Update on my Rescued Nestlings (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Tue, 06 Aug 2019

Update on my Rescued Nestlings

Last month I wrote about the orphaned nestlings I found on the ground off the back deck, and how I took them to a rehabilitator when the parents didn't come back to feed them.

Here's the rest of the story. Warning: it's only half a happy ending.

[Nestlings starting to feather out] Under the good care of our local bird rehabilitator, they started to feather out and gain weight quickly. She gave me some literature on bird rescue and let me visit them and help feed them. There's a lot of work and responsibility involved in bird rehabilitation!

[Nestlings starting to feather out] I'd sometimes thought I wanted to be a rehabilitator; now I'm not so sure I'm up to the responsibility. Though the chicks sure were adorable once they started to look like birds instead of embryos, sitting so trustingly in Sally's hand.

[Looking more like a bird] The big mystery was what species they were. Bird rehabilitators have charts where you can look up bird species according to weight, mouth color, gape color, skin color, feather color, and feet and leg size. But the charts only have a few species; they're woefully incomplete, and my babies didn't match any of the listings. We were thinking maybe robin or ash-throated flycatcher, but nothing really matched.

Fortunately, you can feed the same thing to anything but finches: Cornell makes a mixture of meat, dog food, vitamins and minerals that's suitable for most baby birds, though apparently it's dangerous to feed it to finches, so we crossed our fingers and guessed that they were too big to be house finches.

As they grew more feathers, Sally increasingly suspected they were canyon towhees (a common bird in White Rock), and although they still didn't have adult plumage by the time they left the cage, that's still what we think.

[Hopping alertly around the cage now] By about twenty days after the rescue, they were acting almost like adult birds, hopping restlessly around the cage, jumping up to the perch and fluttering back down. They were eating partly by themselves at this point, a variety of foods including lettuce, blueberries, cut up pea pods, and dried mealworms, though they weren't eating many seeds like you'd expect from towhees. They still liked being fed the Cornell meat mixture, and ate more of that than anything else.

I Get to be a Bird Mom For a While

At this point, Sally needed to go out of town, and I offered to babysit them so she didn't have to take them on her trip. (One of the big downsites of being a rehabilitator: while you're in charge of babies, they need constant care.) I took them back to my place, where I hoped I'd be able to release them: partly because they'd been born here, and partly because the towhees here in White Rock aren't so territorial as they apparently are in Los Alamos.

With the chicks safely stashed in the guest bedroom, I could tell they were getting restless and wanted out of the cage. When I opened the cage to feed them and change their water and bedding, they escaped out into the room a couple of times and I had to catch them and get them back in the cage. So I knew they could fly and wanted out. (I'm sure being moved from Sally's house to mine didn't help: the change in surroundings probably unnerved them.)

Sally advised me to leave the cage outside during the day for a couple of days prior to the releasing, so the birds can get used to the environment. The first day I put them outside, they immediately seemed much happier and calmer. It seemed they liked being outside.

I Fail as a Bird Mom

On their second morning outdoors, I left them with new food and water, then came back to check on them an hour later. They seemed much more agitated than before, flying madly from one side of the cage to the other. Sally had described her last tenant, a sparrow, doing that just before release; she had released the sparrow a bit earlier than planned because the bird seemed to want out so badly. I wondered if that was the case here, but decided to wait one more day.

But the larger of the two babies had other ideas. When I unzipped the top of the cage to re-fill the water dish, it was in the air immediately, and somehow shot through the tiny opening next to my arm.

It flew about thirty feet, landed in a clearing -- and was immediately taken by a Cooper's hawk that came out of nowhere.

The hawk flew off, the baby towhee squeaking pathetically in its talons, leaving me and the other baby in shock.

What a blow! The bird rescue literature Sally loaned me stresses that bad things can happen. There are so many things that can go wrong with a nestling or a release. They tell you how poor the odds are for baby birds in general. They remind you that the birds would have had no chance of survival if you hadn't rescued them; rescued, at least they have some chance.

While I know that's all true, I'm not sure it makes me feel much better.

In hindsight, Sally said the chicks' agitation that day might have been because they knew the hawk was there, though neither of us though about that possibility at the time. She thinks the hawk must have been "stalking them", hanging out nearby, aware that there was something delectable inside the cage. She's had chicks taken by hawks too. Still ... sigh.

The Next Release Goes Better

But there was still the remaining chick to think about. Sally and I discussed options and decided that I should bring the chick back inside, and then drive it back up to her house. The hawk would probably remain around my place for a while,and the area wouldn't be safe for a new fledgling. Indeed, I saw the hawk again a few days later. (Normally I love seeing Cooper's hawks!)

The chick was obviously unhappy, whether because of being brought back inside, loneliness, or remaining trauma from hearing the attack -- even if it didn't understand exactly what had happened, I'm sure the chick heard the "towhee in mortal peril" noises just as I did.

So the chick (whom Dave dubbed "Lucky") had to wait another several days before finally being released.

The release went well. Lucky, less bold than its nestmate, was initially reluctant to leave the cage, but eventually fluttered out and flew to the shade of a nearby bush, where we could see it pecking at the ground and apparently eating various unidentifiable bits. It looked like it was finding plenty to eat there, it was mostly hidden from predators and competetors, and it had shade and shelter -- a good spot to begin a new life.

(I tried to get a video of the release but that didn't work out.)

Since then the chick has kept a low profile, but Sally thinks she saw a towhee fledgling a couple of days later. So we have our fingers crossed!

More photos: Nestling Rescue Photos.

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[ 09:50 Aug 06, 2019    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]