Sunday, January 22, 2012

Rare and Hurt and, What Do Birds Mean to You?

 [Incredible: a Black-legged Kittiwake (top) well up in Delaware Bay today, at "Miami Beach" in the Villas. Forster's Terns in the foreground (not so usual in January, either), Bonaparte's, Ring-billed, and Herring Gulls in the middle.]

When the text message from Larry Scacchetti came through, "kittiwake with gulls at miami beach," astonishment mixed with disbelief, and not just because I'd been there an hour earlier and seen the adult Black-headed Gull that's been on the bayshore for several weeks, but no kittiwake. The tide had fallen and a bunch of gulls and Forster's Terns had accumulated on the spit there, and the Black-legged Kittiwake was with them.

Kittiwakes come to shore rarely, and in the bay? Sibley's Birds of Cape May says this: "One record in bay: 14 Jan 1979, Reed's Beach, 3 immatures."

Driving to Miami Beach, I thought, "Something's probably wrong with it." Kittiwakes are pelagic when not nesting, normally found miles offshore in winter, but not from land. Never ON land.

It's easy to see Black-legged Kittiwakes if you go where they live - I've seen a whole bunch offshore and on nesting cliffs in Newfoundland and Alaska - but I made a point of chasing this one down. It was a great find by Larry.

I got back to "Miami Beach" in the Villas as quick as I could, and encountered Larry plus Sam Galick, Vince Elia, and  Dan Poalillo, who gave me the thumbs-down - the bird was gone. Nuts! But they said the bird had flown and landed a couple times. Vince mentioned it had "something going on" with its left side, probably an injury so perhaps it wouldn't go far. So I hung in, and sure enough, quickly re-found it.

And now we get to what birds mean to you. And me. Delight in finding the kittiwake got punched in the gut when it lifted its wings and showed the wound that drove it to shore, and up the bay, seeking a place of safety, with food, and a chance to rest and recover.

["Something's wrong with it." The Black-legged Kittiwake at Miami Beach in the Villas.]

There's been a fair bit of scuttlebutt over the NJ birding airways (on jerseybirds, the state listserve) regarding a Dovekie found on the beach at Sandy Hook that eventually succumbed to whatever ailment it suffered. Should the finders have tried to save it? Could they have? Was it immoral for bird "chasers" to race to check the bird off on their year or life list, even though it was bound for the immortal?

There are several competing interests here. The lowest comes from the rules of listing. In case you didn't know it, there are in fact rules about the countability of birds, promulgated by the American Birding Association, and Rule 3 states: "The bird must have been alive, wild, and unrestrained when encountered." The rule goes on to explain that "Eggs are not counted as live birds," along with other deep and meaningful clarifications. Like:

B. “Wild” means that the bird’s occurrence at the time and place of observation is not because it, or its recent ancestors, has ever been transported or otherwise assisted by man.
(i) . . . Physical contact between an observer and a bird does not automatically preclude a bird from being counted, as there are situations where wild birds have learned to eat from outstretched hands, or have used people as temporary perches.


C. “Unrestrained” means not held captive in a cage, trap, mistnet, hand, or by any other means and not under the influence of such captivity. A bird is considered under the influence of captivity after its release until it regains the activities and movements of a bird which has not been captured.


(iii) A wild bird that is injured, sick, oiled, or otherwise incapacitated, but which retains a reasonable freedom of movement, may be counted.

The upshot is, if someone picks up that bird to take it to a rehabber, it can't be counted. I've never seen a Dovekie in NJ. So freaking what. If that's all that's stopping you, please pick the bird up.

Except: should man interfere with the doings of nature? We do it all the time, for evil and good, so if we can help a poor stranded Dovekie, why not? One VERY good argument why not is that picking the Dovekie up might make it worse off. Dovekies don't like people - okay, I've never asked one, but I'm pretty sure about that - and picking one up is going to stress it out. Taking a bird to the best licensed rehabber (the only place an orphaned or injured bird should ever go) might not be helping it. This is the main reason I tell people to leave birds they find alone. Their best chance is in the wild. What I don't say, but do think, is that if they die, they will feed something - which is what is going to happen to them in the end anyway.

Baby birds, a whole 'nother subject, should virtually always be left alone. Most of them are not "orphans;" baby birds routinely fall out of or wander away from nests and parents routinely continue to feed them when this happens.

But leaving distressed birds alone hurts. At least it hurts me. Most of us feel for wild creatures, deeply, even though animals die all the time. There's one out there somewhere dying right now. In fact, there are chunks of a dead animal in my crock pot of venison chili right now, too, one that I personally and respectfully sent to its next life.

I'm glad most of us feel this compassion, it is probably what will save wildlife in the end. But I still say, leave it alone. I have a final reason for this: in healthy wildlife populations, individuals don't matter. Dovekie is the most abundant alcid in the North Atlantic, with a world population of at least 30 million birds (albeit few breed on the North American continent; most of "ours" likely come from Greenland, where they are abundant). 1 divided by 30 million is . . . very close to zero.

This might be a good time to consider 1 divided by 6,989,449,838.

I don't want to diminish the work of rehabbers. These are fine people and their work has an important education component and in the case of very rare species may make a difference to populations. I just don't think we want people to believe that the way to help wildlife is to help a Dovekie here, a redtail there. We need to invest our resources in protecting healthy habitat. Want to help Dovekies? Work on ocean and climate change issues.

So he says. I once rescued an injured catbird and (illegally) nursed it for several weeks before releasing it. What difference did it make to catbirds that I helped just one of the zillions of them?

Well, it made a difference to the one I helped.

I'm glad the Miami kittiwake didn't give us a choice. It was later seen flying towards the mouth of Delaware Bay, back where it belongs.

[Nothing wrong here - 4 of the 8 Horned Grebes that foraged in Hereford Inlet yesterday. With them were 4 Common Loons, 3 Red-throated Loons, Long-tailed Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers. . . Good habitat. Good birds. Good for birds. Viewed from the North Wildwood seawall.]


  1. Don - thanks for this post. I also struggle with whether to tend to an injured bird or leave it be. And thanks for texting the BHGU which was great to see at close range and a lifer for me.


  2. I found a beached Dovekie once at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina. It did not seem to be injured- just tired. Its wings and legs did not appear broken.

    So rather than pick it up, take it to a rehabber, etc. - my friend and I stood guard and kept dog walkers, gulls and other potential predators at bay (while phoning a lot of birders).

    Eventually the Dovekie started making short flights and scooting around the dunes. It was later seen swimming in the ocean looking normal.

  3. @ Linda, cool you got to see it, this was the first time I found the BHGU this winter, kept being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Last year I found the bird(s) every time I tried. . .

    @ Offshore Birder, thanks for sharing, good call, good story, it's great when these things have a happy ending!