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Team of experts helps injured birds fly again

Nov. 22, 2012 | 0 comments

A few years ago, a baby owl hitched a ride on a load of hay headed to South Dakota from Kansas.

The hay - and the owlet - ended up at a Brookings dairy. The owlet was found and turned over to a local conservation officer, who brought it to the Sioux Falls home of Lynn Purdy.

Apart from her work as a secretary at the Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls, Purdy is a federally licensed wildlife rehabilitator, which means she has permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to care for most species listed in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. For anyone without a permit, keeping these birds is a federal crime.

Purdy kept the owl five weeks, then transferred it to a local veterinarian. From there, it traveled to the Great Plains Zoo, where experts in raptor rehabilitation built up its strength and taught it how to fly and hunt.

And two weeks ago, the owl was released at Blood Run Nature Area. Given the care and training it has received, Purdy said, it should have no trouble adapting to life in the wild.

"Their instincts kick in," said Purdy, one of only four federally licensed migratory bird rehabilitators in South Dakota. "(Great Horned Owls) are the flying tigers of the sky."

This counts as an all-too-rare success story in the world of wildlife rehabilitation. When an injured bird is brought in - or, often, an uninjured animal that has been "rescued" by a well-meaning passerby - it falls to a small group of wildlife care experts, veterinarians and volunteers to nurse it back to health and send it on its way.

"In the spring, it's like they're dropping from the sky," Purdy said. "There's just such a need. And I mean that literally - they drop from the sky."

But the go-to veterinarian in Sioux Falls who did a lot of the bird work - Dr. Dayton Williams at All Animal Pet Hospital, one of four veterinarians who consults for the Great Plains Zoo - recently quit accepting injured birds after developing an allergy.

And the federal permits only cover a relative handful of bird species, while service calls for native animals of all species are rising. Taken together, wildlife officials say there is a growing need for wider coverage in South Dakota.

"We're having more and more calls of people finding injured animals," said Eileen Dowd Stukel, wildlife diversity coordinator at Game, Fish and Parks. "There's an expectation that something's going to be done with them."

Recognizing this problem, Game and Fish formed a committee a few years ago to develop a state-level permitting program for resident game species not covered by federal permits.

Several other states already have programs to rehabilitate native animals. In the past, the question of how best to care for resident wildlife in South Dakota was left to regional Game and Fish offices.

"We didn't have a coordinated approach," Stukel said. "It was kind of cumbersome, and it put us at a disadvantage if someone wanted to rehabilitate resident wildlife."

Under the new permits, licensed rehabilitators will be allowed to care for a certain number of animals under permits that must be renewed annually. Rules for the program were adopted in September; if all goes well, permits will be available Jan. 1.

"We need a structure that's reasonable to provide for the responsible care of injured wildlife and orphaned wildlife," Stukel said. "But we also want to protect the animals and make sure that a person who wants to do this has the right facilities and training."

In other words, getting one of these permits won't be easy, said Ron Schauer, the Game and Fish regional program manager in Sioux Falls.

"The way we're setting this up, it's not going to be for everyone," he said. "Probably the biggest thing that people will need to understand is that not just anyone can do it. Your heart might be in the right place, and you care about wildlife, but you'll need to be trained."

Prospective rehabilitators will need to pass a test, consult with and obtain a recommendation from a veterinarian and submit to inspections and annual reporting. And the work will be unpaid - rehabilitators will be prohibited from charging for their work.

In creating this program, Game and Fish is trying to strike a balance between offering needed rehabilitation services and avoiding the unintentional outcome of encouraging people to handle wild animals - which, 99 percent of the time, you should not do.

"We want this to be open enough that we can accommodate the need, but not so open that we encourage excessive handling," Stukel said. "This is not going to be, `We're going to save every animal.' We don't want to create captive animals for life."

Purdy's experience working with injured and orphaned birds over the past two years gives some insight into the work required for an individual rehabilitator.

She has cared for mourning doves, sparrows, blackbirds, snowy owls, kestrels, grackles, mallards and robins. She's climbed a tree to restore a Cooper's hawk nest and stayed up nights feeding orphaned birds with an eye-dropper.

"My daughter never gave me this much stress," Purdy said with a laugh.

Birds that cannot be released because of debilitating injuries, or because they have imprinted on humans, are either euthanized or kept on as educational animals under a separate federal permit.

Such is the case with Bubo, a gray Eastern Screech Owl that Purdy uses to teach students about birds. Bubo has her own room at Purdy's house and an outdoor flight cage.

"If they're healthy, they will teach themselves how to fly in a very short time," she said.

The Great Plains Zoo, which now has an animal care staff of 16 and a full-time veterinarian, has treated some 80 rescued animals since 2005 - mostly birds, but also fox, quail, a bobcat, and, once, "a very confused moose," zoo president/CEO Elizabeth Whealy said.

The zoo coordinates with Game and Fish to care for animals that have been shot, electrocuted, hit by cars, injured in fights with other animals or simply abandoned.

Severely injured animals that cannot be released sometimes are placed in the zoo's menagerie of educational animals.

Among them is Hawkeye, a four-year-old Harlan's Hawk that was found with a broken wing in a stream near Sioux Falls. Hawkeye has a three-foot wingspan and weighs about 2.5 pounds, zookeeper Hollie Gonseth said while feeding him mouse pieces from a hip pouch.

The zoo is planning a public awareness campaign to highlight the importance of raptors in the environment and build a network of volunteers within a three-hour radius of Sioux Falls who are willing to help rescue sick and injured birds.

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