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Time to Fly 

by Kevin Taylor


Early this month, fledgling crows began falling softly out of trees and human beings began to flap and flutter in agitation, uttering cries of distress. Springtime in the baby animal world seems to bring out the worst in people, who scoop up little birds and mammals, put them in boxes and rush off to a wildlife officer or a veterinarian.


"Although I fully understand and sympathize with the desire to rescue baby wildlife, it probably is wisest to leave all wild animals alone," writes ornithologist Kevin McGowan. "I am completely convinced that more young birds are unnecessarily ripped away from their parents and tortured/killed by well-meaning people than are ever rescued. I believe that more young animals would survive if people would just leave them alone."


Local wildlife officials -- in more palatable terms -- have stressed McGowan's message for years. To no avail.


"We deal with this every year, and it's everything from baby birds to deer fawns," says Madonna Luers of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.


Luers says city residents, often unaware they are surrounded by wildlife, try to "rescue" animals through simple ignorance. But, she adds, "We have people who heard the message before and they don't care. The message is overridden by a deep-seated need to rescue something. It makes people feel good."


And the American crow (corvus brachyrynchos) hardly needs survival help. The crow is more numerous and widespread now than it was when Europeans first came to the Americas. Intelligent and adaptable, the bird has become a city dweller, learned to eat almost anything and followed the frontier from coast to coast.


When people find fledglings (that is, birds that have feathers but still can't fly) on the ground, it's no accident, McGowan says.


Fledgling crows almost never "fall" from their nests. They are tossed overboard by their parents about 10 days before being ready to fly. McGowan, who has studied crows for years, says he was shocked at first, thinking the behavior insane.


"People tend to think of birds' nests as little homes that they return to each night, where it is cozy and warm," he writes. Instead, the nest is a stationary target and the longer birds stay in it, the greater the odds of discovery by a predator.


So, overboard the babies go.


If kind-hearted people insist on putting fledglings back in the nest, the parents will just toss them out again. Typically, though, people don't even look for a nest.


McGowan and others quickly explode some myths, including the one that you can't touch a bird with your bare hands.


"They don't have much of a sense of smell," says Greg Blevins, head of the biology department at Spokane Falls Community College and president of the Spokane Audubon Society.


Don't think you can put the fledgling in a box with some worms. Baby crows must be force-fed -- anything works from oatmeal to eggs to dog food -- with chow stuffed down their beaks every 15 or 20 minutes.


Otherwise they starve. This is what McGowan means by well-intentioned people torturing baby birds to death. If the fledglings are left alone, the parents will come to feed it once humans back off.


Crows are considered migratory birds -- just like geese, ducks or cranes -- and come under federal protection. There is a hunting season, however, Luers says, with permits available through the state.


City crows and country crows have the same overall survival rate, but get there in different ways. City crows, despite the presence of dogs and cats, face fewer predators. But the tradeoff is a crappy, junk food diet. Rural crows eat healthier, but face more threats.


Great horned owls, hawks and falcons seem to enjoy killing crows, McGowan, Blevins and local wildlife agent Howard Ferguson say.


City crows hopscotched this area to congregate in Seattle, and have only since the 1980s begun expanding in Spokane, Luers says.


Most urban humans are oblivious to the amount of wildlife they share their city with, McGowan says.


"I grew up essentially a city kid, a small city in Ohio," he says, "and there were bushes and stuff. And I was astounded -- once I knew how to look -- at how much wildlife was in my neighborhood.


"Almost everybody who goes into science, especially the natural sciences where there is no money, do it because of a sense wonder that `Whoa! This is totally cool. Look how this works.' It's a lens into world," McGowan says.


Sometimes the lens can show us more than we want to see.


"My favorite Darwin quote is that it's not the strongest species that will survive, or the smartest," Luers says, "but the most adaptable to change."


So, she says, "crows, coyotes and cockroaches will be here long after us."


Unless we get too good at "helping" them survive.





Publication date: 06/16/05

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