Auburn raptor expert provides guidance on handling raptor rescues

Published: March 29, 2022
Updated: March 31, 2022
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When spring arrives, so does an increase in the number of raptors, or birds of prey, “rescued” by well-meaning Good Samaritans. But do most really need rescuing at all, or are they better off being left where they are? Stephanie Kadletz, a raptor rehabilitation specialist at the Auburn College of Veterinary Medicine’s Southeastern Raptor Center, weighs in with some advice.

How many raptors are rescued by the public and admitted to the Southeastern Raptor Center each year?

The Southeastern Raptor Center at Auburn sees a larger influx of rescued birds in the spring, particularly nestlings and fledglings. The center admits around 50 orphaned or injured nestling or fledglings raptors each year.

How do you tell the difference between a nestling bird, or one not ready to leave the nest, as opposed to a fledgling, or one that is already learning to fly?

A nestling will not have fully developed feathers and will have downy feathers on its body and head. Fledglings will have more developed feathering on the wings and tail, but still will have some downy feathers present. Currently, the raptor center is gearing up for raptor nesting season and an influx of nestling and fledgling raptors, such as barred owls and red-tailed hawks.

What if I find a young raptor on the ground? Should I assume it needs help?

Do not assume that a nestling or fledgling raptor is injured just because it is on the ground. Many times, birds can be found on the ground and be perfectly healthy. Some raptor species, such as black or turkey vultures, do not build nests in trees, but on or near the ground. We do not want to remove these healthy birds from their environment, even if an adult is not around. If it is a nestling hawk or owl on the ground it will likely need assistance, however, a fledgling may not

In the case of nestlings, is it fine to just put them back in the nest if possible?

If most raptor nestlings, such as hawks, owls and falcons, are found on the ground, they will need some assistance. First, make sure the raptor is not injured. Next, try to locate the nest. Many times, the nests are high and may not be easily reached. But getting these nestlings back up into the tree for the parents to continue their care is very important.

If returning them to the nest is not possible, assist nestlings by making a new nest. A small plastic laundry basket, with holes drilled in the bottom, or a wicker basket can be used. Add nesting materials such as pine straw and sticks. Then secure the new nest as high as possible in the tree the nestling was found under. Place the nestling into the new nest and watch from a distance for 24 hours to make sure the parents are continuing to care for it. If you touch the bird when moving it into this new nesting box, the parents won’t reject it just because a human handled it.

Is the procedure the same for fledglings?

When a bird is a fledgling and ready to leave the nest anyway, the recommendation is different. If the raptor does not look injured, it should be fine to leave it where it is found. Only if the fledgling is found in an unsafe location, or is in immediate danger, should it be moved. In such a case, using thick gloves and a towel and box, a fledgling can be gently picked up and moved out of harm’s way.

When young raptors are learning to fly and navigate their habitats, the parents are likely still around watching over these young birds and caring for them, even if it is not obvious. A fledgling raptor might not be able to fly for a few days and may stay on the ground as it practices and builds its muscles, but if the bird is not in harm’s way, it’s best not to intervene in the natural process.

What is the best way to tell if an adult raptor needs rescuing, or if it would be better off left alone?

There are actually many factors to consider before deciding whether to rescue a bird of any age, especially if it is a raptor. In the case of adult birds, before taking any action at all it is critical to determine whether the bird is truly injured. Observe the bird from a distance to see its natural behavior. Raptors that are having a meal, or just finished a meal, may be found on the ground. If a bird is eating, it may not leave, and will often aggressively protect its food. But if a bird is not standing, has an obvious injury, wing droop, visible bleeding or flies swarming around, it needs immediate assistance. Most adult raptors should also fly away when approached by a human. If an adult bird is approached and does not fly or move away quickly, that could be cause for concern for an injury or illness.

What is the procedure to follow if a raptor has obvious injuries or unusual behaviors and needs help?

If it’s obvious a raptor is injured, there are a series of steps that need to be taken. If possible, the first call should be to a rehabilitation specialist, who has the proper skills and permits to handle such birds. Raptors, with their sharp beaks and talons, can be difficult and dangerous to handle, so the safety of the would-be rescuer is the top priority. If there is no rehabilitator available and you are not comfortable with capturing the raptor yourself, there may be other options, such as calling animal control or your local game warden.

If the situation is critical and you decide to transport the raptor yourself, there are precautions to take to ensure the bird can be moved safely. It is best to use thick gloves and get some type of container that can be safely secured. Place the container over the top of the bird, then slide something underneath and secure the lid tightly. Always avoid touching the raptor’s feet or head due to the potential for injury. You can also throw a blanket or towel over the bird and gently place it into the container. Transporting it to the nearest raptor rehabilitation center as quickly as possible will provide it with the best chance of survival.

Are there any rules and regulations to be aware of when rescuing raptors?

Migratory birds are protected through the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, or USFWS, and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. All injured, orphaned and ill wildlife must be transported to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator within 24 hours of rescue. When it comes to bald and golden eagles, it is always advisable to contact the USFWS or the Department of Natural Resources or Fish and Wildlife in your state, as those raptors are protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Great caution should be taken when attempting to rescue and transport injured, orphaned or ill birds to a rehabilitation center, and they should always be transported as soon as possible.

More Information

Auburn raptor expert provides guidance on handling raptor rescues.

To arrange an interview with our expert, please contact Charles Martin in Auburn Advancement Communications at marticd@auburn.edu.