12/17/2014 10:50 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Winter Storms Mean Deadly Peril for Wildlife -- But These WildCare Patient Survived!

WildCare's Wildlife Hospital treats nearly 4,000 ill, injured and orphaned wild animal patients from over 200 species every year. These are three patients' stories.

Very wet Red-tailed Hawk at WildCare. Photo by Alison HermanceAs last week's monster storm lumbered toward the San Francisco Bay Area, everyone planned to batten down the hatches, stay inside and hope our houses didn't flood.

But some people braved the storm, maybe to walk a dog or just to witness the mayhem first-hand.

Fortunately for several wild animals in dire straits, these people became rescuers and brought the animals to WildCare.

Director of Animal Care, Melanie Piazza and Ambassador Program Manager, Mary Pounder had braved the downpour to feed and medicate our in-house animal patients and our educational wildlife. Melanie also had the WildCare Emergency Line to respond to emergency wildlife calls.
The first calls came from Rodeo Beach near Sausalito, where several people had seen a badly injured pelican flapping about on the beach.

2014-12-16-wetpelican2.JPGA big bird like a pelican can be difficult to rescue, so Melanie instructed callers to contact the local humane society officer on duty to capture the injured bird and bring him to WildCare.

Marin residents are incredibly lucky to have the Marin Humane Society contracted to bring injured wildlife to WildCare--in many other counties, rescuers must figure out how to capture injured animals with only the advice of WildCare's Hotline Operators to assist them.

John from Oakland found himself in just that situation as the storm pounded around him. His dog was the first one to see the nearly-drowned California Ground Squirrel in the grass. The animal had most likely been flooded out of her burrow, and by the time John picked her up and called WildCare for help, the little squirrel was gasping for breath and nearly dead.

2014-12-16-soddengroundsquirrel.JPGVia the hotline, Melanie instructed John to place the squirrel in a secure box, keep her warm and get her to WildCare as soon as possible. When John called back and said his dog had also found a large and very wet hawk on the ground, Melanie instructed him on how to safely capture and bring the cold and soggy raptor too.

When John arrived at WildCare he faced one more peril-- the canal in front of WildCare was so high it almost covered the footbridge entrance to the Wildlife Hospital!

Due to the storm warnings, WildCare's Executive Director, Karen Wilson had instructed all volunteers and non-essential personnel to stay home last Thursday.

2014-12-16-wildcarebridgealmostflooding.JPGIf conditions are just right (or just wrong!) the creek in front of us will flood, and our outdated current facility becomes a slippery and dangerous place to work. As we move forward with our new state-of-the-art site at McInnis Park, knowing we'll be above the flood plain is part of our anticipation! (Read more about WildCare's exciting new site and our Capital Campaign here...)

John fought his way across the Richmond Bridge in howling winds and pouring rain and Melanie met him on the almost-flooded bridge to help him carry his rescued animals into the Wildlife Hospital.

The squirrel had recovered a bit in the warmth of the car on the drive over and appeared ready to escape the box when Melanie opened it. She was still sopping wet and chilled but stable, so she was placed in an oxygen incubator to warm up so the Red-tailed Hawk could be assessed.

Melanie had guessed that the bird was probably a juvenile hawk not yet accustomed to life in an El Nino storm year, but the massive bird that greeted the lifting of the lid was a surprise. This was a full-grown adult hawk! She was also sopping wet and very chilled.

2014-12-16-palpatingthecrop.JPGMelanie gently lifted her in a towel and weighed her. Then, with the help of experienced raptor handler Mary Pounder, she performed an exam of the bird. Interestingly, the most notable finding of the exam was the bird's huge crop. When a raptor eats, the food goes into the bird's crop for initial digestion and then proceeds to the stomach. This bird must have made a significant kill and stuffed herself to bursting.

But did this have anything to do with her being found on the ground by John's dog? The absence of other injuries and a discussion of how the bird was found revealed no clues-- the bird hadn't been hit by a car, for instance. One plausible theory, because the two animals were found in the same East Bay Park, is that this Red-tail had taken advantage of the ground squirrels being washed out of their burrows for an easy meal. The bird was slightly underweight, and obviously her waterproofing was compromised. Perhaps between overfilling her crop and getting thoroughly soaked, this bird was then unable to fly away.

As with many wildlife patients, the real cause of the animal's distress may never be known, but at least the treatment plan was clear. Blood was taken to test for infection, anemia and malnutrition and then the hawk was placed in a cage with a pet dryer placed just outside to help her warm up. The next day the bird would be assessed for flight capability and radiographs might be required if she wasn't able to fly once dry. But for now the top priority was to get her warm.

Just as Melanie and Mary were finishing up with the hawk, the Marin Humane Society officer arrived with the injured pelican. The bird was placed on the floor of the exam room, where he obviously had trouble standing. A small smear of blood showed on the side of his head too.

2014-12-16-holdingthepelican.JPGDuring the exam it was discovered that the bird had multiple abrasions, small wounds and areas of swelling on his wings, legs and feet. He was also disoriented and uncoordinated, which could be the result of head trauma. We suspect this bird got caught in a heavy gust of wind and ended up tossed in the storm surf, getting bashed and battered on the rocks at the far side of Rodeo Beach.

The bird was given anti-inflammatory pain medication and he too was placed in a cage with an external heat source and allowed time to rest and recover.

With proper care, good food and warmth, all three animals should make a full recovery in WildCare's Wildlife Hospital, but these three were some of the "lucky" ones.

What can you do to help wildlife during wild winter storms?

1. Give them a "brake." Animals flooded out by the storms or disoriented by the wind may be near roads. Watch carefully for animals when driving during storms, and always.

2. When it's safe to do so, check your yard and neighborhood for injured, nearly-drowned and hypothermic wildlife. Call WildCare's Hotline at 415-456-SAVE (7283) for assistance and advice if you find an animal in need.

3. If you feed the birds, make sure seed is dry and clear of mold. Water and birdfeeders are a bad combination! Mold can make birds very sick. Replace wet seed and clean feeders according to these directions after a storm.

4. Learn more about WildCare's Wildlife Hospital! Help us be sure to always have the resources to help any and every animal patient we admit!