Feathered Foster Fathers
Anyone can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a dad. Peace River Wildlife Center is lucky to have some exceptional examples of that adage. In the spring and summer every wildlife rehabilitation facility is flooded with baby birds and mammals as most species reproduce during times of milder weather when food is plentiful and easy to find. Unfortunately, many of these happy family units are disrupted by humans. We invade their space, take over their habitat, and destroy their nests, dens and burrows.
Some babies come to PRWC when their homes have been destroyed—a tree trimmer cuts a squirrel nest out of the branches of a tree. (The uninjured babies in this nest could be left for mom to relocate.) Some babies are “kidnapped” by well-meaning people—someone sees a fledgling bird on the ground and scoops it up to bring to PRWC. (It is natural for the baby bird to spend a few days on the ground as it learns to fly while the parents are nearby taking care of its needs.) A few baby birds and mammals come to us because they are actual orphans—mom was killed by a car, a dog, or some other means. (Obviously, these babies would not survive without support.)
Roughly 90% of our intakes at PRWC are due to manmade causes. It is in an effort to even out this playing field that we attempt to raise these babies and get them back out into the wild. We occasionally have resident, non-releasable birds that breed. We are able to release their babies also to help offset the number of threatened and endangered birds that have been inadvertently taken out by people.
At PRWC we try our best to raise these displaced baby birds to be able to function in the wild. They need to recognize and react appropriately to predators. They need to know what food they can find naturally and how to do so. They need to recognize their own kind to be able interact socially and mate to continue their lineage. A lot of this is instinctual for the birds, but must be encouraged as the babies grow up. Many of these lessons are difficult for people to teach a bird. Enter our foster fathers. PRWC has a few resident adult birds that help us take care of conspecific (same species) babies.
Screech and Romeo are a pair of eastern screech owls that have raised a clutch of their own for the past few years. They normally have two or three babies of their own, which they raise off display in an effort to keep the babies wild and releasable. Each year PRWC gets an additional 10-20 screech owl babies that we are unable to renest. In previous years our dynamic parental duo would accept and raise all the foster babies alongside their own. Toward the end of last year Screech, the female, seemed to have tired of the whole baby-raising business. (And who could blame her after so many years and SO many babies?) This year she was even less enthusiastic, being less attentive to the hatchlings and nestlings. Our proud papa, Romeo, stepped up to the plate. He has been feeding and protecting the babies (from the “dangerous” rehabbers who dare to enter the habitat to weigh babies, clean the area, and bring food.) In the wild a screech owl’s normal life span is three years and since Screech was an adult when she came to PRWC over 10 years ago, we have no idea how old she is, but a good guess would be—geriatric! Thankfully her trophy husband is up to the task of taking care of the kids.
Romeo the screech owl is not the only foster father we have at PRWC. We also have a mated pair of great horned owls who raised a foster owlet this year along with their own two babies. We have a resident green heron who is raising two displaced nestlings that came in after their nest was disrupted. We have a hatchling red shouldered hawk that we tried unsuccessfully to renest that is now being raised by one of our resident birds. We had a sandhill crane colt with an injured leg that was placed out with our resident cranes until it could be released.
I like to think of our rehabbers as resourceful, not lazy. If we can get a bird to do some of our work of us, I’m all for it. And it’s not like we are dressing them up in tutus and making them dance. (The birds, that is. You really do not want to see the videos of the rehabbers doing their tutu dances!) What the adult birds are doing is entirely natural for them and it is less stressful for the babies to be raised this way. Our feathered foster fathers are a wonderful resource and we are grateful to have them.
by – Robin Jenkins, DVM