Tornado-stricken birds heal at Raptor Center

by Ingrid Skjong

Rescuing wounded birds is something Sabra Thurber has done before. But for the University Raptor Center volunteer and intern, the emotional task never becomes routine.
“You never know what to expect when you do these rescues,” she said, as she recalled the terrified, mud-caked birds she helped retrieve two weeks ago from storm-damaged southern Minnesota.
In the wake of the tornadoes that battered Brown, LeSueur and Nicollet counties, the Raptor Center has become the central rehabilitation site for the storm’s avian victims. With 25 injured raptors arriving since the tornadoes, the center experienced a significant influx.
“When you normally get one or two birds in a day and you’re getting four to five, it shows something,” said Mary Beth Garrigan, head of public relations at the Raptor Center.
Most of the injured birds were collected by the Department of Natural Resources from areas near St. Peter and New Ulm, Minn. — located about 100 miles southwest of the Twin Cities — and transported back to the center by volunteers.
“We’re sort of the Mayo Clinic for injured raptors,” Garrigan said.
The Raptor Center only received eagles and hawks from the disaster areas. However, Joel Anderson, a DNR non-game specialist in New Ulm, said the number of dead waterfowl alone is probably in the thousands.
Although the death totals might seem alarmingly high, bird populations will not suffer a significant downturn, he added. Population numbers are strong and expected to withstand the losses.
However, the tornadoes could not have come at a more inopportune time for the raptors. In the midst of migration and competition for nesting space, the severe weather further complicated their most active time of year.
“It’s a rough period for them,” said Janette Ackermann, a veterinarian at the Raptor Center.
From badly broken wings to merely ruffled feathers, the injuries run the gamut. During the week following the tornadoes, the center received birds suffering from frostbite, broken wings and abrasions. Several experienced severe corneal damage, as well, from dust and debris blown into their eyes.
But perhaps the most telling injuries are the severely frostbitten feet and wing tips many of the birds displayed.
Rescuers believe some of the birds were sucked directly into the tornado, Garrigan said, where temperatures can drop as low as 40 below zero.
Veterinarians at the center were forced to euthanize six birds because of the extensive frostbite. The intense cold caused the skin of the raptors’ feet to slough off — in many cases taking the entire foot with it.
Despite the extent of some of the injuries, Ackermann remains optimistic about her patients’ long-term prognoses.
Most of the injuries will heal within two to four weeks, she said, and half of the raptors are considered to have very good chances for complete recoveries and eventual release back into the wild.
But the effects of the devastating storms go beyond the birds’ physical conditions. Much like human victims’ attempts to deal with the aftermath of the tornadoes, the raptors are wary.
“They all seem to have that shell-shocked look,” Garrigan said.
Although Ackermann hesitates to delve into the realm of bird psychology, she does admit it could take some time for the birds to recover from the trauma.
Two weeks after the tornadoes, the center continues to receive scattered reports of dead birds and storm-injured raptors. The majority of those rescued are starving and significantly underweight.
“It’s amazing they have the survival skills,” said Donnelle Burlingame, who coordinates the center’s rescues and transportation.
Several of the rescued birds already show significant improvement, and volunteers hope to release five this weekend in St. Peter.
Thurber said releasing the birds is often the most gratifying moment.
“No matter how many times you see it, you still get tears in your eyes,” she said.
The Raptor Center has dealt with injured birds from other disasters including the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Although catastrophes involving wildlife are always tragic, Ackermann said the natural event of a tornado is less upsetting than man-made disasters.
“It’s a natural accident,” she said. “It doesn’t bother me near as much as poisonings or traps.”