The smallest Raptor Cam Red-tail appears to have died. He has been going downhill over the past couple of days and today he is no longer moving. It was painful to watch mom trying to wake him up this morning so he could be fed. The cause of his decline is impossible to discern from afar but it has not been lack of care--the parents have consistently tried to feed him when they bring food into the nest.
It is possible that he succumbed to the same ailment that took a nestling a couple of years back. In that case the nestling died from a protozoan infection know as Trichomoniasis. Trichomoniasis is commonly carried by pigeons and young raptors can become exposed when they are fed infected pigeons. In fact exposure happens quite often. Nestlings are particularly vulnerable because their immune systems are still developing but even so, most successfully fight off the infection. In some cases however, the infection can be fatal. Trichomoniasis creates cheesy plaques and lesions in the mouth area. In severe cases it can spread throughout the digestive track and even destroy underlying tissues and enter other parts of the body. At this point is this is all speculation.
Some folks have wondered about whether we should have intervened to save the nestling. Our policy is not to interfere in these types of situations. It is incredibly hard to watch it happen, but it is not our place to go in an interfere with natural processes. Not every egg hatches and not every baby bird survives. Their road ahead is even more precarious---studies have placed red-tail mortality rates as high as 60% and 70% during their first year of life. Most of that mortality occurs after they fledge. If they survive the first year, their odds of survival over the next several years increase dramatically. Despite the low rates of survival during the first year, Red-tail populations have steadily increased both locally and nationwide over the past several decades--a reflection of the fact that they are able to adapt to a wide array of landscapes including urban and agricultural settings. Put simply, they produce enough young to more than compensate for both natural and unnatural mortality rates.
One of the most common questions I receive from Raptor Cam viewers is regarding whether Audubon will intervene to head-off one threat or another--plastic bags in the nest, competition among siblings, disease, risks from falling before the birds can fly...the list is long and in many cases the dangers are quite real. However, unless there is a direct and immediate threat from humans, we are going to respect the natural process and let the parents take care of business. Death is part of this process---every day viewers watch a steady stream of fresh kills going into the nest to feed the young. The occasional nestling mortality that happens with all species is also part of this process.
One final thought on a sad day: For some people the statistics are irrelevant---it is about compassion for the individual nestling. I appreciate that sentiment but I think the most compassionate thing to do was to leave him with his family. I have worked with injured wild animals for twenty years and I would much rather see a sick nestling die in the wild than hauled into a wildlife hospital. He left this world surrounded by his family in the only place he has ever known. By the time a nestling shows clear signs of severe illness, they are almost always well beyond our ability to recover---they grow so fast and consume so much energy that even if you can cure the immediate problem, there are often long-term developmental problems that manifest themselves over time Even with the best of care in a hospital setting, it has to be an incredibly harrowing and disconcerting experience for a young bird to be pulled from its nest, boxed and transported to a hospital, examined by humans and then placed alone in an incubator. If if he had to die, better that he died wild.