Wednesday, April 23rd, 2003

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Progressive Animal
Welfare Society

PO Box 1037
Lynnwood, WA 98046

Kevin Mack
Encouraging Wildlife Awareness, One Person at a Time...
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

About a week ago, I took a walk at Greenlake Park in Seattle. It was a chilly day, but there was just enough sunshine to take the bite out of the air. Dozens of walkers, bikers, in-line skaters and joggers were, like me, taking advantage of the absence of rain. I did my best to avoid running into any of them as I made my way along the walking path looking up, down, left, or right every time I caught a glimpse of non-human movement. The usual array of Greenlake wildlife was present that day, and that meant that I was making very slow progress. People hurried by me as I stopped to check out every coot, cormorant, grebe, gull, mallard, songbird, and squirrel that I came across.

As I reached the north end of the lake I noticed some movement in a tree on the side of the walking trail opposite the water. I walked over, stood beneath the tree, and looked up to find a squirrel nest that was in a poor state of repair.

Great Horned Owl

This Great Horned Owl is currently recovering from a wing injury at the PAWS Wildlife Center.

There was movement in the nest and I assumed that it was either the nest's owner making repairs, or a local representative of the Squirrel Housing Authority boarding it up and placing a "condemned" sign on it. I quickly realized that I had made an error in my assumptions when a female Northern Flicker hopped out of the leaf and cedar bark nest and clung to the nearby tree trunk. A male flicker soon joined her from an adjacent tree. The two of them took up positions on opposite sides of the gray squirrel nest and began to pull it apart. The nest likely hadn't been used by a squirrel since last summer, but apparently quite a large number of insects were now calling it home. As the flickers pulled each leaf and strip of bark out of the nest, they watched closely for insects to be uncovered. Every time one was spotted, they would snap it up and swallow it before continuing the deconstruction.

Now, if you've been reading Wild Again for any length of time, you know that it is very important to me to raise both public awareness of and appreciation for wildlife. This desire sometimes leads me to do things that might be considered a bit silly. In this case the silliness took the form of me standing right on the edge of the walking path and making a very exaggerated show of craning my neck towards the squirrel nest and the feeding flickers. I put my hand above my eyes as if to block the sun (which was behind me at the time), shifted position to appear as if I was trying to get a better look, and finally just stood in one very visible place and stared for five full minutes (yes, I timed it, it was part of the experiment).

American Coot

This American Coot was admitted to PAWS with symptoms of head trauma. During his examination, it was also discovered that his primaries (flight feathers) had been clipped, presumably by someone who intended to keep him illegally as a pet.

The point of this show was to try to draw the attention of the passersby in the hopes that they would stop to see what I was looking at. The first step in getting a person to appreciate wildlife is getting them to actually take the time to stop and notice it. Since standing next to the trail and announcing the presence of the flickers with a bullhorn seemed like it might be a bit disruptive, looking a little silly to try to pique people's curiosity seemed like a good trade-off to me. It was also a fun little sociological experiment to see if rubbernecking at a couple of flickers is as contagious as rubbernecking at a traffic accident seems to be. As it turns out though, it isn't, at least not among the crowd that was at Greenlake that day.

During the entire five-minute period, only one person took notice. He was a man in his late forties that stopped for a second on the opposite side of the walking track. I could see him out of the corner of my eye as he looked at me, and then stopped to look at the nest. He continued on for a couple steps, and stopped to look at the nest again. He then continued on his way, unimpressed, or so I thought. Five minutes was up so I sat down on a bench that was about 10 feet away from the tree and rested my sore neck. I pulled out a notebook and began to write a few notes about the birds and my, apparently failed, staring experiment. The flickers continued to pull apart the squirrel nest, and leafy debris and bark strips were raining down around the base of the tree. Passersby continued not noticing.

The flickers eventually moved on and I sat on the bench and wrote for about 40 minutes. As I began to think about leaving, the man who had stopped briefly on the opposite side of the walking track was completing his lap around the lake. He approached me and asked what kind of birds I had been looking at when he had last passed me. I told him to mind his own business. I'm kidding, of course! I told him all about flickers and gray squirrel nests. We ended up having a long conversation, much of which focused on wildlife and wildlife sightings. When he left, he had picked up a little more information about the wildlife that lives around him, and I had picked up a little more hope for the possibility of expanding wildlife awareness among the general public. Still, only one person, out of more than 50, stopped to notice the flickers that day. Next time I go to Greenlake perhaps I'll try the bullhorn approach…

Wildlife Release tally: April 2 to April 15, 2003

1 Black-capped Chickadee
1 Eastern Cottontail
3 Raccoons
8 Western Grebes
2 Clark's Grebes
1 Golden-crowned Kinglet
2 Glaucous-winged Gulls
1 Eastern Cottontail
1 Big Brown Bat
1 Sharp-shinned Hawk
1 Virginia Opossum
1 Rock Dove

Wildlife Release tally: 2003
76 animals

All rights reserved. 2003 Progressive Animal Welfare Society