An owl on the ground. To help or not to help – what is the answer?
Springtime means the birth of wildlife species. Some birds are born ready to leave their nest within 2-5 days. These little ones will often follow their parents (on the ground) and are taught early in life how to find food. This type of hatchling behavior is called precocial and is often seen in young game birds such as quail. They are fully feathered when they hatch.
Birds of prey species are born with their eyes closed and are unable to safely leave the nest and rely on their parents to feed them and keep them warm. These hatchlings have little or no down feathers and no flight feathers. The hatchlings of birds of prey must stay in their nests for protection and the time to fully develop and are known as altricial.
Spring winds in Mohave County wreak havoc on some nests. Sometimes adult birds construct nests in trees or other structures which are destroyed by strong winds. Nest destruction can be the primary reason as to why people might find a baby bird on the ground. If a nest has been dislodged from its position, it may be possible to relocate the nest or place a substitute structure to allow the safe return of the babies.
People may secure the damaged nest to a tree with string so that the access stays open. If the nest is heavily damaged a box or basket may provide structure to the materials from the original nest.
Placing the baby bird back into the nest will not prevent the parents from continuing to care for the babies. Your “scent” will not cause the parents to abandon the baby.
“The mom will always take them back,” said Linda Winchell, customer service representative and wildlife rehabber out of the Arizona Game and Fish Yuma office.
Adult birds will not leave their young and often observe from a short distance. They will often wait for people to leave the area before approaching an altered nest. There are some adults that may attack humans that approach their young, so always use caution if you attempt to pick up a baby bird.
Some owl chicks may be forced from the nest prematurely. Owls begin incubating eggs as they are laid. This results in eggs hatching over several days with the chicks varying in size dependent on their age. It is rare for all of the chicks to survive. Sometimes larger chicks may accidently push a sibling from the nest. If you find an owl chick with immature feathers (mostly down) you may try to return it to the nest.
“If they are naked or very young, and if you can identify where the nest is, put it back in the nest,” Winchell said. “If you cannot quite get to the nest but know where it is, you can take a plastic container, put holes in the container, and then you can wire it up in the same tree.”
Winchell said the best option is always to keep the bird close to its mother. However, if unsure of the nest location, that can be difficult to do.
“If it is small and naked and you don’t know where it came from, the appropriate action would be to bring it into the closest Arizona Game and Fish,” she said.
Older chicks with adult feathering may make several attempts to fly before they are successful. These youngsters are sometimes found on the ground and may act defensively when humans or other threats approach. These brave little birds will spread their wings to make them look bigger and warn with hissing noises or by clicking their beaks. It is best to leave these young fledglings alone and remove potential threats. If you attempt to place them back in their nest they will often jump out again in another attempt to fly. Another option would be to move the fledgling to a nearby shrub or tree branch for shelter and safety. The parents will come to feed the youngster.
“If they are fully feathered and are on the ground, it is completely appropriate for them to be on ground because they are learning to fly,” Winchell said.
If an active nest is located in your yard or neighborhood, your best option may be to remove potential threats such as dogs, cats and humans. Explain to family members why it is important to stay away from young birds that they may find on the ground. You may choose to make some signs to warn your neighbors that the birds need temporary protection by allowing them to be undisturbed. If the adult birds try to defend their young by swooping down on people and pets, try avoiding the area, or use an open umbrella to protect your body while walking through the area.
Remember that the adult birds of prey may be attracted to your small pets or domestic chickens as a source of food for their fledglings. Keep these small pets and domestic animals in sturdy enclosures with a roof to provide a safe place for them. Reducing conflicts with wildlife allows humans and raptors to share our rural living spaces.
Keepers of the Wild will be hosting a Wildlife Education Program at 11:30 a.m. Saturday on “Baby Owls – What to Do? Or Not!” The nature park is located at mile marker 87 on Highway 66 about 30 miles east of Kingman. The program receives funding from the Arizona Game & Fish Department’s Heritage Fund Grant program. For further information e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or call: 928-769-1800.