Biologists hatch plan to rescue raptors
Every summer, WDFW is flooded with calls about fledgling birds that have either been kicked out of their nests by adult birds or tried to fly out too soon. This year has been no exception, and the number of chicks found on the ground has even increased in 2021 due to the extremely hot summer.
While resources are limited and we can’t respond to every displaced bird, two WDFW biologists in north central Washington were recently able to help a Malaga resident who found not one but five raptor nestlings stranded on the ground in a patch of Douglas firs on his property. Cooper’s hawks are a type of forest hawk found in North America. They are relatively common in Washington and a regular visitor to urban backyards. They prey largely on smaller birds and mammals.
The chicks in this case were covered in down and still a long way from having their flight feathers and full plumage, making them neither capable of flight nor maintaining an appropriate core temperature to keep themselves alive.
The extreme heat is causing many nestlings to prematurely leave the nest or be ejected by heat-stressed parents, which may have been what happened to these chicks.
Not sure where the nest was that these chicks came from, biologists carefully moved them to a well-ventilated box and placed them in a cool indoors room while they searched nearby trees.
The good news- the nest was located, along with an adult Cooper’s hawk on a branch nearby. The bad news- the nest was over 40 feet in the air; well out of reach of humans. This meant biologists wouldn’t be able to accomplish plan A- to return the chicks to their nest. WDFW biologists are versatile though and turned to plan B ; creating a replacement nest to get the birds off the ground where they wouldn’t be at the mercy of predators like cats and dogs.
It’s not as easy as buying a pre-made nest though, so a laundry basket lined with cardboard and a coconut fiber mat of the type used in hanging planters, then a layer of pine branches, had to suffice. A ratchet strap tie-down was woven through the holes in the laundry basket and one of the biologists climbed a ladder and fastened the “nest” around the tree trunk about ten feet off the ground. Once the nest was secured, the baby birds were gently placed into the basket and the humans left the area to (hopefully) let the bird family reunite.
And great news- they did! The property owners report that the adults returned to the chicks and have been feeding them since; a true success story and happy ending.
Unfortunately that’s not always how these stories end because WDFW staff lack capacity to respond to most calls regarding fallen nestlings or injured wildlife. WDFW personnel are also not licensed wildlife rehabbers. Rehabbers are depended on to take animals in who need care, a job that not just anyone can do.
The challenge is, there are currently no licensed wildlife rehabbers in northcentral Washington, and reaching the nearest wildlife rehabilitation facility in a case like this could have taken up to a four hour drive each direction, depending on which facility has capacity to accept an animal.
With that in mind, here is what to do if you find a baby bird (or five!) on the ground:
- First determine whether the bird is a nestling or a fledgling. If it is fully feathered and hopping around, it is a fledgling and should be left alone. It can take a day or two for fledglings to develop musculature required for flight after leaving the nest, so this period of awkward hopping is a natural part of a bird’s lifecycle. Parents will continue to feed them in this phase.
- If the bird is covered with down and not hopping, it is a nestling and needs help. Try to locate the nest and put the bird back in it, gently covering the nestling with a towel to transport it. Birds will not reject their young because a human has touched them. If the nest is too high to reach, or may have fallen and broken apart, you can create a makeshift nest for the chicks and secure it to the nest tree as high off the ground as you can safely reach.
If you find a baby bird, that you can’t get back into the nest, and there is a wildlife rehabilitator in your area, your best bet is to start with contacting the rehabilitator for help. If that’s not a possibility, more information on what to do if you find a baby bird, how to differentiate a nestling from a fledgling, and building makeshift nests for displaced nestlings, is below for:
And if you love wildlife like we know many of you do, you may consider becoming a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.