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Progressive Animal
Welfare Society

PO Box 1037
Lynnwood, WA 98046

Kevin Mack
Not an Ordinary Day in the Park
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

On Saturday, June 7th I found myself doing something I almost never do- releasing an animal in relatively close proximity to a crowd of people. Animal releases are usually very private affairs, involving only one or two people and occurring in a secluded area. The goal is always to make the transition back to the wild as stress free as possible. Keeping the stress level down is a little more challenging when many people are present, but it is entirely possible with good planning and clear instructions to the audience. And in the case of the June 7th release, this was no ordinary group of spectators. The group of 100 or so people that were standing quietly in the Discovery Park clearing had gathered to participate in Earth Share of Washington’s Day in the Park event. Soon they (and I) would be picking up litter on the beach, removing invasive plants, and taking part in trail maintenance. Before they did any of these things, however, they would get a chance to see one of the park’s residents returning home.

Pileated Woodpecker 03-1131 arrived at the PAWS Wildlife Center on May 17th. She had struck a window at the Discovery Park Visitor Center. The window had been fitted with several decals to cue birds in to the danger, but the sun must have been striking the glass at just the right angle to create a mirrored effect that rendered the decals invisible.

Pileated X-Ray

A skull X-ray of Pileated Woodpecker 03-1131 clearly shows a severe fracture. It also clearly illustrates how dangerous windows can be to birds.

The crow-sized woodpecker hit the window with tremendous force, and fell unconscious at the feet of a Discovery Park Employee. The bird was at first believed to be dead, but when she showed signs of life she was placed in a box in a quiet back room of the visitor center until transport to PAWS could be arranged. After about 20 minutes she came to and began to vocalize very loudly. By the time the woodpecker arrived at PAWS, she was awake and alert, but she was lying on her back with her head twisted at an odd angle. This was not surprising considering the massive head trauma she had just suffered, but it wasn’t until she was X-rayed that the full results of the impact could be seen.

The Pileated Woodpecker’s X-rays revealed a serious fracture at the back of her skull. Woodpeckers have reinforced skulls that help them to cope with the forces that are encountered while they hammer away on wood. It’s impossible to know for certain, but it may be that the Pileated Woodpecker’s injuries would have been even more severe had it not been for this feature of her anatomy. Even with her reinforced skull, the woodpecker was still nearly killed, and she required supportive care for several days before her neurological symptoms resolved.

Nearly immediately after recovering from her head trauma, the woodpecker resumed her normal behavior pattern. Even with a fractured skull, she eagerly pecked at the dead wood that was provided to her. She showed no sign of discomfort or ill affects from the activity, so it was not discouraged by the staff. She quickly graduated to a larger, outdoor cage to continue her recuperation. On June 2nd, follow-up X-rays were taken to assess how well the woodpecker’s skull fracture was healing. The results were very good, and the bird was placed into a flight pen that was designed specifically for woodpeckers to condition herself for release. By June 7th she was strong and ready to go.

Coyote Pup

A Coyote pup, newly admitted to the PAWS Wildlife center, receives an eye exam from Dr. John Huckabee, DVM.

At the release site, the Pileated Woodpecker’s transport carrier was placed at the top of a small hill. The door of the carrier was facing a patch of woods that surrounds the Discovery Park Visitor Center. The Earth Share volunteers stood off to one side, at the bottom of the hill. This arrangement would afford everyone a good view of the woodpecker as she left her carrier, while at the same time preventing the bird from feeling as if she were surrounded by predators. A Discovery Park Docent named Darrell did the honors and opened the transport carrier door to free the woodpecker. Darrell had been involved with the rescue of the bird, so It was very fitting that he was able to restore her freedom. The woodpecker wasted no time in accepting that freedom.

As soon as Darrell opened the door, the woodpecker hopped out and took flight. As she appeared, I saw a sea of faces at the bottom of the hill light up. I expected the woodpecker to make a beeline for the trees in front of her, but she had other plans. She gained altitude and then flew in a wide circle around the entranced spectators. I could see excitement on 100 different faces, and I faintly heard the involuntary vocal reactions that emanate from a crowd that is witnessing something amazing. Although the circular flight was likely the woodpecker’s way of getting her bearings, from my vantage point on the hill top, it looked as if she was putting on a show for the crowd. After completing one full circle, the bird picked a destination and disappeared into the branches of a large fir about 50 yards away.

As the bird disappeared, the crowd’s silence broke. Some people applauded and others discussed what they had just seen. A few people asked jokingly if I had trained the woodpecker to do that. Everyone seemed energized and ready to get to work. In a world that is full of discouraging news about animals and the environment, it was extremely encouraging to see such a large group of people become visibly excited about the recovery and freedom of a single bird. It was even more encouraging after the release to see this group of people pitch in to clean up and improve the area in which that bird lives.

The PAWS Wildlife Department is an active member of Earth Share of Washington (ESW). ESW is an alliance of 60 environmental organizations - locally, nationally, and internationally. ESW partners with businesses and government agencies to encourage employees to give to the environment at work through payroll giving campaigns, volunteer projects and involvement in their annual Day in the Park event. To learn more about Earth Share of Washington visit:

Wildlife Release tally: May 28th to June 10th, 2003

5 Eastern Cottontails
1 Snowshoe Hare
1 Northern Flicker
1 Mountain Beaver
13 Mallards
2 Eastern Gray Squirrels
27 Virginia Opossums
11 American Robins
20 European Starlings
1 Pine Siskin
13 English House Sparrows
11 House Finches
1 Pileated Woodpecker

Wildlife Release tally: 2003
291 animals

All rights reserved. 2003 Progressive Animal Welfare Society