A Goose, a Road Trip and an Important Lesson in Wildlife Rehabilitation

By Lauren Adams, Lead Wildlife Keeper

Last weekend, I took a goose on a road trip. I know what you’re thinking.  1. What?  2. Why?  Excellent questions.  

When I started work as the new Wildlife Keeper at VINs in December, the Canada Goose had already been there for 10 days. She had come in to our Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation because some people found her standing in the middle of the road, seemingly uninjured, but not acting quite right. She wasn’t afraid of them, but rather, seemed almost friendly. These kind strangers brought the goose in to us, and they did the right thing. Because, even though this goose didn’t have a physical ailment, she had a potentially life-threatening condition for a wild animal; she was imprinted. 
 To understand imprinting, it helps to know a few things about wildlife. A healthy wild animal should be afraid of humans. If you approach an animal in the wild, its first instinct is to get far away from you. If this doesn’t happen, something is wrong. Maybe that animal has an injury or illness that makes it physically unable to run, hop, fly, crawl, swim, or slither away. This animal probably needs help, and this is how we get a lot of injured birds into rehab. But even so, the animal probably won’t act “friendly”. You will likely see signs of fear, instinctive behaviors that animals exhibit when they feel threatened. This might be vocalizing, biting, puffing up their feathers (or fur) to look bigger, or other types of aggressive behavior.  
This was not the case with Goose.  She was reported to have been following people, trying to get into people’s houses, and being generally more interested in humans than in the other wild geese at the pond. By the time I got to VINS, Goose was happily part of the daily routine in our department of wildlife rehabilitation:  nipping at ankles while we prepared diets for our raptors, honking at the laundry machine, and joining us in our break room at lunchtime. 
One of the most important principles in wildlife rehabilitation is minimizing human contact with the animals. Human contact, even just seeing people, or hearing human voices, is very stressful to a wild animal. This can prolong an animal’s recovery, and even stress a bird out so much that they injure themselves while inside of an enclosure. Secondly, particularly with baby animals, we want to avoid any habituation at all costs. 

Habitation happens when a wild animal becomes so used to being around people that their fear instincts no longer kick in when they encounter humans.  In order to do our jobs as wildlife rehabilitators, we must release a healthy, fully-functioning animal back into the wild.  This means that we know the animal will be able to do all of its natural behaviors in the world, such as hunt, migrate, or breed, capably.  Part of a wild animal’s success involves knowing what to be afraid of, including humans.
Imprinting is a particular type of habituation, and it happens when a bird is a hatchling. They “imprint” on the individual that takes care of it, which is usually their parent. This is an extremely important process for a wild bird because this is how they learn what they are. In a normal situation, a baby goose is raised by its parents, so it learns that it is a goose and what normal goose behavior is.
What happened with our Canada Goose, is that she was probably orphaned not long after hatching.  Some well-meaning people took her in to take care of her, but unfortunately, this means that she imprinted on people. This explains her very relaxed behavior when hanging around humans. Why is this life-threatening for a wild bird? Well, it’s a harsh world out there. Wild animals need all of their instincts working properly in order to survive. A wild Canada Goose needs to be afraid of cars and avoid roads. She needs to know not to approach hunters. She needs to be properly socialized with other Canada Geese, so she can be a part of a flock and migrate. A habituated or imprinted wild bird does not have a very long life expectancy out in the wild.
So this brings me, finally, to our road trip. Goose needed a place to live, somewhere she would be safe from predators, have the proper food to eat, and have a reasonable “habitat” where she will be able to live without injuring herself. Most importantly, it had to be a property managed by a profession, licensed rehabilitator; it is illegal for individuals to keep a native species without the proper permits. While VINS is a licensed rehabilitation facility and we are set up to house many species of birds long term, or even permanently, waterfowl require specific things that we don’t have. So, even though I loved having Goose around, we needed to find her a permanent home.
We were lucky enough to find a lovely new, permanent home for Goose. So, on Saturday, we drove the 98 miles to North Ferrisburgh where a wildlife rehabilitator, operating out of her home, has a waterfowl sanctuary in her backyard. When we arrived, I knew that this was the perfect place for a goose. Helenahas a huge backyard with a beautiful pond and about 20 or so non-releaseable ducks and geese. Though Goose  will be happy here and likely live a long life, this story isn’t altogether satisfying.

Remember that as a wildlife rehabilitation facility, our goal is always to return a bird to the wild. When an animal has a physical injury, the chance for healing and making a safe return can vary from great to small, but there is always a chance. A mental injury- like imprinting- its a sure sentence that this bird with never return to the wild. With baby bird season coming up, our southern migrants returning north to lay their eggs, the winter thawing to a hospitable spring, our woods and yards will soon be full of young impressionable birds. Consider their future and the future of each species when you find one orphaned or injured. Call VINS right away. Don’t try to care for it yourself. Together, we can get as many of those babies back to the wild.

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