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Chickadee and Nuthatch Stay for the Winter

Most birds migrate south during the winter when the weather gets too cold. However, there are some species that will remain in Calgary all year long. Two of these species that are commonly seen in Calgary are the black-capped chickadee and the red-breasted nuthatch.

How are these birds able to withstand the cold winters? Food gathering and roosting strategies help sustain these birds. In combination with proper winter roosts and a healthy supply of food caches, both of these birds are able to stay year round in Calgary.

Black-capped chickadees live in deciduous treed areas or mixed wood forests, where they create a roosting hole in rotten wood, which provides protection and insulation against sub-zero temperatures. Most of the time, the roosting holes are for one chickadee only.

They eat seeds, berries, plant material, and insects. They have a good memory which comes in handy as they store food in thousands of hiding places and rely on those stores throughout the winter!

Red-breasted nuthatches live in coniferous treed areas but often use aspen trees (when available) for their nesting cavities. The male will create several nesting cavities, often in dead trees, dead parts of a live tree, or trees with broken tops, and the female will choose the nest she prefers. Both birds will roost here throughout the winter season.

The diet of the red-breasted nuthatch is not as diverse as the black-capped chickadee in the winter, and relies mostly on conifer seeds. Similar to the chickadee, the nuthatch will also store food and come back to it throughout the winter season. In the non-winter seasons, the nuthatch will eat insects as well as conifer seeds.

Interesting facts:

  • Both of these birds can be seen in parks throughout Calgary. A great place to view these birds is the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary.
  • The red-breasted nuthatch and the black-capped chickadee have very different calls. The black-capped chickadee call is whistely and sounds like he is saying “hey, sweetie” and the red-breasted nuthatch has a more nasily call the sounds like she is saying “yank-yank”. If you’re interested, you can listen to the chickadee here ( and the nuthatch here (
  • The Boreal chickadee has a similar call to the black-capped chickadee, but sounds like he has a cold. Listen to his call here (
  • Other birds that associate with chickadee flocks, such as the red-breasted nuthatch, respond to chickadee alarm calls.
  • The physiology of the black-capped chickadee and the red-breast nuthatch feet differ, allowing these species to grasp onto trees differently. The chickadee has feet that have evolved for perching, and allows them to eat plant foliage easily. Whereas, the nuthatch has feet that have evolved for climbing, which allows them to walk on the side of a tree trunk while foraging bark for insects in the warmer seasons.
  • Red-breasted nuthatches are fairly aggressive for their size, and will often compete with bigger birds for food.
  • Both of these birds will feed off of bird feeders in yards all year round.


Cornel University. 2015. Black-capped chickadee. Available on line:

Cornel University. 2015. Red-breasted nuthatch. Available on line:

Bird foot diagram:

By Tayler Hamilton, AIWC Volunteer

Season of Giving

It’s almost that time of year again to gather with family and friends to celebrate the holiday season.  The season brings with it different things for different people. But it often includes giving.  This ritual can take place in a variety of ways… sharing  in a gift exchange with those who are special to us, time spent volunteering at a local animal shelter, feeding those who are less fortunate a holiday dinner at a local soup kitchen, or donating to one’s favorite charity. 

Why not make wildlife part of that giving and sharing?

There are several ways to help Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation’s injured and orphaned wildlife this season:

Share in the love of reading with the children in your life. Purchase your copy of AIWC’s first children’s book – “Scared Skunk”. This book is the perfect fit for children in grades K to 4, however, anyone at any age can learn from its true story and interesting skunk facts.


Celebrate the holiday season by sending an AIWC Christmas card to the loved ones in your life. Each set contains envelopes, and 2 copies of 5 different card designs featuring AIWC patients and native Alberta wildlife.

Start the New Year with our beautiful 2017 calendar. This colour, 12-month calendar features wildlife admitted to AIWC within the last year and information about the species featured for each month. This is a must-have gift for the wildlife lovers in your life.

Front cover of large calendar.

Front cover of large calendar.

All proceeds from the sale of the books, cards and calendars go towards supporting the care of AIWC’s injured and orphaned wildlife. For more information on how to purchase these lovely items, go to our website and click on “support us”.

Thank you and happy holidays from all of us at AIWC!

Snow Tracks


Winter is a slower season for AIWC as many birds travel south and young animals are no longer as dependent on their mothers for survival. That makes this season a great opportunity to learn more about wildlife by observing animal tracks in the snow!

Following tracks can help you learn more about the habits of different species and determine whether the animal is domestic or wild. Domestic cats and dogs can often be distinguished by the meandering patterns of their tracks while wildlife will tend to pick more direct paths. Dogs will often zigzag to explore every interesting scent leaving 4 distinct paw prints in the process while coyotes and wolves will tend to “single-track” meaning their rear paw will land in the same space their front paw leaves. Single-tracking allows wild canines to move more quickly and efficiently while expending less energy. This can be very important between meals especially in the colder winter months.

The size and depth of the track can also give clues about which animal left the print. Ruminants like deer, elk, and moose all create similarly shaped prints with deer being the smallest and moose being the largest. Moose tracks will often include the dew claws as a possible hint.

Tracks can also help determine which direction an animal is moving, but this can sometimes be deceptive. For example, hares lead with their back feet so the larger print will be in the front and indicate the direction of travel despite the tracks appearing to travel in the opposite direction.

A variety of workshops and guided tours are available throughout Alberta in the winter months to help you learn more about identifying animal tracks in the snow. Check with local parks and conservation areas for upcoming courses and enhance your track identification skills!

Holy Crow!

They might be perched on trees, electricity wires, housetops or maybe filling the sky in swarms of “murders.” Crows seem to be everywhere! But how much do you really know about these sleek, smart birds?

Crows have slick black feathers, fan-shaped tails and small bills – or small at least compared to the Common Raven, a bird similar in appearance.

Commonly known as the “American Crow,” this species can be found all across North America.

Crows are highly adaptable and can survive in a variety of environments. Habitats include urban areas, agricultural fields and shrub-lands. Crows are common near forest edges but can also be found in grassland and parkland habitats.

Males like to perch and display on streetlights – spreading their wings and tail feathers, puffing up their bodies and bowing and uttering rattling calls to attract females.

Crows like to line their nests with fur and soft material, constructing the outer shell with large sticks and branches. Female crows usually lay 4-6 eggs and incubate them for up to 18 days.

Crows tend to stick around for most of the year, but some choose to fly south near the end of November. After mating in the fall, thousands of American crows group together in flocks (called “murders”). The University of Calgary is a great place to spot flocks of them on electricity lines and rooftops.

Crows are opportunistic eaters! They feed on bugs, other bird’s eggs and nestlings, berries, seeds and human garbage. Studies suggest that crows have the ability to recognise patterns for eg. they learn what days the garbage truck rolls in so they can cash in on the all the garbage if it isn’t in properly sealed garbage bins.

One of the most interesting facts about crows is their ability to recognise human faces! According to the National Wildlife Foundation, studies have proven crows to be persistently hostile towards certain people, even if they haven’t seen them in years.

Crows are pretty smart cookies. Some scientists believe that they are strong communicators and have the ability to share information, strategize and execute plans!

Next time you see an ebony-feathered crow, know that you are looking at a clever, resourceful bird!

By Nina Grossman, AIWC volunteer


In light of AIWC’s recent pelican patient, it became clear to me that many people don’t realize we have pelicans in Alberta. That’s totally ok, because not everyone lives and breathes wildlife (AIWC staff and volunteers, I’m talking about you!)  This blog is going to give you information about pelicans, hopefully more than you knew before reading it.

Pelicans belong to the Pelecanidae family, and there are a total of eight different pelican species throughout the world. These water-loving birds can be found inland and along coastlines. The different species range in colour from white to grey to brown to black.

The species found in Alberta is the American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos). Other than size difference, female and male American white pelicans have the same appearance – orange bills and legs, white feathers on the body, and black posterior feathers at the tip of the wings that can be seen in their silhouette while flying, but are difficult to see when on water or ground.

Mostly everyone knows what a pelican is because of their unique bill. Their bills are very large, with a flat top and a large throat sac on the bottom. Pelicans do not store food in their beaks!

During breeding season, the bill, iris, bare skin around the eyes, and the feet become a more brilliant orange to impress the mate. An interesting fact about the bill of this particular pelican species is the upper bill grows a laterally flattened 3 inch horn (otherwise known as a caruncle) about 1/3 the length of the bill from the tip of the bill. The horn is the shape of half a circle, both males and females grow them, and it is believed to be sexual ornamentation to aid in helping get the best mate. After mating season is over, the horn is shed and the orange colours become increasingly dull. No other species of pelican grows this horn!

Other pelican species dive to catch fish, but these pelicans catch food from the surface of water while swimming. Pelicans eat more than 4 lbs of fish per day. That’s the equivalent of 20-35% of their body weight (the average weight of a pelican ranges between 11 to 20 lbs).

These birds are believed to be social birds, and nest on river islands in colonies with several hundred pairs – often up to 5,000 birds. Like several other bird species, these pelicans mate for life (their lifespan in the wild is over 17 years!).

American white pelicans are found in Alberta during their mating season, which usually ranges from March or April until September or October. They migrate south to the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico Coasts, and tend to live in estuaries, lakes, and rivers. This species tend to avoid the open seashore and open ocean, and fly over land during their migration.

The American white pelican is globally listed as a species of least concern. However, conflicts with humans still occur. The most common anthropogenic issues with American white pelicans include, but are not limited to, habitat loss, fishing gear incidents, boating disturbances, and poaching,

Remember, if you see injured wildlife, call AIWC for help or advice at 403-946-2361.

By Tayler Hamilton, AIWC Volunteer.


Long-eared Owl





Recently, a long-eared owl underwent one of AIWC’s first onsite surgeries in several years to repair an exposed fracture. The vets are optimistic about him making a full recovery.

While the wide eyes, orange facial disks, and tall feather tufts of the long-eared owl give this bird the appearance of being ever-startled, the close set feathers atop their heads are meant to protect them from being surprised by other animals. By elongating their bodies and ear tufts, long-eared owls camouflage themselves by looking like tree branches to avoid being seen by possible predators. As a quite slender bird of prey, long-eared owls risk predation from larger raptors like great-horned owls and bald eagles. Magpies, crows, and hawks have also been known to prey on long-eared owl eggs and nestlings.

Long-eared owls are almost strictly nocturnal, hunting small rodents and birds at night. When they are not caring for young owlets, long-eared owls will roost in groups, but are among the most secretive owls and are rarely heard or seen. These birds prefer dense forests and are partially migratory so you may be lucky enough to see one this season travelling slightly farther south of his/her breeding range to overwinter.

If you would like to help support the long-eared owl’s recovery, or any other animal in our care, consider adopting an animal, donating items on our wish list, or volunteering at the centre. If you find injured wildlife, please call the centre for assistance at 403.946.2361.

By Stephanie Ruddock, AIWC Volunteer



Scared Skunk

Scared Skunk is AIWC’s first children’s book and the third book Michelle and Denver Suttie have written for an animal charity.

The goal of these books is to share true stories about animals, and in doing so, give the reader an awareness and understanding about issues wild animals face.

Unfortunately, there are so many issues wildlife face that it’s hard to pick just one to write about. With that said, this book was inspired by the increase in skunks AIWC received this year. As of October 7th, 83 striped skunks had been admitted to AIWC – the majority of them being baby skunks (kits).  That’s an increase of 176% since 2014! The major cause for admissions is due to an increase in human-wildlife encounters.

This book highlights AIWC’s messaging:  Our actions impact the environment and its wildlife.
In this case; a skunk kit who has become orphaned due to her mother being trapped, causing her to have to search for food on her own which leads her to an encounter with litter.

Scared Skunk reminds us that we all have a shared responsibility to wildlife!

The book is packed with interesting facts about skunks that anyone, at any age, can learn from. The facts in this
book—called skunk statements—give the reader a way to get to know the character, and in some cases, may dispel any myths or opinions surrounding her as well.

These books are a nice fit in the K to 3 classrooms or the children’s section of the library, and provide the perfect opportunity for discussion around the family dinner table.

Scared Skunk will be launched on Wednesday October 12th and can be purchased
on-line by visiting our website, and are available at these locations:

* Wildbird General Store in Edmonton * Purearth Organics in Red Deer *

* Deja Brew in Cochrane * Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary in Cochrane *

*The Wild Bird Store in Calgary*

 100% of proceeds are donated to Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation.


Hey, what’s that little, brown, furry critter swimming around ponds and lakes? A muskrat!

 Adults can only weigh up to 1.5 kilograms, so these little pond-dwellers can be hard to spot. However; muskrats are still the largest members of the rat and mouse family in North America!

Muskrats look a little bit like beavers, don’t they? With their scruffy brown furry bodies and aquatic lifestyles, it could be easy to mix them up!

Physically though, muskrats are quite different. First of all, they’re much smaller, and secondly their tails are narrow and flat. In fact they almost look like rat tails.

Muskrats have partially webbed hind feet that they use to help them swim, and they use their front feet like little hands to grab objects.

Just like beavers, muskrats love water! They tend to live in freshwater marshes, ponds, marshy areas of lakes and slow moving streams. But muskrats don’t build dams the same way beavers do.

Using mud, pond weeds, cattail and bulrushes, muskrats build their homes near the water. They tend to live in family groups and can be defensive about their portion of the pond. Each muskrat family’s section has a house, feeding area and canals through cattails and pond vegetation.

With winter on its way, muskrats are busy putting together domes made from frozen vegetation to cover holes in the ice. According to Alberta Environment and Parks’ website, muskrats keep the domes open throughout the winter by continually chewing away the ice and pulling up underwater vegetation to build an insulated dome. These miniature lodges are used as resting places during underwater forays and as feeding stations.

Muskrats like to eat meat and greens. They enjoy pond weeds and vegetation, but also like feasting on mussels, frogs, salamanders and small fish.

Muskrats are feisty little critters! Especially during breeding season when they are often seen fighting within their own families.

Fun Muskrat facts!

  • Muskrats are capable of remaining submerged in water for up to 15 minutes in a relaxed state. They reduce their heart rates and relax their muscles, reducing the rate at which oxygen is used.
  • Muskrats store a supply of oxygen in their muscles during a dive and are less sensitive to high carbon dioxide levels in the blood than are non-diving mammals.
  • Muskrat’s front teeth are modified for underwater chewing. Their large incisors (or cutting teeth) protrude ahead of their cheeks and lips so they can close their mouths behind their teeth! This makes it possible for under water eating without swallowing water. 

Young muskrats are now venturing out on their own and could struggle to find homes and territories since they‘re being claimed by older muskrats, and since preparations for winter started last month. It’s possible that you might see some younger muskrats making their way into urban and residential areas looking for winter homes.
If you see a muskrat far from water or venturing into a dangerous place, give AIWC a call
at 403-946-2361. AIWC is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

By Nina Grossman, AIWC Volunteer


Trumpeter Swans


Photo credit:  Parks Canada

You may have noticed big white birds in lakes and ponds recently who aren’t normally there. These birds are trumpeter swans.

Trumpeter swans breed in the summer time and spend their summers in northern Alberta, northern British Columbia, Yukon and Northwest Territories among other smaller summer populations. It is believed that most breeding pairs of trumpeter swans breed for life. Both parents work together for two to four weeks to build a nest that can reach up to 3.4 meters in width and 2.7 meters in height!

Trumpeter swans will have one brood per season with four to six offspring. Offspring only stay in their nests for one day and are able to swim and eat upon leaving.  They can fly in 90 to 122 days.

When the season begins to change and weather becomes cooler, these swans begin to migrate to their winter range which is located on the northern Pacific coast. While migrating, they stop at bodies of water along the way to take breaks and eat, which is why we have been able to see them more frequently near the Calgary area recently.

Here are some more interesting facts you might not have known about trumpeter swans:

  •   A baby swan is called a “cygnet”, an adult male is called a “cob”, and an adult female is called a “pen”.
  •   They are very sensitive to human disturbance and will abandon nests and cygnets if they are disturbed.
  •   They are adapted to live on or near bodies of water, and feed mainly on aquatic vegetation.
  •   They are the heaviest flying bird in North America. Males can weigh up to 11.8 kilograms (heavier than a         Canada goose which can weigh up to 8.6 kilograms, and slightly heavier than a wild turkey which can weigh up to 10.9 kilograms!).
  •   Trumpeter swans are called trumpeter swans because their calls sound like trumpets.
  •   Similar species include tundra swans and mute swans, which are both smaller and lack the completely black bills that trumpeter swans have (tundra swans have a yellow spot at the base of the bill, and mute swans have an orange bill).
  •   These birds were nearly hunted to extinction—there were only 69 known individuals by 1935. Today, hunting of these birds is illegal. Intense conservation efforts have helped protect this species and more than 34,000 individuals were recorded in 2005.

By Tayler Hamilton, AIWC volunteer


The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. All About Birds. Trumpeter swan. Available at:


Heading South


In Canada, we accept the end of summer when we seethe leaves changing colour, the days getting shorter, frost coating windshields over night and signs for pumpkin-flavoured lattes and treats in every shop window!

Most notably, and perhaps most distinct to the North, the sound of honking fills the air as “V” shaped formations of Canada geese begin their yearly trip south of the border.

Along with the beaver, loon and polar bear, Canada geese are a national staple. Whether we’re witnessing their seasonal arrivals and departures or getting honked at when walking past a nest, Canadians know and love their fellow feathered Canadians.

Canada geese munch on grasses, sedges, eel grass and skunk cabbage during the spring and summer, and those who stick around Southern Canada for the winter enjoy lots of berries and seeds.

In the spring, you might notice many geese in areas with expansive green space.

To keep an eye on any incoming predators, the long-necked birds set up nests in parks, golf courses, school campuses and lawns. Female Canada geese use reeds, grasses, lichens, mosses and other plant materials to create nests for off spring, and prefer to set up camp near grassy fields, grain fields or water.

Females select nest sites, build the nest and incubate the eggs (usually four to seven per goose.) The male goose guards the nest while the female incubates.

Oh did I mention? Canada geese mate for life! Cute right? At around two years old, geese lock it down with a partner for breeding and the pair raises young, eats and migrates together, usually for the rest of their lives!

According to, Canada geese have very low “divorce-rates” and tend to stick together unless one dies.

Once goslings can fly and the soil beneath their breeding grounds starts to freeze, Canadian geese hightail it outta there!

Come winter, some geese settle for the more temperate winter climates of British Columbia, Southern Ontario and Southern Alberta, but most will head into the U.S. or even Mexico. Flocks tend to return to the same migratory locations on their journey, stopping in to eat and rest before continuing on.

Migratory groups of Canada geese include families and solo flyers.  Stronger, more experienced geese fly closer to the front of the “V” formation.

Some scientists believe that the geese use the “V” to create a drafting effect, where the lead geese take the brunt of the air flow and the following geese benefit from air currents and can expend less energy. The “V” formation also coordinates the flock’s movements, allowing changes in pace or course to be communicated quickly amongst the birds.

According to Hinterland Who’s Who, some geese have been recorded travelling up to 1,000 kilometres a day!

Canada geese are pretty amazing! But don’t step on their territory—and if you do, get out of there quick! A Canada goose that feels threatened may do some head pumping, tongue raising, hissing, honking and feather vibrating, and might even try to take a nip at you.

So how do you know if a goose needs your help? And how do you help? A goose that sticks to the same location and doesn’t appear to fly might be injured. Your best bet for helping him or her is to call AIWC at (403) 946-2361.

AIWC is open 365 days a year. Starting this September until April, hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Check out AIWC’s Instagram account to see a Canada goose patient in recovery.

 “Wildness is the preservation of the World.”― Henry David Thoreau

By Nina Grossman, AIWC Volunteer



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