A little bird told me, you'd better listen to the law

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duckAs spring approaches, bird lovers can look forward to the return of migratory birds, the cry of the osprey, and the buzz of the ruby-throated hummingbird. As they return to the area, some will get injured and end up in your veterinary office. Did you know, however, that this puts you at risk for breaking the law and that injured birds must be handed over as soon as possible to rehabilitators holding permits?

Be a good egg, hand over the bird
"The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, in effect, says that you can't do anything with any part of any bird listed in federal regulations, which is just about every bird that you are familiar with, except for pigeons, starlings, and some invasive species," explained Eliza Savage, a permit analyst for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, enacted in 1918, covers virtually all wild, feathered fliers that migrate through North America, Japan, and Russia. Maximal penalties for breaking this law can run as high as $10,000. If a bird is protected under the Eagle Protection Act or Endangered Species Act, fines are much steeper, running as high as $100,000 for an individual and $200,000 for an organization. States also have their own regulations that must be followed.

According to Savage, the FWS rarely punishes a person for attempting to care for an ailing aviator, if no harm results, but individuals need to be knowledgeable of the legislation. "Right now, it is illegal for [people] to even pick up an injured bird, if they don't have a migratory bird permit. But we would rarely enforce that, unless they are doing something abusive or they are going to keep it," Savage explained. "Veterinarians should not worry if they do accept a bird, but they should be aware that, if they do not have the required permit, they are not allowed to hang onto that bird any longer than is necessary for the bird's health."

Courtesy of Island Wildlife Natural Care CentreMany veterinarians are not aware of these laws, and some think that schools need to play a role. Dr. Sarah Lister, a member of the AVMA Committee on Environmental Issues, commented, "I don't think that [veterinary schools] have to spend an awful lot of time letting students know that treatment of wildlife is covered by federal and state laws, but you need to put it on their radar screen."

Veterinarians are not the only ones who are sometimes in the dark about such issues. Last spring, two adult mockingbirds dive-bombed into dozens of Washington D.C. pedestrians, in an effort to protect their hatchlings residing in a nest near the sidewalk. Staff from the Washington Humane Society's animal shelter removed the nest, and believing the nestlings could not be saved, euthanatized them.

For this action, the Humane Society, under a plea bargain, received one year of unsupervised probation and a $50 fine. During the probationary period, all employees had to undergo training by the FWS on migratory bird laws.

Although few fines are levied, veterinarians must realize that, after stabilizing a bird, they must hand it over to a permitted rehabilitator. To find such an individual, they can contact the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (www.nwrawildlife.org) or the International Wildlife Rehabilitators Council (http://theiwrc.org).

Why is it so important that licensed individuals handle the injuries? If someone finds an ailing bird and takes it to a local veterinary clinic, the staff may not have avian expertise. "Veterinarians may know how to stabilize a bird, but you really want someone who knows about birds to treat them," Savage explained.

Jeff Lederman, director of the Island Wildlife Natural Care Centre in British Columbia, Canada, agrees. His center, which has an avian veterinarian on staff, treats about 400 birds a year. He uses a variety of specialized equipment including incubators and flight cages.

Barbara Skelley, director of the Center for Rehabilitation of Wildlife in western Massachusetts, says the biggest problem is that many veterinarians cannot identify the bird species, and this leads to problems.

"They don't know what it eats, and they will put the same food in [the cage] whether it is an insectivore or [something else]," she said. Other veterinarians don't know that baby birds need to be fed every 20 to 40 minutes, and they also end up starving.

Turning over a new leaf
Veterinarians who want to rehabilitate wild birds must fill out an application to the Fish and Wildlife Service to obtain a permit. Currently, the Service doesn't have a permit specifically designed for bird rehabilitation, and thus, individuals in this line of work must obtain a special purpose-rehabilitation permit, which falls under a catchall, miscellaneous category. The FWS, however, has recognized the shortcomings of the current permit process and has proposed a new rule to rectify the situation.

"We decided that we didn't want to keep permitting rehabilitators under this category because there is a large number of rehabilitators, and it seemed impractical to keep on giving them this miscellaneous category that doesn't have any concrete criteria," said Savage.

The Service also wanted to address the legal issues that veterinarians face. Most people who find an injured bird take it to their local veterinarian for treatment. This is technically illegal. "We hate to see it going on and turning a blind eye to it when we really would like to be saying that it is legal for veterinarians to temporarily possess these birds," Savage said.

The proposed regulation can be found at www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/fedreg/a011206c.html. It provides for a specific permit and makes it legal for veterinarians, even if they don't have the permit, to provide short-term care. Individuals wishing to comment on the newly proposed rule have until March 6, 2002 to do so. Veterinarians are reminded to check with local government agencies, such as their state department of natural resources, to find out about state and local regulations.

The oriole lesson
Legislators and avian specialists hope that, if people are aware of the laws, fewer birds will suffer from harm or a fate similar to one of Charm City's famous orioles. Roughly 10 years ago, an unlicensed Baltimore area resident found an injured young male oriole and tried to nurse it back to health. When the individual finally brought the bird to a licensed rehabilitator, the oriole was human-imprinted and could not be released into the wild. Now, instead of flying the blue skies, it is an outreach bird at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.