My Two Loves: Squirrels and Raptors

Ever since I was a young girl, I have always been passionate about working and engaging with various animals through hands-on interaction. While attending the University of Rhode Island (URI), I gained multiple opportunities that broadened my horizons as a conservation and wildlife student. I spent time capturing woodcocks in mist nests, banding various songbirds at the local banding station, assisting at a deer check station, interning with the herpetology department as a research apprentice, and building covering pens on the New England cottontail project. In my junior year, I worked at Second Chance Wildlife Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland during the summer to gain more school credits; that's where I fell in love with rehabilitation, especially with waterfowl. After graduating URI, I was very excited to gain more hands-on experience at The Wildlife Center of Virginia and could not wait to see which species would capture my heart.

My first day I spent the whole day in the intensive care unit (ICU) where I instantly fell in love with Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis). Their eyes were closed; they were barely furred and were crying for their mother’s milk. If a squirrel or opossum was difficult to feed, we would burrito them into a soft blanket to secure their squirmy bodies. As I syringe-fed the tiny orphan squirrels, I watched their stomachs fill with formula. As squirrels get older, they wag their tails as if they were a dog, almost as an appreciation for feeding them. As the squirrels opened their eyes, they were placed in an aquarium with two or three companions and offered solid food such as rodent chow, bird seed, cracked corn, sunflower seeds, and dog chow. They are also given fresh fruit and veggies in their cage with an inch of corn on the cob. In their aquarium, they are also given a place to hide; a tissue box with a few blankets, and a few climbing sticks.

As we weighed the squirrels, every Monday and Thursday, their tiny little bodies were growing in size. Soon they were weaned and then acclimated to the outdoors in temporary enclosures with hammocks, hiding boxes, fresh fallen leaves, and high climbing sticks. After a week of getting used to daytime temperatures, the pairs of squirrels in each cage were moved up to our mammal complex where they spent a certain amount of time living in an enclosure but completely open to the outside elements. Watching them grow from their incubator period to adult squirrels, and being healthy enough to release, gave me great satisfaction in all of my hard work.

As I walked up to the mammal complex every day to take care of the squirrels, I would listen to all the raptor calls from nearby flight pens and reflected on my avian experience. I handled songbirds, hawk species, many owl species (Eastern Screech-owls being my favorite), Black Vultures, a Golden Eagle, and Bald Eagles during my three-month externship. One of my most memorable experiences was catching my first Bald Eagle. I remember how scared I was to catch one, but once I caught him and restrained him in my arms it was the best feeling in the world. Along with learning capture and restraint methods of raptors, I learned flight conditioning techniques along with daily exercise motivators. Every day we exercised the raptors to ensure they were improving their flight skills and could be released in the wild. Stamina, maneuverability, stress breathing, height, perching skills, and their silent ability (in owls) are the physical capabilities that were assessed during their daily exercises. Watching raptors fly higher and stronger every day was a great reward in my rehabilitation time as well.

One of our birds of prey, the Golden Eagle, was difficult to flight test, therefore we creanced him. Temporary jesses were placed on the Golden Eagle’s legs, which were attached to a long paracord rope. He was then taken to a nearby park and was lightly thrown in the air to ensure that we could evaluate his flight. I was fortunate to be able to participate and handle the eagle. After seven passes, he passed his flight test! YAY!

My new love for squirrels and raptors is just one thing I gained from my externship at The Wildlife Center of Virginia. My time at the Center has greatly deepened my appreciation for many native Virginia species and I am glad I could be a part of this wonderful program. Thanks, WCV!

--Sarah W.
WCV Class of 2016