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Under her wing: Virginia Tech wildlife student applies experience to rehabilitating birds

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Wildlife conservation major Haley Olsen-Hodges treats a critically injured female northern cardinal at the Southwest Virginia Wildlife Center of Roanoke. Photo by Ray Meese for Virginia Tech.

If you hear a songbird chirping from the back of a classroom or the ruffle of hawk feathers during a lab, there is a good chance Haley Olsen-Hodges is one of your classmates.

A wildlife conservation major in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, Olsen-Hodges is the rare student who brings extensive experience working with birds and other animals to the classroom. Sometimes, that means she brings the animals themselves.

“I’ve had to treat a few animals during class,” Olsen-Hodges said. “During a bat lab for my mammalogy class, I received a hawk from a wildlife removal person and had to triage it. I’ve had bluebirds and a baby cardinal that needed constant feeding, which would peep every time I opened the box.”

Olsen-Hodges, the staff naturalist at the Southwest Virginia Wildlife Center of Roanoke, has been doing hands-on work with birds for the last decade. Starting as a high school volunteer at the Wildlife In Need Center in Wisconsin and continuing at wildlife rehabilitation facilities in Iowa and Florida, she has taken a passion for birds and dedicated herself to understanding the science of how to rehabilitate injured animals and how that effort can expand our understanding of animal behaviors.

“At a lot of wildlife rehabilitation facilities, there is a big focus on the medical side of animal rehabilitation,” explained Olsen-Hodges, who has a Category IV rehabilitator permit from the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. “Another important factor is what kind of natural history each species has, and how we can work with traits to ensure each animal can successfully be rehabilitated with minimal stress to return to the wild. A lot of my role is geared toward identifying those challenges and designing how we’re going to take care of animals going forward.”

To aid in that effort, Olsen-Hodges has prepared a “bird bible” — a comprehensive protocol that synthesizes both external research and her own experiences in a reference guide for taking care of injured songbirds.

“Haley is an amazing young woman,” said Sabrina Garvin, executive director and co-founder of the Southwest Virginia Wildlife Center. “She’s extremely intelligent, and she has a vast knowledge and skill set at working with wildlife. She is the rare individual who can take a challenge and run with it and solve it on her own.”

Collegiate Assistant Professor Kevin Hamed of Virginia Tech’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation added, “Haley is an incredible student and a joy to have in class. She is constantly researching topics we discuss during lectures on her own time, and she brings new information to class. As a wildlife rehabilitator, she is also a great teacher, and the other students appreciate the real-world experiences she contributes to our classes.”

Olsen-Hodges, a certified Virginia Master Naturalist, has done considerable outreach in the New River Valley, from talking about the important relationships between insects and birds at Hokie BugFest to presenting on wildlife rehabilitation to area bird groups. She has been a guest speaker at Roanoke College and the Radford University student chapter of The Wildlife Society.

Closer to campus, she is an active member of the Virginia Tech student chapter of The Wildlife Society, the Bird Club at Virginia Tech, and the university chapter of the Wildlife Disease Association, where she is the social media chair and treasurer. She is also in the 2020-21 cohort of the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s Leadership Institute.

Olsen-Hodges has used her work with the Southwest Virginia Wildlife Center to aid the second Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas, a five-year citizen science survey that aims to map the location and breeding status of birds in the commonwealth to inform avian conservation strategies.

“Normally, volunteers sign up to monitor a specific transect on the map,” she said. “I was thinking about their effort and realized that our center receives a lot of physical evidence: we’re brought nests and eggs and baby and adult birds, and we’re required to collect date and location information about what is brought in. I thought, we have this amazing collection of data available: how can we use it?”

Working with Ashley Peele of Virginia Tech’s Conservation Management Institute, program coordinator of the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas, Olsen-Hodges designed a protocol to utilize rehabilitation data to supplement the work that volunteers and researchers were doing in the field.

Fostering such collaboration between researchers and rehabilitation specialists is an area that Olsen-Hodges, who will apply to graduate school upon finishing her undergraduate degree, would like to explore further.

“We’re living in an increasingly urbanized world where people have more mutualistic interactions with wildlife,” she noted. “Rehabilitation work sits in an interesting space between wildlife science and broader human dimension challenges. My dream would be to find a way to work as a liaison between researchers and people in rehabilitation, so that both sides can learn from each other and mutually create better conservation outcomes for wildlife.”

Story by David Fleming


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