A couple of weeks ago my boss phoned just as I was packing up to leave work for the day. She’d received a report from a park visitor who had found an owl chick sitting on one of our mountain bike trails, and was phoning to see if I knew what the general advice was regarding owl chicks found out of their nests. But I didn’t know.
My acquisition of wildlife factoids that assist me as a ranger has developed principally on a ‘learn as you go’ basis. Any knowledge that my fusty old brain manages to retain about a given species is only there because I’ve personally encountered that species, have read up on it afterwards and have then somehow managed to retain some of that knowledge into the present. But because I’d never encountered an owl chick before, I had no advice to offer other than my gut feeling of….‘just leave it be’.
Leave it be
Healthy young animals being ‘rescued’ by the public can be a problem, albeit a well-intentioned one. In my experience it’s usually limited to someone phoning us or popping into our visitor centres to report the location of the helpless creature they’ve encountered, but sometimes people turn up with said creatures stuffed down their jumpers or poking out of their coat pockets.
It’s adorable really, a great indication that the wider public cares about the welfare of the wildlife they encounter. But while I can’t deny a part of me is always delighted to see any animal at close quarters, if there’s no sign of injury then our response as a ranger service is always the same. Something along the lines of:
‘Awwww that’s lovely, thank you very much, but best put it back exactly where you found it. Preferably under some cover if any is available. The parents will be wondering where it is.’
The temptation to rescue helpless young fledglings (young birds that have just left the nest) in particular is understandable, especially if they’re of the fluffy variety. Humans do so love fluffiness and it tugs at our heart strings to walk on by, especially when the weather is bad. Chicks and other small juvenile creatures can look so impossibly vulnerable and bedraggled when they’re wet, so ridiculously delicate. But they’re much hardier than we give them credit for.
I think the main reason folk find it hard to believe that the fledglings they encounter are really okay, is because they are seemingly clumsy flyers or unable to fly at all. We wonder why on earth they would leave the nest before they can fly? But the fact is most small bird species do just that. Nests are safe places so long as they remain unnoticed by predators but that is by no means assured, and there are obvious downsides to staying in one place too long. The fledglings generally don’t stray far from their nest once they leave and they will be able to fly within a few days, but for that time (and beyond) the parents stay close by and continue to feed their young.
Not all birds act in this way of course. Larger species such as eagles and ospreys, who both rear their young high up off the ground, fly straight from the nest. Encountering an eagle or osprey chick on the ground would be a sure indication that something is wrong, but for the kinds of small birds that most of us encounter on a daily basis, finding chicks apparently alone and helpless on the ground is perfectly normal. So if it has feathers and no sign of injury, nine times out of ten ‘leave it be’ will be the correct course of action.
There are of course times when you might need to interfere. If you have cats in your garden or you find a fledgling on a busy road or path, it’s not the end of the world to move them to safety so long as it’s within the immediate vicinity. And sometimes fledglings will need liberating from enclosed spaces, like last year when we found a young robin sat on a pipe behind the drinks machine in one of our visitor centres. I took it outside, where it clumsily flew off into some nearby foliage, but not before leaving a tiny fledgling poo on my shoulder.
Let nature run its course
Generally though, I’m more of a cold-hearted ‘let nature run its course’ kind of person. Grim as it may seem, we have to remember that chicks (injured or otherwise) fill a role in the food chain. If we humans spent all our days rushing around putting all the cute fluffy animals out of harm’s way, what would all the owls, foxes, adders, herons, wildcats, golden eagles and pine martens eat? Well…. foxes would probably move to town and eat kebabs and cheeseburgers I suppose, but hopefully you get the idea.
As an example, a couple of years ago I spent a few weeks watching a family of red legged partridges in my garden.
The parents started with a brood of ten cute chicks who followed them everywhere around the farm, but every subsequent day when I saw the family there would be one or two fewer chicks, largely on account of the local kestrels and weasels. After a week just one chick remained, but it was raised to maturity. A successful outcome for most bird species.
We need to accept that this is the way the natural world works and that the high mortality rate suffered during those first few days out of the nest has already been factored into the reproduction habits of many species. That’s why some birds (and other animals too) have such large broods. It’s a numbers game, having loads of offspring to increase the chances that at least one will survive and thus pass their genes on to the next generation. I do of course love having ten cute partridge chicks in my garden, but I value the kestrels and the weasels just as highly.
Finding fluffy wee owlets
While the natural world can invite easy generalisation, it is also diverse enough that it pays to look into the details for specific creatures. Just in case! And so it was with the owl chick.
It was going to take Tracey a while to get to the owl’s location so in the mean time, seeing as I was in the office, she asked me to do a little digging online to see what the accepted advice was about helping young owlets. Information wasn’t hard to find on the three most commonly encountered species: Tawny, Little and Barn, and most sources seemed to suggest that tawny owls and little owls should be left alone. They even suggested that tawny owlets should be quite capable of climbing back up trees using their beaks and talons. Barn owlets on the other hand are apparently ignored by the parents if they fall from the nest and will likely die, so positive action is required in their case. At that point I had to wonder how on earth we coped before the internet!?
What species were we faced with, though?
We reckoned it would be a tawny owl given their profusion in the forest but we still wanted to make certain so, when Tracey reached the site and found the owlet still sat there she phoned me again. It was apparently a mottled brown colour, so she knew it definitely wasn’t a white barn owl but, sat in front of images of fledglings of the respective species, I described their different markings and colours anyway. Tracey was convinced it was a tawny owl and tried sending me a photo from her phone.
As the phone attempted to send the photo I was subjected to protracted cooing down the phone at how cute and fluffy the adorable wee thing was. But the photo wouldn’t send so Tracey had to walk out of the forest to get network coverage. Still no luck, so she gave up and headed back to the owl, which in her absence had moved off the ground and was now a few feet up in a small tree. Confirmation as if it were needed that this was indeed a tawny owl quite capable of climbing up to safety. There was no sight or sound of adult tawny owls in the vicinity, but we reasoned it was fine and left the owl where it was.
The parents return
The next day I went back to check on the owlet. It was reasonable to assume that it wouldn’t have moved too far away but even so, I didn’t seriously expect to be able to find it. But as soon as I stepped into the forest I heard a strange noise I’d never heard before, like someone blowing across the top of a small glass bottle.
I followed the sound and eventually found the source in the lower branches of a conifer. It was incredibly well camouflaged but there was our owl, its eyes almost closed and with no obvious sign of life. However, if I moved sideways its head would slowly, almost imperceptibly turn to follow me. It seemed perfectly okay from what I could tell, just a little lifeless. I listened carefully for the distinctive ‘keewik’ of an adult but there was nothing.
The owlet was completely unfazed by me being there. It just sat on its branch, peering in my general direction, beautifully lit from behind by the low evening sun on its back. It always amazes me just how trusting, or perhaps oblivious to the dangers young creatures are at this stage in their lives. I’d spent maybe ten wonderful minutes in its company when, from somewhere off to my right, I heard the unmistakable ‘keewik’ call of an adult tawny owl. The forest promptly erupted with alarm calls from blackbirds, thrushes and wrens.
I retreated to a safe distance, hid behind a tree and waited. Two adult tawny owls soon appeared up in the nearby trees, one with a small mammal hanging from its beak. As a woodland-dwelling, largely nocturnal species tawny owls are difficult to spot at the best of times, and yet here I was watching a family feeding session in broad daylight. I waited just long enough to hear the owlet start calling out insistently, prompting the parent to swoop down and deposit the meal in its mouth.
Though I’d felt in my gut that leaving the owlet alone was the right thing to do all along, I admit that when I set eyes upon it myself I couldn’t help but have that same nagging doubt that everyone else feels in those situations. Like all chicks seemingly alone in the big bad world, to my soft human eyes it just seemed so vulnerable, so helpless, so…… fluffy! But appearances can be deceptive and we’d do well to remember that nature is rather good at this survival lark. It’s been doing it for a very long time y’know!