Long periods of extreme cold, record snowfall and a lack of open water took its toll on Maine’s wildlife this winter, making it difficult for some animals to find enough food. At Avian Haven, a wildlife rehabilitation center in Freedom, more owls, hawks and sea ducks were treated than usual — many of the animals weak from starvation.

“The goal is to get these guys back into the wild where they belong,” said Diane Winn, Avian Haven co-founder and executive director.

Winn talked about these feathered patients during a presentation on March 28 at the University of Maine in Orono. The talk was part of the Friends of Dr. Edith Marion Patch public series.

Avian Haven rehabilitates more birds than any other wildlife center in northern New England. In 2014 alone, the facility admitted 1,700 birds and 30-40 reptiles. (They don’t take in mammals, but many other Maine licensed wildlife rehabilitators do.)

To treat their patients, they use a variety of methods, from antibiotics and x-rays to traditional Chinese medicine in order to treat animals for everything from mending tiny fractures and broken feathers to detecting parasites, toxins and lead poisoning. And for complicated cases, the center often turns to a select group of local veterinarians.

Helping birds shake off the cold

A steady stream of owls entered Avian Haven during winter. Most were barred owls, but the facility also tended to a greater number of great horned and saw-whet owls than usual.

The majority of the owls Avian Haven sees in the winter are injured from colliding with vehicles.

“In the winter, owls will hunt along roadsides because people will throw litter from their cars, which attracts mice,” Winn said.

This past winter, while the facility still saw its fair share of injured owls from vehicle collisions, they also cared for owls that were simply weak and disoriented from starvation.

In March, two barred owls were found covered in manure at two different farms in Maine. One of the owls was found in a cow barn, where it was being trampled by cows. It’s currently being treated for a badly broken wing and an infection. The other owl was caught in a barbed wire fence. Both were weak and starving.

“Though it may sound counter-intuitive, the last thing you want to do is feed an emaciated animal, as the GI tract has essentially shut down and is unprepared for a sudden influx of food,” Winn said. “Fluids and electrolytes need to be balanced first, and then very gradually, we introduce calories — first in simple, easy-to-digest liquid forms. We build up slowly to solid foods.”

The facility also received more red-tailed hawks and ducks than usual this winter.

“It wasn’t just us, but rehab centers all over the eastern seaboard, from Delaware north through Massachusetts and into Maine,” Winn said. “Waterfowl biologists in the northeast were also finding unusually high mortalities in their winter surveys. Again, these birds were typically not injured but debilitated and emaciated from starvation.”

Winn explained that the colder the temperature, the more calories an animal needs to consume. This past winter in Maine, the temperature was extremely cold for long periods of time. In addition, some water birds may have had a tough time finding open water.

To care for waterfowl, Avian Haven has three indoor pools, which became quite crowded this winter. The facility went through a lot of fish, Winn said.

Saving birds, one at a time

Though Avian Haven heals and releases more birds than any other rehabilitator in Maine, they don’t make any significant change to the state’s wildlife population, Winn said. But that’s not the point.

“We’re all about individuals,” Winn said. “We follow the human model of compassion and concern for injured animals.”

They do not display animals. Rather, they go to great lengths to minimize their patient’s contact with people so the animals don’t become habituated to humans, which can become a problem when they’re released into the wild.

Another big part of their mission is to educate the public about wildlife and humans’ effect on wildlife through social media and other forms of outreach. Their Facebook page, where they post photos and videos of their wild patients on a regular basis, has more than 5,500 followers.

On March 28, Winn started the presentation by showing a series of photos: an osprey with a fishing hook caught in its mouth; a great horned owl tangled in a fence; a lead-poisoned loon; a gull tangled in fishing gear; a warbler stuck on fly paper; a robin that had been attacked by a housecat. All patients of Avian Haven, the animals had one thing in common — all of their injuries had been ultimately caused by humans. Of all those animals, only the gull survived to be released back into the wild.

Most injuries they see are caused by cat predation, car collisions and window strikes. And about a half of their caseload are orphaned songbird nestlings, especially American robins and phoebe’s, who often set up their nests near people’s homes.

To rehabilitate the animals they do, Avian Haven has the required state and federal permits.

“Wildlife rehabilitation has dwindled in the past 10 years,” Winn said, stating that there are about 50 active wildlife rehabilitators that hold state permits in Maine, and only about 20 of those have federal permits, which allows them to rehabilitate migratory birds and federally threatened and endangered species.

Eagles and loons still falling to lead

From 2004 to 2014, Avian Haven received 158 bald eagle patients. About a third of those birds — 54 eagles — had lead poisoning. Thirty-seven of the eagles died.

“An eagle that has ingested lead may be able to stand, but too weak to lift its head up,” Winn said. “Or it may be unable to stand, seizuring or in respiratory distress.”

Lead damages hemoglobin, so red blood cells can’t carry oxygen. This means that even when the eagle is rescued and transported to Avian Haven, the staff can’t help by administering oxygen.

In almost every lead poisoning case, Avian haven tries to flush the lead out of the bird’s system. To do this, they administer general anesthesia and conduct a gastric lavage, flushing the lead out with water in a matter of minutes. Still, the damage may already have been done. A lethal dose of lead for a bald eagle is 30 to 40 milligrams, according to Winn. That equals about a tenth the weight of a typical Aspirin pill.

“There’s really no doubt that eagles are becoming sick and dying from spent lead ammunition,” Winn said. “We’ve known this for a number of years.”

Winn said that eagles pick up pieces of lead ammunition from prey and scavenging various animals that are shot with lead ammunition or have ingested lead sinkers.

Already in 2015, four more eagles have been admitted to Avian Haven with lead poisoning.

“A voluntary switch to non-lead would go a long way to fixing this problem,” Winn said.

Another persisting problem the rehabilitation center sees is loons becoming tangled in fishing gear and ingesting lead sinkers, though in 2013, the Maine state legislature passed a bill banning the sale and use of lead fishing sinkers that weigh one ounce or less.

Avian Haven’s future

While Avian Haven works closely with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, it is not financially supported by the state or the federal government. The non-profit center is funded largely through donations, as well as grants.

Located in the small town of Freedom, the facility includes an indoor infirmary space and hospital, a full kitchen with food supplies to meet the need of all avian species, 14 outdoor flight cages, an all-season facility for aquatic birds. One of the most impressive buildings on the property is their large raptor compound with three rooms and a 160-foot flyway.

And they’re always looking for ways to better serve their wildlife patients. In 2015, they plan to build a modular habitat that has a flight cage for large corvids or small raptors.

“People often want to know how they can help, and there are a number of ways,” Diane said.

People interested in helping can volunteer to transport injured animals; donate cash or goods such as first aid, cleaning supplies, artificial plants and microfiber cloth; or help the center with gardening and landscaping.

To learn more about Avian Haven, visit avianhaven.org or find them on Facebook. To learn about using non-lead ammunition, visit huntingwithnonlead.org.

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...