A Day at the Duck Hospital

Written by Molly Russell/ Photo by January Bill

I had volunteered at the Duck Hospital last year for a couple of days so I was eager to help out again. At first I helped with the many loads of laundry that are needed each day. Fran McDermott had been doing the laundry 7 days a week for the past few weeks so I took on two days and later Polly Strahan picked up another day to give her some much needed relief. It is an easy job but smelly and time consuming. It is a lot like washing dirty diapers when my kids were small. Each time I delivered laundry the cupboard was almost bare and many times I was greeted with “Laundry, we are so glad you are here!” With 50-100 birds coming in each day, they go through a lot of towels and sheets.

After some paperwork on COVID19 protocol, I started helping at the hospital. The day I started they had treated 633 birds. I helped release two white-fronted ibis and one black-necked stilt in the morning. In the afternoon I released more birds, mostly mallards, teals and gadwall. Some fly out of the boxes as soon as they are opened and others walk out timidly but soon swim off. There is always at least one that decides they would rather stay in the box where they feel safe. With a little coaxing they eventually walk out and investigate their surroundings. I have helped to release many birds but one was especially memorable. A black-necked stilt that was so happy to be in the water, he took a bath for a good ten minutes enjoying the coolness and freedom. This is what it is all about!

The day usually starts with cleaning the smaller intake pens inside the hospital. These hold on average four birds. All the mats are cleaned, new keel lifts and neck rolls added and some include food dishes. Keel lifts are rolled washcloths that are put under the bird’s breast bone to keep them upright and relieve stress from their keel. The neck rolls are larger rolled towels used for Stage 3 patients that are not able to hold their heads up or sometimes even move. Avian Botulism paralyzes the birds. Stage 2 birds are able to move their legs and head a bit but are still very sick. One section is called Tiny Town for the smaller birds that come in and need a little extra care.

The second day the birds are moved to larger pens and pools.  There are shelters outside and inside for the ducks to recuperate in depending on what stage they are in. All are covered with tarps or sheets to keep them safe and from getting scared. Inside are water, food and ponds in the larger areas. They have duck weed, grains and meal worms to eat but don’t always take advantage of that as they are not feeling well and in a strange place. All of these get checked multiple times during the day and cleaned each time they are emptied.

There are always dishes to do, syringes and tubes and food dishes. The syringes are used to give antibiotics, nutrients and vitamins to the birds. The water we have to use comes from the Refuge and was a bit green but that is what the birds live in so with a little soap, we clean the items that had been used so far that day. There is also a large water tank that is used for water bowls and syringes.

Each afternoon the Refuge staff, along with Ducks Unlimited and the California Waterfowl Association, deliver more birds to the hospital. Each bird goes through an intake. They are covered with a tea towel so they won’t be scared as the interns determine the stage of illness, band their legs and record them in the database. They are then given fluids and nutrients before being put into the pens according to stages and species. The smaller and weaker birds are put into an ICU area or incubators depending on their condition. These are handled by January Bill and Marie Travers, Co-Directors of Bird Ally X which manages the facility and operations.

On August 26th the number of birds treated was up to 1,895 so by the time you are reading this it will easily be over 2,000. This has been a hard year with 90 degree temperatures since mid-June keeping the water temperatures warm even at night. It is estimated that over 30,000 birds will die this year which some staff say has not happened in 20 years. Hopefully the temperatures will start to cool soon, especially at night, to stop the botulism from spreading. Warm days and nights, little to no water deliveries to the Refuge and large numbers of waterfowl crowded into small spaces coupled with the fact that most waterfowl are molting and cannot fly during that time, this year has been the perfect storm for Avian Botulism. This is not a new disease, it has been happening for over 100 years since the Refuge was established and records have been kept.

Bird Ally X will be here until the last bird is treated and released. This is their third year treating birds. In 2018 they treated 454 and in 2019 it was 233 birds so 2020 has been a hard job. They are there seven days a week for 10 – 12 hours a day until all the birds have been checked in and are settled for the night. It is amazing to see how the staff, interns and volunteers all do their jobs with care and efficiency. Of the birds that are treated, over 80% are released. In the past they just picked up the dead birds from the lake and disposed of them, none were treated so we are lucky to have such dedicated people like January and Marie to take this on.

We thank you and most of all the birds thank you!

Vegetation Monitoring

Written by Brianna Goehring/Photos by Brianna Goehring

High Desert Partnership’s 2020 monitoring crew spent quality time on the Refuge this summer collecting vegetation trend monitoring data across many study sites. This work is a partnership between the Refuge, local ranchers, Oregon State University-Eastern Oregon Research Center, the Wetlands Conservancy, and others.

The crew of five recent Burns High-school graduates learned quickly that each day out could be an adventure. No one ever knew if the access to the day’s plot would be a casual stroll through knee-high sedges, or an expedition navigating through 10-ft tall cattails. Among other monitoring-related activities, the crew clipped meadow vegetation from hundreds of sample plots. These samples are are now being weighed and sorted to get estimates of the amount of vegetation that grew this year. 

Stay tuned for a longer article about these efforts in the October issues of our Malheur Musings eNewsletter.

Friends Virtual Gathering


The Friends of Malheur NWR’s annual gathering is going virtual! As part of our Harney@Home campaign and in celebration of Malheur NWR we are bringing you a full week of events designed to engage and entertain you, our Friends!

And the line up is…

Monday 8/17
4:00 PM – Friends Happy Hour & Refuge Update

Tuesday 8/18
4:00 PM – Trumpeter Swan Presentation w/ Gary Ivey (See: The Trumpeter Swan Society)
8:00 PM – Portland Audubon‘s Star Party

Wednesday 8/19
1:00 PM – Principles & Pitfalls of Birding w/ Kenn Kaufman
7:00 PM – A Very Birdy Concert w/ Stephan Nance Music

Thursday 8/20
4:00 PM – Sandhill Cranes Presentation w/ Gary Ivey (See: International Crane Foundation)
7:00 PM – Birding Malheur & Beyond Presentation w/ Dan Streiffert
Hosted by East Cascades Audubon Society

Friday 8/21
1:00 PM – Shorebird ID w/ Kenn Kaufman
7:00 PM – Malheur Trivia w/ Janelle & Teresa ‘Bird’ Wicks

Saturday 8/22
7:00 PM – Friends Auction!
Items have been generously donated by:
Worthy Brewing, Wildbirds Unlimited (Bend, OR), The Frenchglen Hotel & Drovers’ Inn, The narrows restaurant and RV park, Oard’s Gallery, Portland Audubon, Crane’s Nest Nature Store, Artist Kathy Bowman, FOMR Board Members, & More to come!

All events will be held over Zoom and are FREE but donations to support the Friends of Malheur NWR are strongly encouraged and deeply appreciated.

Bird List – July 2020

List compiled by Teresa Wicks/ Photo by Loree Johnson

Portland Audubon’s Eastern Oregon Field Biologist, Teresa Wicks, has been compiling a weekly bird list. We have been sharing that list on the @MalheurFriends Facebook page as a part of our collaborative Harney@Home campaign. For more of Teresa’s observations and field experiences you can follow @RestoreMalheur on Facebook and catch the occasional article from her in our monthly Malheur Musings newsletter.

The combined list for July totals 138 species!

american avocet
american bittern
american coot
american crow
american goldfinch
american kestrel
american robin
american white pelican
american wigeon
ash-throated flycatcher
bald eagle
bank swallow
barn swallow
belted kingfisher
bewick’s wren
black tern
black-billed magpie
black-chinned hummingbird
black-crowned night-heron
black-headed grosbeak
black-necked stilt
black-throated gray warbler
black-throated sparrow
blue-gray gnatcatcher
blue-winged teal
brewer’s blackbird
brewer’s sparrow
brown-headed cowbird
bullock’s oriole
burrowing owl
california gull
california quail
canada goose
canyon wren
caspian tern
cedar waxwing
chipping sparrow
cinnamon teal
clark’s grebe
cliff swallow
common merganser
common nighthawk
common raven
common yellowthroat
double-crested cormorant
eared grebe
eastern kingbird
eurasian collared-dove
european starling
ferruginous hawk
forster’s tern
franklin’s gull
golden eagle
gray flycatcher
great egret
great horned owl
greater yellowlegs
green-winged teal
hooded merganser
horned grebe
house finch
house sparrow
house wren
lazuli bunting
least sandpiper
lesser goldfinch
lesser yellowlegs
loggerhead shrike
long-billed curlew
long-billed dowitcher
long-eared owl
marsh wren
mourning dove
northern flicker
northern harrier
northern pintail
northern rough-winged swallow
northern shoveler
orange-crowned warbler
peregrine falcon
pied-billed grebe
prairie falcon
red-breasted nuthatch
red-necked phalarope
red-tailed hawk
red-winged blackbird
ring-billed gull
ring-necked duck
ring-necked pheasant
rock pigeon
rock wren
ruddy duck
rufous hummingbird
sage thrasher
sagebrush sparrow
sandhill crane
savannah sparrow
say’s phoebe
short-eared owl
snowy egret
song sparrow
spotted sandpiper
spotted towhee
swainson’s hawk
tree swallow
trumpeter swan
turkey vulture
vesper sparrow
violet-green swallow
virginia rail
warbling vireo
western bluebird
western grebe
western kingbird
western meadowlark
western sandpiper
western tanager
western  wood-pewee
white-faced ibis
willow flycatcher
wilson’s phalarope
wilson’s snipe
wood duck
yellow warbler
yellow-breasted chat
yellow-headed blackbird

For more information about bird sightings and migration through Malheur National Wildlife Refuge please visit our Seasons of Wildlife Page.

Our Resident Quail

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

Malheur Refuge is celebrated for the incredible quantity and diversity of migratory birds that use its many habitat types through the seasons, but the Refuge is home to many year-round resident species as well. One such bird—commonly seen but seldom appreciated—is the California quail.

Coveys of California quail weave their way among the high-desert shrubs and open woodlands of Harney County, clucking querulously and darting under cover at the slightest hint of danger. (Used as an adjective, “quail” means to shrink in fear.) These small, chunky birds are at home on or near the ground, foraging for seeds and insects. Intricately scaled plumage and a forward-drooping topknot are the best field marks for this widespread species.

In Oregon, these birds are originally native to the counties bordering California and Nevada. Beginning as early as 1870, state game regulators introduced California quail to other parts of the state, and today they are found across most of Oregon in brushy upland habitats. They are year-round residents of Harney County, and are common even in rural developments. In Burns and Hines, Christmas Bird Counts regularly turn up many thousands of quail, which have become dependent on backyard seed-feeders to survive the harsh high-desert winter.

Quail hens nest on the ground, laying as many as 12 eggs per clutch. Being small, ground-dwelling birds, quail and their young fall prey to a variety of predators, including Cooper’s hawks, coyotes, weasels and snakes. Given a choice, quail will usually flee on foot, but are also capable of exploding into direct, high-speed flight when pressed.

In many cases quail are heard before they are seen. The males’ call of “Chi-ca-go!” is given to establish contact with his covey, and the various clucks and pips uttered by females and young provide a constant dialogue between these gregarious birds. 

Quail, like a handful of other hardy native species, have managed to adapt to seasonal flux in the challenging environs of southeast Oregon. The fact that they thrive here—to the point of being one of the most numerous bird species found in the winter—should only increase our appreciation of them.