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Frigid feathers

Tom Jackson • Mar 15, 2014 at 6:40 PM

There’s an expression about really bad weather: “It’s not fit for man nor beast” Mona Rutger can confirm the “beast” part. The cold, snowy, icy winter has been tough for people who live in northern Ohio, but it’s also been tough for animals and birds, said Rutger, founder of the Back to the Wild wildlife rehabilitation center in Castalia.

“We’ve definitely had an increase in literally frozen animals” Rutger said.

Read more about Back to the Wild in their sr.com blog HERE

The cold weather has resulted in an influx of sick or injured animals Rutger and the Back to the Wild team are trying to heal so they can return to their native habitats. About 150 animals are being nursed back to health today, she said, when 100 would be more normal for this time of year.   

Moreover, the added pressure comes as Back to the Wild is struggling with funding issues. A Michigan pharmaceutical research lab that donated huge numbers of rodents to help feed the animals has gone out of business, saddling Back to the Wild with spending thousands of dollars to buy rodents.

Rutger is appealing for donations to keep the center viable.

Certain kinds of animals are particularly vulnerable to severe winter weather, Rutger said.

Some kinds of ducks, for example, have trouble when the lake freezes over. Diving ducks are used to diving for food in the open water. When snow falls and Lake Erie is frozen over, “they get disoriented,” Rutger said.

“They actually lose the shoreline,” she said. “They’re not built to walk on land. Because they are diving ducks, they are built differently. When they’re on the ground, they have to drag themselves on their stomach”

When they’re on land, the ducks can’t take off. They also need to be in the water so they can dive for fish and eat.

“You have to get them back out to open water” Rutger said.

Back to the Wild has found itself taking care of birds that usually don’t turn up in the area, such as the White-winged Scoter, which usually lives in Canada and Alaska.

Read about two snowy owls at Back to the Wild in Sunday's Register

“We actually had to call Canada and Alaska rehab centers to get some tips on rehabbing them” Rutger said.

Blue herons have also been hit hard by the winter, Rutger said.

“We’ve had a lot of great blue herons” she said. “Most of them migrate out of here, but the ones who stuck around really got in trouble”

They need open water to hunt.

“We’ve found them in fields, frozen” Rutger said.

One frozen heron came in with its mouth open and caked with ice.

“His head was frozen to his body, too, along with the ice in his mouth” she said. “He didn’t make it”

Swans that prefer open water also are being found frozen in fields, Rutger said.

Animals that don’t hibernate are affected by the winter as well. Squirrels have had to look under deep snow to find caches of food, which they’ve to try to dig out of frozen ground, Rutger said.

Deer have sometimes struggled to forage under the snow. Rutger warned people they should not try to help deer by dumping corn on the ground.

“It will kill them in 12 hours,” she said. “Their gut is not set up to handle all of the carbohydrates”

Wildlife officials in Ohio believe, in general, animals are wintering pretty well, said John Windau, a spokesman for Ohio’s Division of Wildlife.

“Our native wildlife populations are very well adapted to these conditions” he said.

There have been two small water fowl die-offs in the last few weeks, and officials have noticed the weather is hard on diving ducks, Windau said. The ones that were tested were emaciated and likely died of starvation.

“It’s harder for them to get food this time of year” he said.

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