In a darkened examination room Dr. Maureen Murray, director of the Tufts Wildlife Clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in North Grafton, shined a bright light into the eyes of a barred owl that was being held by veterinary technician Chris Powers.
The owl had sustained head and eye injuries, probably in a collision with a motor vehicle, Murray explained.
The bird of prey, wrapped in a towel, was surprisingly calm. Murray, who is also a clinical associate professor at the veterinary school, explained that if you keep birds’ heads covered it decreases visual stimulation, so the animals will usually tolerate a quick exam. Anesthesia is used for longer exams.
The eye looked OK, said Murray, but suddenly the owl started squirming around.
“They’ll tell you when they’re done,” Murray joked.
The clinic often sees an increase in owl admissions in fall and winter, said Murray.
“The most common reason we see owls in the clinic is because they have been hit by cars,” Murray explained. “If there is heavy snow cover in the winter, owls may be hunting more along roadsides, resulting in collisions with cars. Additionally, owls breed in the winter, so their territorial behaviors may result in them being very active during fall and into winter.”
They also see owls and other birds of prey getting tangled in netting, like soccer nets. For example, Murray showed me a great horned owl that was admitted recently with wounds on its wings after it became entangled. Bringing soccer nets in at night would be helpful in preventing such injuries, she said.
“Red-tailed hawks are typically our number one bird of prey customer,” said Murray. “This year to date we have admitted 195 red-tailed hawks compared to 83 barred owls, the second most frequent bird of prey we usually see.”
Murray said the most common reason red-tailed hawks are brought to the clinic is traumatic injuries, such as vehicle collisions, or building strikes. But, she added, they also see many red-tailed hawks admitted due to rodent poisons. Many of them use anticoagulants, which can cause rats and mice to bleed to death. Unfortunately, Murray explained, birds of prey, like hawks and owls, that eat poisoned rodents can then become victims of the rodent poisons themselves, developing bleeding problems that can lead to illness or death.
Murray said an additional reason they have red-tailed hawks admitted to the clinic is West Nile virus, a mosquito-borne illness that can infect birds and people.
“We see these infections in the late summer-early fall, similar to infections in people,” said Murray. “And as in people, it causes encephalitis. Red-tailed hawks and Cooper’s hawks are the most common birds of prey we see with West Nile virus.”
Yearly, over 50 percent of patients in the wildlife clinic — and up to 60 percent depending on the time of year — are birds, Murray said. Case in point, a veterinary technician walked by carrying a newly admitted patient — a Canada goose that had been hit by a car. Luckily for the goose, a preliminary X-ray showed no broken bones.
The clinic’s patients vary seasonally, Murray explained. Summer is their busiest season because of baby animals being born, and because animals and people are generally more active in the warm weather. For example, turtles crossing roads in spring and summer sometimes get hit by cars. Murray showed me a Blanding’s turtle that had been struck by a car. They used orthopedic wire to close the cracks in the turtle’s shell, and were keeping the reptile at the clinic while it finished healing over the winter.
Murray said lots of migratory birds arrive in Massachusetts during the spring and summer, and not surprisingly, the clinic sees a lot of songbirds admitted during the warm season. Outdoor cats are responsible for a lot of injuries and fatalities to songbirds, Murray explained, so keeping cats indoors would be helpful in protecting birds and other small animals.
The clinic has two large flight cages that are used to rehabilitate larger birds, such as hawks and owls. In one of the flight cages — the Shalin Liu Healing Cage — a Cooper’s hawk was being rehabbed in preparation for release back into the wild.
The clinic also treats mammals, such as squirrels, eastern cottontails, foxes, coyotes, and bobcats. The clinic will take animals as large as year-old black bears, said Murray. She reviewed the patient census board, then checked on several of the animals, including a porcupine that had been hit by a car, and an anesthetized opossum that was being X-rayed after it was attacked by a dog.
Murray said they see more eastern cottontails at the clinic than any other animal — 623 so far this year out of a total of 3,305 animals admitted to the clinic.
“Year-round we see adult rabbits that get hit by cars,” said Murray. “But in the spring and summer, we see large numbers of young rabbits that are caught by cats and dogs. Rabbits make very simple nests on the ground, often in people’s yards or gardens, [and] … they are easily found by pets.”
Founded in 1983, the mission of the wildlife clinic is to treat injured native wildlife, educate veterinary students, and conduct research related to wildlife health, Murray said. All of the veterinary students rotate through the wildlife clinic as part of their training.
“It’s highly rewarding to see students come into their clinic rotation without an interest in wildlife medicine, and leave with an interest in helping wildlife,” Murray said.
Murray, herself a graduate of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, said the clinic typically treats over 3,000 native wild animals per year. There is no fee for dropping animals off, and the care they provide is free, but the wildlife clinic does accept donations, she added.
Murray said that like other animal clinics and hospitals in the state and across the country, the pandemic has brought challenges for the Tufts Wildlife Clinic. She said they have been able to keep the clinic operational throughout the pandemic, while keeping people working in the clinic safe, caring for patients, and providing training for veterinary students.
“We couldn’t have done any of this without the hard work of our dedicated staff and support from the school community, as well as others who are critical to the work we do — animal control officers, state agencies like [Massachusetts] Environmental Police and MassWildlife, local rehabilitators, and, of course, members of the public,” said Murray.
Murray added that in order to prioritize care for the animals who need it most, it is important for members of the public to call the clinic first before arriving with an animal, so its team can assess whether the wildlife clinic is the best place to help (for injured wildlife), or if they might be better suited to contact a wildlife rehabilitator (for orphaned wildlife).
If you have found orphaned, injured, or sick wildlife, refer to the Tufts Wildlife Clinic web page wildlife.tufts.edu/found-wildlife, or call 508-839-7918.
Don Lyman is a biologist, freelance science journalist, and hospital pharmacist who lives north of Boston. Send your questions about nature and wildlife in the suburbs to firstname.lastname@example.org.