Graduate student helps birds fly again, then follows their journeys

April 29, 2015

Jackie Edmunds has always loved birds. So it’s no surprise that she spends her days feeding, nursing and otherwise assisting them.

Edmunds works as the Wildlife Rehabilitation Training and Fundraising Coordinator at the Dane County Humane Society’s Four Lakes Wildlife Center, which provides care for ill, injured and orphaned wildlife.

She began working with the Wildlife Center five years ago as an undergraduate intern. She soon realized the position combined her love of ornithology and her passion for fieldwork, so she became licensed as a wildlife rehabilitator and has been there ever since.

For a short period, Edmunds was working full-time at the Wildlife Center. When she began graduate school at the Nelson Institute, she decided to switch to part-time, but still finds herself spending an average of 30 to 40 hours a week at the center.

“It’s a tough balance because there are only a few of us on staff,” says Edmunds, “but there are 3,000 animals and 150 volunteers to coordinate. It’s a lot of work.”

Jackie Edmunds releases a red-tailed hawk in Fitchburg, WI
Edmunds releases a red-tailed hawk in Fitchburg, Wis.

Busy season for the Wildlife Center runs from March through October. The combination of warmer weather and wildlife breeding seasons brings an increase in the number of patients.

During this time, Edmunds said, community members often bring in baby songbirds or other species they‘ve found in their backyards. Though well intentioned, such intervention is often not necessary.

“It’s a huge educational topic for us,” explains Edmunds. “We try to reach out to the community and inform them to leave those babies there because sometimes the mom has just left them for a moment and they are not actually orphaned.”

According to Edmunds, unless a bird is ill, injured or truly orphaned the Wildlife Center cannot take it in, recommending instead that the baby be put back where it was found. 

“It’s not always a big deal if the birds are removed and returned,” says Edmunds. “In a process called wild fostering you can even put one bird in another bird’s nest of the same species and they’ll have no idea it’s not their baby. They’ll raise it like it’s their own.”

In addition to working as the Wildlife Center’s training and fundraising coordinator, Edmunds is pursuing her master’s degree in Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development through the Nelson Institute. She is tracking the success of rehabilitated animals after they are released. Her goal is to track ten red-tailed hawks from the Wildlife Center, and six have already been released.

“If the bird makes it past
its first year, it has an 80
percent survival rate each
year after that.” 

The first step in her research is the setup. At the Wildlife Center, Edmunds puts small backpack harnesses with tiny radio transmitters on the hawks. These transmit signals that allow Edmunds and her team to track the birds.

“We keep the hawks in pens for a week or more to make sure they’re used to the harness before we let them out,” said Edmunds. “It’s actually a really nice way to know for sure that the birds are alright.”

And then they let them go.

Edmunds uses radio telemetry to track the birds. As long as the birds are within range, she can go into the field with a radio antenna and pick up the signals from their harnesses. 

Although the research is in its early stages, it has so far yielded mixed results.

Of the first six hawks released, five were less than a year old. In general, younger birds tend to have lower rates of survival, according to Edmunds.

An example of the X-configuration Backpack Harness and Radio Transmitter Attachment Method
Small harnesses with radio transmitters, fitted across a
bird’s chest and back with nylon ribbon, last about two
years in the wild and allow for tracking post-rehabilitation.

“If the bird makes it past its first year,” she says, “it has an 80 percent survival rate each year after that.”

Three of the five first-year birds left the radio telemetry range early in the research. The harnesses have built-in mortality sensors, so the team knows the birds are still alive, but because they are not within range, they cannot track their location. The team is hoping the birds will return to range this spring, when they circle back during their migration period.

Unfortunately, the one adult hawk in the initial group was recently readmitted to the rehabilitation center due to an unidentifiable infection. The bird had initially sustained a fracture that healed well in rehabilitation, and it has since been released for a second time.

That leaves two more rehabilitated hawks remaining within the radio telemetry range, and the team has now been tracking one of those birds for seven months. Based on the data the team has collected, the bird has traveled over 60 miles and is doing well.

Edmunds and her team hope to continue tracking hawks for at least two years in order to get the best understanding of the birds’ wellbeing following their rehabilitation.

Below, view a slide show of a few of the avian patients treated and rehabilitated by Jackie Edmunds and the Dane County Humane Society's Four Lakes Wildlife Center. All photos courtesy FLWC.