Bufflehead, one of the smallest ducks, named after the mighty mammal of the Plains!

The teenager who called our clinic late on Monday thought the duck he’d found had a broken wing. We asked where he’d found the bird.

“On a sandbar in the river.”

He said the duck was black and white.

Finding a wild animal out of place – a baby bird on the ground, a bat in a doorway, a hawk by the side of the road – is outside the ordinary. Many people live their lives entirely without this experience.

BUFF Feb 2014 - 03Our clinic had already closed and the young man and the bird were an hour away with no way to get here. We would have to ask a volunteer to drive down to Rio Dell the next morning. We gave him instructions on how to keep the bird safe overnight – to place the bird in a box with a towel at the bottom and a lid that closes, to not give food or water, and to keep the injured and frightened animal away from any people or pets and our noises – an unused room is ideal. A heating pad on low can be placed under half the box so the animal can move toward or away from the heat, whichever is more comfortable.

Of course, over the phone it is impossible to be certain what the real situation is. But it is hunting season and this kid was down by the Eel River. It was perfectly imaginable that a goose or duck had been shot and wounded. We have treated many waterfowl who’d been shot and found, still alive, but flightless, trapped on the ground, helpless. We treat and release geese and ducks with this kind of injury commonly. It’s also true that many patients who’ve been shot do not survive.

BUFF Feb 2014 - 02One of Humboldt Wildlife Care Center’s regular volunteers came in first thing the next morning. He was happy to make the drive.

It takes a little bit of courage to transport injured wild animals. Injuries, especially gunshots, are not that much fun to see. Often we bring patients in who must be humanely euthanized due to the severity of their wounds. It may seem like a simple task – drive there, drive back – no radio or chit chat or smoking when the patient is in the car, but otherwise, simple. In fact it is an act that can change a volunteer’s entire perspective. While navigating the traffic of any town with an injured wild animal in your car you can’t help but begin to see a city through wild eyes.

As it turned out the duck was indeed a black and white duck. She was a Bufflehead – cousin to mergansers, scoters, eiders, goldeneyes, and long-tailed ducks – an awesome little duck who winters all around Humboldt Bay. You will see Bufflehead out in the open water of the bay, in the nooks and crannies of the bay’s shore as well as in the wide parts where rivers cross their flood plains on their way to the bay. Bufflehead are almost everyhere in winter.

This lady duck seemed perfectly healthy. Her exam revealed no significant injuries. Her small feet had a few very small scrapes. She definitely did not have a broken wing.

Often people who rescue birds, especially marine birds, assume a wing injury is the reason that the bird doesn’t fly away. Some animals live so remotely from most human experience that we don’t even recognze them when they come near. Everybody can identify a robin and would know if one is in trouble. In the case of aquatic birds, especially those who spend their entire lives on water, simply being on land is a sign that something could be wrong. Often these birds require an expanse of water to run across, building speed to become airborne. On land, they are grounded.

wwpThe thick coat of feathers seaducks and other primarily aquatic birds wear is what allows them to spend their lives in cold rivers and salt chucks. With no other obvious injury, the next possible problem we look for is with her waterproofing. A duck who gets wet, especially all the way down to her skin, will not be able to stay in water. This leads to death, eventually – water is where the food is.

To test her waterproofing, we have a specially-built warmwater tank (warm water is safer – if she is not waterproof, she won’t get cold). After a period of time we evaluate her feathers to make sure they are keeping her dry.

Each time we checked on her, she was under water swimming in circles looking for a way out. While she was obviously feeling stressed, her constant diving was a good sign.

Soon we moved her to a cold pool. She dove immediately. We rigged a food dish in her pool – fish, mealworms – and gave her a small platform made of netting in case she needed to get out of the water. We planned to leave her in the pool overnight.

BUFF Feb 2014 - 10While the duck swam in the cold pool, the young man who rescued her called. We let him know she was in good condition, no wing injury, no fractures.

“So, you found her at the river?”

“Yeah, she couldn’t fly away.”

“Well, you know ducks like her are mostly on water. They can’t really walk or run on land – they need open water to get back in the air. If you hadn’t rescued her, she would have been really vulnerable to a predator, like a coyote.”

“Yeah,” he said, “there were cats all over there.”

“Well, it’s lucky for her you came along, then.”

BUFF Feb 2014 - 11And it’s true. This Bufflehead was lucky this young man had come along. She’d suffered a common mishap. For whatever reason, sometimes water birds find themselves on land, stranded. Often it’s wet pavement that looks like a body of water. Sometimes rough surf tosses birds to the shore. Occasionally, injuries or contaminants, like oil, force aquatic birds from the water. In her case, we’ll never know. We only had her vibrant and healthy condition to go on.

BUFF Feb 2014 - 43The next morning when we checked her, she was perfectly dry and still diving to get away from us. She was clearly ready to get back home.

The same volunteer who’d gone to Rio Dell to pick her up was available to release her. Considering how many animals he’d brought in who didn’t make it, it was especially nice to ask him if he wanted to ride with her back to the Eel River for her return to her wild and free life.

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Want to help return an animal to the wild? We are now accepting volunteers. And as always, your support makes our work possible. Your contribution goes directly to the rescue and care of injured and orphaned wild animals and to educating toward a responsible and respectful relationship with Mother Earth. Thank you!

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(all photos: Laura Corsiglia/BAX)

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