The Difficulties In Providing Veruca Salt With A Glass Elevator

Veruca Salt. Sweetie Extraordinaire. Her namesake, a warning of the dangers of a lack of patience.

TLDR: The risk to an injured Piping Plover stuck north during migration is starvation in the deep winter (food source freeze). Piping Plover can be trapped safely in the nesting season when they are healthy and on a nest. Trapping them in the wild in the winter when they are injured is the opposite and can easily result in worse injury and often death. Piping Plover can sometimes be rehabilitated in the nesting season on their nesting grounds. The opposite is true in the winter as there are no good release options. Releasing them into winter has poor survival rates, holding them in captivity for the winter has poor survival rates, and flying them on a plane to the Bahamas is untested and very risky.

Lots of folks who have visited Holgate this fall have met a very special little lady: Veruca Salt.

Veruca is a banded, breeding, female Piping Plover. She sadly suffered an awful series of of tragedies this summer when she attempted to nest at Island Beach State Park, just barely seeing her chicks through to fledge, and then losing the last one right before the official fledge date. She had a rough go of it in the 2018 season.

But come late summer, she appeared ready to head off to the Bahamas to rest for the winter and hopefully to return next spring to give it another go.

Unfortunately, it’s now December and she’s still in New Jersey: specifically, hobbling around Holgate on Long Beach Island with both an injured foot and an injured leg.

She looks fat and strong, and she forages and flies just fine. But for whatever reasons, most likely related to the injury, she is choosing to stay put. And while it stinks to see any animal hobbling around on one leg, that is actually not the thing that is most worrisome and problematic about her situation.

What is most worrisome is that her foraging will likely freeze up later this winter and she’ll starve. While it’s still not too late, she needs to head south. Sooner rather than later. Injured legs heal but starvation is irreversible.

There is a good chance she will get a move on if the weather gives her the right incentives. She is being monitored closely, both formally and informally, but day after day, she seems perfectly content to stay at Holgate. I certainly understand. But it would seem she needs to go. Yet still… she is choosing this place to stay.

So the big question: “Is there anything that can be done for her?”

Of course. There are many things that can be done; some smart, some not so smart, some too risky, and some unnecessary. Some which might help, and some which are an almost guaranteed death sentence for her. All of the right people have all of the options and are watching her closely as her life unfolds, watching the clock, and weighing the risks.

But because she is a critically endangered species of the utmost importance on the state and federal levels, whatever is done for her must have the absolute best chance of her long term survival. No unnecessary risks can be taken because the consequences are too great. She could die very, very easily through hasty action. Veruca Salt belongs to a protected, endangered species, and the people who have spent their lives learning how to help them know all too well the risks of hasty intervention.

Many of those risks are not obvious to the rest of us. Nor is the (current) lack of urgency and the wisdom of patience and thoughtful, experienced caring in this situation.

Lucky for Veruca she is in a very rare, Federal Wilderness area, managed by an extremely experienced Refuge staff, in a State with extreme dedication to and experience with Piping Plovers, and where we have some of the greatest minds in plover handling & science working today. And because of the difficulties and complexities in making the right decision for how best to help her, all sorts of others have been drawn into the conversation for consultation. Veruca Salt is probably the most considered, discussed, and loved Piping Plover on the planet right now.

Her plight is difficult to watch for anyone; certainly most difficult of all for those few people with the knowledge, experience, ability, responsibility, and authority to actually do the things that will have the best chance of resulting in her long term survival.

I’ve recently had several conversations with people on the beach who are quick to ask what seems like the obvious question: “why don’t the feds just grab her and fix her leg?” The simple answer is that it is not that simple. Fortunately, the people monitoring her understand from experience all the reasons why it’s not as simple as it appears on the surface, and have ideas and strategies to mitigate some of the risks.

The first problem is the trapping: trapping a healthy, flighted bird with an injury like Veruca Salt’s in the wild has an extremely high probability of making the injury much worse, or even adding another injury to her predicament. Or, equally bad, terrorizing her to the point where she dies of heart failure or aborts the migration she needs, and perhaps is just about, to make. That’s not theoretical, but statistical. At best, it could easily spook her off the habitat she has chosen for her recovery where she is making decent progress to some place less ideal and far more dangerous for her.

We’re lucky to have Michelle Stantial in New Jersey as she is an incredibly skilled and experienced trapper. Yet she knows first hand the world of difference between trapping healthy birds on the nest in summer (which is how PIPL are studied) and trapping injured birds in the wild in the winter. They are not same thing at all. They are opposites in terms of potential risks and rewards.

The second, really, really important, problem is what to do with her if she is actually trapped. She is not necessarily treatable. A big strike against her is that she is injured, but not injured enough.

She has a flag band on her injured leg and there is no doubt that removing the flag would increase the chance of, and probably speed of, any recovery. But the actual injury above the knee, and the extent of the foot injury, is unknown. They could be two separate injuries, as in a Ghost Crab attack where small beach nesting birds get both legs damaged at the same time. It is unknown what the injuries are, if they are treatable, or even if they require treatment. Again, luckily, we have the expertise of Dr. Erica Miller in New Jersey who is actually a master of tiny-splints in the event they do go ahead with trapping.

But the most difficult aspect is that the timing is off. Just as it is very safe to trap a nesting Piping Plover in summer, but very difficult and dangerous to trap one in winter, it is also much easier to rehabilitate one successfully in the summer and very difficult to do the same thing in the winter.

The trouble is migration. If she were to go to rehab now, there are really only two options for releasing her if she is successfully rehabilitated : a.) let her go in the middle of winter which has an extremely high and well understood probability of being a death sentence, or b.) attempting to hold her until spring which also has an extremely high and well understood probability of being a death sentence. Both are generally considered high risk, if not outright unwise. (Note the same is true with our other summer nesting species like Osprey. Fledgling Osprey who get found injured in the fall, and go to rehab, getting released late in the migration season, have extremely poor survival rates.)

Put another way, the extreme risks of attempting a winter rehab/release are well known to have a low probability of success. Her ability/desire to get herself south is totally unknown and could very well be her best option. Some would make the case it would be a fool’s gamble for that reason alone.

There actually is a third, crazy, option, which our very own Christina Davis is advocating for in the event a trapping is attempted: rehab her and then fly her to the Bahamas on a plane (or even drive her to the Carolinas) and release her there. This is probably the best theoretical option, but mostly because it is so unheard of. The truth is (forgetting the unbelievable expense) is that the whole experience might be too disorienting; and what we know about how poorly they do in captivity suggests she might not even survive the flight.

It is super sad to watch her, as it is watching any animal with an injury. I was motivated to write by a friend who saw her a few times and assumed because she was still there that no one cared. The exact opposite is true. The monitoring and plan for getting Veruca Salt back to Island Beach State Park next summer is probably the biggest thing happening in New Jersey wildlife right now.

The character Veruca Salt once famously said (Tim Burton version): “Make time go faster, Daddy!” It is tough to watch her predicament drag on.

But she still has some time. For me (and I’m no authority), my favorite option is that she moves south soon, weakens slightly, and becomes a significantly better candidate for trapping, rehabilitating, and releasing successfully.

It is difficult to watch her out there in this highly unusual situation. But I know firsthand how many smart people are working on this, and am comforted by their deep experience, their proven skill, and their wisdom. All of the risk here is in acting too soon and too hastily; not in acting too late and too thoughtfully.

These 1,500 words are meant to set out some basic and very specific facts for those interested in Veruca Salt’s situation and her future; as this is a very easy and totally-understandable situation to see backwards from the reality: to see a lack of action as a lack of caring, a lack of progress as a lack of effort, silence as a lack of vigorous discussion.

I’m super sorry for you Veruca, super sorry for everyone who sees this bird and feels sad, super sorry for everyone who feels angry because they don’t know how many people are working on helping this one, very special, animal, or don’t understand  just how tough a real solution is, and super sorry for whoever has to make the final, tough calls on this as winter approaches.

RFTNS is cheering you all on.

I’ll close by noting that it’s curious that her namesake, Veruca Salt, is synonymous with the perils of a lack of patience. Godspeed, Veruca Salt!