“They may seem abandoned but chances are that handling will cause them to be abandoned,” or human scent will attract predators said Reg Rothwell of Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Biological Services Division. “Game and Fish has no facilities to care for abandoned wildlife.”

Rothwell said that the WGFD once again has an employee designated to answer questions brought about by the seasonal increase in interactions between people and wildlife.

Is a nest of rabbits or birds abandoned?

It takes hours of patient, non-disruptive observation to determine if parents are not returning.

What about the nest that blew out of the tree? Put the remains and young in a container back in the tree and the adults will be happy to continue caring for the nestlings. If you need additional nesting materials, use shredded newspaper or paper towel, not green plant material.

What about young birds on the ground, completely feathered but unable to fly? Put them up on a branch and keep them safe from dogs and cats. It will only take a couple more days for them to learn to fly, said Rothwell. If you have mallards nesting on your lawn, be patient. They’ll leave when the eggs hatch.

If there are no trees around, chances are you’ve discovered a grassland bird from a ground nest. Your only option is to put your dog on a leash and leave the bird to the care of its parents, members of a species that has been distracting would-be native predators for eons by faking a broken wing.

Even if a wild baby actually needs rescuing, you cannot legally take it home and take care of it yourself unless you are working directly under a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

What about injured wildlife? If it is a natural injury, caused by the natural environment or other wildlife, keep in mind that the misfortune of one animal is fortune, or dinner, for another and you needn’t do anything that changes the natural order.

But often the injury is human caused. While prevention is best (cats indoors, decals on windows, careful driving, little ramps out of window wells and stock tanks), we would not be human if we didn’t want to help.

The first rule is protect yourself during the rescue. Rothwell said rescuers are always at risk of being bitten or contracting diseases. Western grebes, he said, go for your eyes with their sharp beaks. Even the smallest songbird will nip or could carry interesting parasites.

For large birds and mammals it is best to call the experts for help. They will know the best way to safely transport the animal and where to take it.

For more advice on if or how to rescue wildlife:

The Cheyenne Pet Clinic has recruited 15 volunteer “Nestling Nursemaids” so far this season. Veterinarian Dr. Robert Farr is licensed to rehabilitate wildlife and his staff is very knowledgeable. Call them at 635-4121.

For various wildlife dilemmas, including nuisance wildlife, call the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, 777-4600, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. For after-hours emergencies, city police, the sheriffs’ department and the Wyoming Highway Patrol can reach WGFD officials. In the Cheyenne area, WGFD Warden Mark Nelson can also take calls at 638-8354.

For more preventive advice, look online at WGFD’s Website, http://gf.state.wy.us, and click on Wildlife. Under the heading Habitat Home Page, click on Extension Bulletins.

For more about when to rescue wildlife, an excellent tutorial is available from the Champaign (Ill.) County Humane Society. Go to http://cuhumane.org. Click on Resources, then CCHS Library, and then choose Wildlife.

When birds look like they need help

fledgling

A baby bird is hand-fed at the Allen Centre. Because this bird has feathers, it has graduated from nestling to fledgling and probably fell or jumped out of its nest. Parents usually feed fledglings wherever they are.

Published May 9, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “They look helpless but they probably don’t need rescuing. Everyone wants to be a springtime hero, but is that tiny bird on the ground in dire straits?”

2014 Update: The Cheyenne Pet Clinic, which has a federal license to treat wild birds, has developed a program informally known as “Nestling Nursemaids.” People are trained to care for nestlings in their home, receiving a food mix designed for them, then care for them until they can be released.

By Barb Gorges

Nothing is as appealing as rescuing a helpless baby bird fluttering on the ground. Everyone wants to be a springtime hero. Becoming one appears to be as easy as scooping up the tiny bird, but is that the right thing to do?

Laura Conn, veterinary technician, knows first hand how many times a year nestlings are rescued because they all seem to end up at the Cheyenne Pet Clinic where she works.

“People find them on the ground or don’t see Mom for awhile, or they want to remove a nest from the threat of outdoor cats,” Conn said.

Last year it was 39 common grackles, a dozen robins and well over 50 house sparrows besides an assortment of other bird species.

“It can be a couple nests a day. Sometimes because of construction, workers will bring them in,” said Conn.

The clinic’s standard advice is that unless birds are in immediate danger, it is safer to return them to the nest. “But everyone wants to bring them in,” said Conn.

One myth is that a baby bird alone on the ground has been abandoned. However, if it has feathers already, it may have been pushed out of the nest by its parents who are probably nearby, keeping an eye on the youngster as it makes the transition to independence.

This would be especially true of birds that hatch precocial young, the young of meadowlarks, killdeer and other ground nesting birds. The chicks hatch with feathers and can practically run as soon as they depart the shell.

Altricial young are those helpless, naked nestlings like robins and sparrows that need a few weeks for feathers to grow in.

If the nestling is found completely or semi-featherless, the best thing to do is put it back in the nest. If the nest has been destroyed, fashion one from a basket or bucket.

The second myth is that once a human has touched a baby bird, the parents will abandon it. Not true, said Conn.

As for marauding cats, Conn said young birds probably have a better chance of surviving under the protection of an angry parent bird than if they are brought into the clinic.

The rate of survival of young birds transferred to the clinic is one in three.

At the clinic the bird is assessed for damages. Falling may produce injuries making the bird impossible to rehabilitate. Injuries from cats are seldom seen since there’s usually nothing left of the baby bird after a feline encounter, Conn explained.

If the nestling is in good shape, it is popped into the incubator. Then it’s time to mix up special mash, either meant for young poultry or special mixes for wild birds.

A rescued baby bird needs feeding every two hours, at least until 10 p.m., when the last clinic employee goes home. All the employees pitch in at the height of nestling season, even the front desk, said Conn.

The Cheyenne Pet Clinic is the only local facility with the necessary federal permit for handling wild birds. It is not legal to tend wild birds without a permit.

Robert Farr, the clinic’s founding veterinarian, said he would be interested in hearing from anyone with previous experience who would like to help by taking orphans home. Volunteers can work under the clinic’s permit and the clinic will provide the food.

Conn has been caring for baby birds since she started at the clinic as a volunteer 19 years ago. While injured large wild birds also come in, such as the great horned owl which was recently recovering from tangling with a barbed wire fence, most are sent on to the veterinary hospital in Fort Collins. But small birds are cared for until their release.

Ducklings are also brought in occasionally, but said Conn, “We try to find someone to take them quick—they don’t do well here.”

Some birds that come in are very prone to stress and succumb quickly while others seem hardier, said Conn.

Some summers, it seems like all the young survive and other summers they don’t. The older the nestling is, the better its chances of surviving. Some birds just seem to be tougher, like robins.

Depending on how old the bird was when it came in, it can take two or three weeks before it is ready for release.

First, it has to be able to eat on its own. “It’s hard to train them to eat,” said Conn. “We can’t do it as well as their mothers. And they have to be able to fly well on their own, too.”

Typically, the birds are taken to the park where there are plenty of trees, since most of the rescued young are tree-nesting species. Sometimes employees will release the birds in their own backyards where they can leave food out, but the young birds don’t stay around long.

Rescuing a helpless young bird is a noble act, but knowing when a bird needs rescuing is even nobler.

How to help wild birds:

Dazed adult bird on ground

Most likely it has run into a window. Carefully set it on a branch where a cat can’t reach it while it recovers. If birds often hit your window, consider applying a shiny decal to the outside of the glass, or hang netting or something shiny in front of it during the spring and early summer.

Injured adult or young bird

The Cheyenne Pet Clinic routinely provides assessment and first aid. Call 635-4121. For hawks and owls and other large species, please consult the staff on how best to transport the bird to avoid further injury to it or injury to you.

Feathered young bird on ground

Most often, the parent birds are waiting for you to go away so they can feed their almost independent youngster. So, go away! However, if the neighbor’s cat is crouched nearby, see if you can get the youngster to perch on a tree branch.

Featherless young bird on ground

Try to return it to its nest. Retired wildlife biologist Art Anderson said that if the young are about the same age or size, any nest will do.

Damaged nest

If the nest has broken or can’t be set back up, make one from a basket or bucket filled with dry leaves and grass. Attach it to the original location, if it is safe, or nearby. Place the remains of the old nest and the young birds in it and the parent birds will find them.

Ground nesting birds

During prime nesting season, May through mid-July, refrain from mowing the prairie or allowing dogs and cats off leash. Planting trees also adversely affects the survival of ground nesting birds such as killdeer and meadowlarks. Predators—hawks and eagles—will use the trees for perches while they scan for prey.

Habitat improvements

Tree-nesting birds benefit from the planting of more shrubs and trees for food and cover. Cover is the vegetation into which they can disappear to avoid predators or bad weather. Think about adding a water source too. And eliminate pesticides. Check the National Audubon Society’s “Audubon at Home” Web site at www.audubon.org/bird/at_home.

Keep cats indoors

Cats don’t need to be allowed to run free, killing small birds and animals, in order to have a full and happy life. Just ask any contented kitty lying on a cushy pillow in a sunny window. Plus, indoor cats have longer and healthier lives. For help in turning your mini-tiger into a real house cat, visit the American Bird Conservancy site at www.abcbirds.org/cats or get information from the Cheyenne Pet Clinic.

Wild bird rehabilitator permit

The first requirement is 100 hours of experience. Check other qualifications at www.fws.gov. Look under Permits, then Applications, then “MBTA,” short for Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Or call the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Migratory Bird Permit Office, 303-236-8171.