Wednesday, February 12th, 2003

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Progressive Animal
Welfare Society

PO Box 1037
Lynnwood, WA 98046

Kevin Mack
PAWS Wildlife Rehabilitation and Matchmaking Center?
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

While undergoing rehabilitation at the PAWS Wildlife Center, animals of the same or similar species are frequently housed together. Many of the species we receive are social, and housing them with others of their kind can help to reduce their stress level. Housing like species together also helps to ensure that the animals do not become habituated to humans during their stay at PAWS. So the benefits of housing conspecifics together are many, but occasionally, this cohabitation may create some surprising results.

In the early spring of 1998, the PAWS Wildlife Center admitted two Canada Geese in the same week. The first had been hit by a car in Edmonds and was suffering from severe head trauma. The second goose had been hit by a car in Seattle and had suffered a deep laceration on one leg and multiple cuts and abrasions in the left patagium (soft skin of the wing). Both of the birds were very weak from their injuries and they were placed in separate cages in a room of the center called the "Ward". Ward cages are used to house animals whose movement must be restricted to allow injuries to heal and for animals that need daily medications, tube feeding or other specialized care. The two geese needed both the movement restriction and daily medications to facilitate healing of their respective injuries. They spent about 3 weeks in the ward while they regained their strength and recovered from their wounds.

Two gulls

Two gulls recuperate together in a pool at the PAWS Wildlife Center.

Although the geese were housed separately and could not see each other in the Ward, it was clear that they were aware of one another's presence. Whenever one goose was handled and would vocalize, the other, still in its cage would become agitated and would vocalize as well. This was not at all unexpected as geese are flocking birds. When one individual in the flock vocalizes a distress call, nearby birds pick up the call as well so that everyone within earshot is warned of impending danger. In this case though, a distress call did little good as the recipient of the warning, due to his/her confinement, could do nothing to escape the perceived danger. It's hard to say whether being able to communicate with one another under these circumstances created or alleviated stress for the two geese, but I would like to think it is the latter. I don't pretend to know what goes on in the mind of a goose, but from a purely anthropomorphic perspective, a feeling of standing together against danger seems far less stressful than standing alone. At any rate, the vocal interaction continued throughout the birds' stay in the ward until their treatments were completed and they were finally able to meet face to face.

After graduating from the ward, the two geese were placed together in a large outdoor enclosure to condition them and prepare them for release. They seemed to get along well, as most geese housed together do, and they stuck close together whenever staff or volunteers entered their cage. When they stood next to one another, there was a visible size difference between the two birds. Male Canada geese are often larger than females, but there is enough size variation within the two sexes that this is not always a reliable indicator of gender. Since it made no difference to their courses of treatment, the birds were not sexed while at the center. As we found out later, it was very likely that the two geese under our care represented one of each sex.

Osprey

This Osprey is currently under care at PAWS.

After spending a month together in the outdoor enclosure, both birds were strong and ready to go. The geese had come from two different areas and were to be released in their respective locations of origin. The larger of the two, the Edmonds bird, was released first and the Seattle bird was scheduled to be released later in the week. Two days after the Edmonds bird was released, we heard excited honking coming from the direction of the outdoor enclosure. We investigated to find a large goose standing on top of the cage vocalizing to and being answered by the smaller goose within. Although we had not banded the goose that had been released two days prior, there could be little doubt that this was the same bird. The goose retreated whenever humans approached the cage but returned periodically until the still-captive bird decided to take matters into his/her own hands (well…wings).

As a general rule, when a human enters their enclosure, geese will retreat to the far corner of the cage. As a volunteer entered the goose cage to bring fresh food, the Seattle bird decided to make an exception to that rule. Instead of retreating, the goose rushed towards the door and burst out of it past the startled volunteer. He/she then took flight and was immediately joined in the air by the larger goose that was still loitering in the area. The two flew side-by-side, calling constantly to one another as they rose above the treetops and disappeared into the distance.

So what really happened here? We'll never know the answer to that beyond the shadow of a doubt, but I have my own interpretation of these events. Two Canada Geese were housed together for over a month during the spring breeding season. It's not hard to imagine that one was a male and the other a female, and that they courted and bonded during their stay. The first of the two released either flew back to the center intentionally or stumbled across it unintentionally while flying somewhere else. Whichever was the case, the bird was reluctant to abandon its captive mate once he/she was found again. Motivated by the presence of its mate, the captive bird took a risk that it otherwise might not have taken and made a successful break for freedom. Reunited at last, the two flew off together to parts unknown. If this interpretation is correct, perhaps the PAWS Wildlife Department should add "matchmaking" to the already long list of services it provides…

Wildlife Release tally: January 22 to February 4, 2003

1 Glaucous-winged Gull
1 Dark-eyed Junco
1 Oregon Ensatina
3 Common Murres
1 House finch
1 Western Screech Owl
1 Virginia Opossum

Wildlife Release tally: 2003
22 animals

All rights reserved. 2003 Progressive Animal Welfare Society