Race Against the Seasons – Working with Migratory Birds


The common nighthawk is a species that feeds primarily on flighted insects like moths in the nighttime. They are also well known for having a large mouth (despite their small looking beak). Photo credit: Pixabay

Illinois forests can offer abundant food and housing for birds during warmer months, but not every bird is adapted to surviving the harsh winter. As a result, Illinois is the seasonal home for many species of migratory birds. Birds, like the Common Nighthawk, can be found throughout the US breeding and enjoying plentiful food during our spring and summer. in the winter, however, these birds are found in South America, where they are able to take advantage of warmer temperatures. The timing of this migration is crucial for the survival of the birds. A late migration may result in a bird or flock trapped in an inappropriate environment with decreasing temperatures and a dwindling food supply. Move too early and these birds may not have had enough time to rear young or built up enough fat and muscle stores to support a long migration.


The American Goldfinch is a species we often see in the clinic over the summer for wing injuries. American Goldfinches are sexually dimorphic, meaning males and females have different color patterns. We know this is a male due to his bright colors. Photo credit: Pixabay

Migratory birds that are brought to the Wildlife Medical Clinic at the end of the summer and into the fall present a challenge: we need to treat them and have them ready to be released before it gets too cold. Fractures heal relatively fast in birds – usually in only four to six weeks. However, six weeks may still be longer than a migratory bird has before it’s too late to head south for the winter. Additionally, birds that have injuries will require some time to re-build their muscle and prepare for the difficult flight ahead of them. If we cannot heal the bird in time, we have limited options for what we can do to help. Housing them for the entire winter is extremely stressful for them. Meeting their nutritional and social needs for this extended period of time is unfortunately impossible in many cases. We must also respect the Migratory Bird Treaty Act or MBTA. This act protects the birds throughout their migration and prohibits us from simply transporting them south to catch up with other migrating birds.


Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are one of the smallest patients we see. Their metabolism is extremely fast, and, as a result, keeping up with their nutritional needs in the clinic is a unique challenge. Photo credit: Pixabay

Treating wildlife comes with unique challenges. What may be treatable in a domestic animal may not be possible for an animal without a stable home range. Working with migratory species is one of the largest challenges wildlife rehabilitators face. We do our best to advocate for our patients, ensuring those that are released have the highest chance of survival.





By Monika Liszka, University of Illinois Class of 2022

Stephanie Heniff, Wildlife Medical Clinic Intern 2019

The Wildlife Medical Clinic has over 100 student volunteers that are responsible for all aspects of patient care and treatments. Many of these students have off-campus externships and research projects over the summer, thus much of the Clinic operations are manned by our two student managers, two veterinary students interns, and final year veterinary students rotating through for clinical experience. One of the interns this summer was Stephanie Heniff, a current second year veterinary student. We asked her about her professional aspirations, her internship, and one of her favorite cases.

Stephanie with soft shell turtle

Stephanie was performing an examination on this adult soft shell turtle.

Having started volunteering with the Wildlife Medical Clinic when she was an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois, Stephanie has been a Clinic volunteer for more than two years. In fact, the Wildlife Medical Clinic served as Stephanie’s first hands-on experience in veterinary medicine. Stephanie’s interest in zoological species as a whole began by caring for her pet ball python, Agave. As an intern at the Clinic, Stephanie spent her summer triaging new patients as they were brought in to the clinic by community members. During this time, Stephanie also shared her passion for wildlife medicine with fourth year veterinary students and undergraduate volunteers who gained experience working with wildlife this summer. One of the primary responsibilities for our interns is to teach these students about wildlife medicine and assist them with managing cases.

Stephanie with young racoon

The WMC has had over 100 juvenile raccoons brought in this year! Here Stephanie restrains a young orphaned raccoon.

One of Stephanie’s favorite patients to care for was a fox snake that had become stuck to a glue trap. These traps are placed on the ground to catch “pests” such as mice or bugs. These traps can also capture predators, who are attracted to the pest but get stuck trying to reach them. Other times, unintended species may simply wander onto the trap inadvertently, getting stuck to the trap in the process. Regardless of the method of entrapment, animals often get more and more trapped as they struggle to escape. While it was impossible to predict how long the snake had been stuck, Stephanie suspected it had been some time as the snake was dehydrated and stressed. Stephanie and the Clinic team sedated the snake to reduce his stress and prevent him from further injuring himself while they worked on freeing him from the glue trap. They were able to meticulously remove the trap without damaging any of his scales. However, he didn’t come out totally unscathed; the areas where the trap had adhered were inflamed. Stephanie developed a treatment plan to treat his dehydration and skin lesions and was able to successfully release him a few days later!

Fox Snake being released

Stephanie had the opportunity to release this fox snake after treating it for Snake Fungal Disease.

Stephanie is excited to continue working in the Clinic as a team leader this school year, when she will mentor her team of twenty veterinary and undergraduate student volunteers. A large part of this commitment is managing the medical cases of patients assigned to her team. This includes planning diagnostic tests, interpreting those results, devising treatment plans, and assessing the patients’ recovery and health status at every step along the way. This experience will prepare Stephanie for her future career as a veterinarian working with peers in with a focus on zoologic species.

The Wildlife Medical Clinic appreciates and depends on the dedication and hard work of students, like Stephanie, who ensure patient care is our main priority year-round. Without help from the veterinary and undergrad students at the University of Illinois, the Wildlife Medical Clinic would not be able to fulfill its mission to serve the wildlife of Illinois. If you’d like to learn more about our Clinic and how you can help us care for these animals, please visit our website: https://vetmed.illinois.edu/wildlife/

By Monika Liszka, College of Veterinary Medicine Class of 2022


In Memory of Isabella

10 baby bunnies in a box Thank you to Randy and Patricia Rushing for sponsoring a day at the Wildlife Medical Clinic.  They chose to sponsor July 21st, in honor of Isabella, their beautiful golden retriever.  The Rushings chose this day to remember Isabella as it is the anniversary of her passing into the spiritual realm.  Isabella, your parents love and miss you!

This gift will help injured, sick and orphaned wild animals, such as these orphaned bunnies and muskrats.  It will provide numerous educational opportunities for veterinary students.


Learn more about how you can sponsor a day at three baby muskrats on a towel eating out of a bowlthe Wildlife Medical Clinic here: https://vetmed.illinois.edu/wildlife/giving/sponsor-a-day/