Wildlife rehabilitator helps raptors — and others — return to the wild

MONKTON — Helena Nicolay wears leather gloves and a “ratty, old jacket” as she walks up to a barred owl. She moves silently, slowly, deliberately — averting her eyes so as to not present herself as a fellow predator. She holds out a sliver of beef heart at the end of a shorter-than-most-of-us-might-feel-safe-with pair of metal tongs.
The owl snaps up the meat and devours it.
Nicolay offers a little bit more. And a little bit more. The owl eats hungrily, then tilts its head.
“I feel so privileged to work with these animals,” Nicolay says. “They’re so beautiful.”
With their hooked beaks, sharp talons and keen eyesight, raptors, like this owl, are among nature’s most awesomely constructed predators. But once injured by a passing car or other mishap, these fierce creatures seem surprisingly docile as they recuperate under Nicolay’s watchful eye, at NorthStream Wildlife Rescue, an organization based out of her Monkton home.
In the dim light of Nicolay’s Monkton garage is a new owl, just arrived on Sunday night.
“She probably has a concussion,” Nicolay says.
The owl’s eyes are mere slits. She stands motionless, as if marshaling all her resources against her injury.
Nicolay deftly removes the owl from its cage. There is a brief whir of wings, as it attempts to struggle. Nicolay holds steady. The owl stills. Nicolay puts the owl into a specially constructed box and gets its weight — an important measurement for determining the owls’ sex and its relative health before injury and an important baseline for tracking its recovery.
Nicolay is one of the state’s 19 licensed wildlife rehabilitators, and one of four in Addison County.
“Wildlife rehabilitators provide an important service to the department and the citizens of Vermont,” said Scott Darling of the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Vermonters truly care about our wildlife, and rehabilitators provide the level of care to injured animals that give them a second chance.”
Nicolay began rehabilitating animals in 1999. Since then she has treated around 100 critters a year. Her patients include not just raptors — barred owls, red-tailed hawks, merlin falcons and others — but also bunnies, ducks, geese, ruffled grouse, common snipe, hummingbirds, mourning doves, turtles, squirrels and possums.
The goal is to return a fully rehabilitated animal to the wild. But only about half of the wild animals Nicolay tends will regain sufficient strength, sight, hearing, or mobility to be able to fend for themselves.
“The criteria for release are pretty strict since we want the animal to thrive; and it is not an easy world for them out there,” she said.
Some animals — rehabilitated but no longer capable of surviving in the wild — can become outreach ambassadors for such organizations as the Quechee-based Vermont Institute of Natural Science or Shelburne’s Outreach for Earth Stewardship. These organizations use once-injured raptors to educate Vermonters about wild creatures.
Other animals, not so lucky, must be euthanized.
“The reality is you have to make a lot of decisions that you never really wanted to make,” said Nicolay. “Some people think rehabbers are just bunny huggers. But you have to buy food, you have to clean up after them, you have to deal with lots of different poop and parasites, you have to put animals down.”
Early this week Nicolay was tending six injured barred owls (the sixth delivered by the Vergennes police around midnight, Monday) and an injured red-tailed hawk.
Her Monkton property has also become the forever home for an assortment of rescued domestic animals: four rabbits, 11 ducks, four geese, and three chickens.
Various parts of her home have been converted to animal care. A south-facing porch is now owl habitat. The garage holds newly arrived injured raptors. There’s a duck in a pen in her mudroom. In the basement, several bunnies nibble and hop in their pens. Her trim yard is a warren of pens, enclosures, cages and aviaries.
“I always have mice thawing on the kitchen counters, which my husband thinks is the grossest thing,” said Nicolay.
Not surprisingly, the chest freezer in her basement is stocked to the gills with mice, chicken parts, whole partridges, beef hearts, steak and road kill.
“I see a rabbit on the side of the road and I think, ‘That could feed my hawk for three days,’” said Nicolay.
Asked if she traveled with a cooler in the back of her car, Nicolay replied: Always.
Typical is the story of the newly arrived owl in the garage.
At around 6 p.m. Sunday night, Nicolay received a call. A local woman had been driving around dusk and heard a thump. She pulled over to find she’d hit an owl. She made some calls, wrapped it up and brought it to NorthStream.
Soon after settling the owl into a safe, quiet spot, Nicolay administered fluids, a bit of protein, a painkiller and an anti-inflammatory.
“You have to relieve the pain immediately,” Nicolay said.
She checked the new arrival for wounds, breaks and other injuries. One important criteria: can the raptor still perch. Once this new owl is stable, she’ll treat it for parasites. Eventually she’ll move it to a large outside aviary. She thinks that within a week or two  — rehabilitation can take months — she’ll be able to release it back to the wild.
“This one weighed 938 grams, which is an unbelievably good weight,” Nicolay said.
It’s usually best to release an animal near where it was found. For one thing, like people, wild animals like their home turf. For another, owls mate for life.
Nicolay administers much of the medical care herself, but also works closely with nearby veterinarian Patrick Leavey.
“He’s been amazing,” Nicolay said.
Although for years she specialized in rehabilitating small mammals and an assortment of bird species, about two years ago she began to rehabilitate raptors as well.
“A woman and her granddaughter showed up unannounced in the driveway,” Nicolay recalled. “The little girl was holding something in her arms. I thought it was a big doll, and then I realized that it was a large, female barred owl.
   TWO OWLS CLUTCH mice in their beaks, hand-delivered by Helena Nicolay, who said this helps her keep track of how much nutrition each owl gets. These two owls were found struck by the road, one in Bridport and the other in Weybridge. Nicolay hopes that with time both will regain flight, such that they can hunt in the wild.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
“I did a double ‘oh my God!’ First of all it was ‘oh my God this is the most beautiful animal I’ve ever seen in my life.’ Second of all it was ‘oh my God I hope this little girl doesn’t get hurt,’ you know, with the talons.”
“The little girl was very calm. She said, ‘I sang to this owl all the way from the Champlain Islands to your house, and I want you to take very good care of this owl.’”
Barred owls are more apt to be hit by cars than many other owl species, said Nicolay, because they like to hunt at dusk —when commuter traffic puts more cars are on the road and when visibility is reduced. Barred owls also tend to be low fliers when swooping in on prey or carrion. And they fly silently.
“Just when it gets dark, they’re like — dinner!” Nicolay said.
Nicolay said that she’s seen a huge increase in the number of injured barred owls over the past two winters — and she reports hearing the same from fellow raptor rehabilitators. She believes it’s because the past two years have provided excellent conditions for young owls to survive into adulthood: two successive years of heavy acorn production, two mild winters, and an increase in ideal-for-owl nesting spots as Vermont’s forests continue to mature and as events like Tropical Storm Irene damage trees and help create the hollowed-out snags and trees the owls like.
When she releases an animal, Nicolay says, “I can only wish it good luck and feel like I’ve done a little part of making it well again so that it can go back home.
“I just want them to go back home … I don’t want them in a cage. That’s not a life for a wild animal. So I just try to make their stay as comfortable as I can and then send them out as quickly as I can because they’re happiest out there.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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