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Learning more about injured birds could improve their welfare

The San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory (SFBBO) runs a bird banding station nestled into a small riparian forest stand among hustle and bustle of Silicon Valley. The scientists capture birds in “mist nets.” The nets are too fine for animals to see until they are entangled in them. After the birds are carefully extracted, the experts take notes on their health and collect other data before releasing them.

The observatory has over 30 years of data accumulated, consisting of information on more than 100,000 individual birds. Many of the birds are captured multiple times, giving insight to their health over a span of time. With this unusually large amount of data, SFBBO ornithologist Dr. Katie LaBarbera plans to look into the welfare of the avian research subjects.

The researchers will investigate how injured or sick birds fare after leaving the banding station – something Dr. LaBarbera hopes could inform rehabilitation and other banding stations. With this information, bird care could improve. 

The project is just one of seven studies selected to be funded by the Wild Animal Initiative, a non-profit focused on wild animal welfare. For their part, Dr. LaBarbera is driven by a love and fascination for birds.  

“Holding a wild bird is a very specific joy…They’re fragile, but they’re also really fierce,” said Dr. LaBarbera. 

“You get a sense for the sort of alien body structure they have. It becomes obvious that they evolved from dinosaurs.”

“Another interesting detail is that their skin is basically transparent. Unlike mammals, which store fat in a continuous layer under the skin, birds store fat under their skin in just a few places, so if you gently blow the feathers out of the way, you can see things like their muscles or the food they ate.”

Dr. LaBarbera’s experience working with rehab facilities shows that these organizations do the best they can for birds, but can only make decisions based on the best information they have. For instance, some organizations will automatically euthanize one-legged birds, this research could help determine whether such policies are justified. 

“We’ve seen one-legged songbirds do well and seem healthy in the wild, so with the results of this study, we might be able to provide better, data-backed guidelines for rehabilitation or release.”

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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