DRAMA: RESCUING WILD BABY BIRDS
In Spring through early Summer in Northern California, as across much of the world, many birds species lay eggs and raise hatchlings. Some of the babies, like California Quail and Turkeys, come out fluffy and ready to run. They seem to know to follow their mother, and begin to peck for food right away. They are called “precocial” for their early development.
At the other extreme, most songbirds hatch naked, blind, and helpless and must be fed and protected by their parents for weeks. They are called “altricial,” meaning they require nourishing.
Hunting birds, which have complex feeding styles and whose dinners are adept at evading capture, are sort of half way between precocial and altricial. Most hunters breed earlier than the smaller birds, so the young will be ready for the abundant prey as other species, mammal, reptile, avian, begin to reproduce. The hunters have special needs. These birds, such as the herons, who capture fish or amphibians and even small rodents in their long sharp bills, and the raptors, who kill their prey with their talons and have sharp curved beaks, are hatched partly covered with fluff but blind, and for a number of days they are helpless. They get up on their feet, open their eyes, and defend themselves at a young age, but they need close attention, some of the larger ones for months, before they have learned the refinements of their hunting techniques and are ready to support themselves. Eating seeds and most small insects is easy. Eating a fast and determined rodent, bird, or snake is much harder and takes learning and practice.
Baby American Kestrel – a small falcon
When something disturbs a bird’s nest, and the babies are abandoned or the parents are killed, kind and attentive Good Samaritans will often bring the orphans to a licensed group of rehabilitators. Sometimes these rescued babies are merely kidnapped and can be put back in their nests. But most are in need of help, and trained people know how to raise and release them back to the wild, to live their normal lives.
There are a number of such groups in Northern California, though the level of expertise in properly preparing young birds for successful adult lives varies wildly – it’s something the licensing organizations don’t attempt to ensure. Different species often have different food and socialization needs. The wrong food can quickly cripple or kill a young bird, and socialization appropriate to their species is necessary for the birds to mature properly. The Department of Fish and Wildlife in Sacramento can provide a list of licensed rehab groups. You may have to ask some questions before you leave a bird in a group’s care.
Things to ask rehab groups about: Research studies that were first conducted in the 1950s and have been repeated several times since show clearly that migrating songbirds need to be outside (as in an aviary) quite early in their lives – indeed, as soon as they can keep themselves warm. Some groups provide this. Others do not.
Outside, the birds can be exposed to the sounds and sights of their natural environment, including a view of the night sky. This is necessary if the birds are to be able to successfully migrate when they are adults. In autumn, when the migrating urge comes, simply following others of their species is not enough for success. The birds’ built-in travel encyclopedia needs to be “juiced up” with that early nighttime exposure. Those who don’t have it wander about and die.
The research that determined this included raising babies outside (the best results), in a planetarium with an artificial sky (next best), and inside (worst results). The experiments have been duplicated several times.
There may be some aspects of this present “juicing” in migrating mammals as well, but that has been less studied, or at least less reported. A young caribou, for instance, probably could not find its way alone across the northern wastes. And even if it could, it would surely be killed en route, away from the safety of the herd.
Another important songbird learning tool that has been clearly determined is for the babies to hear the songs of the adult males of their species early in their lives. This yearly song cycle of courting male and listening female is a vital element in choosing mates, and therefore it is necessary for young songbirds to experience it. If they do not – that is, if they are raised in buildings in silence – the true songsters, the oscines (from the Latin “oscen” for songbird – includes most of our common backyard species) will not be able to develop the full glorious song of the individual male. (Certain flycatchers and other species seem to have a limited song and it seems to be hardwired in their brains – they are called “suboscines.” Most birds however may have the basic species song “hardwired,” like a simple piano scale. But they will not have heard the progressive song created by the experienced adult. They will fail to develop their own song, and therefore they will fail to attract a mate (or for the female, to choose one). They will not reproduce.
This scenario is echoed in mammals to some extent: wolves raised by humans or domestic dogs apparently do not develop the full wolf “song,” as wild pups do. What effect this has on their social and sexual lives I don’t know. However, humans deprived as infants of hearing and mimicking human speech – the Wolf Boy in 19th Century France, for example, as well as much publicized abused children in today’s world, hidden away in silence and darkness – all fail to develop full speech, even apparently the comprehension of speech. Their brains do not function the way normal human brains do. And they are, in a true sense, not fully human. Songbirds deprived of song are not fully songbirds.
Some rehab groups are careful to provide song exposure. Others seem to believe this is not important, or that if a bird hears a recording, it will get confused by the many bird songs that are on it. Forgetting, I suppose, that in nature, all baby birds are exposed to the songs of whatever birds are living in the neighborhood.
Another aspect of development in birds (this one not apparently found in mammals) is imprinting. Raptors and many species (including some songbirds and all game-birds) will imprint on, or identify with, whatever creature is feeding them when they open their eyes. We’ve all seen photographs of a duckling following a cat or a hen or a person. Owls, with their keen hearing, are particularly prone to imprint on the sound of human voices, before their eyes are open. A bird imprinted on humans, initially for food delivery, will most often not go on to develop a normal social life as the bird it was born to be, but will dwell in some never-land of confusion. These birds may beg from humans for the rest of their lives. In the case of raptors and other large birds, those lives will not be very long, since a large, begging, beak- or talon-bearing bird is frightening and indeed, dangerous.
Fortunately, there are some excellent organizations who know just what to do with the baby birds they specialize in.
Songbirds and waterfowl are brought into rehab centers by the hundreds each year. When you find baby birds, call around until you identify a group that pays attention to migration needs and song learning. (An outdoor aviary will take care of both. Inside, playing a tape or CD of local songbirds seems to be better than nothing.) One fine organization is Native Songbird Care and Conservation, in Sebastopol. It is most ably run by Veronica Bowers.
For larger birds, such as herons and raptors, ask the group you approach if it handles those species, if so, how. Young waterbirds should be raised in a group, preferably in a place with water available. Young raptors are best raised with their peers as well.
For raptors, there are two fine Central Valley organizations: The California Foundation for Birds of Prey in Roseville, and the California Raptor Center in Davis. Both are expert at handling baby hawks, owls, osprey, eagles, falcons, and vultures. The Raptor Center can incubate eggs, if you happen to have found the abandoned nest of a ground-nesting hawk such as the Northern Harrier or a Turkey Vulture, or a Barn Owl clutch has blown out of your palm tree (these birds seem to like palms as nest sites). Those babies must be carefully hand-reared on the proper kind and texture of meat so they will develop the bones and muscles necessary for good flight. They may need supplements. And when they are self-feeding and getting their feathers, they need to be housed with a non-releasable adult of their species to act as a model look and behavior. Feeding the very little ones without imprinting them on humans is tricky – at the Raptor Center, this is accomplished via camouflage and puppets.
Before release, the babies are put into “hack boxes” – small wooden boxes with plenty of air holes out in a tree in good territory. Here the youngsters are fed daily until they are ready for flight. Then the box is opened, and for as many days as the young return, food is left for them on the top of the box. This way, they are being gently supported as they learn the refinements of the hunt. It’s not as good as Mom and Pop, who can demonstrate hunting techniques. But it has worked well.
Just hatched baby Barn Owl, eyes still shut, fed by hand under a heat lamp.