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May 9, 2010 Update: Follow-up on nestling death

by Bob Sallinger


Posted on May 9, 2010 at 9:50 AM

For some reason the Raptor Cam feed seems to be down this morning---not sure why that is--I have a call into KGW (9:00 am)

Not surprisingly the death of one of the nestlings has drawn some strong responses. I appreciate everybody's passion for these critters. If you are upset, consider going out and doing something good for the birds in your neighborhood  on this sunny Sunday---plant a tree, hang a bird feeder, Audubon has great ideas for how to get started. There are birds all around your neighborhood that are going through a process that is every bit as exciting and challenging as the Raptor Cam Red-tails.

Viewers have raised a number of issues and questions that I will take my best shot a addressing:

1) How do you know it was Trichomoniasis? We don't actually know what caused the nestlings death. I suggested that it might potentially be Trichomoniasis because the way he was holding his mouth open was consistant with what we sometimes see with Trichomoniasis infections. However we also see birds do this for a variety of other reasons as well including injuries, developmental problems, respiratory problems and other types of oral infections. Or it could have been something completely unrelated to the mouth. Without a necropsy (bird autopsy) we will probably never know.

2) If it was Trichomoniasis, won't the other siblings now become infected? If it was Trich, then the other siblings have already been exposed. Given how common Trich is in pigeons and how much of the red-tails diet is composed of pigeons, they have almost certainly already been exposed many times over. Most birds simply fight it off and build-up immunity. We find that birds that develop serious infections usually already had some sort of significant problems at the time they we exposed that suppressed their immune system and allowed the Trich to get a foothold. If the other siblings are healthy, then their risk level really has not changed...and again we don't know that it even was Trich.

3) How is this case different from other situations where Audubon "rescues" birds? There is no perfect clear, bright line that makes right or wrong to assist a wild animal. The rule of thumb however is that we tend to be more likely to interfere in situations where human action directly threatens or injures an animal (for example animals that have been hit by cars, shot, oiled...) and less likely to interfere in situations where injury is the result of natural processes (for example a Cooper's Hawk preying on a Western Tanager,  Weather related impacts, nestling competition...) Nestling mortality in most cases is at the far end of that continuum---We know going in that not all nestlings are supposed to survive under natural circumstances. Many birds have large clutches as a survival strategy to compensate for high natural mortality rates during the first year. If a pair of Red-tails has 1-4 young for 10 years and they all survived, they could potentially replace themselves 5-20 times over! Under those circumstances other factors (competition, disease, ect) would eventually bring the populations down.

4) Shouldn't we have at least tried? There will always be different opinions on these types of things---that is fine. However, I think that there is a certain amount of hubris in assuming that we as humans are better equipped than the parents to take care of these types of situations. The relationship between the parent and the chick is the product of millions of years of evolution. Are our incubators, antibiotics and feeding tubes necessarily superior to that warmth, natural immunity and care that the parents are able to provide? Most people who have worked with wild animals will tell you that humans are a very poor substitute for the natural care that a wild parent can provide for its offspring.

5) Does this sort of thing drive-up ratings? It is always good to have a cynic in the audience--they keep you honest. I suspect that if the goal was "high ratings" the thing to do would have been to stage an elaborate rescue and then milk it for everything it was worth.There are plenty of shows on TV and Cable if you want to watch that sort of thing. In my first blog this year, I promised viewers an "unfiltered" view of the birds as they go through their nesting process---that will undoubtedly include aspects that are inspirational and amazing but also things that will make you sad. I can promise that it will always be interesting and real but I cannot guarantee a happy ending. For the record, Audubon does not make anything off of  Raptor Cam. I can't speak for KGW and how their advertising works, but I would note that you don't typically find Fortune 500 Companies advertising on the Raptor Cam Page---throughout this season KGW has been using the page for advertisements for the United Way and Tips for Green Living.

6) Does this mean Audubon would never rescue the Red-tails? No. We make decisions based on the circumstances using the the type of criteria that I described above. In prior years we have treated Raptor Cam offspring that have slammed into windows and been hit by cars.

Tomorrow we will get back to tracking the development of the remaining two nestlings.

Enjoy the sunshine!