2015-03-05 / Nature

Brutal Winter Takes Toll on Wildlife

By Jack Kelly


A Canada Goose, weak from hunger and unable to survive the cold night temperatures, succumbed to the elements on a local beach. A Canada Goose, weak from hunger and unable to survive the cold night temperatures, succumbed to the elements on a local beach. The bitter, Arctic temperatures and constant snowstorms that have swept through the region over the past six weeks have created a perfect storm of devastation for local wildlife. According to Rachel Farrell, member of the Avian Records Committee of Rhode Island and co-editor of Field Notes of Rhode Island Birds, “I have received reports and pictures of numerous dead waterfowl, including Common Goldeneye, Common Loons, a Red-throated Loon, Canada Geese and others that have been found throughout the region. Deceased members of Alcid species have also been reported washed up on the state’s southern coastline. Songbirds are especially hard hit with the snow covering food supplies, and many are seeking sustenance from feeders across the state.”

Backyard birders have been surprised by the numbers of wintering woodland birds that have appeared at feeding stations. Newport resident Liz Renshaw, an amateur photographer and wildlife enthusiast, has captured stunning images of a Fox Sparrow, White-throated Sparrows and a Merlin Falcon in her yard in the Fifth Ward. Other neighborhoods have reported Savannah Sparrows, American Tree Sparrows and a Lapland Longspur foraging on the ground near feeders. These particular birds are normally found in brushy or wooded rural habitats and do not venture into neighborhood yards. Sadly, the remains of many emaciated songbirds have been discovered in a variety of areas throughout the county.


This group of diving ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers and Hooded Mergansers, congregated in the only open water in the Gooseneck Cove salt marshes. Desperate for food, they pursued fish under the ice and four members of the contingent ran out of air. (Photos by Jack Kelly) This group of diving ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers and Hooded Mergansers, congregated in the only open water in the Gooseneck Cove salt marshes. Desperate for food, they pursued fish under the ice and four members of the contingent ran out of air. (Photos by Jack Kelly) One of the most hard hit and visible species affected during this wildlife crisis is Canada Geese. The carcasses of hundreds of geese have been discovered across the area over the past week. This breed feeds on aquatic plants and vegetation, and with the deep snow pack and the severe icing of ponds, wetlands, and coastal coves, these birds are struggling to find food. Many have succumbed to starvation and others are near death. Many local residents have placed large quantities of cracked corn and bird seed close to feeding areas to help the geese.

The Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island is attempting to rescue as many avian victims as possible. Volunteers from the group have rescued numerous birds across the island and are continuing their efforts.

Kristin Fletcher, a Portsmouth resident and executive director of the group, said, “We are in crisis mode right now. We have been rescuing birds from across the state and are doing our best to see that they survive.” The association’s clinic in North Kingstown is so full of ailing and recovering birds that volunteer workers are taking "patients" home to continue therapy. Fletcher herself has 34 birds at her house, including three Canada Geese, an American Crow, a Bufflehead Duck, Goldfinches, a House Finch, two Eastern Towhees, a Cardinal, and many more. “One of our volunteers, Wendy Taylor- Humphries, has opened her barn to 26 Canada Geese that are stabilized and self feeding, but are too thin to release back into the wild. We are actually holding on to all of our birds until the weather warms, because not to do so would simply send them back out to die,” Fletcher said.

While Fletcher and other clinic volunteers work feverishly to rescue and nurse so many, she admitted, “Sometimes all we can do is offer hospice care and keep them warm until the end.”

The Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island is an allvolunteer organization. “We are volunteers from the top down, including the director's position, clinic workers, and our veterinarians. We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and we survive on donations. We receive no dedicated funding from the federal or state level,” Fletcher said.

One item that Fletcher did not mention is that the group needs to replenish its supplies. This onslaught of sick, starving, and injured birds has taxed the organization financially.

To Help

To contact the group about a sick or injured animal or bird, call 401-294-6363. For more information, visit riwildliferehab.org or on Facebook at Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island.

Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others.

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