Featured Articles

owl gif    What Color Am I - An Albino Turkey Vulture

owl gif     A Case for Copper - Lead Poisoned Eagles

owl gif     How I spent my summer - Alaska 2010

owl gif     Phoenix: A Golden Eagle Reborn

owl gif     Raptor Migration

owl gif     A Cinderella Story
                  (how a pair of "shoes" changed one hawk's life)

owl gif     West Nile Virus The Latest Threat To Raptors

owl gif     Story: How the Golden Eagle Got Its Golden Hackles

owl gif     How to Rescue a Raptor

owl gif     An Eagle Autumn Diary

owl gif     Please, Keep the Wild in Wildlife

owl gif     Avian Pox: A Curse for Afflicted Birds

owl gif     Can Saving One Bird Make a Difference?

owl gif     A Builder, A Collector, A Scratcher, and A Thief

owl gif     Winter article: Oh, No, There’s A Hawk At My Feeder

owl gif     Holiday article: Santa's Feathered Helpers

Link to Helping Injured Wildlife for information on finding a Wildlife Rehabilitator in your area and to The Eagle Institute for tips on eagle viewing etiquette.


A Case For Copper - Lead Poisoned Eagles from Ingesting Lead Ammo and Fishing Tackle
by Jan Rethorst

Follow this link to the PDF of the article (you may want to right click and choose "Open In New Tab")

How To Rescue A Raptor
by Jan Rethorst

In the northeastern U.S., the influx of birds to rehab centers fluctuates with the seasons. Fall and winter bring in illegally shot birds and those starving from the hardships of winter. Spring and summer have proven to be the time in which we get most of our patients, young and old. There are always orphaned owlets and eyas hawks that have fallen or been blown out of their nests. Meanwhile, parent birds are out there desperately and, sometimes, too daringly hunting for enough food to feed all the hungry mouths of their brood. Whether they don't take the time to look before they cross or they have found a nice morsel of road kill, their timing is sometimes off and, unfortunately, many of them are hit by vehicles. If the parents are successful in raising those bright new wonderful babies, then they find they have produced ignorant klutzy fledglings who don't know about cars and don't have the strength or skill to avoid them (and, for some, not even trees or other stationary obstacles in their flight path). Pesticides are more prevalent and the list of hazards continues. Fortunately for the birds, there are concerned individuals (like many of you reading this) who have and/or will take time out of their busy schedules to help a bird in distress.

Now, not all of us are as spontaneous as the man who bare-handedly rescued the drowning grescued the drowning gunshot eagle from the river near our center. This is probably a good thing as a raptor can inflict pain upon any flesh you make available to it if the bird is not handled carefully. With that in mind, we would like to offer some suggestions as to how to retrieve, temporarily care for, and transport an injured bird of prey.

Sometimes, just knowing if a bird needs help is hard to assess. It is not uncommon for baby birds of all types to fall from their nests. In fact, their parents are very likely to continue caring for them on the ground. Eventually, the babies might find a bush, or a pine tree with low growing branches, or a fallen tree on which they can find their way back off the ground and continue calling, alerting their parents to their location. However, the ground can be dangerous for a defenseless baby if there are cats, dogs, or other predators around to find it. If you discover a young bird in this situation and it seems uninjured, place it back as close to its nest as possible, or on a branch. If the bird is unable to perch yet, place it in a container (small box or strawberry carton) attached to the tree. Kestrels and some of the owls are cavity nesters and it may be hard to find their nest or the adult birds. Keep an eye on the youngster from your house or a hidden location and see if its cries bring the parents. If you are unable to locate the nest area or see no signs of activity from the parents, it's time to get it to a rehabber. Keep in mind, though, that no matter how healthy we can keep it even with surrogate parents, rehabbers cannot do what parents in the wild can do when it's time for the young to fledge and begin finding food.

If you find an injured bird, remember that a stunned bird may look unable to move or get away, but, while you take the time to dig through your garage for the right materials to rescue it, the bird, meanwhile, can come to and, unable to fly, will run into the woods and deep cover. If there is anyone else around, have one person stay with the bird to see that it doesn't go anywhere or, if it does, to follow it and keep track of its location. If you are away from home and alone, use your jacket to catch it and worry about the box, etc. later. Many times, we get calls from people asking us to come and rescue a bird, but, by the time we drive to the site, the bird has disappeared.

Now, what was it you were digging through your garage for a paragraph ago? Right, raptor rescue items, which should include, an empty cardboard box (with an old towel, if you have one, for the bird to stand or lay, belly down on); a heavy pair of gloves, such as welding gloves, garden gloves, or some type of thick leather gloves; and a second towel, jacket or blanket. With the towel, jacket or blanket, you can stand out of the bird's reach and toss the cover over its head. This will do two things. First, it will take away the bird's vision so that it should calm down and, if nothing else, prevent it from seeing your approach. Secondly, it gives the bird something to grab onto besides you. Now you can retrieve the bird, wearing the gloves, by coming from behind, grabbing the body with the wings pinned to the sides, and placing it right into a box. Once the bird is in the cardboard box, remove the covering from its head and close it securely. If the bird is not in your backyard and you have nothing to put it in, there are a couple of options. If the tossed towel or jacket is doing its job, the bird will keep its legs still. You can then slide your hands down toward the bird's legs and hold onto them, using your forearms to pin the wings against the bird's body.

Bird facing front, feet out front
Holding a Great Horned Owl in front of body

In this way, you will take away its ability to foot you which is how it would have inflicted its worst damage. Most raptors don't bite and even those that do shouldn't if their head is covered. Regardless, worry about their feet before you worry about their beak. Once you have the bird secured this way, you can hike out of the woods with it. You can even transfer a raptor to one hand and, holding both legs, sort of cradle it with its head leaning on your upper arm, its backside down, and its wings pinned between your arm and body.

Bird in crook of arms feet out front
Holding a Great Horned Owl in crook of arm

If you are driving, you can wrap the injured bird in the towel or jacket that you tossed over it, but it is best to contain the bird somehow as you don't want to have your own accident should it get loose and start touring your car. Do not put the bird in your trunk.

Before leaving the site where you found the bird, do one more thing. Make a mental note of the surroundings, such as how near you are to a road. If you know the area and its usage, you may know if it is hunted heavily or if pesticides were applied recently. If the bird is in your yard, do you have a plate glass window it might have flown into? Report anything that might help a rehabber make his or her diagnosis.

Putting Eagle in cardboard box
Putting an Eagle in a cardboard box

The next step is to care for it until you get it to a rehabber. I should explain why I suggest you put the bird in a cardboard box rather than in your cockatoo's cage. The bird you rescue will be a wild animal. It doesn't want to see you and it doesn't want to watch your cat, dog, or children walk by. This adds more stress to an already dangerously stressful situation. Wild birds also want to get away and will cling to the cage sides to find an escape route. By doing so, they can damage their feathers and some have even broken toes and cut up their feet on such cages. A cardboard box provides darkness which should keep them calm; but, even if they do become disturbed and move around, they have nothing to cling to or catch themselves on. I also mentioned that the box should be empty, except for a towel. There should be no food or water placed in the box. A starving bird has only a small amount of energy left and will use this up more quickly if its digestive system is trying to break down solid food. Instead, rehabbers must rehydrate patients and will use a fluid energy solution, as used for humans in hospitals, to bring the bird up to the condition where it can handle solid food. Water also presents a danger if the bird is disoriented or has an injury to an extremity where it might fall and not be able to get up or right itself. A pan of water, then, becomes a drowning hazard.

Once the bird is safe in its box, make sure that it stays warm in the winter and cool in the summer. A bird in shock cannot regulate its own body temperature and will freeze or overheat, depending on the weather. Don't leave it in your garage in the winter or in your car in the summer. Also, put the boxed bird in a room where it can remain calm, not where you or your family are looking in on it every 10 minutes or your dog is wagging its tail against the box. Contact a rehabber in your area by visiting our Help Injured Wildlife page.

You can also check with your local veterinarians or animal shelters to see if they know who the closest licensed rehabilitator is, but do not assume that a veterinarian is experienced in wildlife husbandry or even wildlife medicine. Some veterinarians and animal shelters are licensed to handle wildlife, but not all. You want to ensure they get to a rehabber whose profession is to know how to treat and care for wildlife with the help of their veterinarian. You can also try calling your state at the capitol and obtain the number for the agency responsible for licensing rehabilitators. There are rehabilitators throughout the United States and the world. If you will be transporting the animal to the rehabber, make sure the box is closed so that the bird cannot get out, yet air can get in. At times, we've met people in the driveway of the center with a bird loose in their car because it was out cold when they put it in a box without a cover, but got its wits about it on the way in for treatment. Birds should not be placed in the trunk, nor in the back of a pickup, even a covered one, because of carbon monoxide poisoning.

If you have any trouble with any of the above steps, just give your local rehabber a call. If you don't feel comfortable picking up a bird of prey, you might be able to turn a box over on it to prevent it from running away while someone comes to retrieve it. If you're still not sure if there's anything wrong, call and someone will try and help make that decision. Usually, if there is a question, it's better to retrieve the bird, bring it in for an exam, and, if nothing is wrong, it can be returned to the same spot that day, or the next after it has a free meal. The bird might let you know its condition, when you approach it. Don't be surprised if it flies off from the spot it had simply been sunning itself in. In fact, we couldn't ask for anything better.



An Eagle Autumn Diary 
by Stephanie Streeter

soaring eagle in mountains gif

Although I live with and care for bald eagles at the raptor center, seeing one in the wild is still a thrill for me, which is why each fall I begin paying closer attention to the lake beside DVRC, hoping to spot a migrating eagle that has stopped to fish or simply rest on its journey south. As the bald eagle population increases in the northeastern United States, so too do the number of wild eagles sighted at the raptor center.

I spotted the first bald eagle of 1994 at the lake, late in the afternoon of Monday, October 31st. As I was retrieving the day's mail, I heard the cry of a juvenile eagle. I looked towards the lake and was surprised to see not one, but three young birds. Two of the eagles were wheeling and mock fighting in the air above the lake, while the third, the bird that had alerted me with its cry, was perched on the edge of the nesting platform we had erected several years ago on the lake's tiny island. Mail forgotten, I ran into the clinic and grabbed a pair of binoculars. For 30 minutes I watched as the three birds flew above the water, unsuccessfully attempted to fish, and occasionally alighted on the nest platform. The birds were very vocal, and would often give the food begging call that a few short months previously had stimulated their parents to feed them. But, they were on their own now and judging by what I saw and heard, not very adept at securing their own food. After a quick phone call to Bill with the news that we had three bald eagles on the lake, I returned to the end of the driveway. Bill rushed home and together we watched the young birds until dusk, when they settled into trees by the lake to roost.

The next morning at 7:00 A.M., I started my day as always by walking Templeton, our dog. When I stepped from the house, I glanced at the lake, but did not see any of the eagles. I turned to urge a lagging Templeton through the door, and caught sight of one of the young birds perched on the edge of the eagle enclosure next to the clinic. Unceremoniously, I picked up the dog and dumped him back into the house. I slowly eased my way to the kitchen window and watched in amazement as the young female eagle begged for food from Freddie, one of DVRC's resident bald eagles. Freddie, along with Crystal, the golden eagle, seemed unconcerned as they sat on their front perch directly beneath the begging youngster. As rudely as I had returned a startled Templeton to the house, I just as abruptly pulled my husband from bed. Bill is never a gracious riser, but I knew he would be even more disgruntled than usual if I allowed him to sleep while a young wild eagle perched just feet from our window. Eventually, of course, we had to get back to business. At 7:30 I took my bewildered dog out to continue his foreshortened walk, opened the pigeons' loft and fed them, while Bill walked through the center and made a visual check on all the birds. While we were outside, the eagle took off and flew toward the lake.

Even though Tuesday was a dreary, rainy day, I still went out periodically during the late morning to look for the three eagles. Jan, who had arrived at and left the center for a program in New Jersey before daybreak did not know about them, but, I quickly filled her in when she returned that afternoon. By the time she pulled into the driveway, it had stopped raining and one of the eagles was flying over the raptor center, another was perched in a tree nearby, while the third remained on the lake. Jan opened her car door and was greeted by the sight of me frantically waving my arms in an exaggerated fashion. After what I hope was just a momentary pause of surprise, rather than one of wonder that I had finally "gone 'round the bend," Jan read my signals correctly and hurried into the clinic. I filled her in on the eagles, then, binoculars in hand, we eased out onto the clinic porch and watched as one of the birds alighted on a telephone pole nearby and spread its wings to dry. The eagle was close enough for us to see that it had been banded. One band was bright blue, the other silver. "It's a New York eagle," I excitedly told Jan. I was sure of my identification because earlier that morning, I had called Peter Nye, the head of New York State's DEC Endangered Species Unit to ask him what color bands had been put on the eaglets born in New York in 1994. His answer was bright, almost electric blue bands on one leg, and a silver U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service band on the other; exactly what the bird on the phone pole was wearing.

We watched the eagles throughout the remainder of the day. The banded eagle continued to beg for food and sat in one location for so long, Jan was able to collect a fecal sample for testing. The results showed that the bird had not eaten for some time, and that she had a mild parasitic infestation. I called Peter Nye once more to let him know that at least one of the three eagles was a New York bird, and to ask him if he was comfortable with us feeding the obviously hungry youngster. He gave his consent, knowing that this eagle, like many first year raptors, had not yet honed her hunting skills and was in danger of starving to death.

Freddie and Crystal's Enclosure
Freddie and Crystal's Enclosure

The third morning was a repeat of the second, except the dog was taken out a side door for his morning constitutional, away from the view of the eagle perched, once again, above Freddie and Crystal. Since she had been begging for food from Freddie, we decided to feed her on top of the eagle flight enclosure. Initially, Bill put three rats and a fish on the flight pen at 7:30 A.M., and by 8:00, she was eating, raining little pieces of food down on Freddie as she ravenously made her way through the first meal she had had in some time. By the time she took her last bite, her crop was visibly extended. She wiped off her beak, then joined the other two eagles on the lake, where I assumed she would spend the rest of the day.

I was wrong. At noon, after Bill fed the center's birds, he threw food on the hack board for the hawks we had released that summer and fall that still needed assistance. Thirty minutes later the already well-fed eagle found the hack board and was once again chowing down. She polished off two more large rats in short order, and when she finished she had a crop that bulged so grotesquely, I wondered if she would be able to get herself airborne. She did, and spent the night in a nearby pine stand.

The fourth day was much like the third, although the other two young eagles were gone. The begging eagle, however, was very much in evidence. She was perched on the roof of the eagle enclosure waiting to be fed. She ate several rats and a fish on the eagle flight cage in the morning, and that afternoon cleaned off the hack board before the red-tails we had released at hack could come in and claim the food that up until three days earlier had been exclusively theirs.

By the fifth day, the eagle had learned our morning routine. From her roost spot, she watched me walk the dog and return him to the house. When I came out again to take care of the pigeons, she knew Bill and food were not far behind. While I opened the loft, she began flying over the center at a low altitude, eventually perching above the hack board waiting for Bill. We had begun feeding her only on the hack board because Crystal, the golden eagle, was becoming upset with the young upstart that perched above her head and insistently cried for food. In fact, by the third day, Crystal was clearly fed up. She let loose with one threatening cry, then jumped straight up in the air to nip at the young bird's feet. Of course, there were other ruffled feathers at the center as well when the eagle was around. The kestrels started in with their sharp kee-kee-kees as soon as they spotted her, and the peregrine falcons, whose building sits closest to the hack board added their piercing kak-kak-kaks to the din. DVRC, a usually quiet, peaceful place, resounded with a cacophony of hawk, falcon, eagle, and osprey calls whenever the hungry youngster was nearby.

Two weeks into the eagle's stay, more than just the birds in the flight enclosures were upset. A red-tailed hawk that we were still feeding on the hack board, had also had enough of the youngster that stole "her" food. I watched in amazement as the much smaller, but angrier, red-tail swooped in towards the eagle on the hack board and delivered a passing blow to the back of her head. On another occasion, I watched the red-tail come screaming out of the woods and begin tail chasing the eagle over the center, I had erroneously assumed that the red-tail was faster and more agile in the air than the big lumbering eagle. However, the eagle kept well ahead of the red-tail until it landed on the top of a pine tree. That's when the red-tail finally closed in and delivered another resounding smack to the eagle's head. But this time, the eagle didn't shrug it off. She turned with amazing speed and launched herself after the red-tail which had perched just a few treetops away after delivering her last blow. The red-tail saw the eagle coming and with a startled cry, high-tailed it into the woods. She didn't return to the hack board for three or four days following her dust-up with the eagle.

After the eagle had been at the center for several weeks, I more or less expected to see her flying above my head each morning. Bill, Jan and I no longer wondered if she would be gone the next day, but rather, if she would stay throughout the winter. Our days with the eagle varied little until the 17th of November. On that day, I glanced out the clinic window after the afternoon feeding, and saw double. Where one eagle was usually perched above the hack board, there were suddenly two. One was "our" bird and the other, a two-year old bald eagle. Both birds ate at the hack board and continued to do so until the two-year old left the area two days later.

By December, the eagle's ravenous appetite seemed to have been sated. She was eating several rats and a fish or two daily. Her need for food was no longer as urgent, and it showed in the way she came to the hack board and fed. Initially, she lacked finesse, she perched above the hack board and if it held food she simply dropped down and immediately tucked in. A month later, however, she was practicing flybys - trying to grab her food as she passed over the hack board on the wing. She missed often and would then execute a wingover and come back for another pass, or else she circled the center and tried again on her next circuit over the board. Early on in her "snatch and run" raids, she would grab a rat or fish, only to lose hold of it. When that happened, she landed on the ground and ate the food where it had fallen. Eventually, though, she began getting the hang of it. At first she only carried her food as far as the roof of the osprey flight enclosure where she ate amidst the shrill cries of the unhappy fish hawks beneath her. Later, she carried her food further afield and ate it where I could not see her. She was practicing the fishing skills that would sustain her in the wild. I silently applauded her efforts, but knew she still had a way to go before she could confidently pluck a live fish from a river or lake.

The eagle continued to fly out to the nest platform on the lake and perch there for awhile each day, but by mid-December, I noticed she also spent time perched above the stream behind the clinic. That's when I also noticed the Canada goose swimming in the stream below the curious eagle. The goose had not taken off with the other geese when the lake started freezing over and the reason was painfully obvious. The bird had a broken, dragging wing. Although the eagle was aware of and watched the injured goose, I never saw her attempt to catch it. Bald eagles hunt as well as fish, and one of their favored quarry is injured waterfowl. The young eagle was capable of taking the handicapped goose, but, I suspect her inexperience made her hesitate at taking on prey as large as a Canada goose.

The goose seemed to be safe from the eagle, but, we still had to rescue her and set her wing. Bill put on waders and I lured her to shore with food. She did not leave the water, so Bill dashed in after her. He missed. Even with a broken wing the goose was fast. A few days later we tried again with three people. She evaded us again and actually outran us across the grass to the lake. Needless to say, after two failed attempts, she was leery of us. But, the lake was almost completely frozen over, and it was more important than ever that we catch and treat her. On the third try, I lured her across the ice to the three feet of open water at the lake's edge. Bill was ready in his waders. We were hoping that she would have trouble making her way from the water to the ice and at that point Bill would be able to grab her. There was, however, no awkwardness in the goose's tran sition from water to ice. The only flailing around came from Bill in his clumsy waders in the icy water. The fourth attempt proved to be successful, but only because snowfencing Bill had recently erected prevented the bird from reaching the lake. After a quarter of a mile run, a very winded Bill eventually caught the goose. Three weeks after we had first spotted her, we finally rescued her. In addition to stamina, we also developed a much greater understanding and appreciation of the phrase, "on a wild goose chase."

Meanwhile, during the early weeks of December that we had spent running after a wounded goose, the eagle had spent growing progressively more independent. She no longer came to the hack board for food every day, and there were periods of from one to three days when we did not see her at all. I thought it was most likely that she was flying to the nearby Delaware River and there joining other wintering eagles. By the end of the month we were seeing very little of her, and January 1, 1995 proved to be the last time we saw her. The eagle's departure left a void in my days and for weeks afterwards I still looked for her each morning. Never-the-less, I was pleased that we had played a part in her survival and had gotten her back into condition so that she was better able to endure the rigors of her first winter in the wild.

Post Script - By spring I had stopped looking for the eagle, but often wondered if she had made it through the winter since approximately 75% of raptors die in their first year, many due to starvation over their first winter. On Thursday, March 16, 1995, though, I had my answer. As I was feeding the pigeons at 7:15 A.M., Freddie and Crystal started calling. Both eagles sounding-off meant only one thing, a wild eagle was nearby! I looked skyward in time to see a first year bald eagle fly over the center and land in the tree above the hack board. I ran inside to get Bill. Was it "our" eagle? Bill walked to the hack board with food and the bird did not flush. She calmly watched as he threw a rat onto the board. Bill risked a quick glance upward and caught the telltale glint of blue on the bird's leg. No doubt remained, "our" eagle was back. The next day she was gone, but, returned one week later on March 23rd, leaving again by the following day. I saw her once more on March 30th, exactly one week after her previous visit. As this Journal goes to press I still give a cursory look around the property each morning for the eagle, and while I don't expect to see her, I still look, especially on Thursdays.

PostPost Script - On Friday, April 7th at 6:00 P.M. while Bill was putting birds in their travel cases for a program, he spotted two mature bald eagles flying over the lake. They made continuous passes until one bird finally caught a fish and ate it. As much as Bill and Jan wanted to watch the eagles, they had to get on the road. They left and I returned indoors.

At dusk, about 7:45 P.M., I went outside to make sure the pigeon loft had been closed for the night. I never made it, instead I stood transfixed as I watched the eagles engaged in a mating flight. They wheeled over the lake and swooped around each other . Eventually they met in the air and joined talons. Gracefully they cartwheeled towards the lake, breaking apart just an instant before th ey both lightly kissed the water's surface with their feet. Their aerial courtship continued until it was almost dark, then with powerful broad sweeps of their wings, they circled the lake in tandem and put into a pine tree to roost.

This was the first eagle mating flight l had ever witnessed and it left me breathless. As I walked exhilarated back to the house I thought, we humans have to continue to do everything in our power to save these incredible birds and their habitat, for to lose them would be to lose a collective part of our souls.

Update: Until the fall of 1997, the NY eagle had "stopped by" at the same time each fall for several days and each spring for a day or two since 1994. We know it was her because, first thing in the morning, we discovered her perched in the tree above the hack board and she still allowed our approach to the hack board while we put food out for her. She arrived right on time in the fall of 1997, but accompanied by an adult bald eagle. They perched on the lake and moved from tree to tree for a few hours. Eventually, "our" bird came over to the hack board for the food we had provided as soon as we saw her. But the adult soon followed and repeatedly flew at and harrassed her until she finally flew off with the adult close on her tail. They disappeared over the trees away from the lake and she has not returned since that day. But, you can count on me keeping my eye out for her again this fall.



Please, Keep The Wild In Wildlife
by Stephanie Streeter

Bear Cub
Bear Cub

Each summer veterinarians get phone calls asking them to descent "cute little skunks" or give rabies shots to "darling baby raccoons." The callers want to make the orphaned wild animals they find into family pets just like good ol' Rover. But, cute wild baby animals, no matter how lovingly raised, will still grow up to be what they are suppose to be - wild animals. Remember, it took centuries of domestication to turn a wild dog into a "Rover."

Before writing this story, I spoke with the staff of three local veterinary clinics and found they all receive calls each summer asking for medical or surgical care for orphaned wildlife, as well as advice on how to raise wild baby animals. At each clinic the first thing callers were told is that it is illegal to possess native wild animals - whether to raise them and release them back to the wild or to keep them as pets, the second, that they (the veterinary clinics) cannot and will not work on the animals, but will gladly put the callers in touch with a licensed rehabilitation center.

For some individuals, unaware of the law, being told it is illegal is often enough and they bring the animals to rehabilitation centers. For others, it is the last phone call they will make. Instead, they raise the animals with often disastrous consequences for the wildlife and sometimes themselves. Some animals can be down right nasty. The deceptively laid-back looking opossum has a mouth full of razor sharp teeth that it will not hesitate to use if annoyed. Its bite is painful, but the bite of any animal, even one as small as a squirrel can be agonizing - especially when the animal is frightened or agitated.

opossum from www.nwtrapper.com

Wild mammals just don't make good pets. Animals like raccoons and opossums are solitary animals and no matter how much affection is lavished on them as babies, it will not be returned once they mature. With sexual maturity come raging hormones that signal the biological imperative to mate. A wild animal, even one that has been hand-raised, quickly turns nasty when prevented from responding to the signal to procreate.


Veterinarians probably receive more calls about skunks than any other wild mammal because captive-bred skunks are sometimes sold in pet stores. One of the things that makes them appealing is their ability to be litter box trained . But, that in itself does not make the skunk an ideal candidate as a pet. Like other wild mammals, skunks are not affectionate. But they are, like raccoons and opossums, nocturnal. While you sleep, they will be awake, playing and possibly getting into trouble. Any animal will quickly lose its charm if night after night it prevents its human keeper from sleeping. While a lack of sleep can make the best of us grouchy, it is not life-threatening. Taking a wild animal into your home, however, can be.


The raccoon you bring home might be bringing with it a species of roundworm that is fatal to humans. Just looking at the animal won't tell you if it is harboring this lethal parasite. A roundworm infested raccoon will not look or act ill. Age is also no guarantee that a raccoon is roundworm free because the parasite is passed by the mother to her offspring at birth. It is a particularly hearty parasite that is difficult to kill and humans do not have to directly handle a contaminated animal to become infected. The roundworm is present in the raccoon's stool and can survive easily outside of its host's body. Currently (1996), there is no treatment available for humans infected with raccoon roundworm.

That is not the case with rabies. This disease, once called the mad dog disease because of mouth-frothing by its victims, is treatable provided it is diagnosed in time. But given how unpleasant and drawn-out the treatment is, it is far better to remain rabies free by avoiding contact with carrier animals. In the Northeast, this is becoming increasingly difficult. Rabies is at an all-time high and, despite popular myth, it is not the bats of which we need to be wary. Most mammals can carry this virus, but, some are more likely to be carriers than others. For that reason, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has issued a list of rabies vector species that includes foxes, raccoons, opossums, bobcats and skunks. Of these mammals, raccoons have had the highest incidence of rabies. But other, sometimes surprising, species have proven positive for rabies, including black bears in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania and a beaver in New Jersey's High Point State Park Lake that aggressively chased a swimmer and bit her. Multiple instances of infection have also been recorded in deer, domestic cows and horses.

Rabies and raccoon roundworms are two of the most likely diseases humans can contract from wild animals. Being aware of zoonotic diseases like these demonstrates how irresponsible and harmful it can be to handle wild animals without proper training and protection. But what about the harm to the animals, to the orphans raised by well-meaning but misguided humans? What are the consequences for them?

Once human contact has been made with rabies vector species, some state agencies insist the animal be destroyed and tested to protect citizens and prevent the spread of disease. Rehabbers may be prohibited from admitting rabies vector species and taking what is probably not an orphan from the wild may be its downfall. Where rabies vector species are in question, one should ask a rehabber before "rescuing" a baby.

But there are other hazards wildlife in the wrong hands must face. Each species of animal has specific nutritional needs. Raccoons and squirrels raised on improper diets often develop nutritional cataracts. Unfortunately, older and still popular books on the care of wildlife are filled with nutritional misinformation that can lead to developmental problems and even death for the animals they supposedly were written to help.

Each spring fawns begin showing up at rehabilitation centers. Many had mothers that were killed by cars. They stayed by their mothers' sides until a passing motorist rescued them and took them to a licensed rehabilitator; they were the lucky ones. The unlucky ones were the fawns taken home and illegally raised by their rescuers. Most fawns are offered cow's milk which they readily drink and, at first, appear to thrive on. But, in a few days the young deer will develop diarrhea and if professional help is not sought immediately, sho rtly thereafter die. Even if fawns are successfully hand-raised by unlicensed individuals, they are not necessarily problem free. If the deer is a male, once mature it may attack its human care-giver during the rutting season. Such attacks are on record, as are attack-related deaths.

Baby Barred Owls
Baby Barred Owls

Hand raising orphaned wild birds presents an altogether different set of problems because birds, unlike mammals, imprint while they are growing up. Imprinting is the identifying of a bird to its care-giver(s), usually the parent bird(s). Improperly hand raised wild birds, however, imprint to the humans that raise them, and therein lies the problem because they think they are humans, not birds. A human-imprinted bird is a social misfit. It is unafraid of humans and will beg food from them. Once it is sexually mature, an imprint will be more inclined to court a human than its own species. At first, this might seem desirable - after all, the bird will be bonding with you. But reality quickly sets in, especially during breeding season when an illegally raised great horned owl, eight talons extended, flies at you trying to make you the object of its affection. The result can easily be injury for both human and bird. Eventually, the bird may be killed because it "attacked" an unsuspecting passerby.

Foster Parent and Orphaned Great Horned Owls
Foster Parent and Orphaned Great Horned Owls

"Olivia," the vocal great horned owl who charms DVRC visitors with her hooting and bowing displays does so because she is an imprint. This seemingly friendly behavior, however, is less than friendly towards the staff that cares for and feeds her. She is more likely to attack them when they enter her flight enclosure than not. A rehabilitator in Massachusetts had an imprinted golden eagle for many years. In order to feed her, he entered her enclosure with food in one hand and the lid of a metal garbage can in the other which he used to fend off the powerful eagle's attacks.

Nutritional deficiencies are as common to illegally hand-raised wild birds as to wild mammals. Vertical lines across feathers, called hunger-traces by falconers, are just one sign a bird is not receiving a proper diet. Each hunger-trace is a weak point in the feather where breakage can occur. Skeletal deformities such as bowed bones are also the consequence of improper nutrition. We have had birds brought to DVRC with bones so badly bowed, they could not fly. Others have had bones that were so weak, they broke with the smallest amount of pressure.

The preceding are just some of the problems both wildlife and the humans who illegally keep them can be confronted with. Rather than risk both yours and the animal's health and well-being, please take orphaned wildlife to a licensed rehabilitator. If you want a pet, choose a recognized companion animal like a dog or cat. I have, even though daily I am surrounded by birds of prey. No matter how impressive I find the seven-foot span of an eagle's wings, or how charming the head-bobbing and kee-kee-keeing of a kestrel, at the end of the day the most satisfying sight for me is still my dog, happy to see me and showing it.