Wednesday, May 21st, 2003

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Progressive Animal
Welfare Society

PO Box 1037
Lynnwood, WA 98046

Kevin Mack
The Long Wait
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

On May 8th, a yellow, nearly robin-sized bird sat in a small tree on the forested hill behind the PAWS Wildlife Center. She seemed excited, but unsure of what to make of the recent change in her circumstances. She continually hopped from one branch to another, likely not yet fully aware that she would find no cage wall if she flew in a straight line in any direction. Two minutes earlier, Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. Darlene Deghetto had opened a box that contained the bird, and she had emerged as a streak of yellow that could not be made out clearly until she came to rest in the nearby tree. Now, as the female Western Tanager assessed her new surroundings, a group of about ten PAWS Wildlife staff and volunteers watched with interest.

Western Tanagers are brightly colored songbirds that make people stop and take notice, even if they are not enthusiastic about bird watching. Breeding males have striking red heads that contrast sharply with their yellow body and black back and tail.

Watch the Video

Western Tanager 02-4202 on the day before her release.

Females are more modestly colored, with a yellowish underside and a dull olive color above. Both sexes stand out boldly against the green background of the coniferous and mixed forests in which they spend the summer months. Tanagers feed primarily on insects, but they will eat some varieties of fruit and buds if available. They are neo-tropical migrants, spending their winters in Mexico and Central America, and they are typically present in Washington State from early May through mid-to-late September. The Western Tanager that was released on May 8th broke from this migration pattern, although it was for reasons beyond her control.

Western Tanager 02-4202 was transferred to the PAWS Wildlife Center from Seattle Animal Control on September 21, 2002. She had struck a window and was having visible difficulty using her right wing. Radiographs that were taken during her examination showed that she had suffered a fracture of her right scapula (shoulder blade). Her wing was immobilized with a wrap, and she was prescribed two weeks of cage rest to allow the bone to heal. By October 5th, the wing wrap had been removed and the tanager was starting to fly. She was moved to an outdoor aviary to allow her to stretch her wings and regain strength in preparation for release. Unfortunately, due to the timing of her injury, release would be a long time coming.


The tanager was a blur as she left the box and flew to a nearby tree.

As I stated before, Western Tanagers are migratory, and they are rarely seen in Washington State beyond late September. Tanager 02-4202 was most likely on her way south when she had her traumatic experience with the window. It was nearly November before she was ready for release, so her collision with a glass window had caused her to miss her window of migration. Releasing her in less than ideal climactic conditions to migrate several thousand miles with a newly healed fracture did not seem to provide her with an adequate chance for survival. Shipping her south on an airplane was an option, but without knowing whether this individual bird over-winters in Mexico, Costa Rica, or elsewhere, the risk of introducing her into an unfamiliar area seemed too great. It was decided that the best course of action was to hold the bird until spring and release her when other tanagers returned to the state.

So, as most Western Tanagers were spending the summer months in sunny Mexico, a lone female endured the rainy, gray weather of the Pacific Northwest while waiting for their return. She had plenty of space in which to fly, and a constant supply of food and water. She also had ample cover in which to take shelter from the rain.


The tanager spent several minutes in a small maple tree before realizing she was no longer contained.

Although her other amenities may have sufficed, I doubt that the heat lamp with which she was provided was any real substitute for the sunlight that her conspecifics were enjoying in their distant latitudes. By May 8th both the sun and the tanagers had returned to the state, and the female tanager's 7+ month wait finally came to an end.

The group of PAWS staff and volunteers continued to watch the tanager for several minutes before deciding it was time to get back to work. She had nearly worked her way to the top of the small tree in which she had landed, but she had apparently not yet realized her freedom. As the rest of the group departed, I stayed behind, determined to watch until the tanager achieved her realization. Upon reaching the top of the tree, she had her first breakthrough. She took a short flight to a nearby tree and landed on another low branch. This 20 foot flight spanned a distance that was longer than the cage in which the tanager had spent the winter. I don't think the significance of that distance was lost on her.

As soon as the tanager landed, I recognized the change in her. She was no longer focused on objects that were immediately in front of her, and she now took in the whole forest, rather than just the tree. The dull sheen of captivity fell away from her body and I finally saw the being that I had been waiting for. Within seconds of her realization, the tanager chose a path and darted off through the trees. I'll never know whether it was due to coincidence or an irresistible migration urge that had been suppressed for several weeks, but she headed due north...

Wildlife Release tally: April 30 to May 6, 2003

1 Rufous Hummingbird
1 Virginia Opossum
7 Eastern Cottontails
2 Eastern Gray Squirrels
2 American Robins
1 Silver-haired Bat

Wildlife Release tally: 2003
67 animals

All rights reserved. 2003 Progressive Animal Welfare Society