NEWS

Harsh winters can take a heavy toll on Toronto's wildlife

12/22/2014 04:43 EST | Updated 02/21/2015 05:59 EST
Surviving Canadian winters is a struggle for even the most rugged wildlife. The bitter cold, enduring darkness and scarce bounty challenge the primordial instinct to persevere in ways unparalleled by the other seasons. 

The winter of 2013 was one of the harshest in living memory in Toronto. It took a heavy toll on the region's wildlife, particularly bird species that need access to unfrozen water resources. Record numbers died during the winter months and Toronto Animal Services saw a 66 per cent increase in the number of calls they received about dead birds.

The 27 or so staff members at the Toronto Wildlife Centre — the only facility of its kind in the GTA — are tasked with rescuing and rehabilitating animals in need of a helping hand, and say that they need more resources to try and prevent the extent of wildlife deaths that occurred last winter.

"Last year was a crazy year for us," says TWC veterinarian Heather Reid. "Because the Great Lakes were freezing over and Georgian Bay froze over for the first time in 20 years, there was a mass migration of waterbirds everywhere."

One type of waterbird hit particularly hard was Grebes, close cousins of loons who have trouble even walking on land because of specialized swimming legs. The centre, which can house between 150 and 400 animals at any given time depending the species, cared for dozens of Grebes over the course of a few months. 

The cold was so intense at times that even non-migratory birds, who are ostensibly equipped by evolution to survive anything the Canadian winter can throw at them, had trouble surviving. 

"They were crash landing. They were starving. When they did find open water, there was enormous competition," says Reid. 

Many waterbirds had to be rescued after becoming trapped in ice while desperately searching for food. Reid and her team take in those animals who can be rehabilitated, and hand feed them back to health. 

The costs were enormous. Now the centre is trying to raise funds to buy specialized foods that are often needed for certain species, like coyotes who require meat components such as quail, mice or rats in their daily meals. 

The centre also frequently cares for opossums — a species in the northern-most extreme of their native range in Ontario — which often suffer from frostbite on their "naked" ears and tails. Bats also sometimes need help to recover from nasty cases of frostbite. All of the care demands specific tools and materials.

"We need a lot of medical supplies; a lot of bandaging materials, a lot of medications," says Reid. 

The centre is hoping to raise $75,000 before the worst of the winter arrives.

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