I got a thoughtfully posed question from a reader named Kathleen on June 22. I started to write my typical three-paragraph reply, then decided to save it for this post. It was that good a question, and it's something that's always in my mind as I work with these birds.
Kathleen wrote: The rehab centre I'm at has a policy of being as hands-off as possible with the animals to prevent socialization to humans, and we do our best to find same-species nestmates or role models, or barring those, at least a mirror to keep babies company. Julie, I've been reading your blog for a long time, and it seems like you take the opposite approach, being very hands-on with the young ones. Do you find that the babies you raise still go right back to being wild once they're on their own? Are they any different from young birds raised the way they are at the centre I'm at?
Songbirds are different. I've been raising orphaned songbirds since 1982, and have had quite an array of foundlings successfully find their way back to the wild despite having had loving care from humans to start their lives (or restart them, after losing contact with their natural parents). Birds I have raised have paired with wild birds, raised their own young, and returned to visit in successive years. Cardinal, catbird, cedar waxwing, rose-breasted grosbeak, mourning dove, wood thrush, phoebe...the list goes on. Having been a small-scale rehabber, I have rarely had the good fortune to be able to group young of the same species or place them with conspecifics who will raise them as some larger rehab centers do. So I indulge myself, giving them the same kind of unfettered love I give my children or my domestic pets. I name them and I murmur to them. And when the time comes to release them, I kiss them on their heads and sever our ties very gently, over a period of weeks or even months. Three ruby-throated hummingbirds I raised stayed around the yard for a month and a half after release, coming back for feedings for three days, and after that simply visiting with me. They all migrated on schedule, and all three returned the following spring, resplendent in full ruby gorgets. They still knew their names, but there was no denying that they were full-fledged members of the hummingbird tribe, having flown across the Gulf of Mexico twice and found their way back to my doorstep. I'd call that a successful release.
Having done this for 28 years, I don't believe that refraining from becoming emotionally involved with the birds one raises; refraining from naming them or stroking them or murmuring endearments to them keeps them from identifying you as their mama. I think it's OK, and even desirable, to openly let an orphaned bird or animal know it is loved. I think the clinical approach is just a thin, semantic mask for a bond that must be present in order for a human to devote herself to the care of an orphaned bird. We're in hazy territory, I know, but I strongly believe that even a hummingbird needs to know someone cares for it and loves it. I believe they do better when they are loved. I don't think it hurts to sneak a nuzzle now and then, nor do I believe it shows disrespect for their wildness, as I've been admonished. Do you carry it around like a lapdog? Of course not. You feed it and show it you care, and leave it to its own devices in between.
I maintain that it is difficult if not impossible to keep from bonding with a bird you're feeding on the half-hour all day long. I don't know how it works for you, but that bond is what keeps me going, what allows me to turn my life completely upside down in service to a half-ounce bird, feeding it dawn to dusk, shopping at the grocery store in the middle of the night so I can be home to feed it. Why deny it exists? There's no need to get anthropomorphic about it, but why be coldly clinical about it? I suspect that such hands-off policies are aimed squarely at a rehabilitation organization's viewing public, so that these wild animals are not treated as or perceived as pets. I understand that and fully support it. They aren't pets. They're wild creatures slated for release and independence in their natural habitat. When one has a visiting public for which to model behavior, it's best that wildlife rehabilitation be presented that way.
But it's not how I work, and I'd submit that there are many ways to skin this cat. We're all working toward a successful release, but with songbirds, I believe we have the luxury of being a bit more relaxed about the imprinting issue than we do with raptors, waterfowl or galliniformes. Working alone or with the help of my daughter, I have been able to indulge my maternal instincts, shower my charges with love, and still keep in mind that they are ultimately wild and will return to the wild. Do my foundlings leave more slowly? Doubtless. And I believe that every minute, hour and day that a bird has to develop its flight muscles, foraging and survival skills and devote to simply figuring out how to live wild gives it an advantage over one that is simply abandoned when the rehabilitator thinks it's time. Release is a very dicey thing. Knowing when a bird is truly able to be self-sufficient is a skill that takes awhile to acquire. I'd doubt very much that most rehabilitators have the luxury of following an orphaned mourning dove along its path to independence for 60 days, as I did with Libby.
She found her own kind; she billed and cooed and preened with a same-age juvenile dove; she stopped landing on our heads; she became wild and wary and finally, while we were away on vacation, she left, perhaps for good. Or perhaps not. I look for her every day, and should I be blessed enough to lay eyes on her again, I'll know her, just as I knew the hummingbirds, the waxwing, the cardinal, the phoebe, the grosbeak and the wood thrush. It is a magical thing to be a bird's mother, to love it fully and to let it go, and to see it return of its own free will until it doesn't need to any more.
So, Kathleen, I can't say how it goes for the birds raised at your center, never having witnessed their release. I can't say how they differ from the birds I've raised. While they may not go "right back" to the wild, I can say that most of mine make it, having had the luxury of letting their instincts kick in slowly on their own, with full backup from their earthbound mama. I encourage them to linger, keeping food around at all times, but their wildness inevitably takes over, as they learn to take cues from the wild birds all around them. I go from Mom to just another human unit to be avoided, until that magic day weeks, months or years after release when I am approached by a free-living wild bird who comes up for a moment, just to say hello. For the months of effort and concern I've expended on its behalf, there could be no sweeter benediction.