2012 Year in Review: Elena Cox, Wildlife Rehabilitation Extern

Last year, many of our staff, students, and volunteers recounted their most memorable moments of 2011. We had so much fun reading and sharing these stories, we thought we’d do it again! Check our blog between Christmas and New Year’s for a variety of stories and memories of 2012 from the staff and volunteers of the Wildlife Center.

So much about my externship at the Wildlife Center of Virginia was memorable – I hardly know where to start. From my first day, when I walked in to find the first fawn patients of 2012, to the last day, when I was able to observe a fascinating orthopedic surgery, the variety, scope, and intensity of the work made the memories run together in a blur. I was incredibly lucky to work, live, and exchange knowledge with such a talented and welcoming group of staff and students. Appropriately, though, the most remarkable aspects of my work were the patients themselves. Some stood out more than others, whether because they were an unusual species, had a particularly dramatic character, or simply because they arrived under unusual circumstances – like the starling that was admitted on a bed of lettuce.

My fellow rehab students, extraordinary volunteer Carol, and I all quickly became fond of the juvenile northern flicker –patient #12-1568 – that arrived at the beginning of the summer. This bird with the plucky attitude and brilliantly colored feathers had the odds against him – he was losing weight, he had to be hand-fed [even more stressful], and to top it all off, he had somehow cracked his beak. We were dismayed at this – what kind of woodpecker breaks its beak? Humans generally make very poor songbird parents, but we buckled down with military-esque determination – this flicker Would. Not. Die.

While the vet staff effectively patched his beak, we made a team effort to stuff him with as much food as his little crop would hold. The flicker began to put on weight in leaps and bounds, but we were still faced with a roadblock. Our beautifully-crafted woodpecker meals were left untouched – the bird seemed to have no interest in feeding himself. We tried mixing fruits, adding especially enticing insects, and arranging the ingredients in everything from a well-blended mix to a layered parfait, all to no avail.

One day, when whoever was feeding the flicker was being particularly clumsy with the feeding tweezers, someone made the observation that the bird ate pretty well off the ground – and then it clicked. Flickers, unlike most woodpeckers, are primarily ground feeders – so why would he want to excavate his food from a tube? After a collective groan over how obtuse we had been, fellow extern Sam had the brilliant idea to fashion a feeding station out of a piece of astroturf. The flicker took to it immediately, seemingly just waiting for one of us to pay attention to his natural behaviors. He spent the next several weeks learning to forage fruits and insects from a piece of artificial grass, and when he was able to fly, he was successfully released. Wherever he is now, I’m sure that he looks on his time at the Wildlife Center with bemusement and relief to have been set free – I’m equally sure that he has no idea that he helped us learn just as much as we helped him.

--Elena Cox

Keep checking the Wildlife Center's blog for more year-end posts this week!

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