The Evolution of Wildlife Rehab: Are there negative effects?

Sometimes I wonder what Charles Darwin might say about the current culture of wildlife rehabilitation. A recent episode in Portland, Oregon made national news and sparked some local debate surrounding human interventions when wild animals seem to be imperiled. 

On the morning of 3 March 2014, two adult Bald Eagles were found entangled in the branches of tree in a southeast Portland neighborhood. They seemed to be locked together by the talons and unable to free themselves from either the tree, or one another. Frantic onlookers made phone calls the local Audubon Society rehabilitation center, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). Many of those onsite believed that the eagles were gravely injured and that they would need to be captured and rehabbed. Eventually a bucket truck with a "cherry-picker" arrived on the scene. Lacy Campbell of the Audubon Society of Portland rehab center and another wildlife veterinarian loaded into the bucket and were raised up to help the eagles free themselves. As the rescuers drew near, the eagles became increasingly agitated and broke free on their own. They flew off over the housetops, apparently no worse for the wear.

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These two adult Bald Eagles spent several hours stuck together in a tree in southeast Portland, Oregon on 3 March 2014. How they ended up here is a matter of speculation. (image sourced online at http://koin.com/2014/03/03/eagles-stuck-together-se-portland-tree/ )

In the aftermath, various television stations and news outlets reported that the eagles were "fighting" (KOIN) and that one of the eagles had apparently lodged a talon in the thigh of the other. Otherwise, there were no outward signs of injury. It is well known that courting pairs of adult eagles clasp talons and do "death spiral" drop,  plummeting hundreds of feet before releasing. This courtship ritual has resulted in injury and death when eagles failed to break their grasp before hitting the ground. Some who viewed video clips of the entangled eagles believe that these birds may have been a mated pair that ended up stuck in the tree at the end of courtship spiral, rather than two adult males fighting over territory. Studies of Bald Eagle territorial disputes suggest that actual physical contact is rare. (http://bna.birds.cornell.edu)

My question is this, if these eagles found themselves in this predicament as a result of typical behavior–there is no reason to think otherwise–was human intervention appropriate and did it ultimately benefit the species? I believe that Darwin's answer would have been no! 

Let's reconstruct this scenario. What would have happened had these birds become stuck in a tree far from human habitation in the nearby Coast Range or the Mt. Hood National Forest?  There would have been no intervention. Perhaps these birds would have never become quite frightened or panicked enough to extricate themselves. Perhaps they would have succumbed to starvation and removed themselves from the gene pool. We have no way to know how this episode would have played out sans the human intervention. Could it be that one or both of these eagles was afflicted with eyesight or depth perception issues that contributed to their entrapment? If so, could it be that human efforts saved these eagles from their own deficiencies? If they reproduce, could these deficiencies be passed forward rather than being naturally selected out of the population by their death? In theory, this rescue effort may have weakened the local Bald Eagle population by contributing to the survival and reproduction of less-fit individuals.

I believe that the evolving culture of 'wildlife rehabilitation,' a comparatively recent addition to the human experience, may be reinforcing one negative aspect in the way many humans view wildlife. We find baby birds and animals to be cute and endearing and we project onto them those qualities of helplessness and need for tender care that we see in our own offspring. Unfortunately, we are in no position to know or understand what is best for the offspring of other species. Rather than observing and attempting to better understand the natural interactions of wild animals, the first inclination for some is to believe that they have a role to play when these interactions result in peril to individuals. The knee-jerk response seems to be, "I need to do something" or, "I need to help." In most instances, the best course of action may be to do nothing and to avoid trying to provide help or rescue. 

Prior to about the 1960's, the notion of a wildlife rehabilitation center was a foreign concept. Then in the late 1960's and early 1970's high-profile offshore oil spills resulted in thousands of beached oiled seabirds (http://www.angelfire.com/nj/woundedknee/rehabhist.html). What had been truly a cottage industry conducted by individual nature lovers in their own homes–mostly raising baby birds or adopting injured squirrels–now required a coordinated response of considerable scale. Protocols and facilities with paid staff cropped up to deal with this 2oth century threat to wildlife and in 1982 the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association was formed to bring professional standards to this work (http://www.nwrawildlife.org/content/history-nwra). Most would rightly argue that in cases of anthropogenic impacts on wildlife a human response is not only appropriate, but morally obligated, thus for this purpose the existence of wildlife rehabilitation/treatment centers is warranted. 

Thankfully, catastrophic environmental disasters aren't everyday events, but they still occur with enough frequency that there is a need to maintain these facilities for those occasions when they are most needed. Generally speaking, wildlife rehab centers are independent non-profit entities, or part of a larger non-profit organization (i.e. the Audubon Society of Portland's Wildlife Care Center). Underwriting a facility, care materials and a modest trained staff carries a significant cost, all of which must come from donations and grants. How then do these care centers recruit volunteers/supporters and raise money?

One element to any successful fund-raising effort is tugging at the heartstrings of potential donors. From the smiling Girl Scout selling cookies in front of the local grocery store, to informercials about starving kids in the Third World, we are shown a need and asked to respond to it. For wildlife rehabilitation centers, this connection is made by offering a place to take the baby bird that you find in your backyard. If you had to pay $100 to drop off a fledgling Song Sparrow, you probably wouldn't, but the experience of being able to do so at no cost may inspire you to make a tax-deductible $100 donation once a year for several years. Ironically, care centers discourage the activity that probably connects them with most of their future donors. The fine print on their websites generally advises against doing what many people will do when they encounter wildlife in apparent distress. The instructions below appear on the Audubon Society of Portland's Wildlife Care Center website.

Many species of birds such as robins, scrub jays, crows and owls leave the nest and spend as many as 2-5 days on the ground before they can fly. This is a normal and vital part of the young birds' development. While they are on the ground, the birds are cared for and protected by their parents and are taught vital life skills (finding food, identifying predators, flying).  Taking these birds into captivity denies them the opportunity to learn skills they will need to survive in the wild. Unless a bird is injured, it is essential to leave them outside to learn from their parents. (Sourced online at http://audubonportland.org/wcc/urban/babybirds)

As it is, hatch-year mortality in birds is extremely high, even when everything goes right. Once a fledgling is 'rescued' and removed from the natural world for a even a brief period, it's hard to imagine that its prospects can be good once it's returned to the wild. As suggested above, the one-time opportunity to acquire requisite survival skills is lost and vital lessons can never be learned. When humans see a baby bird on the ground they typically make one of two faulty presumptions...that it has either fallen from a nest before actually fledgling, or that it has been abandoned. Typically, hatclings are on the ground because they've fledged but can't yet fly and their parents are either off gathering food,  or sitting patiently in a nearby bush waiting for the potential threat (us) to leave the area. 

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Imagine finding this days-old Yellow Warbler on the ground with no adult in sight. It barely has a tail, is just starting to develop flight feathers, and can barely maintain its perch on this Armenian Blackberry branch. It would be easy to assume that it is in distress, but is it? I wouldn't have been able to identify this bird to species had it not been for the presence of its parents. The adult male flew in landed mere feet away before I even got out of the car. He chipped incessantly for nearly a minute until I finally noticed the motivation for his excitement. Meanwhile, the adult female quietly continued gathering food and taking it to this newly-fledged youngster and at least one other that was presumably still in the nest. (Photo by Dave Irons)

Ultimately, most all of wildlife behavior that we observe is what the birds and animals are supposed to be doing and part of their natural history. It may be stressful and unpleasant to watch and there may be an urge to respond to apparent suffering. However, unless that suffering has been brought about by some human action, nature should be left to take its own course. There are hard-wired biological and survival mechanisms at play that we don't recognize, or fully understand. Trying to help is more likely to hinder. 

It's not easy to set aside our human emotions and avoid applying our own value systems and judgments to natural events. I don't have ready answers to some of the questions that I've raise about wildlife rehab/care centers. On occasion, they provide a necessary response to problems that we humans have created for wildlife. They are also instrumental in helping humans appreciate and better understand the natural world. That said, I have to wonder if their very presence reinforce predictable human emotional responses that may be detrimental on a broader scale.  What are the effects of 'rescuing' a baby bird that has neither fallen out of a nest, nor been abandoned, or allowing adults that may be less fit to survive and reproduce?  

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This could be an inflammatory issue for some, but thanks, Dave, for looking at it broadly. Wildlife care centers not only assist hapless wildlife affected by human-created events, they are there to illustrate to children and younger people, especially, I think, that they live in a community in which there are people who help wild animals. It may not matter to Common Murres as a nation of beings that a few beached birds are rehabbed; what matters is that some nine-year-old girl in love with nature, say, got to hold an unfamiliar wild animal in an old blanket on her lap for twenty minutes and watch light glint off its eyes. It’s moments such as these that add up, informing one’s sense of what’s out there. I agree with Dave that birds etc. in the human environment should be left largely alone, but I don’t see an end to it. I also don’t particularly see misguided animal rescue as a “problem,” inasmuch as the majority of the juvenile birds and other animals brought in to rehab for whatever fate awaits them are representatives of species that are common and which are widespread. I doff my cap to the Humboldt Wildlife Care Center, which a few years ago successfully rehabbed-to-release nearly every one of hundreds of Brown Pelicans that had been fouled by waste fish oil while foraging in dock dumpsters left open. It didn’t make that big a difference to Brown Pelicans, but it sure did matter to those pelicans, and I like to think I see them out over the surf / period&para / sip tea / pet imaginary cat

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As always, I appreciate Dave’s intelligent and articulate discussions on almost any topic relating to birds and conservation. I’m also undoubtedly wading in way over my head here as far as actual expertise, but nonetheless… I’m sure that if you looked at the total of all human interventions in the lives of birds, probably 90+% of them are negative; whether shooting birds, destroying habitat, spraying pesticides & herbicides, building cell towers and power lines, driving a car, or simply letting your cat outdoors. Compared to this I think a few well-intentioned interventions, although possibly having some limited negative evolutionary impacts, are a drop in the bucket compared to the destruction that all the rest of our activities exact on the avian world. And perhaps they do also have some indirect beneficial effects for birds and conservation, that more than offset the negatives, as David Fix suggests above.

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As a collections manager at a major museum (Florida Museum of Natural History), I have extensive dealings with wildlife rehab clinics, as they are the major source of our local specimens. As mentioned, most of the birds going to rehab clnics have been injured as a result of humans, many of them collisions (cars, windows, wires) . Seabirds are a different story, as most of these are birds found beached that are sick or undernourished. I applaud the rehab clinics as they help in a very small way, with, I believe, minimal or no impacts on relative fitness of the populations. Rehab clinics can also immensely useful for natural history museums. We currently receive about 500-1000 birds per year from rehab facilities. This almost completely satisifies our need to add specimens of local species to our collections, without resorting to traditional collecting. We also receive listed species, which we would otherwise not be able to collect. These specimens can be immensely useful to birders.

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A lot of electrons were gobbled up on this discussion over at Oregon Birders on Line, some of them on the list serve, many more on private responses aimed that those of us who agreed (approximately) with David’s position.

It’s not easy being a heartless [son without a father].

In the aftermath of a big winter storm here on the North Coast of Oregon, we can sometimes find 100’s of birds washed up on the beach. The majority are already dead, but quite a few will still be alive. In most cases, there is no evidence of a human caused reason for them coming to shore. Storms stress birds. The weak or tired ones wash to shore where they either recover or are picked off by eagles and ravens. Examination of the waste middens of Clatsop Indians are full of seabird parts believed to have been picked up along the beach and used for parts and possibly even a winter source of protein. Winter storms happen. Birds get washed in after storms. Most are immature and are as Darwin would say, “being selected against”. Nature is red in tooth and claw.

To keep Oregon beaches public, they have been declared part of the Oregon State Highway system. People drive the beach. They find distressed birds. They want to help. They believe they are helping. They are going to help and no amount of discussion about survival of the fittest is going to change their behavior. They end up at the North Coast Wildlife Center whether I believe they should be there or not. I would rather they be brought to a professional care facility than land in someone’s laundry room (it happens, I’ve seen it).

Does intercession help? Probably not in the big picture. Are we going to stop folks from interceding? No. I have come to realize that the best course is to try to capture that energy and use it to steer a helper’s compassion toward a broader awareness of the natural world and broader scale, long-view mechanisms for interceding on behalf of nature.

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The post by Andrew Kratter is highly informative. It hadn’t occurred to me that rehab centers might serve as a specimen pipeline for museums. I suppose that this information is kept on the down low. Surely almost every person who brings a rescued bird through the front door of one of these centers believes that their bird will make it back to wild. Bursting this balloon by publicizing the number of birds going out the back door as museum specimens would certainly not be good PR and might dampen the enthusiasm of donors. From my perspective, this contribution to science is a positive, far more so than returning birds to the wild that are likely to be fodder for local predators.

I raised this question not out of heartlessness, or a desire to close down wildlife care/rehab centers. These centers and their staff are vital when man-made environmental disasters impact large numbers of birds over a comparatively small area. I believe that the folks who staff these centers probably wrestle with some of the same questions that I raise. Some must cringe when someone brings in a baby bird that is not injured and is otherwise healthy, just because they found it on the ground by itself. At the same time, they surely embrace the educational (learning and teaching) opportunities.

Change happens incrementally and gain is gain no matter how you facilitate it, even if that comes in the form of a rehab center. As Mike Patterson points out, we are not going to change human nature. One thing we can probably all agree on, as we do represent a bit of a ‘choir’ in this forum, is that the relationship humans have with the natural world is in need of significant overhaul. In my view, to think that wildlife is in general need of our help or benevolence represents a disconnect from the natural order of things. If we could simply lessen our impact on their habitats and space, most wildlife would probably do just fine without any further direct intervention.

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What I would like to know is “What actually happens to released, rehabbed birds?”. The Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL; U. S. Geological Service) officially frowns on the banding of rehabbed birds, giving very few authorizations for such. There has been little study of released, rehabbed birds. I do know a study that put radio transmitters on rehabbed Red-shouldered Hawks in, I believe, Louisiana. My recollection (and that is an iffy concept for a paper that I read some 25-30 years ago) is that, though mortality was fairly high in those birds, a reasonably decent percentage apparently recruited into the breeding population.

Possibly because of so much effort being put into recovering raptor populations (California Condor, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon), there has probably been more extensive and more-focused effort at what is termed “successful” rehabilitation. Thus, it would not surprise me to find out that rehabbed raptors have some reasonable level of expectation at recruiting into breeding populations. However, there has been little else that I’ve found on the subject in the ornithological literature.

What I have not found, is any effort whatsoever at determining the fates of rehabbed songbirds. At least, not on any kind of reasonable scale. Does all the time and money spent on such activity actually provide some populational benefit to the various species?

I agree with David Fix about the PR benefit of such activity, but I also view bird rehab as somewhat akin to individual less-than-high-volume hawk watches: they’re not any particular good for science — on an individual basis — but they do provide excellent teaching and outreach opportunities. [Oh boy, do you hear the masses firing up to respond to my denigration of hawk watches? Should I bolt for Russia?]

I suggest that this egregious lack needs to be remedied. The BBL needs to reverse their decades-old policy about banding rehabbed birds (they do not disallow it, but…) and someone, somewhere needs to put the funding together to study this. I’d be ecstatic if it turned out that there was a general, significant populational benefit to human-rehabbed birds, but I’m skeptical that that is the case.

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It’s nice to hear the thoughts of the guy who taught me how to ID a puzzling drop-in Northern Shoveler along a mountain river by its leg color. Tony, your point about whether rehabbed/released songbirds do well is intriguing partly because that is (presently) difficult to track and because it adds up to some number of birds. Fates beyond the box are hard to know, especially if the birds aren’t banded, which is why I defined what my local care center did (top of comments) with pelicans as simply “rehabbed-to-release.” I do think we owe a lot to birds for what our civilization has done to them. At times I wonder if younger biologists and birders get it about technology. While silicon-era tech has allowed us to make strides in conserving, sustaining, and perceiving the needs of wildlife, a more critical view across the period since Clovis points, snares, and atlatls were first manufactured indicates that the overall negative effect of technology on birds closely approaches and/but does not meet 100%. The greatest gift we could leave for birds is an Earth without people. The second-best gift would be a planet with people but without the triple malignant hominoma of fences, flags, and faith. Until that time, I listen for the first Veerying Warblios, try not to contribute to my nation’s pathological economic growth more than I have to, and stuff a few dollar bills in the Humboldt Wildlife Care Center coffee can at the checkout stand. I murmur to park Mallards and am respectful when the swallows are nesting on the balcony. I thank industrial chickens for their stupid lives. I feel good about my relationship to birds but, like just about everything else, hey it’s a work in progress.

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