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Rod, Gun and Game: Wildlife rehabilitators bring starving waterfowl back to better health

SPRINGVILLE — It started about mid-January, when thousands of waterfowl were first observed coping with problems along the shoreline waters of Lake Erie and the Niagara River. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation said many birds died from starvation. A large percentage of the birds were mergansers, a type of diving duck whose primary food source is minnows. With ice covering nearly all of the lake, this winter, as well as the cold temperatures, there was very little open water for the birds to find baitfish forage. The DEC estimates that 150,000-200,000 waterfowl are wintering on eastern Lake Erie and the Niagara River, each year.

According to DEC Senior Wildlife Biologist Connie Adams from the Buffalo office, “This winter has been harsh to all wintering waterfowl, but especially to diving, fish-eating ducks, who were not able to access food in ice-capped waters. Wintering waterfowl usually need to eat an amount of food equivalent to about 20 percent of their weight every day, and in extreme conditions or harsh temperatures, they need to consume more, to sustain themselves. Because of cold temperatures and iced-over waters, many birds have suffered food deprivation since early winter, and are only now starting to die off in great numbers. The small pockets of open water can’t provide enough food to sustain the massive concentrations of waterfowl.”

Sightings of dead ducks were reported from Irondequoit Bay on Lake Ontario to Dunkirk Harbor on Lake Erie, and everywhere in between. Diving ducks, in particular, were drastically affected by starvation this winter, but most types of local waterfowl species have been affected.

The majority of affected waterfowl observed have been red-breasted mergansers and greater scaup, but the harsh winter conditions also caused distress for other birds, including American coots, lesser scaup, common mergansers, long-tailed ducks, white-winged scoters, bufflehead, goldeneye, canvasback, redheads, pied-billed grebes, horned and red-necked grebes, among others.

In Dunkirk Harbor, Zen Olaw and Gene Pauszak counted as many as 57 bald eagles – far more than anyone knew lived in Western New York – that decided to make their temporary winter home in the surrounding Dunkirk area. The harbor had some open water and the waterfowl seek minnows there, near the water discharge area of the idle power plant. While many waterfowl species have starved in Dunkirk Harbor, the eagles seems to be doing pretty well, as they have the pick of the winter litter, from weak waterfowl birds found there.

Hundreds of weakened diving ducks have been recovered by private citizens and taken to New York state-licensed wildlife rehabilitators. The ducks are ravenous and also suffer from a lack of waterproofing, an apparent side effect of starvation. The rehabilitators provide medical attention and food and most ducks are released back to the wild after their conditions improve.

One such organization assisting with waterfowl rehabilitation is the Messenger Woods group, a non-profit corporation that promotes quality care and medical attention for debilitated wildlife in a hospital setting, with the goal of increasing successful wildlife releases. A few weeks ago, the Erie County Federation of Sportsmen received a call from Judy Seiler, an officer of the Messenger Woods group, requesting any possible assistance for providing minnow bait to feed more than 30 ducks that were presently recovering under their care.

Seiler said, “We are paying about $6 for 50 minnows right now and we need about 1,000 minnows a day, to sustain these recovering birds.” Volunteers from the Erie County Federation of Sportsmen immediately organized an action group and responded by coordinating their activities through the DEC and the Messenger Woods staff. Two primary licensed rehabilitators for the winter bird recovery project are Marianne Hite and Tina Miller, both of Orchard Park, whose endless energy with these birds seems to be occupied with 24 hour attention to never-ending details.

The federation crew of Paul Stoos, Herb Schultz, Joe Jemiolo, Collin Voss and several other sportsmen sought to find places where minnows could be trapped alive, brought to the bird hospitals, placed into aerated tanks high in mineral-laden nutrients and then fed to the ducks. Each duck consumed 15-40 minnows per day, as they started into full recovery.

Over the course of four weeks, the all-volunteer Federation crew rounded up over 30,000 minnows, free of charge to the Messenger Woods facilities. “The really good news is that they fly away and start to feed on their own, as soon as we release them,” said Miller.

Hite added, “There is nothing more satisfying than to know that we can make a small difference by assisting our injured or diseased wildlife and bird populations, to bring them back to a state of health. We don’t always win; some of our furry friends and flying friends don’t always recover, some die, but many live and go on to be very healthy when released back to the outdoors. We rely on the advice of our professional medical staff, including several of our veterinarian staff, to do our very best with the rehab.”

As Schultz directed his two-man crew to use a spud bar to chip into 12-inch thick ice to find minnows in the Niagara River, he said, “There are times you have to keep looking in the most unlikely places to locate winter minnows, even getting on the ice, laying down to be sure you don’t fall through and spread your weight out, but eventually, we find the minnows.”

He added, “It can be a little work; most of the time winter minnows go deep, but in certain areas, especially with a sunshine sky overhead, minnows like to come up and absorb the heat, especially this winter. That’s when bait-keepers can have a chance to score on high count minnow collection moments. Sometimes, you cut a hole into thick ice big enough to fit your minnow hoop net into, but then you need to wait until the minnows find it and that can take hours. You have to be patient.”

Schultz once ran a wholesale bait business, selling minnows to much of WNY, Ohio and Michigan and knows what he is talking about, when it comes to finding bait and keeping bait alive, which was very important for these recovering waterfowl.

Miller said, “We released many of our rehabilitated ducks nearby, in the Niagara River off Beaver Island State Park, where the DEC advised us there was a healthy population of emerald shiner minnows and not much ice – two key ingredients for these birds to make it back. We have also released our birds in central New York, near Montezuma Swamps, in previous weeks.”

Anyone that would like to help this group can consider a tax-deductible donation to Messenger Woods Wildlife Care and Education Center, P.O. Box 508, Orchard Park, N.Y., 14127, or call 345-4239, for more information.

For more official information on the winter waterfowl die-off, contact the local Buffalo DEC office at 270 Michigan Avenue by calling 851-7200.

Official crossbow rules coming soon

After more than a decade of discussion among sportsmen, hunters, archers and others, there is a new buzz of excitement in the air, especially from elderly sportsmen, ladies and youngsters too, ever since Gov. Cuomo signed the annual budget bill for 2014-2015 that included legislation authorizing the use of crossbow as a legal hunting implement in New York.

So now, the NYS Department of Conservation is busy preparing new crossbow regulations and expect to have them ready for public comment in early May. According to Rick McDermott of the New York Crossbow Coalition, “The public comment will not include any meetings or open forums, but will allow for sportsman input on the regulations by letter or email. The proposal will utilize all aspects of the crossbow language that passed in the budget.”

DEC will include all the crossbow updates in the 2014-2015 Hunting and Trapping Guide, available when licenses go on sale in August 2014. According to early information from DEC, crossbows may not be used in any season until DEC has officially adopted regulations specifying how and when they may be used, so eager hunters need to wait until the rules are officially inked, probably after August 2014, when the new hunting syllabus is issued.

Among the biggest discussion is when crossbow can be utilized for big game. This period will include the last 14 days of regular archery season in the southern zone and during any legal firearm or muzzleloader season, with minor restrictions and some special rules for specific areas.

In early news, DEC says that crossbows may be used only by licensees who are 14 years of age or older, may not be discharged within 250 feet of any occupied home, school, factory or church; any school building or playground or any public structure without landowner permission.

The DEC plans to provide lessons on crossbow safety that will be incorporated in all standard hunter education courses offered by DEC, starting and after April 1, 2014. Note that crossbows may not be used to take wild turkey during the 2014 spring season, but DEC will adopt regulations allowing use of crossbows for hunting wild turkey by fall 2014 and all subsequent spring and fall seasons.

Crossbows may not be used to take waterfowl or other migratory game birds, but may be used to take any other small game or upland game birds during their respective open seasons, or to take unprotected wildlife at any time.

For licenses, the new law treats crossbows as a “muzzleloader.” Hunters must possess a muzzleloader hunting privilege to legally hunt big game with a crossbow during any muzzleloader season or during open portions of the early bow-hunting seasons. Rules for use of Deer Management Permits tags are forthcoming, but will be similar to existing tag use.

Junior big game hunters may not use a crossbow to take deer during the Youth Deer Hunt weekend, Oct. 11-13, 2014, and adult mentors who accompany a junior big game hunter on the Youth Deer Hunt weekend may not possess a crossbow or firearm, while afield on those days.

There are also definition rules regarding crossbow. For example, a legal crossbow consists of a bow and string, either compound or recurve, that launches a minimum 14-inch arrow/bolt, not including point, mounted upon a stock with a trigger that holds the string and limbs under tension until released. The trigger unit of that crossbow must have a working safety. The minimum limb width must be 17 inches, the minimum overall length of such crossbow from butt-stock to front of limbs shall be 24 inches, with the minimum peak draw weight of 100 pounds and a maximum peak draw weight of 200 pounds.

Outdoor calendar

April 18-19: NYS Hunter Safety Training, Wolcott Guns, 3052 Walden Ave., register online at

Send outdoor information to Forest Fisher, 10 days in advance, to


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