Birds of a Feather

In recent years, it has been difficult for the Wildlife Care Clinic in the College of Veterinary Medicine to accept songbirds.

It wasn’t because the need wasn’t there – plenty of immature robins, cardinals and sparrows are in need of attention. But the lack of an aviary hampered the clinic’s ability to care for, and rehabilitate, these birds.

“In the past, we had to transport the birds to a fellow rehabber in Des Moines,” said Katie Minnihan, a senior biology major at Iowa State University and co-head of the clinic’s student staff. “We needed a place where the birds could learn how to fly at the end of their fledging life phase, but not get out into the wild before they were physically ready to go.”

That place is now the “Songbird Aviary,” a small structure built by the Wildlife Care Clinic and located adjacent to the clinic at the College of Veterinary Medicine. Minnihan and her fellow staff director, Ashley Hays, did most of the construction along with other student volunteers.

“We built the structure on our own through trial and error,” Minnihan said. The clinic typically takes in injured and orphaned baby birds, rehabilitates them, and then places them in the small aviary for outdoor exposure at the end of the rehab process. The process is very time consuming as the baby birds need to be feed every hour before they can eat solid foods on their own and be transitioned to the songbird aviary. Once in the aviary, staff members are able to assess flight and independent foraging to assure the birds meet release criteria. The number of birds in the aviary varies from day to day, but Minnihan says the structure can handle up to 20 birds at one time. The clinic just recently released 13 birds back into the wild.

Minnihan says the birds are brought to the clinic by community members, typically after a nest has been blown down from by a storm or if the birds are being stalked by a cat or dog.

“Most of the birds we get are at the fledging age,” she said. “They can hop out of their nests but can’t really fly yet. It’s the most vulnerable part of their lives and they are at risk for injury when we take them in.” The clinic slowly transitions the birds, weaning them off of a liquid diet and moving them to solid foods. The birds are typically in a cage for a week or two before moving into the new aviary.

“The aviary works perfectly for our needs,” Minnihan said. “Our facility is so much better now that we can utilize this structure for our small avian patients.”