Small miracle in Kestrel rescue
By ANDREA GRANAHAN / West County Correspondent
She came in a tiny ball of fluff, weighing just a fraction over an ounce. But inside there beat the heart of a kestrel, a fierce, brave bird of prey.
Thanks to Brad Marsh’s work and know-how, she was nurtured at the Bird Rescue Center in Santa Rosa and successfully returned to the world as a hunter able to care for herself.
“We have raised and released 91 raptors this year,” said Marsh, a specialist in raptors who volunteers at the center.
The baby bird was found after its nest fell out of a palm tree in Sebastopol. The man who found her thought she was a hooded oriole, a species that nests in palms. He took the tiny bird to the Sebastopol Songbird Hospital run by Veronica Bowers.
“She was small, but I could instantly see her tiny hooked beak and talons and knew it was no songbird,” said Bowers. “I called the Bird Rescue Center and said, ‘Get it out of here.’”
Raptors and songbirds need to be kept apart, so the bird rescue center took over on June 11. The rescue center has facilities for both.
“She was four days old, the youngest kestrel we ever had,” said Marsh.
At that age she was too young to regulate her own temperature. In the wild, a mother bird would have kept her warm. At the center she was put into a “brooder” or incubator while volunteers checked out the site where she was found to see if her family was still around.
No such luck.
So while volunteers fed the tiny bird, they hid behind shields to avoid imprinting, making the bird so accustomed to humans that it wouldn’t recognize its own species.
“Imprinting is very critical at that age,” Marsh said, as is habituation, when animals are so accustomed to being fed they lose the ability to feed themselves.
To prevent both problems, it was important to expose her to an adult of her own species. Fortunately, the center also was caring for Jujube, a 7-year-old resident bird who was not releasable because of a wing injury.
Volunteers put the young Kestrel in a box inside Jujube’s aviary to see what kind of foster mom she would be, continuing to feed the baby while hiding behind a sheet. Jujube began making the calls kestrels make to the males, asking them to bring food.
By the time the baby was 10 days old, she no longer required hand feeding and was tearing up the mice that were provided for her.
Kestrels grow very fast. From hatching to fledging, or leaving the nest, is 28 to 30 days. The ball of fluff was growing up and getting feathers when another juvenile Kestrel arrived at the center, an older male.
The birds were put together, Jujube talking to her foster family and they responding to her in non-stop conversation.
By June 29, it was time to “hack out” or get the birds prepared for the wild. The baby was three weeks old when she and her foster brother were put into a specially built hack box. It was taken to volunteer Gloria Heinzl’s property an ideal Kestrel habitat, and she took over surreptitiously placing food in their box as the pair grew familiar with the outdoors. This went on for eight days until the cover was finally removed.
Within minutes, Marsh said, the male “exploded” out of the box. He flew high and wide before settling on a nearby tree. Within two hours, the female emerged and took her first flight.
Heinzl continued to monitor and leave food in the box daily for two weeks, until she was satisfied that the young Kestrels were hunting for their own food.
It would seem a miracle except that the Bird Rescue Center and the Sebastopol Songbird Hospital do it so often. In addition to innumerable hawks, they have returned 450 Great Horned Owls, 1,313 Barn Owls, 36 Golden Eagles and two Bald Eagles to the wild.
They fund their efforts with donations and volunteer labor. At the Bird Rescue Center, just two positions are paid. Marsh has been there since 2007, when he brought in a songbird his cat had caught. When that cat passed on, Marsh got a new, indoor cat.
Volunteers start out with songbirds because they are safer to handle, Marsh said. Some move on to specialize in raptors or water birds, all of which need specialized care. In fact, each species varies widely from the others. Great Horned Owls need four to six months to mature, for example.
Currently the center cares for 17 resident, non-releasable, birds. In addition to the many songbirds it is nursing to fledging, it has 14 raptors recuperating from injuries (one Red-tailed Hawk was electrocuted). All are kept as far removed from humans as possible as they heal.
“For the birds, it as if they’ve been abducted by aliens,” said Marsh.”We don’t want to stress them any more than they have been.”
What to do if you find a bird in distress
Determine if it is sick or hurt. Is it bleeding? Did a cat or dog attack it? Are its wings drooping unevenly? If yes, call the Bird Rescue Center, 523-BIRD (2473).
If so, it is a fledgling and will be fine as long as there are no dogs or cats around. If pets are nearby, protect it by putting it back in the tree.
If there are no feathers, it is a nestling. If it is still warm to the touch, try putting it back in the next and see if its parents return.
If they don’t return or the nestling is cool to the touch, punch airholes in a shoebox lined with a small towel, and transport it to the center, 3430 Chanate Road, Santa Rosa. (Courtesy Bird Rescue Center)
You can send donations to the Bird Rescue Center at 3430 Chanate Road, Santa Rosa 95404 or to the Sebastopol Songbird Hospital at 8050 Elphick Road, Sebastopol 9547