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Waterfowl and bread: a good idea?

Now that the weather is warming up and the ice is thawing, and waterfowl start to return to Alberta, you may see people by the river, feeding bread to the ducks and geese. It may look fun, and you might be tempted to join in, but did you know that feeding animals can sometimes do more harm than good – especially if they are being fed bread?

Feeding bread to waterfowl has been linked a condition known as “angel wing syndrome”, which causes the end joints of the birds’ wings to develop abnormally. Bread is high in carbohydrates and lacks several minerals that are vital to proper waterfowl bone development. This syndrome completely prevents affected birds from flying at all, leading to an early death for many of these animals.

AIWC recommends that people do not feed any species of wildlife, as feeding can habituate animals to humans and increase the likelihood of them being injured by human-related activities.

Think you’ve spotted an injured or orphaned animal? Call our clinic at 403-946-2361! If you have any questions about local wildlife, you can also e-mail us at

Hop to it: fun rabbit facts that will put a spring in your step

Thoughts of springtime are usually accompanied by images of cotton-tailed bunnies munching on verdant buds and freshly grown grass. But there’s more to these hopping carrot lovers than meets the eye. For instance, did you know that hares and rabbits are distinctly different animals?

To brush up on your knowledge about these symbols of springtime, here are a few fun facts about the rabbits and hares you might spy in Alberta this spring:

  • The difference between rabbits and hares can be easily observed in their respective sizes. Hares typically have larger ears and hind feet, while rabbits are smaller in scale. Additionally, rabbits are more social animals, while hares are less social and more skittish.
  • Similarly, another difference between hares and wild rabbits is that the coats of the latter remain one colour (usually grey or brown) all year round, while the former changes from brown in the summer to white in the winter in an effort to blend in with their surroundings.
  • Baby rabbits are called ‘kittens’ or ‘kits’, while infant hares are known as ‘leverets’.
  • With the way that rabbits’ and hares’ eyes are positioned on their heads, they are afforded a complete 360 degree field of vision. This lack of visual blind spots comes at a price, though, as their depth perception is shoddy.
  • Looking to spot some hopping four-legged friends in Alberta this spring? Keep an eye out for the following critters, all of which are native to the province:
    • Mountain cottontail rabbits are AB’s resident rabbit, and an adult rabbit typically grows to weigh just over 2.5 lbs. They can be easily identified by their shorter ears and hind feet, as well as their grey-brown colouring that gives way to a white coat on their bellies.
    • Just like the name suggests, the snowshoe hare’s hind feet allow the animal to seemingly float above deep snow, instead of letting it sink into the cold snow. This allows for quicker transportation and a higher level of agility when dodging predators.
    • Though the name may be misleading, the white-tailed jackrabbit isn’t actually a rabbit by definition. This hare typically grows to weigh about 7.5 lbs., and can generally be found in southern Alberta’s grassland, parkland, and foothill regions.

By Giselle Wedemire, AIWC Volunteer

Sources: AEP Alberta, ThoughtCo., National Geographic

The Cormorants are Coming!

Every year in late April to early May, seabirds known as double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritis) make their homes on and near Alberta lakes and rivers to breed and raise their young. So named because of the long, fine feathers that appear behind each eye in spring, they are one of approximately forty sub-species in the world.

The name cormorant is a contraction of two Latin words; corvus and marinus which when put together mean “sea raven”. With their penchant for fishing and their black colour it is easy to see why.

The double-crested cormorant is a large black bird with a long sinuous neck and a yellow-orange throat patch. They weigh between 1.2 and 2.5 kilos and are exceptional divers, some able to dive to depths of 45 meters using their powerful webbed feet and using their wings as rudders. Cormorants eat a wide variety of fish along with some crustaceans, amphibians and insects. Their long beak, with the tip of the bill shaped like a hook, is an excellent aid in catching prey.

A cormorant’s time is spent almost equally between fishing and resting. Some people believe that their oil glands are insufficient for waterproofing, and although these oil glands may help them be a better diver, it also means they must spend a large portion of time drying their wings. Observers will often find cormorants on top of tall trees of telephone poles with their wings outstretched to catch the drying rays of the sun.

Cormorants are colonial nesters whose guano has been known to kill the very trees they perch upon. At the very least, it will stain and discolour any rocks below. Cormorants are also known to create pellets of undigested bones and fish scales which they expel much the same as some species of owls.

If spring ever comes, we can expect to see double-crested cormorants soon after!

By Linda J. Schlegel, AIWC Volunteer

Resources and further reading:

Invasive Species in Alberta

Last month we blogged about why biodiversity is so important for ecosystems and how different ecological functions are performed. But what if there are species in the ecosystem that did not originate there, and are threatening to the health of that ecosystem? These are known as invasive species and we are going to take a closer look at exactly what they are, and how they affect Alberta’s ecosystems.

What are invasive species?

An invasive species is a species that is not native to the area in which they are found, and has been introduced (whether accidentally or intentionally) from elsewhere. An invasive species can be threating to, or have severe impacts on native species they share an ecosystem with (AEP).

A species being labeled as “invasive” typically means that because it did not originate in the ecosystem it is “invading”, it has no natural predators and will likely be able to out-compete native species for food and other resources, which can have a dramatic effect on the biodiversity and function.

Which invasive species affect Alberta?

The biggest, and most likely well-known invasive species is the brown rat (Rattus norvegicus), which was introduced into North America in the 1700s and followed the spread of colonisation across the continent, with the earliest recorded in Alberta in the 1950s. Brown rats can have severe impacts on the environment, not just for the other animal species but us as well. Destruction and contamination of food and livestock, weakening of man-made structures through tunneling, and of course the various dangerous diseases that they carry.

Thankfully, Alberta is known as one of the world’s biggest “rat-free” populations, because there is no breeding population here and we have extensive rat-control programs that prevent many of them from entering the province (Conservation Alberta 2016; Alberta Agriculture and Forestry 2017).

Another example that may not seem quite as obvious is the common goldfish (Cassius auratus), a very common pet species, native to eastern Asia. The main threat goldfish (and other pet fish) pose to the natural ecosystem is likely competition for food and resources, but they may also carry diseases and parasites that the native species have never developed resistances to.

Unfortunately, a large percentage of goldfish found in the “wild” were dumped there when they became to difficult or inconvenient to keep as pets, likely into freshwater ponds, which do usually connect into flowing water and thus the wider water basin, and these goldfish can spread very quickly if left unchecked (Conservation Alberta 2016).

Invasive species are not necessarily only animals. There are also highly threatening plant species that can take over an ecosystem. In Alberta, one of the more highly known is the flowering rush (Butomus umbellatus), which infests freshwater habitats like lakes or streams, growing in thick, choking “mat-like” patches. This reduces the water quality, displaces native species, and disrupts the flow of water across the basin. Careful removal of flowering rush is essential, as even small pieces lost can infest a new area if left unnoticed (AEP).

What can we do to avoid spreading or introducing invasive species?

The majority of invasive species control is directed by the Alberta and smaller local governments, who are also responsible for creating and developing education about which invasive species affect Alberta and what can be done to prevent/control them.

Collaborative work between the government, volunteer groups and landowners aiming to improve public awareness and improve co-ordination and communication is key in decreasing the risk of invasive species (AEP).

On an individual level, being aware of which species may be threatening, and taking care not to introduce (whether accidentally or on purpose) foreign species into the wilds are the best steps we can take to helping preserve our native ecosystems.

By Jonathan Poll, AIWC Volunteer



Danger warning! How the Richardson’s ground squirrel uses an ultrasonic alarm call.

Did you know that the Richardson’s ground squirrel uses an ultrasonic alarm call to warn its fellow colony members that danger may be approaching?

The Richardson’s ground squirrel, also referred to as a gopher, prairie gopher, yellow gopher, flickertail or picket pin, can be found all over Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and into the United States. This ground squirrel likes to keep its burrow in sight at all time, hence why they can be found in pastures and parkland, away from bushes and other more dense shrubs (City of Calgary).

Richardson’s ground squirrels live semi-communally, as a female will only tolerate the presence of other females that to whom she is closely related (Wikipedia). These ground squirrels will group their burrows closely together.

A favourite prey of many hawks, the Richardson’s ground squirrel has more than one method for warning their fellow colony members that danger may be approaching. When they sense danger, they may produce an audible alarm call, or an ultrasonic alarm call. These ultrasonic calls communicate very specific information, and studies have show that the type of call may vary, depending upon the predator. The Richardson’s ground squirrel is able to discriminate among callers based on the call, which is around the frequency of approximately 48 kilohertz, far too high for humans and, more importantly, many of their predators to hear (New Scientist).

When scientists studied the response of fellow Richardson’s ground squirrels to one of these calls, they found that the squirrels recognized the calls as a warning, and were visibly more vigilant, scanning the area for predators (New Scientist).

You can recognize the Richardson’s ground squirrel by its dark brown upper side and tan belly. They have shorter, less bushy tails than other ground squirrels, and small, short ears that can look more like holes. The next time you stumble across one, try to notice if you can spot its mouth or throat moving. If so, and you hear no sound, they might just be warning their colony mates with their ultrasonic call about a potential predator – you!

The Richardson’s ground squirrel shown in the image above is currently recovering at AIWC after suffering head trauma.

References and Further Reading

“Gophers”., 2017: Accessed 26 Mar. 2018

“Richardson’s ground squirrel”., 25 Mar. 2018: Accessed 26 Mar. 2018

“Ground squirrels scream ultrasonic warning”., 28 Jul. 2004: Accessed 26 Mar. 2018

“Ground squirrels ultrasonic squeaks revealed”, Muir, Hazel., 28 Jul. 2004: Accessed 26 Mar. 2018

What do birds eat and how do they eat it?

Have you ever wondered what a bird eats in the wild? Obviously bread is not found in the wild, nor should it EVER, under ANY circumstance be fed to a wild bird (see So what do they eat? How do their diets differ in the winter than in the summer? Also, how do they access their food? Do they have special adaptations to allow them to eat certain things? Hopefully this blog will answer some questions you might have about a bird’s diet, and how a few species have evolved with their diets!

Birds that stick around during our winter season in Canada don’t have as wide of a variety of food in winter as they do the rest of the year.

  • Songbirds that stay in the Calgary areas, such as chickadees and nuthatches, are heavily dependent on stores of food that they’ve cached (hidden) throughout the year, and seeds and nuts found on conifer trees in the winter (Cornell 2017a).
  • Magpies, crows and ravens (and other corvids) are opportunistic eaters and often scavenge throughout the winter for seeds, carrion (carcasses), and will also prey upon squirrels, voles and even other birds (Cornell 2017b). Magpies are even known to pick ticks off of cattle, moose and deer (Cornel 2017b).
  • Some ducks and geese that stay all winter rely primarily on seeds, including agricultural grains, for their main food sources (Cornell 2017c,d).

As more birds are returning north after their winter migrations, their food sources are also becoming more plentiful.

  • Songbirds can start to include more insects, wild fruit and a wider variety of seeds and nuts.
  • Corvids also include more insects and wild fruit into their diets, as well as the eggs of other birds, the young of birds and small mammals, and even amphibians.
  • Waterfowl rely more heavily on aquatic vegetation, aquatic insect larvae, earthworms, snails and freshwater shrimp (Cornell 2017d).

Patients at AIWC receive balanced diets that attempt to mimic the nutrients they would find in the wild. Various household fruits and vegetables, as well as mealworms, eggs, and a variety of seeds and nuts are some of the items you would find in AIWC’s kitchen on any given day. Vitamins and supplements are often added to patient’s meals to ensure they recover back to full health prior to release.

Interestingly, birds have physical adaptations that have evolved over time to allow them easier access to their food sources. Here are just a few of them!

  • Of the 10,000 birds species on earth, only 5 have crossed bills and they are all in the finch family (Cornell University 2017e). A crossed bill refers to when the upper and lower parts of the beak do not line up and cross over each other when they are closed. This type of bill or beak is adapted to reach seeds deep in some tree cones that other birds cannot reach. The white-winged crossbill is an example of a bird that has this adaptation and is found in the Calgary region. Similar to right a left-handed people, not all crossed bills cross in the same direction!
  • Birds such as woodpeckers have adapted to be able to peck at the bark of trees to find sap or insects hiding below (Cornell University 2017f). Not only are their beaks, necks, and skulls incredibly strong, but their tails feathers and feet are also adapted to help grip  the trunk of a tree as they stand on it and peck. Woodpeckers also have incredibly long tongues to penetrate the holes they peck to get at the insects and sap. Their tongues wrap around their skulls all the way to just behind their eyes!
  • Ducks bills have evolved to allow for efficient foraging in water. The outer edges of a duck bill are soft, and are used to feel for their food (Ducks Unlimited 2018). Ducks bills have a point at the end that is used for moving food, similar to how we would use our fingernails (Ducks Unlimited 2018). On the inside of a duck bill you will find lamellae. Lamellae look like teeth, and act like a filter to separate food from non-food items when foraging in the water.

Next time you are outside and observing the birds around you, stop and assess what type of food they are eating and how they are eating it! You might be surprised to notice what they are eating and how they’ve adapted to eat it!

As the spring season begins to ramp up, AIWC will be expecting increasing numbers of patients we receive. Food is vital in the rehabilitation of patients! If you would like to contribute to the care of our patients, please visit our donation page (

Please feel free to leave a comment below about a special food-related adaptation you’ve noticed!

By Tayler Lafreniere, AIWC Volunteer


Cornell University. 2017a. Red-breasted Nuthatch: Life History. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Available at: Accessed March 12, 2018.

Cornell University. 2017b. Magpie: Life History. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Available at:  Accessed March 12, 2018.


Cornell University. 2017c. Canada Goose: Life History. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Available at: Accessed March 12, 2018.

Cornell University. 2017d. Mallard: Life History. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Available at:  Accessed March 12, 2018.

Cornell University. 2017e. White-winged Crossbill Foraging Adaptation. Available at: Accessed March 12, 2018.

Cornell University. 2017f. Built to Peck: How Woodpeckers Avoid Brain Injury. Available at: Accessed March 12, 2018.

Ducks Unlimited. 2018. The Scoop on Duck Bills. Available at: Accessed March 12, 2018.

What’s in a Name? Comparing the Rabbit and the Hare

Although the terms “rabbit” and “hare” are often used interchangeably, did you know that rabbits and hares are actually different animals?

While both animals belong to the same family, Leporidae, they are actually different species. Hares are typically larger, with longer ears, and are less social than rabbits. Rabbits live in colonies, which is why many have rabbits, not hares, as pets (National Geographic). Hares are faster than rabbits, and have longer, stronger hind legs, allowing them to reach speeds of 37 body lengths per second (National Geographic). Compare this to the fastest human runners, who can run only 6 body lengths per second!

While both species will molt and grow new fur in the spring, hares grow white fur during the winter. Both species live for approximately six years (AEP).

Rabbits are known for their underground burrows, but hares live aboveground. Newborn hares are born fully developed with open eyes and fur and are able to fend for themselves almost immediately, while newborn rabbits have closed eyes and no fur, and are reliant on their parent as they continue to develop. While rabbits tend to be calmer, hares spook easily. During mating season, the female hare will make the male hare chase her over several miles, and if he catches her, she will mate with him, but may throw a punch or two at him before she lets him mate her (National Geographic).

As the warmer weather approaches and baby rabbits and hares are born, it’s important to remember that mother hares and rabbits may leave their babies on their own for the day to avoid attracting predators. So if you see a nest of baby rabbits or hares on their own, don’t panic, and call us for advice before intervening!


Sources and Further Reading:

“What’s the Difference Between Rabbits and Hares?”, Dec. 19, 2014:

“Dare to Compare the Rabbit and the Hare”, Mar. 24, 2016:

All About Biodiversity

What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity can be defined as the variability of all living organisms in all ecosystems (including terrestrial, marine, etc.) and the ecological functions and complexes that they contribute to (UN 1992, WWF) (fig.1).

The term was coined from the field of conservation biology, during the “National Forum of Biodiversity” in 1985, and the subsequent book, The Diversity of Life (Wilson, E.O. 1992) to draw attention to the increased number of species becoming extinct due to human interference. However, as pointed out in What is Biodiversity? (Maclaurin, J & Sterelny, K.), biodiversity cannot accurately be measured by species count alone.

A better way of visualising it is as species richness, or what ecosystem functions and importance that each individual species provides to the ecosystem itself. Are they primary producers, do they provide habitat for other species, or do they provide natural resources?

A wide range of species that provide these essential ecosystem functions is necessary for the system to thrive, and if biodiversity (or the number of species providing these functions) is high, then the loss of one species may be dampened by the presence of similar species that provide similar functions.

Fig.1 Various ecosystem services and the sources that provide them (Source: WWF)

Why is biodiversity important to the environment?

Because every species in an ecosystem contributes in some way to its function, the greater the diversity of species, the less susceptible the ecosystem is to destabilization. There are many potential impacts on ecosystem function, ranging from natural (such as forest fires and floods) to man-made (such as deforestation and farming) and it is important to understand the effects of each on the individual species.

Examples of ecosystem functions that are important for the wider environment are the nitrogen cycle (fig.2), which is extremely important for plant life, and in turn, everything that depends on plant matter, pollination, necessary for the spread of flower and tree species, and soil formation processes that enable the growth of a larger range of species than is typically possible.

Fig.2: The nitrogen cycle is an example of an ecosystem function that depends on a wide variety of organisms (Source: Environmental Protection Agency, c/o Wikipedia).

 Why is biodiversity important to us?

We may tend to think as humans being separate from the ecosystems they inhabit and contribute to, but this is not necessarily correct. A great deal of our success and wellbeing is owed to the many organisms that make up our greater environment.

Agricultural biodiversity, for example, is important in the foundation of crop development and food security, and the resilience to pests and natural disasters (UN CBD).

Medical research is also another reason why biodiversity is important. New species that provide medical benefits to humanity are discovered regularly, as was the case of the waxy monkey frog which was found to have several important peptides that it secretes from its skin and is currently being used to treat cancer patients (Eurekalert 2011).

Loss of biodiversity effects all aspects of the ecosystem, and the removal of certain species may form a domino effect, creating further loss both for humans as a species and the environment.

What can we do to preserve biodiversity?

As always, increasing public knowledge and understanding of the importance of biodiversity is a top priority when it comes to helping preserve it. If you are aware of an ecosystem or natural habitat that is vulnerable, leaving the area and animals (especially nesting sites) undisturbed is the best way to preserve biodiversity on the individual level (Naturetrust BC). Also, it’s important to participate in environmentally-friendly practices, such as recycling or reducing vehicular transportation, and reducing the use of products and materials that negatively impact the environment such as certain pesticides.

At a wider level, participating in park volunteer work and land stewardship is a great way to get involved in protecting our biodiversity, as well as getting in touch with local government if you have concerns about particular areas, environments, or species.

By Jonathan Poll, AIWC Volunteer


Calgary’s Best Winter Walks

There are exactly 21 days left until the first day of spring (but who’s counting) and while you wait for warmer weather, here’s a list of a few parks in Calgary that are perfect for enjoying even when the weather is less than warm and sunny.

Fish Creek Provincial Park

This massive park in Calgary’s south is the perfect destination for a winter jaunt. Some pathways are cleared of snow in the winter, while some snow-covered trails are used by Calgarians for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

Bonus: from time to time, nature talks are held at Fish Creek Provincial Park. Check them out here.

Dog Friendly: yes, but coyotes and other wildlife are known to reside in this park, so be sure to keep dogs on their leash at all times.

Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park

This 3,200 acre park just outside of Calgary was established in 2006 and features more than 25 kilometres of pathways. Glenbow Ranch is a working ranch, which means that you can expect to run into cattle during your visit.

Bonus: the Glenbow Ranch Park Foundation has developed plant and wildlife checklists that visitors can complete to help track the prevalence of species in the park. Find them here.

Dog Friendly: yes, but be sure to make sure dogs are kept on leash at all times, as there are cattle in the area.

Nose Hill Park

Nose Hill Park, named for its apparent nose-like appearance from certain angles, covers 11 square kilometres in Calgary’s northwest. Perched high above the city, Nose Hill Park provides a perfect vantage point to view the city skyline. Trails wind through treed areas and meander through wide open expanses.

Dog friendly: yes, but coyotes and porcupines live in the area, so be sure to keep dogs on their leash at all times, though there are designated off-leash areas.

Weaselhead Flats

A bird watcher’s dream, this park in the city’s southwest lies at the mouth of the Elbow River. Wander through the trails that wind through the white spruce forest. Be sure to come prepared, as black bears have been spotted in the area.

Dog Friendly: yes, but be sure to make sure dogs are kept on leash at all times, as you may encounter wildlife.

Bowmont Park

This large natural environment park in the northwest of Calgary lies along the northern bank of the Bow River and features peaceful, meandering trails.

Dog Friendly: yes, and features designated off-leash areas.


Also, have you purchased your tickets to AIWC’s 25th anniversary celebration yet? Party like it’s 1993 and get your tickets here before they sell out!

A Tour of AIWC’s Enclosures

One of the most critical components to a successful rehabilitation and release of a wild animal in AWIC’s care is the enclosures we keep them in.

 When a patient is admitted, they are given a full examination by the vet and/or vet technicians on staff that day and usually placed in one of the smaller indoor enclosures.

 Our indoor enclosures range in size similar to a dog or cat kennel, all the way to the size of a small den or bedroom. The reason they are placed here is to allow AIWC staff to monitor their health, things like their eating behaviour, indifference, and overall condition, before placing them in one of the larger, outdoor enclosure for conditioning before release.

 Once patients are healthy and recovered enough to move to larger enclosures, they are placed in the appropriate outdoor enclosure for conditioning before being released back into the wild, usually in the same area they were found.

 In the last year, AIWC was fortunate to receive funding to construct several new enclosures for our patients.

 Through sponsorship by the Airdrie Rotary Club and Imperial Oil, we saw the construction of aerial insectivore enclosures, which are used for recovering bats, swallows and song birds. These enclosures housed several birds over the last season which were successfully released back into their natural habitats when they were fully recovered and ready.

Photo from inside aerial insectivore enclosure taken in February 2018. Song birds migrate south in the winter and are kept indoors if we have any in care during the winter. There are currently no patients in these enclosures.


Photo of a mountain bluebird in one of the outdoor insectivore enclosures taken in September of 2017.

 Inter Pipeline Ltd. sponsored an outdoor waterfowl enclosure and an outdoor aquatic mammal enclosure. The waterfowl enclosure will be the final stage of rehabilitation for water birds such as ducks, geese, swans, coots, and others. The outdoor aquatic mammal enclosure will be used for beavers, otters, muskrats and others.

View from outside of the outdoor waterfowl, aquatic mammal and aerial insectivore enclosures (left to right).

View from inside the outdoor waterfowl enclosure. The facilities are currently incomplete but once they are ready, will have pools that allow the patients to dive and mimic activities they would do in the wild.

 Shell Canada sponsored an enclosure for large mammals such as carnivorous mammals like foxes (photo not included in this blog).

 AIWC is looking forward to seeing these new enclosures in use in the upcoming busy season!

 We also have several older outdoor enclosures, such as the flight cage pictured below. The flight cage is used for large birds of prey to give them plenty of space to stretch their wings and get back into the air before being released.

View from outside the flight cage. The trees give a sense of how tall the flight cage is to allow birds of prey to take flight inside.


View from inside the flight cage. Several perches allow the patients to choose where they would like to rest between flights.

 AIWC has been open for nearly 25 years and as the needs of our patients grows, we will need to expand to grow with them and upkeep existing facilities. We have several other older outdoor enclosures with different purposes that were not featured in this blog.

 If you are interested in donating or have information on possible sponsor, we would love to hear from you! Additionally, we are hosting an event on Saturday, April 21 for our 25th Anniversary. For tickets to the event, please visit our website here: Proceeds from the event will go back to caring for wildlife admitted to AIWC.

By Tayler Lafreniere, AIWC Volunteer

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