Each Autumn, the common sadness of Summer’s end is brightened by the return to our region of many species of aquatic and semi-aquatic birds who find our temperate winters a good place to live away from breeding grounds further North or inland. Many ducks, loons, grebes, and shorebirds arrive here with the rains that turn meadows and mosses green again in a kind of second Spring.
One of the most visible of our winter neighbors is the Aleutian Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii). From when they depart in late April and early May bound for the Aleutian Islands to raise their young of the year, until they return in late September and early October, the meadows and pastures of the bottom lands of Humboldt and Del Norte counties can feel very empty. All winter we enjoy the splendor of their melodic high pitched voices as they rise and fall in flocks sometimes numbering in the thousands throughout our winter days.
The higher numbers in their populations is a relief. Aleutians were initially listed as endangered under the 1973 Endangered Species Act, but since their decline was reversed, they were taken of the list in 2001. In fact, their numbers have recovered to the point that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has given waterfowl hunters a special 16 day season late February through early March strictly for the purpose of hunting the geese who use private land in an effort to drive them off, just as tens of thousands of individuals are arriving from around the state in a pre-migration staging here on the North Coast. Pasture land in our region is dedicated to ranching and the geese are seen as direct competitors with beef cattle for grass.
The dates of this year’s waterfowl seasons are posted on our dry erase board at HWCC so that staff is aware of conditions that might threaten wild neighbors. We usually admit one or two geese per year who were shot but not killed or recovered, found near a road, or on the beach. Depending on the nature of the wounds, we’ve been able to treat and release several gunshot victims.
Since 2012, Humboldt Wildlife Care Center/bird ally x has treated 66 Cackling Geese as of November 1, this year. In 2018 alone, so far we’ve treated 19 individuals, 10 in the last two weeks!
While it’s typical that we admit a few cackling Geese at this time of year, the numbers we’re treating this year are clearly spiking up! It’s ordinary for some of the young of the year to meet difficulty when completing their first migration from breeding grounds on the Yukon Delta, say, two thousand miles south to Northern California. All geese use a significant amount of their own muscle-mass to fuel their journey, which is conducted non-stop.
Upon arrival, nourishment is the first order of business. Only those birds who are in excellent condition can make the trip, and only those birds who, through luck, guidance, intelligence, instinct and timing, arrive and find immediate food will survive. Most cackling geese who we admit at this time of year are juveniles, often found on the regions beaches, rolled by the surf. It’s possible that they just couldn’t fly the last leg and resorted to paddling ashore. In any case, a young Cackling goose being rolled in the surf is not going to recover from this dilemma alone.
And that’s where our community comes in. People on the beaches, or in the parks, or even driving along the roads of our region will find geese in trouble, often doing what they can to capture and bring the goose to our clinic in Bayside. Other times people call us and we go out to find the goose. We don’t always find the wild goose on these chases, but usually we do.Upon admission each goose is given a physical exam and treated for many of the basic problems that all face. They are treated for both internal and external parasites, such as tapeworm and feather lice. While all while animals carry some parasites without a negative impact, a young bird starving death needs all of the calories s/he can get. We make sure to reduce the competition.
Usually each new goose patient we admit comes in cold and dehydrated. Stabilizing the patient is mostly a job for fluids and warmth. We take a small sample of blood of which a rudimentary analysis can let us know basic parameters such as total protein solids in the blood and percentage of red blood cells. This knowledge helps us plan the patient’s recovery, from housing to diet to any additional medications required.
HWCC/bax intern Brooke Brown (left) is learning from wildlife rehabilitator Lucinda Adamson on how to procure a blood sample from a newly admitted Cackling Goose patient.
After a day in a climate controlled environment, provided with a regular schedule of warmed fluids delivered orally, or intravenously or subcutaneously depending on the needs of the patient, often the debilitated geese will be ready to be housed outdoors with access to water. Eating, maintaining a consistently good body temperature and restored hydration are the main criteria for moving forward in treatment at this time. Until then though, it’s strictly indoors where caloric expenditure is kept as small as possible.
Rehabilitator Stephanie Owens gives a brand new Cackling Goose patient the first of series of hydration tube feedings. This method getting fluids into a patient is very reliable as long as the patient is awake and alert and can hold up their own head. Otherwise other routes of delivering fluid therapy are needed.
Warmed water is a critical part of our patient’s early treatment, just as a cup of hot tea would aid a lost hiker.
Our treatment board… if you can’t decipher it, it says that we have 5 Cackling Geese (CACK) in care, 3 housed outdoors in an aviary and 2 indoors in “room 3”.
Once stable and ready, the geese are moved to an outdoor aviary, housed together and left alone for longer periods of time between checks. It takes between two and three weeks for a cold, emaciated, dehydrated goose to recover well enough to be released. During that time we keep them well fed, in as stress-free of an environment as we can create, that still allows us to provide care. Slowly, yet really pretty quickly when you think about it, our patients go from cold, wet sandy and dangerously close to death to flying, strong and anxious to return to their wild lives! Healing and recovery are as common as life and just as wondrous.
Being housed with others of their kind is a comfort to animals in care who prefer flocks. Each on of these geese is helping the others recover.
It’s a wonderful feeling to step into the aviary with breakfast and see that someone is now string enough to fly. It’s just a matter of time now. Only the stress of captivity could cause anything to go wrong at this point.
With heat support, fluid therapy, medicines, food, and an environment built to encourage recovery, a time comes when we evaluate for release. Each goose is given an examination similar to the one they each received upon admission. The differences are astounding – a typical emaciated goose gains 300-400 grams in care – going from 900 at admission to 1200 or 1300 at release. Another look at their blood work is important. The presence of red blood cells in sufficient quantity indicates that the patient has a much improved oxygen carrying capacity, critical for strong, high altitude endurance flyers like Cackling Geese. As long as all of the parameters are met, the only thing left to do is take the patient out to the bottomlands and find a flock of geese… open the box and let nature take her course!
Proper housing for all our patients of myriad species is the foundation of the care we provide. Our aviaries are critical for the care that we provide.
A small amount of blood is drawn one last time.
An open box!
And take to the sky…
And then the young goose, on his second chance (thanks to your support!) joins in the flock and is our patient no more.
We don’t know exactly why we’re admitting so many more Cackling Geese this year compared to other years. It’s a mystery that may take a while ti understand, a few years before a more clear pattern emerges. What we do know is that we have commitment to be here each and every door for them and for all of our region’s wildlife in trouble. It’s been a hard year. And we need your help more than ever. Please donate and help us give innocent injured animals a second chance. Thank You!!!
all photos: Laura Corsiglia and bird ally x