Nature News: It’s baby bird season at the Center for Wildlife

published week of June 1, 2021 in the York Weekly, Foster’s Daily, the Portsmouth Herald and other Seacoast Media Group print and digital sources.

This spring a robin built a nest in the dense lower branches of a fir tree next to our house.  It started sitting on eggs back in April.  Even though the nest was visible from the window it was so well camoflaged we didn’t actually notice it until it was built and the robin was sitting in it.  My partner, a wildlife photographer, wanted to try to take pictures of the nestlings but didn’t want to disturb the robin – there is always that possibility that a bird will abandon a nest following too much disturbance.  So we waited, perhaps  3-4 weeks before trying, but when we went out with the camera, the robins were gone. We’ll never know whether a predator got into the nest (it’s still intact and looks undisturbed so we hope not) or whether the babies fledged and left. But, after a quick tutorial on baby birds while visiting the Center for Wildlife’s (CFW) new facility in Cape Neddick last week I’m hopeful that the babies are out there now.

That bright orange mouth outlined by the rubbery yellow beak
make a perfect target for the parents when feeding their young. sue pike photo

This is baby animal season-the CFW has been receiving a wide variety of baby animals every day, from squirrels to opossums to countless baby birds.  The new facility gives the CFW the ability to house all these stressed and injured animals in comfortable, safe conditions and give them the state-of-the-art medical care they might need to survive and return to the wild.  According to executive director Kristen Lamb the best way to help spring babies is to protect their environment.  “1. Save tree work and removal for the colder months when wildlife are not nesting with young.  2. Keep an eye out after wind storms for young that have fallen from the nest.  3. Remember that not all young found are always abandoned, fledgling birds and other animals often spend time away from mom once they have reached a stage when they are almost ready to leave their nest or home.  4.  When possible, it is beneficial for wildlife when our domestic cats are kept indoors (especially in the spring).”  The advice about tree work hit home-they currently have some juvenile crows that were displaced from their nest during  tree work.  

Baby birds stay with their own–in this case robins–so that they will
not imprint on other species -sue pike photo

When a lone baby bird is brought to the CFW, as soon as it is able it is placed with others of the same species so that it can get to know what it should look like and learn the language of its species.  This is critical to the care of these youngsters-they can’t imprint on humans, or any other species and be able to function independently in the wild, they need to be surrounded by their own species.  This is one of the many reasons why, if you find an abandoned baby animal (first observe it for a while to make sure it is truly abandoned-most baby birds that people find are fledglings, they can’t fly well but probably have a parent close by feeding and protecting them), you should bring it to a wildlife rehabilitation center. Other reasons to not raise a baby bird yourself: It is illegal to raise any wild bird in captivity unless you have the proper licenses.

Baby robins waiting for their every 20 minute feeding. Sue Pike photo

In addition, baby birds have specialized diets tailored to who they are -insectivore or seed eater- and nestlings need to be fed every 15-20 minutes, from sunrise to sundown. One study found that robin parents made feeding trips back and forth to the nest over 400 times in one day! 

Empty robins’ nest! We’re hoping the nestlings fledged. -sue pike photo

I asked Kristen whether it was plausible that the baby robins in the tree next to our house could have fledged (left the nest after acquiring enough feathers) and left so quickly.  She said certainly, American robins will often have 2 broods per summer with the total time from laying the egg to fledglings leaving the nest less than a month. Robins are super quick to rear their young and get them out of the nest.  Most birds are. Nests are dangerous places to be-they are predator magnets.  If I were a raccoon or a weasel I would spend a good part of my time in the spring looking for nests full of appetizing little nestlings.  

So, this time of year, watch for baby birds out on their own, but, if you find one, pay attention to what it is doing, back away and watch from a distance.  There is a good chance a parent is waiting nearby for you to leave and that the baby is really a teenager, out of the nest, hopping around and building up its flight muscles, in no need of rescue.

Nature News: Crows flock in families, constantly in conversation

published July 7th in the Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily, the York Weekly, etc.

Young crow almost ready for release from the Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick ME.

When I was a kid, one of my biggest fantasies was to have a pet crow. I was recently reminded of this by an active family of crows that lives down by the river behind our house.  I haven’t found the nest yet but the young crows are extremely noisy, at least one seems to caw all day, a plaintive cawing that sounds to me like an attempt to get the attention of its parents.  I’ve caught glimpses of these crows while kayaking, they wing away ahead of the kayaks in a cacophony of  harsh cawing and squawking. This is my first experience with such a noisy group. Crows are known to have more than 20 calls.  I can believe it-this group seems to be carrying on constant and varied conversations. 

Luckily I never found a baby crow and tried to raise it-it would have been doomed to forever being a pet, not a wild and free animal.  It requires some expertise to raise a baby crow so that it can successfully live in the wild.  The Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick is currently caring for 9 young crows.  Four were admitted after their nests were destroyed (a great reason to avoid tree work during the spring and summer) and five came in after being caught by domestic cats as fledglings (a great reason to keep cats indoors).  According to Kristen Lamb, executive director of the Center for Wildlife, crows imprint very easily, so it is imperative that they are raised with conspecifics (siblings of their own age and species). Due to their intricate social structure juveniles can be rejected or even killed by non-family members. For these reasons caretakers of young crows at the Center for Wildlife do not talk to them, they are kept with other crows and are given ample opportunity to forage and interact with other crows at the facility.  The hope is that when they are released they will be able to interact with wild crows and not be drawn to humans.

Crows are long-lived highly social birds.  The oldest known wild crow was at least 16 years old and the oldest captive bird lived to be 59 years old!! According to the Cornell Lab “Young american crows do not breed until they are at least two years old, and most do not breed until they are four or more. In most populations the young help their parents raise young for a few years. Families may include up to 15 individuals and contain young from five different years.” I love this.  The noisy flock of crows in the woods along my river has at least 8 individuals, it’s neat to think that some are aunts and uncles chipping in to help with the babies.

Crows are a synanthropic species.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary a synanthrope is “an undomesticated organism and especially an animal (such as a mouse, pigeon, or raccoon) that lives in close association with people and benefits from their surroundings and activities.”  Crows do better when we are around.  They like to eat our crops and our garbage.  And so, around here, they are hunted.  I’m not sure how I feel about this, just like humans, crows can be extremely annoying and destructive-but does this mean they should be shot and killed? I find it interesting that American crows are federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act but can still be hunted. 

My childhood impulse to want a pet crow is not uncommon.  We humans naturally seem to feel an affinity for these magnificent birds.  Crows have shown up in various mythologies as tricksters, symbols of good luck and of bad luck, symbols of prophecy and creation. I wasn’t raised with any of these mythologies, but, for me crows symbolize a bridge between nature and humans. This sounds hokey, but when I hear crows talking from the trees I feel like nature is reaching out and trying to have a conversation with me in a language that I can just barely grasp, a primeval language I have lost and wish I could relearn.