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

A Visit to the Wildlife Medical Clinic

What happens to critters once they are in medical care? U of I Wildlife Clinic has the answers!

Posted by ciLiving.tv on Wednesday, August 14, 2019

If you’ve ever brought an injured or sick animal to the Wildlife Medical Clinic, you might wonder what we do for our patients. Our student-run facility takes care of these animals much like your own pet would be cared for at the U of I Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

Regular physical examinations are especially important for our growing patients! This young turtle hatched recently and is still reabsorbing his yolk sac. We assess this patient regularly to ensure he is growing appropriately.

Every animal first receives a complete examination, and the first part of any exam is reviewing the patient’s history. While the finders of our wildlife patients often can’t tell us much about how the animal came to be under their care, often it’s the few details they can provide which make all the difference. In some cases, the history is very specific and we know exactly when the incident occurred, such as when a bystander sees an animal get hit by a car. Other cases are more mysterious, such as an animal found in someone’s backyard unable to walk properly but with no obvious trauma.

This bald eagle is waking up from anesthesia; the tube in his mouth will be removed when he’s swallowing and alert enough to protect his airway. He was anesthetized for a physical exam and had a soft tissue wound on his wing that was cleaned and bandaged. Anesthetizing the eagle allows us to do a thorough cleaning of the wound while preventing undue stress or pain to our patients.

The next step is our hands-off exam. We observe the animal’s breathing rate and character, whether they’re standing or lying down, and many other visual cues that will help us narrow down the animal’s ailment. This is also an opportunity to evaluate the urgency of treatment. For example, if an animal is struggling to breathe, we need to intervene immediately. In other cases, animals may need some quiet time to calm down due to the stress of being transported. Most of the animals we see can benefit from supplemental oxygen and rest in a quiet cage before our hands-on portion of the exam.

When an animal can tolerate handling, we start by weighing them. An accurate weight is extremely important. For animals sensitive to stress, we use their weight to calculate a species-specific sedative dose. This helps us reduce stress as much as possible when handling our patients. There are different ways to perform a physical exam, but we always teach our students to perform the exam in the same order each time. A common method is to start at an animal’s head, evaluating their eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, then continue systematically to an animal’s tail, observing each bodily system.

This great horned owl was stuck in a car grate when brought to the clinic. He was sedated so we could safely remove him from the grate and reduce the stress he was feeling during this process. A volunteer then collected a blood sample for diagnostic testing.

Once we complete a thorough exam, we develop a plan for our patient that often includes diagnostic testing. We regularly collect blood samples for analysis in our in-clinic laboratory. Another common diagnostic we use is radiography, or “x-rays”. This allows us to evaluate the skeletal system as well as other body systems. We are fortunate to have access to the many veterinary specialists at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, such as ophthalmology or dermatology, to help guide our diagnostics and care, especially during challenging cases. Surgery and physical therapy can be components of our treatment plan as well. In addition to providing medical care, our patients receive tailored housing and diet formulation as a part of their comprehensive treatment plan. Some factors we account for when formulating a patient’s diet include their species, age, and health status.

This process, from physical exam to a patient plan, allows us to provide the best care for our patients. Over a patient’s time in the clinic we may repeat this process, using physical exams findings to gauge the progress a patient is making and adjusting our treatment plan accordingly.

By Monika Liszka, Class of 2022

West Nile Virus Affects People and Animals

[American crow]Every summer in Illinois, infections with West Nile virus undoubtably make the news. Spread by mosquitoes, West Nile virus may cause flu-like symptoms in otherwise healthy adults; however, those who are immunocompromised suffer more severe symptoms or even fatality from infection.

Infections with West Nile virus are closely monitored by public health agencies during mosquito season to protect especially vulnerable populations if necessary. Did you know veterinarians can play an important role in identifying and controlling this disease?


Photo from Pixabay

One of the ways the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) monitors the prevalence of West Nile virus is by collecting data on sick animals. While most infected animals cannot pass the virus to people or other animals, their infection serves as an indicator of infection hot spots. The IDPH can then use the information garnered from infections in animals to advise surrounding communities that mosquitoes carrying the disease are in the area.

Animals that are outside much of the day, such as horses and birds, are particularly important for this monitoring program. Veterinarians know to consider this virus when sick animals are presented during the summer months.

At the Wildlife Medical Clinic, we consider this virus as a potential cause of any neurological signs in a bird during the mosquito season. We typically have a handful of West Nile virus cases each year. American Crows are particularly susceptible to the effects of this disease, though we see raptor species affected as well.

Treatment of this disease in birds, much like in people, is limited to supportive care. By managing the symptoms of the disease, we work to support the bird’s immune system and to help the animal recover over time.

If you’d like to learn more about West Nile virus and how veterinarians play a part in public health and safety, check out these links:

Photo of American crow from Pixabay.