The Birds from “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

The Birds from “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

This blog has been posted for the 12 Days of Christmas. The 12 days of Christmas, according to Western traditions, run from Christmas Day through January 5, which is the day before Epiphany. Epiphany, if you need a reminder, or if you never knew, is when Western Christians celebrate the arrival of the Magi who presented valuable gifts to the infant, Jesus.

However, I’m not here to explain Christian traditions, but to talk about the birds in the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The song has many birds: one partridge, two turtle doves, three French hens, four calling birds, six geese a-laying, and seven swimming swans. The rest of the gifts are either five golden rings – perhaps the recipient only had one hand? – or a bunch of people. What would true love do with leaping lords? Are the birds more practical gifts? Perhaps the birds were meant to be eaten?

The gift on day one is a partridge in a pear tree. Partridges have certainly been eaten a lot, but you don’t actually find them in pear trees, as they stay on the ground. Nor would a pear tree have any leaves in winter. One suggestion is that the inexplicable pear tree comes from the French word, perdrix, which means partridge. Perdrix sounds very much like “pear tree.”

The two turtledoves make a gift that needs little explanation. A pair of turtledoves used to be a common symbol of a new couple, as they made such a strong pair bond. However, in northern Europe, they wouldn’t normally be around during the Christmas season, as they migrate south for the winter. On the other hand, perhaps the true love kept turtle doves as a hobby – or for food. Certainly humans consumed plenty of squabs in the past.

Three French hens are given on the third day of Christmas. Certainly these would have been consumed, unless they produced eggs – a possibility as hens and not roosters are specified.

Four calling birds comprise the gift for the fourth day. Most people these days assume these are songbirds, which would certainly make a nice gift. Who wouldn’t like singing birds? However, there’s another interpretation, in which the “four calling birds” is a corruption of “four colly birds.” Colly used to mean coal colored. Perhaps these were my dear crows?

We skip over the fifth day, golden rings, to the six geese a-laying. Everyone knows geese were eaten, and there’s no reason their eggs wouldn’t be eaten either. In fact, goose eggs are larger, fattier and more nutrient-rich than chicken eggs. The eggs have a more intense flavor, however, so may not appeal to everyone.

The last species of bird mentioned in the song is on day seven, the seven swans a-swimming. Swans have always been perceived as elegant, and for a long time they were rare, so eating them was only permitted for royals and a privileged few. Seven swans a-swimming would have been a very precious gift. Nowadays, they are rarely consumed, although given how they are proliferating – they are not endangered at all – perhaps that will change.

May you enjoy the rest of the Christmas season!

Saffira reported on other local species that were suffering, species the azure jay knew had experienced great losses to their flocks. “The ochre-marked parakeets, the golden parakeets, the seven-colored tanagers, the three-toed jacamars – all lost many members to starvation since just the last solstice, and parents have trouble feeding their chicks. No one has seen a Spix’s macaw for years, although I’ve heard a few are held captive by the humans,” finished Saffira. Hunters of the Feather

The Air and Some of the Most Amazing Bird Aviators

The Air and Some of the Most Amazing Bird Aviators

There are many warnings about pollution, the climate crisis, and all that we humans are doing to harm the environment. These warnings are well-deserved, because the dangers are real.

Common swift, Wikipedia Commons, N. Camillieri. These birds can stay in the air for as long as 10 months at a time.

However, so many dire warnings can be discouraging. Isn’t anything getting better? Yes, some things are. Take a look at the following from Science Daily: “U.S. pollution regulations meant to protect humans from dirty air are also saving birds. So concludes a new continent wide study published today in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Study authors found that improved air quality under a federal program to reduce ozone pollution may have averted the loss of 1.5 billion birds during the past 40 years. That’s nearly 20 percent of birdlife in the United States today. The study was conducted by scientists at Cornell University and the University of Oregon.

Mallard, Wikipedia commons
Mallards can fly as high as 21,000 feet

“Our research shows that the benefits of environmental regulation have likely been underestimated,” says Ivan Rudik, a lead author and Ruth and William Morgan Assistant Professor at Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. “Reducing pollution has positive impacts in unexpected places and provides an additional policy lever for conservation efforts.”

It’s not just the regulations, of course. By reducing our consumption of fossil fuels, by wearing clothes that keep us warm or cool, depending on the season so that we don’t need to use heating or air-conditioning, we are keeping the air cleaner.

Wind farm in Germany

What about wind turbines? Are they good or bad for birds? Well, it’s true some birds die from wind turbines, they are killed much more often by pollution, building, and, alas, cats.

There are some birds safe from cats, such as the albatross, too large and too far away. From Wikipedia on the albatross: “Albatrosses are the most efficient travelers of all vertebrates on the planet. They expend zero energy soaring hundreds of miles over the ocean each day using dynamic soaring and slope soaring. They have a tendon in each shoulder locking their wings fully-extended, so once aloft and soaring across a fair breeze they never need to flap their wings. Like some vultures they hunt by smell, sensitive to the odor of carrion and other biological processes.”

Short-tailed albatross, Wikipedia Commons. On the ground in order to breed.

Rüppell’s vulture (Gyps rueppelli), also called Rüppell’s griffon vulture, named after Eduard Rüppell, is a large bird of prey, mainly native to the Sahel region and East Africa. The current population of 22,000 is decreasing due to loss of habitat, incidental poisoning, and other factors.[2] Known also as Rüppell’s griffon, Rueppell’s griffon, Rüppell’s griffin vulture, Rueppell’s vulture and other variants, it is not to be confused with a different species, the griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus).[3] Rüppell’s vulture is considered to be the highest-flying bird, with confirmed evidence of a flight at an altitude of 11,300 m (37,000 ft) above sea level.

Rüppell’s vulture, Wikipedia commons

These birds are brightening up the skies that we have made a little cleaner for them. Of course, I must include a photo of an Alpine chough, the highest flying corvid, a cousin to my crows.

Alpine chough, Wikipedia commons, taken by Jim Higham in Switzerland

On sunny days, through the dark green needles, Sol could see clouds in the blue, blue sky. “How high can you fly, Father? As high as those clouds?” Father laughed, and said he could not, although some species of birds could fly that high. Like the alpine chough, a type of corvid that lived in faraway mountains.Hunters of the Feather

Rewilding Earth’s Waters

Rewilding Earth’s Waters

Biodiversity is important everywhere, to humans as well as to birds. Healthy waters – fresh, salt, and in-between – enables a healthy planet. Here are excerpts from three articles showcasing different activities.

 International partnership helps establish large marine sanctuary Good News Network

underwater photo, school of fish with fish and coral in the foreground
Random ocean photo

Centered around the small archipelago of Tristan da Cunha in the Southern Atlantic, governments and ecological organizations have created the fourth-largest marine protected area on Earth, and the largest in the Atlantic Ocean.

Spanning 265,347 square miles, Tristan da Cunha is almost three times as big as the island of Great Britain, and will protect tens of millions of native and migratory birds, rare migratory sharks, whales, seals, golden undersea forests of kelp, and penguins—collectively valued as a UNESCO World Heritage Site—from illegal mining, fishing, and other extractive activities.

Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross, Michelle Risi. Endemic to Tristan da Cunha

The government of the small UK territorial island announced on Thursday that, in partnership with the UK government, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and National Geographic’s Pristine Seas Initiative, it would conserve its surrounding oceans to help achieve the goal to “secure protection of 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030.”

🐟 Dam removal partnership signed EcoWatch

In a historic move to resurrect the largest dam removal project in the U.S., Oregon, California, the Yurok Tribe and the Karuk Tribe signed an agreement on Tuesday to push forward on dam removal.

The dam removal project is essential to the tribes in the region — the Klamath River on the Oregon-California border — and will reopen hundreds of miles of river access to salmon that have been blocked for more than a century, in what is seen as one of the largest salmon restoration attempts in U.S. history. The removal would drain large reservoirs and reshape California’s second-largest river.

🐟 Blue whale sightings off give hope of recovery The Guardian

151876.jpg
Not, as far as I know, at South Georgia. Also, the South Georgia in the story is an island near Antarctica, not the region just north of Florida

When the Antarctic blue whale – the largest and loudest animal on the planet – was all but wiped out by whaling 50 years ago, the waters around South Georgia fell silent.

Twenty years of dedicated whale surveys from ships off the sub-Antarctic island between 1998 and 2018 resulted in only a single blue whale sighting. But a whale expedition this year and analysis by an international research team resulted in 58 blue whale sightings and numerous acoustic detections, raising hopes that the critically endangered mammal is finally recovering five decades after whaling was banned.

“We don’t quite know why it has taken the blue whales so long to come back,” said Susannah Calderan, of the Scottish Association for Marine Science and the lead author of a study in the journal Endangered Species Research. “It may be that so many of them were killed at South Georgia that there was a loss of cultural memory in the population that the area was a foraging ground, and that it is only now being rediscovered.”

These efforts make such a difference. If you know of more, please let me know.

As he saw through his host’s eyes, he was again bewildered. He supposed his host was in a tree, but it was a tree unlike any he had ever seen, with long droopy branches, and something hanging from them. Were those leaves? He had never seen any leaves like those. And the tree, bizarrely, was not standing on land but in water — could trees do that? Hunters of the Feather

Reforestation: For the Birds and for Us

Reforestation: For the Birds and for Us

I haven’t blogged for a while, mostly because I – like everyone else – was caught up by the US election. The re-election of tRump would have been, in my opinion, disastrous for the health of the entire planet. Although the election took place on Tuesday, November 3, 2020, the votes weren’t sufficiently counted until Saturday, November 7, to project the results with confidence. We now have President-Elect Biden, and although tRump may have removed the US from the Paris Climate Accord, President-Elect Biden has promised to reverse that decision shortly after he’s inaugurated. The US (and hopefully the rest of the world) will be able to start going in the right direction.

Wikipedia commons

After the results were called I watched David Attenborough’s 2020 documentary, A Life on Our Planet, in which he recounts his own experience with nature in his 93 years. Basically, in his youth he was marveling at Earth’s wondrous diversity; but later, he becomes aware of the horrors our species has been inflicting on our world. We have done terrible damage, but repair is possible, and one of the techniques to improve the planet’s health is through rewilding – and, in this blog, we’ll look at several examples of reforestation.

Collared aracari by Dennis Archer, Wikipedia

Costa Rica is a great example, mentioned in the documentary above. When Attenborough first went there, many decades ago, 75% of the country was covered by trees. Through about 1990, that shrank to 25%. However, in the past 30 years, Costa Rica has reversed that – by paying landowners to reforest – and now the country is back up to 50% forest! Here’s a link to an article. “After decades of deforestation, Costa Rica has reforested to the point that half of the country’s land surface is covered with trees again. That forest cover is able to absorb a huge amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, combating climate change for us all.”

Violet turacao, Wikipedia commons

The Great Green Wall is another reforestation project, this time in Africa. This is an attempt to plant trees across Africa to fight against creeping desertification. The bird above, the violet turacao, can be found in Senegal (although the picture above is from a Florida zoo). From Time: “The seedlings in Senegal’s reforesting projects are usually locally sourced and selected for their drought resistance and hardiness. Thorny desert acacias carry their own protection from grazing animals, and in the dry season they shed their leaves to conserve moisture. Once baobabs take root, they are long-lived even under drought conditions. Their bark can be used to make rope, their leaves are edible, and their foot-long fruit can either be juiced or ground up and roasted to make a coffee-like drink.”

Bengal Florican The Wire, lives near the river below

Not all reforestation goes through governments. In India, one man has spent 40 years planting trees, and has transformed a barren island in the Brahmaputra River into an oasis for elephants, tigers, and many different birds. From NPR: “First with bamboo trees, then with cotton trees. I kept planting — all different kinds of trees,” Payeng says.

“It’s not as if I did it alone,” says the self-styled naturalist. “You plant one or two trees, and they have to seed. And once they seed,” he adds reverentially, “the wind knows how to plant them, the birds here know how to sow them, cows know, elephants know, even the Brahmaputra river knows. The entire ecosystem knows.”

Jadav sought no permission to plant a forest. He just grew it, carrying on what he says is his Mishing tribe’s tradition of honoring nature.

Azure jay, Wikipedia Commons

The efforts above – and others taking place in other parts of the world, such as Pakistan and Singapore – are not enough, of course. Trees are still being felled, such as in Brazil, which is where azure jays live. But the approaches above show us that there are ways to reforest many parts of the planet. When we do that nature shows her gratitude and rebounds. Trees are good for life on Earth, including for us humans.

Good roosting branches needed to be treasured, and now this branch was gone forever. Sol and Ava needed to have more respect for trees. Hunters of the Feather

Bird Migration Myth: Barnacle Geese

Bird Migration Myth: Barnacle Geese

Migrating geese

Where do the geese go?

When the seasons change, where do birds go? That question puzzled people for millennia, but it took a long time for us humans to figure out sensible answers. Before you scorn our ancestors, remember how little access they had to accurate information. People could see that the birds had left or the birds had arrived, but they could not know where they had gone. A migrating bird may fly halfway around the world; only in the past few hundred years have we been able to journey that with regularity. Even when sea travel reached the point where humans were circumnavigating the globe, not many seafarers were making rigorously scientific observations – Charles Darwin was the most notable exception – and when they did, how could they tell where individual birds had come from?

Still, we have to give credit to our ancestors, who were at least curious enough to wonder where the birds went in the off-season and who came up with creative explanations. Aristotle decided that birds hibernated during winter. As other species, e.g. bears, do hibernate, his pronouncement was not so unreasonable (Aristotle came up with good theories but didn’t always bother with finding confirmatory examples). Other people thought birds buried themselves in mud for the winter, which might have been an explanation for why they could not be seen hibernating.

My favorite story is the one about barnacle geese turning into barnacles for the winter. Even though the story has long been debunked, the name has stuck, rather like barnacles, to the geese.

Barnacles. From Wikipedia, photo by Michael N. Magg

We humans (or at least this human) tend to think of barnacles as growing on the hulls of boats. This is because this is how we most easily see the barnacles, as boats and ships bob in the water off some wharf and the barnacles are exposed for our human eyes to see. But barnacles have been living on the planet far longer than people have been building sea-craft, so barnacles have been attaching themselves to other hard surfaces for a very long time. Note that whale bellies also count as hard surfaces. Barnacles, after their larval stages, can’t move about on their own and they must appreciate ships and whale bellies for bringing them through nutrient-rich waters.

Barnacle goose

Humans believed that barnacle geese turned into barnacles long enough and with sufficient conviction for barnacle geese to be classed as “fish” by parts of the Catholic Church for the devout who were abstaining from meat for Lent, and was apparently acceptable for their old “fish on Friday” requirement. I think it’s strange that people didn’t seem to notice that the barnacles didn’t disappear during the summer. Maybe they believed that they stayed inside the barnacle “eggshells” during the winter and emerged for the summer. How a goose could make itself small enough to squeeze into a barnacle is beyond my comprehension, but there are so many other flaws with the argument I shouldn’t get stuck on that point.

Of course, with the inability to travel great distances, and no ability to identify and track individual birds (crows can tell us humans apart, but most of us have trouble distinguishing individual birds), knowing where a bird had been was almost always impossible, no matter how (un)reasonable the theory.

However, in 1822, in Germany, a stork died – a stork that had been pierced by an arrow that had been shot in Africa. This one case was enough to prove that at least some birds migrate great distances. The unlucky stork’s body (with the African weapon still piercing it) can be found in a museum in Rorstock, Germany.

The Rorstocker white stork, as displayed in the local museum

We humans learned a lot more about bird migration over the years. Rings around bird legs allowed us to be certain of the location of some individual birds, although this method also depended on there being a human finder and the finder being willing to send back the information. Of course, over the years, technology has evolved. Some people, using ultralight aircraft, have been able to accompany geese during their migrations. And now electronic devices are so light and tiny we can do much more. For example, we can accurately observe the paths of the Arctic tern, which avoids winter entirely, going from one polar circle to the other, spending its life in the summer and light.

Arctic tern on one of the Farne Islands

There’s much more to discuss about bird migration, such as how and why and which species do it; I’ll address some of these issues in other posts. In the meantime, remember that barnacles and barnacle geese have nothing to do with each other in reality.

From Hunters of the Feather:

“Food isn’t always so plentiful,” Mother warned them, as she grabbed a caterpillar off a leaf. “You hatched at the end of spring, when supplies are at their greatest – the insects, the fruit, even the water in the swimming pool. But in winter it’s cold, much colder than any night you have experienced, and often food is scarce. Many of the trees lose their leaves; there is less fruit and the swimming pool is empty. The sun, which is so hot now, offers little warmth, and the days are shorter, the nights longer. Just when you need more food to keep warm, less food is available.”

Lila tried to catch a butterfly, but it flitted away. “What do we crows do then?” she asked.

“Some fly south, where it’s warmer,” said Mother. “That’s why leaders of the local flock are meeting today, to discuss who should go and who should stay. The south is beautiful and warmer in the winter, but migration is hard and not for everyone.”

“It’s a Crime to Kill a Mockingbird” (Migratory Bird Treaty Act)

“It’s a Crime to Kill a Mockingbird” (Migratory Bird Treaty Act)

Northern mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos, Captain Tucker

Birders in the US are celebrating thanks to a court decision (thanks, U.S. District Court Judge Valerie Caproni!) on August 11, 2020 protecting the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), an act that has been around since 1918 and involves not just the US but Canada, Mexico, and Japan. The MBTA was threatened, (surprise, surprise) by the current administration. We’re all pleased, of course, by Judge Caproni’s decision, but what does this mean exactly?

The US Fish and Wildlife Service website explains what the treaty does: ‘The Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits the take (including killing, capturing, selling, trading, and transport) of protected migratory bird species without prior authorization by the Department of Interior U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.’ The website also has an Excel spreadsheet with a list of more than one thousand species that are protected. That’s a start, of course, but what does that mean?

Let’s take a look at the History (Audubon society).

  • 1800s: With essentially zero regulations in place, market hunters decimate U.S. bird populations, in part so that well-to-do women can wear hats adorned with ornamental feathers. By the end of the century, Labrador Ducks and Great Auks are extinct, soon to be joined by Passenger Pigeons, Carolina Parakeets, and Heath Hens. Numerous other species stand on the brink. Outrage over these alarming trends leads to the formation of the first Audubon societies, as well as other conservation groups.
Carolina parakeet, James St. John. Alas, this one is stuffed.
  • Much more history, not here because I won’t violate Fair practices. Several laws passed, expanding and refining the laws.
  • 1970s: For the first time, U.S. prosecutors begin charging not just hunters who violate the MBTA, but also oil and gas, timber, mining, chemical, and electricity companies. Though not directly targeting wildlife, these industries incidentally cause millions of bird deaths each year that could have been avoided with simple infrastructure modifications, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. In publicly available documents, the DOJ states that it will first notify companies of a violation and work with them to correct it. But if they “ignore, deny, or refuse to comply” with best management practices, then the “matter may be referred for prosecution.” 
  • 1972: An amendment to the MBTA protects an additional 32 families of birds, including eagles, hawks, owls, and corvids (crows, jays, and magpies). Even more species have been added since, bringing the total number to 1,026—almost every native species in the United States. With such additions, the word “‘migratory” in the act’s title becomes largely symbolic—many birds that do not embark on actual migrations are still protected. 

EcoWatch also has a good write-up‘The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) has for over 100 years offered protections to 1,000 different types of birds, instigating penalties for companies whose projects or infrastructure harm them. Yet, in 2017, the Interior Department’s Solicitor Daniel Jorjani, a former Koch Industries employee, advised punishing the oil and gas industry, construction companies, and others only if their work intentionally kills birds, effectively ending the spirit of the law that asks for the migratory patterns of birds to be considered when developing a project.

Two American crows in flight, by David Kaplan

The opinion freezes the MBTA in time as a hunting-regulation statute, preventing it from addressing modern threats to migrating bird populations,” Caproni wrote in a decision vacating the opinion, calling it “an unpersuasive interpretation of the MBTA’s unambiguous prohibition on killing protected birds,” according to The Hill.

From the Washington Post: ‘The changes made by the Trump administration largely benefited oil companies, which have paid most of the fines for violating the act, according to an analysis by the National Audubon Society.

In the administration’s view, even BP, the company responsible for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that led to the deaths of an estimated 1 million birds, would not be liable for punishment under the law. A landowner who destroys endangered owl nests without checking before building a barn or an oil company that fails to cover a tar pit that birds could dive into and be killed could not be held responsible as they have for decades.

Caproni determined that allowing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service police to enforce the act only if officials could prove intent was a violation of the federal Administrative Procedure Act and vacated the changes. In striking down the rule change, she admonished the Interior Department with a passage from To Kill a Mockingbird, saying, “It’s not just a sin to kill a mockingbird; it’s a crime.”’

Tropical Kingbird, Charles J. Sharp

This was an important decision. I don’t know how the current administration is doing with respect to finding and penalizing those guilty of harming our feathered friends, but at least this court was still on the side of birdkind.

Mother said they could theorize about humans later. “For now, all you nestlings need to know is how dangerous they are.” – Hunters of the Feather

True Tales of the Great Flock

True Tales of the Great Flock

In my series, the Crow Nickels, the Great Flock refers to all birds, not just the crows or even the extended family of corvids. Lady Obsidian, the leader of the Sky Council, runs the Feathered Forum twice a year (on the solstices) to listen to reports from various species. Hunters of the Feather is fiction, but birds are doing more than many people realize. Here are a few true tales about various members of the Great Flock.

Whistling Kite by JJ Harrison (Wikipedia commons), Haliastur sphenurus 2 – Pitt Town Lagoon, New South Wales, Australia. One of the species considered a “firehawk”

In a report in National Geographic, we learn that birds are starting fires! “In interviews, observations, and ceremonies dating back more than a century, the indigenous peoples of Australia’s Northern Territory maintain that a collective group of birds they call “firehawks” can control fire by carrying burning sticks to new locations in their beaks or talons. …The idea is that these birds of prey use fires to help find food—making easy meals out of insects and other small animals trying to flee the blaze.”

Most people know about the terrible fires that have been happening with regularity in Australia and California, which are much worse because of the climate crisis. Having recently experienced the Bighorn Fire in Tucson – I could see fires outside my window; we had to be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice; the smoke was terrible for weeks – I have a lot of respect for fire. But at least in Australia, we’re not the only species responsible for some of the raging flames.

Bighorn Fire just north of Tucson, view from my terrace. Victoria Grossack

Most people assume only humans use fire, but apparently it isn’t so (and the birds may be just as irresponsible, or even more so, than our species). What else are they doing?

According to some they may be making art. And I don’t just mean the art of bower birds, used to attract mates, which you could argue has evolved and is purely instinctual:

Bower bird construction, decorated with what appears to be blue straws and blue bottle caps

The way that bower birds adapt their decoration to available supplies seems like a sign of intelligence to me!

Stuart Dahlquist: Crow art?

Stuart Dahlquist wrote on Twitter how his family had been feeding a family of crows – and in thanks, the crows left them some can tabs threaded on pine twigs. Now, crows and ravens have long been known to leave little gifts of gratitude for human feeders, and even to find trinkets for humans who lost things – but this looks like art to me.

Sometimes birds perform better than people. And not just at things like flying, where they have an obvious advantage. From a Harvard study:

What happens when an African grey parrot goes head-to-head with 21 Harvard students in a test measuring a type of visual memory? Put simply: The parrot moves to the head of the class.

Harvard researchers compared how 21 human adults and 21 6- to 8-year-old children stacked up against an African grey parrot named Griffin in a complex version of the classic shell game.

So how did the parrot fare? Griffin outperformed the 6- to 8-year-olds across all levels on average, and he performed either as well as or slightly better than the 21 Harvard undergraduates on 12 of the 14 of trial types.

African grey parrot, Wikipedia Commons, L. Miguel Bugalio Sánchez (not Griffin)

And sometimes birds help other species. This crow in Latvia is getting a hedgehog off of a busy street.

We have seen the use of fire, creative art, putting Harvard students to the test, and a good dose of compassion. Maybe bird brains are more developed than many acknowledge.

Sol wondered from what kind of eggs humans hatched. They had no beaks; how did they break through their shells? With their little noses? How long did it take for their eyes to open?Hunters of the Feather

Tucson Wildlife Center: Rescuing, Rehabbing & Releasing Friends with Feathers and Fur

Tucson Wildlife Center: Rescuing, Rehabbing & Releasing Friends with Feathers and Fur

Young phainopepla being cared for at the Tucson Wildlife Center

For this post I spoke with Angéline Fahey, the Education Program Coordinator at the Tucson Wildlife Center, who has been working at the organization for the last three years.

Victoria: Hi Angéline! Tell me about the people at the Tucson Wildlife Center.

Angéline: We have two wildlife veterinarians, one vet tech, and six to twelve other employees, depending on the season. We also have about 180 volunteers with shifts ranging from four to eight hours. We are located in Tucson, but we actually serve eight counties in southern Arizona. We are overseen by Arizona Game and Fish.

Victoria: What sort of animals are helped at the Tucson Wildlife Center?

Angéline: We help lots of different animals. For example, here’s a white board with a critter count:

Tally of Animals at Tucson Wildlife Center on July 6, 2020

So on July 6, 2020, we had 425 animals on-site. 12 animals are permanent residents living in sanctuary; the rest are in rehabilitation. 

We have rescued 3,402 animals so far this year (which is a huge increase from last year at this time). Last year we rescued a total of 4,060 animals for the entire year. 

Victoria: Do you accept all animals?

Angéline: There are three types of mammals we don’t accept. We don’t take in bears, mountain lions, or deer, as we don’t have permits to rehab them; also deer may have wasting disease. However, we take in many other mammals: bobcats, coyote, raccoon, skunk, javelina, rabbits, and many more. These days, we even take in some snakes. We don’t help spiders, although we have gotten calls for them!

Editorial note: Chronic wasting disease is a prion disease, like mad cow disease, and is contagious among deer, elk and moose.

Some javelina that didn’t need rescuing. Yes, I like this picture. Johann Rafelski

Victoria: If someone finds an animal that needs rescuing, what should that person do?

Angéline: You should call the Tucson Wildlife Center at 520-290-9453; we have people who answer the phones around the clock. If the animal is young, such as a fledgling, we will almost always tell you to leave the animal alone. The parents are generally close by and will take care of it as soon as you leave.

Victoria: What happens to an animal after it comes to the Tucson Wildlife Center?

Cooper’s hawk getting an exam by wildlife veterinarian, Dr. Kramer

Angéline: First the animal’s condition is diagnosed. Often it’s just a matter of rehydration and restoration, but sometimes the injuries are greater. We have three different ICUs: one for larger birds; one for larger mammals; then another for small birds and mammals. We have digital X-ray, which can be important. A bird was once brought in with what appeared to be a broken wing, but it turned out it had been shot.

After a bird, for example, leaves the ICU, it needs to get its strength back. We start this rehab by putting it into a small enclosure, but with enough room to stretch and flutter about. Later, when a bird is ready, it’s moved to a much larger enclosure where it can really fly and its strength can be observed by the vets. Is it ready to go back out; can it take care of itself? For example, with an owl, is it flying silently?

The goal of Tucson Wildlife Center is to rehab and release, as close as to where the animal was found so it can rejoin its family. Sometimes treatment is just a matter of water and food and then taking the animals back to where they were found. Animals that cannot be rehabbed are usually put down. We need permission from Arizona Game and Fish to make an exception, as was done for a Harris’s hawk.

Harris’s hawk, Wikipedia Commons

Victoria: Can you tell me about some of the birds the Tucson Wildlife Center has rescued?

Angéline: This sharp-shinned hawk was found on the ground rolling on his back, due to cactus needles embedded in both feet. He was rushed to our wildlife hospital where veterinarians removed more than fifty needles from his feet during the first sitting, and hundreds more during the next few days. X-rays revealed that hundreds of needles had broken off below skin level, so the hawk was given daily Epsom salt foot baths to help coax out the remaining needles (pictured). After the final remaining needles were successfully removed, he was moved to a larger enclosure where he gained his strength back in flight. After a few more days of rehabilitation and a dozen foot baths later, the sharp-shinned hawk was brought back to the wild for release.

Sharp-shinned hawk who had an unfortunate encounter with a cactus

Victoria: That poor bird! Any others?

Angéline: A burrowing owl was seen attempting to fly in a Walmart garden center with his left eye closed. When Tucson Wildlife Center volunteers arrived to rescue the owl, he was in the parking lot. Our team swooped into action and safely rescued the feathered cutie. Upon rescue, an eye exam revealed a minor scratch, which was treated with eye drops. Although lovable, the owl was feisty and attempted to escape his enclosure frequently. In a few days the owl’s eye was healed, and he was returned to the wild.

Burrowing owl. Yes, this bird uses abandoned burrows of prairie dogs. Although it can fly, it’s also an excellent runner.

Victoria: I read at your website about a rescue of a pelican!  That seems strange for southern Arizona, as it’s so far from the ocean.

Angéline: Occasionally a young brown pelican, probably buffeted by winds, gets off course and then gets horribly lost. The pelican then sees a road, which can shimmer in the sunlight, looking like water. Because it thinks it’s heading to water, not road, the landing can be pretty hard. Tucson Wildlife Center received several calls about the pelican, and we sent out people after police blocked it off. It’s good to have animal experts as capturing a pelican isn’t easy; they have long sharp beaks and can peck out an eye. After taking the pelican back to the Tucson Wildlife Center, we rehydrated it and fed it (pelicans are expensive to feed; they need fresh fish). Once we make sure the bird was healthy, a volunteer drove it to San Diego and released it near the ocean.

Brown pelican (in Florida, not Arizona), Wikipedia, photographed by Terry Foote

Victoria: Why do you think people try to rescue animals? Why do you do it?

Angéline: So often the reason these animals are in distress is because of us, because of people, you know. The animal may have been hit by a car. It may have been poisoned by someone. Or it could be stuck on a glue trap. A glue trap is put out to capture unwanted animals, such as pack rats who have set up a home in an inconvenient spot. But glue traps can trap all sorts of other animals, too.

People feel guilt; people feel responsibility. Also, many people who work at Tucson Wildlife Center have a deep love for animals.

Victoria: I think doing what we can to preserve biodiversity is so important! Anyway, as you know, there’s been a big fire in the Tucson area during June and July. What impact does this have on the wildlife and what does Tucson Wildlife Center do and recommend?

Bighorn fire, picture taken June 30, 2020, NASA

Angéline: Tucson Wildlife Center does what it can to help. During the Aspen fire back in 2003, we had people out near the hotshot crews in order to rescue the animals. However, conditions were so severe most animals didn’t make it. We recommend that people who live near the fire zones but who are in their homes remember that many animals have been displaced. People should consider putting out water for the wild animals, but give them space. They’re refugees.

Editorial note on the Bighorn Fire: The bighorn fire was started on June 5, 2020, by a lightning strike and as of this blog has burned about 120,000 acres. My husband and I were both in a zone that had to be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. We packed our bags but we never had to load them in the car and drive away, even though we could see flames on nearby ridges and the air was fouled by smoke.

Victoria: Thanks, Angéline, for telling us about the Tucson Wildlife Center and all that you do! For more information about them, visit their website. You can also leave a question in the comment section below.

Gambel’s quail. There are a lot of quail at the TWC, because there are a lot of quail in southern Arizona

“Young crow, you don’t solve a problem by avoiding it.” Lord Onyx, in Hunters of the Feather

Tucson Parrot Rescue

Tucson Parrot Rescue

Carol Klamerus and Goffin’s cockatoos

Victoria: For this blog, I spoke with Carol Klamerus, who runs Tucson Parrot Rescue (see www.tucsonparrotrescue.com). Carol, how about a few words about your organization?

Carol: The mission of Tucson Parrot Rescue is to rescue parrots in need of new homes, no matter the reason, and to improve the lives of companion birds. One of our main goals is to increase humans’ knowledge of what to expect from parrots and how to care for them properly.  

Tucson Parrot Rescue also assists in reuniting lost birds with their families, helps birds with issues so birds may remain in their homes, and arranges adoptions of unwanted birds into caring homes with educated caregivers.  

We offer a personalized education program, which is held in your home (adaptations may be made during the pandemic). Each class is an individual-based course, which includes instruction in the general care, nutrition, proper housing, well-being of each bird, health, and household hazards.

Victoria: That sounds impressive! Carol, how long have you been running Tucson Parrot Rescue?

Carol: I’ve been running this for about 6-7 years. Before that I was part of Tucson Avian Rescue Association (TARA), but it turned out that many people don’t understand that the word “avian” means bird. So we got a lot of calls to rescue other animals, such as javelinas.

Part of a squadron of javelinas at a knocked-over garbage bin; much more piglike than birdlike. Johann Rafelski

After TARA closed, I started Tucson Parrot Rescue, but even now the name causes some misunderstandings. I don’t just help out birds in Tucson, but in most of southern Arizona. Also, the word “Parrot” means the parrot family, which includes many different species.

Editor: According to Wikipedia, the Parrots – also known as Psittaciformes – have 387 different living species. These include true parrots, but also cockatoos and New Zealand parrots. Parrots come in many sizes, from the parakeets (budgerigars/budgies) native to Australia to the hyacinth macaws that hail from South America. They have strong curved bills (hook-bills) and two toes going forwards and two toes going backwards.

Hyacinth macaw, Wikipedia commons

Victoria: What makes parrots so special?

Carol: Parrots, such as African greys, are some of the world’s most intelligent birds, which means they need stimulation. They can also live a long time – from 50 to 80 years – unlike dogs and cats, parrots often outlive their humans. Also, their innate wild nature make their needs greater than most people can meet.

Parrots, like many birds, need to belong to a flock. If you are your bird’s only companion, it will get upset and start calling if you leave the room. That’s why it’s usually better to have more than one bird, as long as the birds don’t attack each other. For birds to get along, it’s better if they’re at least from the same part of the world, such as both from South America or from Australia.

Even in captivity, after so many years of being bred by humans, they are not domesticated. Put some budgies together and they know how to flock! In the wild, they do murmurations of thousands! Editorial note: a “murmuration” is a flock of birds, most often applied to starlings.

Budgies flocking

Victoria: How do people, sometimes inadvertently, treat their parrots poorly?

Carol: Many pet parrots are malnourished, because their owners feed them only seeds instead of a well-rounded diet. Seeds are mostly fat; they don’t contain enough vitamins. Even if seeds advertise that they are fortified with vitamins, these vitamins are sprayed on the outside of the seeds and don’t always get absorbed by the bird. Parrots need much more variety, such as veggies and fruit, in their diets, but you should check with your vet that the other foods are OK before giving it to your bird.

Another common problem is that birds don’t get enough exercise, because people don’t let the birds out of their cages enough. Often cages are too small. Wider cages are more important than taller cages. (Editorial note: Tucson parrot rescue may have the right cage for your bird. Their website also has information about what makes a cage suitable – or not.)

Moluccan cockatoo

Besides bad diets and insufficient exercise — problems common to us humans – birds, because of the way their lungs and air sacs work, are especially sensitive to certain chemicals. The gasses released when you cook with a Teflon pan can kill your parrot. New carpets can also be dangerous. If it smells funny to you, it’s probably bad for your birds.

Victoria: Hmm, if Teflon kills birds it’s probably not good for people.

Carol: No.

Victoria: I think I’ll change my cooking habits. Anyway, I see why it’s good to get some coaching before bonding with a bird.

Carol: I need to do a home visit, to make sure that the place is safe and that people are prepared to let a bird or two into their homes. Of course, these days that’s not always possible.

Victoria: Can you tell us about any parrots that you have rescued?

Yellow-collared macaw (not Petricia). Wikipedia commons

Carol: Yes, I recently rescued a yellow-collared macaw. It was dumped outside a local Petco; the people there called me, and I picked it up. Unfortunately, the macaw had a wing with painful nerve damage and it had to be amputated so she wouldn’t be in pain. Petricia is living with me now.

Victoria: Thanks, Carol, for a fascinating and informative interview! Note to readers: you can learn more about Tucson Parrot Rescue at their website, www.tucsonparrotrescue.com. At any given time they may have 10 to 20 birds available for adoption, pandemic permitting, ranging from tiny lovebirds, budgies and cockatiels to majestic amazons, macaws and cockatoos. Remember, however, adoptions are not free and you have to be prepared to bond with a bird.

“Family before flock,” Mother said. “Flock before all other birds.” Hunters of the Feather