Keep birds safe

2018-05 Catio Jeffrey Gorges

A “catio” is a place for cats to hang out outside that keeps the birds safe–and the cats too. Photo by Jeffrey Gorges.

Published May 6, 2018 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Keep birds safe this time of year” and also at https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/keep-birds-safe-this-time-of-year.

By Barb Gorges

It’s that time of year that we need to think about bird safety —migration and nesting season.

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Bird Tape is available from the American Bird Conservancy. Photo courtesy ABC.

The peak of spring migration in Cheyenne is around mid-May. If you have a clean window that reflects sky, trees and other greenery, you’ll get a few avian visitors bumping into it. Consider applying translucent stickers to the outside of the window or Bird Tape from the American Bird Conservancy, https://abcbirds.org.

If a bird hits your window, make sure your cat is not out there picking it up. The bird may only be stunned. If necessary, put the bird somewhere safe and where it can fly off when it recovers.

How efficient is your outdoor lighting? In addition to wasting money, excessive light confuses birds that migrate at night. Cheyenne keeps getting brighter and brighter at night because people install lighting that shines up as well as down, especially at businesses with parking lots. It is also unhealthy for trees and other vegetation, not to mention people trying to get a good night’s sleep.

Do you have nest boxes? Get them cleaned out before new families move in. Once the birds move in or you find a nest elsewhere, do you know the proper protocol for observing it?

You might be interested in NestWatch, https://nestwatch.org/, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology citizen science program for reporting nesting success.

Their Nest Monitoring Manual says to avoid checking the nest in the morning when the birds are busy, or at dusk when predators are out. Wait until afternoon. Walk past the nest rather than up to it and back leaving a scent trail pointing predators straight to the nest. And avoid bird nests when the young are close to fledging—when they have most of their feathers. We don’t want them to get agitated and leave the nest prematurely.

Some birds are “flightier” than others. Typically, birds nesting alongside human activity—like the robins that built the nest on top of your porch light—are not going to abandon the nest if you come by. Rather, they will be attacking you. But a hawk in a more remote setting will not tolerate people. Back off and get out your spotting scope or your big camera lenses.

If your presence causes a young songbird to jump out of the nest, you can try putting it back in. NestWatch says to hold your hand or a light piece of fabric over the top of the nest until the young bird calms down so it doesn’t jump again. Often though, the parents will take care of young that leave the nest prematurely. Hopefully, there aren’t any loose cats waiting for a snack.

2018-05Henry-Barb Gorges

Cats learn to enjoy the comforts of being indoors. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Loose cats and dogs should also be controlled on the prairie between April and July, and mowing avoided. That is because we have ground-nesting birds here on the edge of the Great Plains such as western meadowlark, horned lark and sometimes the ferruginous hawk.

There will always be young birds that run into trouble, either natural or human-aided. Every wild animal eventually ends up being somebody else’s dinner. But if you decide to help an injured animal, be sure the animal won’t injure you. For instance, black-crowned night-herons will try to stab your eyes. It is also illegal to possess wild animals without a permit so call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator like the Cheyenne Pet Clinic, 307-635-4121, or the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, 307-777-4600.

Avoid treating your landscape with pesticides. The insect pest dying from toxic chemicals you spread could poison the bird that eats it. Instead, think of pest species as bird food. Or at least check with the University of Wyoming Extension office, 307-633-4383, for other ways to protect your lawn and vegetables.

Are you still feeding birds? We take our seed feeders down in the summer because otherwise the heat and moisture make dangerous stuff grow in them if you don’t clean them every few days. Most seed-eating birds are looking for insects to feed their young anyway. Keep your birdbaths clean too.

 

2018-05hummingbirds-Sandia Crest-Barb Gorges

Hummingbirds fill up at a feeder on Sandia Crest, New Mexico, in mid-July. Photo by Barb Gorges.

However, we put up our hummingbird feeder when we see the first fall migrants show up in our yard mid-July, though they prefer my red beebalm and other bright tubular flowers. At higher elevations outside Cheyenne hummers might spend the summer.

Make sure your hummingbird feeder has bright red on it. Don’t add red dye to the nectar though. The only formula that is good for hummingbirds is one part white sugar to four parts water boiled together. Don’t substitute any other sweeteners as they will harm the birds. If the nectar in the feeder gets cloudy after a few days, replace it with a fresh batch.

And finally, think about planting for birds. Check out the Habitat Hero information at http://rockies.audubon.org/programs/habitat-hero-education.

Enjoy the bird-full season!

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Watching one bird at a time

2016-05BabyBirdsHMH

“Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest” by Julie Zickefoose, c. 2016, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Published May 29, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Following individual birds brings new insights.”

 

By Barb Gorges

            There’s more to birdwatching than counting birds or adding species to your life list. The best part of birdwatching is watching individual birds, observing what they are doing.

            Thank goodness it isn’t rude to stare at them.

            While some species may skulk in the undergrowth, most of our local birds are easily seen, even from our windows.

            Every morning I check the view out the bathroom window and often there’s a Eurasian collared-dove sitting in the tall, solitary tree two yards down. By March I was seeing collared-dove acrobatics. The males, like this one, like to lift off from their high perches and soar in a downward spiral. I’m not sure what that proves to the females, but one of them has taken up with him.

            I saw them getting chummy one day, standing together on the near neighbor’s chimney cover. I can imagine their cooing reverberates into the house below. Then they kept taking turns disappearing into the upright junipers where last year they, or another pair, had a nest.

            But one day I caught sight of a calico cat climbing the juniper. The branches are just thick enough that I couldn’t see if the cat found eggs. Eventually she jumped out onto the neighbor’s roof and sauntered across to an easier route down to ground level.

            More than a month later, I have not seen the calico here again, but have seen a collared-dove disappearing into the juniper once more. I’ll have to watch for more activity.

            If I were authors Bernd Heinrich or Julie Zickefoose, I would be making notes, complete with date, time and sketches. I would be able to go back and check my notes from last year and see if the birds are on schedule. I might climb up and look for a nest. And I might do a thorough survey of the academic literature to find out if anyone has studied the effects of loose cats on collared-dove populations.

            However, most of us have other obligations keeping us from indulging in intense bird study and we don’t sketch very well either.

            But Heinrich and Zickefoose do. Heinrich is liable to climb a tree (and he’s no spring chicken) or follow a flock of chickadees through the forest near his cabin in Maine. Zickefoose, who has a license to rehab birds at her Ohio home, can legally hold a bluebird in her hand.

            Both have new books out this spring which allow us to look over their shoulders as they explore their own backyards.

2016-5OneWIldBirdHMH

“One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives” by Bernd Heinrich, c. 2016, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Heinrich is known for his books exploring many aspects of natural history (my most recent review was of “Life Everlasting”). His new one, “One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives,” has 17 birds, one chapter at a time, in a loose seasonal arrangement. He has also portrayed each species in watercolor, directly from sketches he’s made in the field. This is sometimes as close as his own bedroom where he was able to rig a blind when flickers drilled through his cabin siding and nested between the outer and inner walls.

 

            Though Heinrich is professor emeritus, his writing style is pure, readable storytelling.

            Zickefoose’s goal in her new book, “Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest,” is also somewhat encyclopedic. From the woodland surrounding her home, she was able to document nestling development for 17 species. Finding a songbird nest, she would remove a nestling every day to quickly sketch it in watercolors, feed it and return it. Her drawings are like full scale time-lapse photography. Don’t try this at home unless you are a licensed bird rehabber.

            Although she has handled lots of birds in the course of her work, following individual nestlings gave Zickefoose an insight into how those of different species grow at different rates—ground nesters are the fastest.

            Either of these books can serve as inspiration for becoming a more observant birdwatcher, but they are also great storytelling, with the benefit that the stories are true and full of intriguing new information.

            If you find a nest this spring, consider documenting it for science. See www.nestwatch.org. The site’s information includes lots of related information, including plans for building nest boxes.   

“Fastest Things on Wings, Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood”

Fastest Things on Wings

“Fastest Things on Wings” by Terry Masear

Published Aug. 30, 2015, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Hummingbird rescue reveals beauty and mystery”

Book review: “Fastest Things on Wings, Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood,” by Terry Masear, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, 306 pages, indexed, $25 hardcover.

By Barb Gorges

Terry Masear has a soft spot for hummingbirds, yet has survived the hard realities of rescuing and rehabbing them for 10 years.

Her new book is destined to wet your eyes now and then, as well as open them to the beauty and mystery of hummingbird life. She talks about her work in this interview by email. You can also listen to her NPR interview at http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2015/07/28/hummingbird-rescue-masear.

First, we should note in Cheyenne, hummingbirds typically visit only during migration, nesting at higher elevations.

Q. How is your 2015 season going? How about your success rate? Any favorite stories from this year?

A. Southern California hummingbird rehabilitators admit over 500 injured and orphaned birds into rescue centers annually. I release between seventy and eighty percent of my intakes. Due to promotional events for the book, I could not participate in hands-on rehabilitation this year, but I answered 2,000 calls, saved 200 birds over the phone, and sent another two hundred to rehab centers in the Los Angeles area. I helped rescue a pair of Allen’s nestlings that got entangled in a bizarre drama between their mother and her frustrated hybrid daughter (named Rosie by webcam viewers) from last year. This fascinating event, along with footage of several webcam nests and fledges this year, can be seen on Bella Hummingbird clips posted on YouTube.

Q. Have you noticed the drought affecting your hummingbird work?

A. The drought is leading to more mite-infested nests. But we have been able to save and keep most of these nestlings in their natural environment by having finders dust the nests and chicks with diatomaceous earth, which in no way deters the mothers from continuing to feed their young.

Q. What makes bird rescue in Hollywood different from other places?

A. Los Angeles has a larger and more diverse hummingbird population than any city in the world. Females often nest in backyards and near houses, which leads to encounters with humans and makes rescue more necessary. We see seven species–Allen’s, Anna’s, black-chinned, rufous, Costa’s, broad-tailed, and calliope— in rescue. Rehabbers also believe the Allen’s and rufous have hybridized in Southern California as we are noticing extensive rust coloration in many young males.

Q. What makes hummingbird rescue different from other bird rescue?

A. Hummingbird babies are extremely high-maintenance. They have to be hand fed every 30 minutes for 15 hours a day until they fledge and can be feeder trained. So a lot of bird rescue centers refuse to take them, which is why private rehabbers stay busy.

Q. What are the biggest hazards for hummingbirds in L.A.?

A. Tree trimmers and weekend gardeners are by far the greatest threats to young hummingbirds. So we are trying to educate the city and private citizens to refrain from trimming trees in the spring when birds are nesting. Also, a lot of well-meaning finders pick up grounded fledglings and carry them home, which takes the young birds away from their mothers who are still feeding them. Other dangers to hummingbirds include windows, domestic cats, termite tenting, and weather hazards like heavy wind and torrential rain.

Q. All things considered, do you think hummingbird feeders are good for hummingbirds?

A. As long as people keep them clean, sugar feeders benefit hummingbird populations and, along with introduced vegetation, have allowed species like the Anna’s and rufous to expand their ranges considerably.

Q. Which is more difficult, dealing with emotionally distraught callers that have found an injured or abandoned hummingbird, or dealing with the birds?

A. Of course, serious injuries present challenges for the rehabber and some losses will haunt you. But ask any rehabber on the front lines what the most difficult part of their work is and they will say dealing with the public. The majority of callers are compassionate and caring, but a certain percentage does not have the wildlife’s best interests in mind. Some callers don’t want to make any effort and will let helpless nestlings die if rehabbers don’t show up immediately. Others insist on keeping young birds as pets. When we explain why they cannot do this, legally or in good conscience, some get abusive. These conversations strain the patience of even the most forgiving rehabber, especially during peak season when the pressure is on.

Q. Record keeping is required for your permit, but are you also keeping notes that helped you write this book—all the anecdotes about particular birds and their personalities and challenges?

A. As far as overall intakes and releases, my records are pretty precise, so I referred to those when writing “Fastest Things on Wings.” And through these records I can recall certain birds because of their unique histories. Other remarkable characters, like Pepper, Gabriel, Iris, and Blacktop, are easy to remember because their stories are so extraordinary.

Q. A PhD in English doesn’t necessarily translate into being able to write a riveting story, as you have. What writing experience did you have before writing this book?

A. I taught research writing at UCLA for years and wrote a textbook for ESL students. Five years ago, ironically, I wrote a nonfiction book about a unique and mysterious experience my husband and I had with our cats. While I was trying to sell that manuscript, editors kept asking about hummingbird rehab, which led to this book.

Q. Were you out on book tours this spring and summer, and if so, who held down the fort?

A.

I have been doing book signings and interviews all summer, which is why I could not do rehab. But my phone hasn’t stopped ringing for six months, so I’ve been deeply involved in the rescue business. And as exhausting as it is, I miss the powerfully rewarding experience of rehab and can’t wait to get back to it.

Late grebes and loons take risk

Common Loon

The Common Loon can barely walk on land and if forced, will try to scoot along on its belly. Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Dec. 21, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Risking nice Wyoming weather, grebes, loons get caught.”

By Barb Gorges

You probably recognize that sinking feeling I had the morning of Nov. 10 when we cleared Denver traffic and a solid wall of cloud was suddenly visible 50-60 miles away, between us and home.

The rain, predicted for afternoon, started around 9 a.m. at Fort Collins, Colorado. In a few miles it turned to flakes. The road surface quickly iced as we climbed in elevation.

Northbound traffic slowed to a crawl, but only because there was a traffic jam of emergency vehicles gathered near the Colorado-Wyoming state line, where vehicles slid off the interstate earlier. One was lying on its roof.

No matter how slowly, we were happy to still be creeping toward home.

Some birds, however, were not as lucky with the weather.

One would think that migratory birds would be tuned into changes, but even they can be caught unawares.

If you remember that week, along with the snow, the temperatures dropped into negative numbers at night. My husband was contemplating an early start to the ice fishing season.

On Nov. 14, I had a bird call–people wondering how to help a Western grebe found at the plant west of town. They took it to the Cheyenne Pet Clinic, which is licensed to handle wild birds.

The bird had to be euthanized because a wing joint was broken and couldn’t be repaired. Veterinarian Christopher Church said two other grebes were rescued and brought in that week and staff were able to release them at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch. Later that day, a Wyobirds report came in about a loon stuck in a small bit of open water, unable to take off. Someone in the Riverton area reported eared grebes, I think it was, also getting stuck.

Grebes and loons have bodies evolved for swimming underwater, not walking. Their legs are at the back of their bodies, like an outboard motor, and not under their center of gravity, like a normal bird.

Because their feet do all the work when underwater, their wings are small. And their bones are not light and hollow like a songbird’s, but dense, making it easier to dive. Flying is difficult for them.

Ornithologist Joel Carl Welty calculated a loon’s wing-load, square centimeters of wing area to bird weight in grams, as 0.6. On the other hand, a black-capped chickadee is 6.1–comparatively buoyant. A Leach’s petrel, an ocean-going bird, finds flying extremely easy at 9.5.

So, these heavy loons and grebes, hardly ever trying to move around on land, can only take to the air by flapping while pattering their feet against the water surface, Loons need as much as 650 feet for takeoff , according to Arthur Cleveland Bent, another ornithologist.

You can see where this is going. The grebe tucks its head under its wing one night and the next morning looks around at new ice hemming it in. “Oh crud.”

The loon in the Wyobirds report kept busy diving for fish, and even tried walking a bit on the ice, but the next day, when the little bit of open water had frozen over, and the same observer went back, she saw no trace of the loon—not a feather or drop of blood, despite the bald eagles hanging around. It’s quite unlikely that it flew. Perhaps the ice was finally thick enough for someone to walk out and rescue it, or for a predator to carry it off.

Ducks, which are better-balanced, need little space to take off, but have managed to become trapped in ice also.

What happened to the grebe with the broken wing? Grebe species migrate at night. Apparently, they can get disoriented in snowstorms or fog or get confused by the sight of a wet parking lot shining in reflected lights, and hit it hard, thinking it’s water.

The common loon migrates through Wyoming, as do three species of grebes we see most often: pied-billed, eared and Western. Doug Faulkner, in “Birds of Wyoming,” describes their fall migration patterns, always mentioning that a few individual birds don’t leave until the reservoirs freeze up.

For these risk takers, the later they stay, the fewer birds they have to share the food source with. Some years, the bet pays off and they are better fed when they arrive on the wintering grounds, reaping the benefits, such as better reproduction. But then again, maybe they don’t make it.

After surviving this latest, unexpectedly dicey road trip, our weather forecasting being not much better than the lingerers’, I’m wondering if we should have taken a lesson from all the smart loons and grebes that headed out by October for their ice-free wintering grounds.

Close encounters of the bird kind

Goldfinches

In late summer the male American Goldfinch begins to lose some of his bright breeding plumage. A juvenile begs to be fed. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Nov. 29, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Close encounters of the bird kind.”

2014 Update: See my other columns on bird safety about how to keep birds from hitting windows.

By Barb Gorges

It was cold enough to freeze water in the birds’ water dish (my friend Marta recommends I get one of those heated dog water dishes), but not so cold a morning I thought I needed shoes just to grab the dish to bring it in when I let the dog out.

However, Lincoln made a beeline for a spot on the patio and I forgot all about the water dish.

Huddled on the concrete was a stunned American goldfinch, a male in winter plumage, just the lightest wash of yellow on his feathers.

Birds thumping into our kitchen window rarely happens anymore.

Between the pair of feline faces nearly always present in the window when the birds are active, and the dust on the glass, few birds think our window reflects a continuation of our backyard.

My first impulse was to rescue the goldfinch from the onslaught of the breath of a 100-pound dog, so I scooped him up and cupped him in my hands, leaving his face free.

His toes were just a tickle on my skin, his black eye, alert and unblinking.

“Oh, I am so sorry about the window,” I thought. The bird was so light it was as if I held my imagination.

But my bare feet were standing on cold reality.

Bird feet are engineered differently. A goldfinch weighing less than half an ounce feels less cold. First, bird feet are mostly bone, sinew and scale, with few nerves.

Also, as Bill Thompson, author of “Bird Watching for Dummies” explains it, the arteries carrying warm blood from the heart to the toes are interwoven in the legs and feet with the veins, so the arteries warm the cold, returning blood. And because bird feet don’t have sweat glands, they don’t stick to metal perches when it’s cold.

After a few minutes, even after moving to the doormat, I realized it might take longer for the bird to recover than to frostbite my feet.

By this time, the rising sun was eye level, and shining on the bird feeder.

Our sunflower seed tube feeder has a saucer attached to the bottom and a wire cage around it that keeps squirrels out and lets small birds in. So I carefully placed the goldfinch on the feeder, safe from cats, close to food, facing the sun.

Twenty or thirty minutes later he was gone, though he may have been back later as one of the flock emptying the thistle feeder.

Of the disciplines available to me in the College of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point where I was getting my degree 25 years ago, studying wildlife was far more popular than measuring trees, digging soil pits or analyzing water samples.

It seems to me most people have an urge to touch an animal (especially furry ones) or interact with it. For some people pets or livestock are good enough. For others, only wild animals will do.

For some of us, observation is fine, but there are always crazy tourists trying to pet the buffalo.

Some of the legitimate ways to handle live wildlife are catch and release fishing, helping band birds, getting certified for rehabilitation work or becoming a wildlife field biologist.

But sometimes wildlife comes to you. I heard of two incidences this fall where birds chose to interact with people.

The beginning of October I got a call from a friend who’d been sitting on her deck with out-of-town visitors when a blue jay convinced them to feed it by hand.

A few weeks later another friend told me about having a blue jay light on her shoulder as she was carrying seed out to fill the feeder.

Our consensus was that these must have been young birds who didn’t know better than to trust humans, but being from a relatively smart species, they’d learned it was possible to manipulate food sources.

I once read how to train chickadees to eat from your hand. It involves sitting as still as a bird feeder until they get used to you.

But I don’t get chickadees in my yard very often, and I don’t think the most prevalent birds, house finches, are as smart.

We have some sort of relationship anyway. They know when the backdoor opens, they don’t need to fly very far. Within a few minutes the disturbance is over, more seed’s been spread and it’s time to get back to eating.

What more trust could a birdwatcher ask for?

Hootie, the red-breasted nuthatch, comes home

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Rescued Red-breasted Nuthatch contemplates freedom. It is illegal to harbor wildlife without a permit or oversight by someone with a permit.

Published Oct. 12, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Rescued bird finds his way home.”

2014 Update: My eBird records for my Cheyenne backyard show observations of Red-breasted Nuthatches, including heard only records, occur year round. Apparently, not every individual goes to the mountains for the summer. But it is not known whether the nuthatches in the city in summer are breeding.

By Barb Gorges

Hootie’s mother once told him she met his father at a backyard feeder in Cheyenne early last spring. She said as soon as the weather warmed they went up to the forest to look for a building site, eventually settling on a ponderosa pine with a broken top and a rotten spot.

Hootie’s mother did most of the tree excavation and stuffed the new home place with shredded bark, grass, feathers and fur. It became a cozy fit as the six red-breasted nuthatch youngsters grew larger.

“Stay away from the doorway!” was his parents’ constant refrain as they darted in with different kinds of beetles, spiders and caterpillars up to 18 times an hour. “The squirrels will get you if you don’t watch out!” they said as they left with another fecal sack as smelly as any diaper.

One of the furry monsters climbed within a few feet of the nest entrance but was met by Hootie’s mother. Perching above, her wings outstretched, she swayed slowly from side to side, mesmerizing the would-be baby eater until it woke with a start and fled.

Keeping Stellar’s jays away was more difficult. Hootie’s parents spread pine pitch around the edges of the entrance. None of the vain big birds would risk dirtying its feathers by poking its head in. The pitch kept out pesky ants too.

Finally, in late July, three weeks after hatching, the big day arrived. The children were dressed in garb nearly identical to their parents’. Each had a blue-gray jacket, pale red vest and flat black hat. Their white faces were marked with a black stripe through the eye.

Hootie’s parents laid down squirrel fur across the sticky doorsill and began encouraging their children with a new song, “Come on out, the weather’s fine. Flying is a wonderful thing. You’ll love it. And walking up and down tree trunks is a hoot.”

As Hootie tottered at the threshold of the bright new world, the rush of air triggered his genetic reminder to flap. He clumsily made it to the neighboring tree. Soon all his siblings were enjoying flying and finding insect treats hiding in tree bark, though their parents planned to feed them for two more weeks.

Two bicyclists were also enjoying the sunny day, following a narrow trail through the forest. But they didn’t look like any of the dangers Hootie’s mother had described. He never even saw what he hit.

On the ground stunned, he thought maybe there was something about using wings his parents had forgotten to mention. But he could still flap them. It was his leg that wouldn’t hold up. “Mommy!” he cried. “Daddy!” And then he was scooped up and put in a small dark place, just like his old nest.

Six weeks of recovery in a bird cage was like returning to the nest. Someone brought him turkey scratch and then mealworms every day and someone cleaned up after him. But there was also sunlight from the nearby window, a seed cup to sleep in, a water cup to bathe in and seeds to pull from a stick and hide.

Only there was no one to answer his “yank-yank” call except well-meaning people.

One day, near the end of his hospitalization, though he still had a limp, the bird cage was taken outside. The gust of air and the loud rustling noises alarmed him, but then he recognized the wind and aspen leaves.

Just as he settled down, real terror visited. A soft but wicked voice said, “What’s a tasty morsel like you doing out here all alone?” The blue jay stuck his long bill into the cage.

“You’ll never get me!” taunted Hootie from the far side, fluffed to his full four and a half inch height. “You’re too fat to fit between the bars!”

One evening three days later his foster parents returned him to the wider world, bringing him to a grove of big cottonwoods and elms—kinds of trees Hootie had never seen before but had heard his parents describe.

“Cheyenne, I must be in Cheyenne!” he thought. Then he heard “yank yank,” the call of another red-breasted nuthatch.

“It’s party time pardner!” it said. It was true. In the fall no one argued over mates or nesting territories.

“We’re hanging with some Wilson’s warblers just in from Canada. They’ll only be here for a day or two before heading for Mexico. Aren’t you glad we don’t have to migrate that far? We can just stay and catch bugs sleeping in tree bark and fill in our empty spots with seed.

“My folks want to stay in the mountains this winter. They think the pine and spruce cone crop will be good. Me, I prefer the easy life. Ah, so many seeds, so little time. You hardly have to hit the same feeder twice in one winter!”

And so, dear reader, should you notice a red-breasted nuthatch at your birdfeeder this winter that favors one leg, give him greetings from all his friends: the bicyclists, the vet, the bird rehabilitator, his foster parents and me.

Author’s note: This story is based on an actual rescue this summer and information from Birds of North America Online, http://www.bna.birds.cornell.edu/BNA.

Rescuing baby birds not always necessary

Killdeer

Killdeer nest on the ground. The young are precocial (precocious) and are up and running around soon after hatching. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Aug. 8, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Rescuing baby birds not always necessary.”

2014 Update: Well-meaning people still have trouble understanding that grassland birds nest on the ground. They are soon out of the nest, but not in need of rescuing.

By Barb Gorges

Mid-July I got a call from a member of the staff at the Cheyenne Pet Clinic. Would I know where to find killdeer? Someone had brought in a chick and the staff wanted to release it near other killdeer in hopes they would foster it.

There was no information about where the chick had come from. Why was it brought in?

“They said it fell out of the nest,” replied the staffer. We had to laugh. Killdeer nest on the ground.

In fact, here in the grasslands, most birds nest on the ground, including the western meadowlark, and even hawks such as the northern harrier (formerly known as the marsh hawk) and ferruginous hawk.

Some grassland birds may nest in the few available bushes, but otherwise, it’s an entirely different group of birds adapted to building nests in trees in our yards, along riparian areas (streams and creeks) or in forests.

In other treeless habitats birds also nest on the ground. Think of all the shorebirds, penguins and seabirds.

Just yesterday I was reading one of Christopher (Robin) Milne’s autobiographical books in which he describes finding an owlet on the ground near his home in Dartmouth, England, and how he thought he needed to take it home and raise it himself.

Well-informed people in this country know that they need a permit to raise wildlife and besides, owlets walk around on the ground before they learn to fly as a normal part of their development. Burrowing owls even nest underground!

I think there is a default setting in our brains when the phrase “baby bird” is uttered. We automatically envision a tree with a cozy nest of tiny, featherless robins. Their parents take turns perching on the rim, stuffing worms and insects into their gaping mouths.

For many birds, this picture is accurate. When their eggs hatch, the young are helpless, naked and blind creatures that spend a week or two in the nest. They are classified as altricial young and are called nestlings.

Ground nesting birds tend to have precocial young called chicks. Shortly after hatching, the chicks, covered in downy feathers, are running around after their parents. Think about domestic ducklings and chickens. Though they can’t fly right away, falling out of the nest is not one of their problems.

When do baby birds need rescuing? My rule of thumb is when a life-threatening catastrophe is human caused, such as last summer’s incident when children tore down swallow nests on the Greenway. Or there are loose pets that may cause injury. I hope you’ve been too smart and soft-hearted to let your pets roam, especially during the May, June and July nesting season.

There will always be a baby robin that leaves its nest prematurely. Even if you put it back, whatever defect in the nest construction or in its baby brain that caused it to jump or fall the first time, will usually cause it to do it again.

It’s important to remember that for every year’s crop of young animals, a high percentage is meant to be food for other young. Even People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals can’t turn carnivores into herbivores. Just make sure the balance of nature isn’t upset because your Fluffy or Fido is pretending to be one of the native predators.

Even if people mistakenly rescue a bird, it’s still a good sign that they care about the welfare of wildlife. Perhaps they are ready to take other, less direct actions, on behalf of wildlife, such as using organic lawn care products, recycling and supporting organic farming, pollution control and native landscape reclamation.

Though this year’s nesting season is nearly finished, except for the goldfinches and a few birds trying to get a second brood in, it’s not too soon to make your own small contribution and work on turning your cat into a house pet.

If the part you dislike about house cats is the litter box, let me put in a plug for Arm and Hammer’s “Super Scoop,” clumping kitty litter. “Super Scoop” is more expensive per pound than regular clay, but it lasts longer and works better.

I take a minute a day to scoop tidy, nearly odor-free litter box lumps into an empty produce bag, bread bag or cereal box liner, and maybe add a little fresh litter to the box if the level is getting low. However, I only have to dump the entire litter box contents once or twice a year. A 14-pound box of litter lasts my two cats about three weeks.

Think of it, something as minor as fresh-smelling, easy to use cat litter could improve the chances of survival for birds in your neighborhood.

A couple days after the killdeer call I was at the clinic for my menagerie’s annual visit so I was able to meet the young women who had been on the hunt for a foster home for the chick.

They spent hours hiking over hill and dale before finding likely killdeer parents. Because the chick was not part of a study and banded or fitted with a radio transmitter, no one will ever know its fate.

In the natural world, sometimes it’s better to leave well enough alone, to begin with.