They were out of sight, out of mind, and freezing.
It's finally spring here in North America, but across the continent urban wildlife rehabilitators—the people who rescue and nurse back to health wild animals that wander into populous cities—say this year has already been one of the hardest they can remember.
At the Toronto Wildlife Centre, executive director Nathalie Karvonen describes the past few months as “the busiest winter that we’ve had as wildlife rehabilitators in 21 years in operation.” The center has already received more than 50 percent more patients from Toronto and its surrounding environs compared to the same period last year, including ten times the number of water birds and ten times the number of bats.
The sheer volume of patients created a stubborn tangle of resource and logistics problems. From a practical perspective, it was incredibly difficult to take care of that many animals. When the number of injured or sick bats overwhelmed the number of available bat enclosures, Karvonen and her team had to make a special appeal to supporters for more cages. A similar plea went out when the center found itself swamped with swans.
Beyond material resources, the center was short on qualified staff. “A lot of the animals that have come in are ones that are fairly complex to take care of, so they do require people that have a fair bit of training experience,” Karvonen explains. “And in the case of all the bats that we got, they also need people who are rabies vaccinated.”
In New York City, the Wild Bird Fund, the first wildlife rehabilitation center in the city, had a profoundly different experience. Rather than seeing an increase in patients, the center saw fewer animals come in compared to previous winters. But that’s not a positive change, says founder and director Rita McMahon. She surmises that animals in need were out there, but that they never made it to the center’s Upper Manhattan location. “They just plain died,” she says, noting that people did bring them dead birds, like hawks and snowy owls.
A few hours to the south, City Wildlife in Washington, D.C., had only been open for a few months when winter descended upon the East Coast. While staff members at the center could not offer comparisons with past winters, clinic director Alicia DeMay did note that many of the animals they've seen this year have been highly unusual for the D.C. area.
None of these visitors stood out more than the McPherson Square snowy owl, whose presence in the city back in January made headlines here and elsewhere. City Wildlife was the second of that snowy owl’s rehabilitation pit stops after a collision with a city bus. But why was it in D.C. at all? The short answer: Probably food.
This happens a lot during harsh winters, says Seth Magle, the director of the Urban Wildlife Institute at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. Animals need to cover more ground to find food when it's extremely cold, and sometimes that quest can lead them into unfamiliar territory. “When you think about urban wildlife, sometimes you have to think of these indirect effects,” Magle points out. “Like, OK, well if this causes them to move more, could that bring them more into conflict with humans?”
That’s exactly what happened with D.C.'s snowy owl. “The snowy owl saga is a perfect example of a bird that was here looking for food and was probably doing just that when it was hit by the bus,” DeMay says. “They have a sort of laser when they are hunting. They home in on something and go in for the kill, not realizing that they could possibly be in the line of a moving object.”
DeMay was able to get D.C.'s snowy owl stabilized. Eventually the raptor moved on to the next rehabilitation center. Its current caretakers at The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota are working on replacing the bird’s damaged feathers, but say the prognosis for the owl’s release is good.
“Another thing we had more this year than we’d ever had before were birds that suffered from frostbite,” New York City's McMahon adds. The prognoses differ for frostbitten birds depending on their species. A perching bird needs its toes, so unfortunately, severe frostbite is “a no-go,” in McMahon’s words. However, a bird that frequents ledges, like a pigeon, will fare much better.
Toronto likewise saw an increase in cases of frostbite, particularly among possums. A minor case means that an animal might lose the tips of its ears or toes, but is otherwise fine. But more often than not, animals with frostbite arrive in very poor condition, says Karvonen. “If it’s severe frostbite, there may be surgery to actually amputate sections of their toes or their tail or their ears,” she says. “Sometimes, if it gets really bad, then the bone will be exposed and sticking out because the skin is sloughing off.”
Stories like these are undeniably bleak. So what could humans have done to help these animals? Very little, it turns out. “It’s the weather,” says Karvonen.
We can however be more vigilant in acknowledging both these animals’ presence in cityscapes and their signs of distress. “We’re not taught to think of our neighborhoods and our communities as nature,” Magle notes, “but the reality is we all live in ecosystems and our ecosystems are full of wildlife.” So that swan that has been sitting there and doesn’t move away when humans approach? It might be too weak to move. That duck that’s been sitting on the ice-covered pond for hours? It might actually be frozen into the ice. Being able to recognize these signs and then act accordingly—which usually means contacting a local wildlife rehabilitator—is crucial.
Now that temperatures are no longer bone-chillingly cold, for wildlife rehabilitators, the job is not over. Baby season kicks into high gear in April, when facilities will be packed again with the largely invisible members of our urban ecosystems.