Now, whose heart doesn't melt at the thought of helping a baby bird that's fallen out of its nest? But what if the baby is 3 feet tall and has a foot-long spear for a beak, and its nest is 60 feet up, in the top of a tree?
Organizations like Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research need more help in order to take care of birds, like this blue heron, that find themselves in trouble.
That was the dilemma I faced a few weeks ago, when we got a call about a baby heron that had apparently fallen out of its nest along the bayside waters in the Cedar Neck area of Ocean View.
I should point out that this was the third call the Coastal Point had received about a heron in distress in my six years working here.
The snowy white great egret nicknamed “Paul” showed up across the street from our office in July of 2008, dazed and ill, leading to one of my favorite headlines among the thousands I've written: “So, an egret walks into an auto shop…”
With no local, trained volunteers available to take him to Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research in Newark, Del. – the area's only bird rescue facility – (in fact, there was only one trained volunteer in all of Sussex County at that time), it was up to our staff to see if we couldn't help Paul out by finding him a ride.
Using Publisher Susan Lyons' extensive list of contacts, we eventually lucked into a willing ride from the Kypreos family in Bethany Beach, who delivered Paul to Dover, where a Tri-State volunteer picked him up and took him off for treatment and, hopefully, rehabilitation.
Paul's story had a happy ending. Despite a broken wing and a heavy parasite infestation, he recovered and was then set free a few weeks later on the Assawoman Bay near Fenwick Island, where great egrets are found in large colonies.
Things didn't work out so well for our first heron-in-need. We'd gotten a similar call back in my first year with the Coastal Point, reporting a great blue heron with netting tangled around its head, neck and beak. The bird was clearly in bad shape.
Concerned neighbors, wildlife lovers and, yes, the Coastal Point staff, called Tri-State for help. It was then we learned how strapped for resources the organization is – especially in southern Delaware. No professional staff were available to help. They had no trained volunteers in Sussex County. Not one.
Calls were made to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, to Fish and Wildlife, as well as to the Center for the Inland Bays and Tri-State. Wires got crossed. Point staff waited at the scene for the Tri-State staff members we thought were on the way to aid the distressed bird, so we could document the rescue.
No one ever came. Would-be rescuers waited for someone who knew better what to do. And local residents and CIB staff who had decided to help simply didn't make it out in time. The heron had died by the following morning, likely due to starvation. If only we'd known… We'd have attempted a rescue ourselves.
Then, as we did again in Paul's story, we appealed for volunteers to help Tri-State help birds.
With that background, I headed out to a waterside location in Cedar Neck a few weeks ago, expecting that one of the two people reporting that a baby heron fallen out of its nest had called Tri-State and that maybe – just maybe – a volunteer was on the way.
It turned out that the first call Tri-State got about the baby bird was from me. As was the case during both previous incidents, staff members were swamped, taking around 10 calls an hour, from around the state and beyond, about birds needing help. There were no local volunteers, again.
I'd located the baby. He wasn't a fuzzy handful of newly-hatched baby, that's for sure. He was a nearly but not-quite-fledged mini-adult great blue heron, almost 3 feet tall with his neck outstretched, almost as big as the life-size pelican statues in front of two of the nearby homes.
But with feathers more fluffy than flight-ready, he was clearly incapable of flying his way back to his nest, which was some 60 feet in the air, in the very top of a very tall, thin, wavering pine tree, right next to the water.
I'll use that as a general description, because there were four such nests within an area about 20 feet wide. So much for figuring out which nest the bird had come from, which was the only hope offered by my brief Google search.
It seems heron parents generally refuse to feed babies that fall out of the nest. The only option is to put the baby back in its nest, which requires not only someone willing and able to get 60-plus feet in the air with a gangly baby bird in their arms and a possible angry parent on the other end but knowing which nest the bird belongs in. Pick the wrong nest, and the baby takes another long, and possibly fatal, fall.
So, the question became one of whether the baby was sufficiently grown to take care of itself or whether it was doomed without human intervention.
The construction workers who had found it had said it had been on the ground for at least two or three days, seemingly seeking some kind of help, or water, or shade, since it kept retreating under their trucks. No adult herons had been seen approaching it.
Fish and Wildlife staff had reportedly suggested killing it, to put it out of the potential misery of starvation.
After waiting about 45 minutes for a call back from Tri-State staff who could offer some advice on whether a rescue was recommended, I called back again, finally getting the suggestion to capture the bird myself, drive it to Dover and turn it over to a volunteer there, who would take it to Newark.
This not being my first attempted heron rescue – at least as a bystander – I knew I had most of what I needed: a tarp-like beach blanket to approach the bird with and wrap around it for capture; a confined space in the back of my car where the bird could be contained without injuring itself (not quite a cardboard box, but close enough); and a desire to help.
So, blanket in hand, I headed back out to where I'd left the baby heron, snuggled up underneath a pine tree adjacent to one of the ones that undoubtedly held its nest.
It was gone.
I did briefly search the area, in case it was napping in the brush or had again sought refuge under a work truck, but I never saw it again. I left my number for the workers to call in case it showed up again.
I called back to Tri-State. The fact that it was able to walk around under its own power was taken as a positive sign. Staff there offered the hopeful suggestion that perhaps the bird was just a “cranky teenager” hanging out under the nest until he was ready to go off on his own.
As far as I know, that's exactly what happened. I hope that's what happened.
But, with the third heron rescue call we've gotten in six years – and not knowing how many other cases we haven't been told about – I've realized the situation for local wild birds is pretty desperate and seemingly not getting better.
A fall out of a nest, a run-in with a pet dog or cat or a wild fox, getting caught up in construction debris, eating cigarette butts or other foreign objects, parasites… The list of risks to these animals is endless, and they impact waterfowl, songbirds, raptors and more – all of which are elements of the natural world that many living in and visiting coastal Delaware cherish.
The simple fact is that sometimes these birds need help. Providing that help means supporting non-profits such as Tri-State, with funding and with time. The next time you find a bird in distress, be willing not only to make a call but to gently capture the bird, if needed, and take it to someone who can help.
Better yet, if you have some free time and a little flexibility in your schedule, commit to becoming a trained volunteer who can help out when those calls come in – which they will – or simply offer to become part of Tri-State's network of bird transporters to help the birds get to the help they need.
Tri-State is entering into its 35th year of service this year. It was founded in 1976 by the late Lynne Frink after thousands of birds died as a result of an oil spill on the Delaware River. Since that time, Tri-State has opened a wild bird clinic to care for ill, injured and orphaned wild birds and has made advances in the field of oiled wildlife response.
Today, Tri-State's Oil Spill Response Team is on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to help oiled wildlife along the Delaware River and around the world. It led the oiled wildlife response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico last year.
The Wild Bird Clinic, open 356 days a year, cares for more than 3,000 wild birds every year. In May 2011 alone, it admitted more than 350 wild bird patients.
Tri-State will host an anniversary celebration at Twin Lakes Brewery in Greenville on July 23. Tickets cost $50 per person and include barbecue fare, Twin Lakes beer, live music by The Whirled Peas and Chapel Street Junction, a free-flight bird show and a complimentary tour of the brewery. Advanced reservations are required; tickets will not be sold at the door.