Royal Tern under migration stress

January 22, 2024

A royal tern and a marsh rabbit were among the seventy-four animals admitted to the von Arx Wildlife Hospital at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida this past week. Other admissions include two black skimmers, an American white pelican, a bald eagle, a Bonaparte’s gull, a white-tailed deer fawn, a gray fox and two gopher tortoises.

Royal Tern Under Migration Stress

A City of Naples Beach Patrol Officer brought the royal tern to the von Arx Wildlife Hospital after it was reported standing in the same location on the beach for several hours. A physical exam showed the tern was underweight, had increased respiratory effort while resting, and its mentation was dull yet the tern was vocal and biting when handled. There were no obvious external injuries and the tern’s radiograph was negative of hooks.

Von Arx Wildlife Hospital staff entice a royal tern to eat on its own. The tern was one of seven admitted last week, all were debilitated, underweight, and showed signs of migration stress.

The tern was one of seven admitted last week along with three laughing gulls and a herring gull, all admitted in similar condition. Migration stress was the most likely cause for the birds being debilitated.

All twelve birds received similar treatment plans and supportive care including electrolytes, pain medication, an antibiotic, an antifungal, Chinese herbs and vitamin supplements. The twelve birds responded well to their treatment plans and continue to recover in the bird room at the von Arx Wildlife Hospital.

Royal terns, black skimmers, gulls, sandpipers and many other shorebirds often congregate in flocks and make their winter homes on Southwest Florida beaches this time of year. The increase in the number of birds, along with the increase in people as seasonal residents return and tourists visit Naples means shorebirds face more human-related dangers including fishing line and hook injuries, increased disturbance from visitors as well as loss of habitat and poor water quality along the beaches the birds utilize to rest and forage.

In most cases, the birds seen in flocks along the beach have migrated hundreds of miles and need to rest and conserve energy, especially with the consistent rain and cold temperatures putting additional strain on wildlife this winter.

Be mindful if you are walking the beach. Avoid disturbing flocks of resting birds by walking around the flock. Walking through flocks of resting birds forces them to fly and expend precious energy. A bird that is already in a weakened condition does not have any extra energy to waste. Please, ensure kids don’t chase or throw rocks at birds when visiting the beach.

If you suspect an animal is sick or its behavior is abnormal, don’t ignore the situation. Instead, offer assistance. If unsure of what to do, call the wildlife hospital staff for guidance at 239-262-2273. The sooner an animal receives care, the less suffering it endures and the better chance it has to make a full recovery.

Cat Attacks Marsh Rabbit

A cat caught the 1 ½ pound adult marsh rabbit, carried the rabbit into the house and was pulling fur from the rabbit when the cat’s owner finally became aware of the situation and intervened. A physical exam showed the rabbit had increased respiratory effort when handled, had punctures along her right shoulder and mid-way down her spine and lacerations along her spine and over her left ribcage. The rabbit was bloody and highly reactive to handling.

Staff administered pain medications and allowed time for the medications to take effect. After an hour, staff provided an antibiotic, fluids, offered a diet specific for herbivores and allowed the rabbit to rest overnight. The following morning, hospital staff cleaned the rabbit’s wounds and continued with the treatment plan as prescribed. The rabbit’s mentation was dull which required continued monitoring. 

On day three, the rabbit was more responsive indicating the subcutaneous fluids and one of her pain medications could be discontinued. The rabbit will receive medical and supportive care until her wounds heal. 

The injuries caused by the cat to this adult rabbit are astounding and illustrates the fact that domestic cats are predators. Scientific studies estimate that in the United States, free-ranging domestic cats kill one billion to four billion birds and six billion to twenty-two billion mammals annually.

The injuries and stress this marsh rabbit endured, along with the interruption to her life caused by this cat attack were preventable.

As pet owners, we must be responsible. We must monitor our cats if they are allowed outdoors. I am a cat owner and I see how my chubby, well-fed cat reacts when she sees a lizard, squirrel or bird outside the window. I know if allowed outside, she would kill anything she could catch. The fact is our loveable, docile family pets have a strong prey drive. It’s instinctual. 

When we discuss damage done by invasive species, we must include cats in the conversation. Cats are an invasive species. Cats kill native wildlife and are harmful to our environment just like the Burmese python, cane toads and iguanas. Educate yourself, your family, friends and neighbors regarding the damage cats inflict on the environment and monitor your pets if they are allowed outdoors.

Promote responsible pet ownership. Not only is it important to protect wildlife from cat predation, protecting cats is essential as well. Cats are domesticated, it is cruel and inhumane to force them to live outdoors and fend for themselves. When abandoned in the wild or allowed to roam, cats face threats such as predation, disease, car strikes and intentional animal abuse. For more information about keeping cats indoors, visit the American Bird Conservancy.

Recent Releases

A black-and-white warbler, an anhinga, four eastern cottontails, a big brown bat, two evening bats, four red-shouldered hawks, five double-crested cormorants, five brown pelicans, a mourning dove, three grey squirrels and an eastern screech owl were released this past week.

Opportunities to Help 

There are many ways to support the Conservancy, become a member, volunteer and/or donor. Every donation supports the Conservancy’s work to protect Southwest Florida’s water, land, wildlife and future. We receive no local, state or federal funding for all we do to care for injured, sick and orphaned wildlife – every donation helps us continue our work. To learn more about the mission of the Conservancy visit our website at

Joanna Fitzgerald is the Director of the von Arx Wildlife Hospital at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, 1495 Smith Preserve Way, Naples, Florida 34102. Call 239-262-2273 or see