Wednesday, August 13th, 2003

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Progressive Animal
Welfare Society

PO Box 1037
Lynnwood, WA 98046

Kevin Mack
So Long, and Thanks for All the Mealworms
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

Although witnessing a wildlife release is an amazing experience, it is usually a very brief one. I often find myself double-checking the transport carrier after a release to make sure that I really did see the animal leave. On one occasion I missed a release entirely when I opened a carrier containing a bobcat and turned my head for a second as I took a few steps back. Luckily a volunteer had videotaped the release, and a slow-motion replay confirmed that something had in fact come out of the carrier. There was still some debate though as to whether it had been a cat, or a fur covered cannonball. A fast getaway is expected, and it is reassuring to see firsthand that an animal has gone through the rehabilitation process without becoming the least bit habituated to humans. It is, however, quite a treat to release certain species that, due to their natural behavior, remain more visible for a short time after release. The Vaux’s Swift is one such species, and nine individuals of this species that were released on August 8th put on a spectacular air show for myself and the two interns that provided the majority of their care at PAWS.

Vaux’s Swifts are a small, dark-gray birds with cigar shaped bodies and long, pointed wings. They have very small bills, short tail feathers, and tiny legs and feet. As the name would suggest, swifts are fast and agile flyers.

Fledgling Swifts

Five fledgling Vaux’s Swifts cling to the wall in an outdoor aviary.

They are most likely to be seen at dawn and dusk, flying acrobatically overhead as they catch their insect prey on the wing. A clinging rather than perching bird, the swift’s toes are tipped with small, sharp nails that afford them an excellent grip on rough, vertical surfaces. A swift nest consists of small twigs held together with sticky saliva. The nest is fastened to the inner wall of a vertical structure, most often a large hollow tree. Though humans, through deforestation and development, have drastically reduced the number of hollow trees available to the Vaux’s Swift, they have also created countless structures that provide a similar enough configuration to a hollow tree that the swifts are beginning to take advantage of them. This becomes clear to a homeowner when he or she discovers one or more small, dark, and extremely vocal birds sitting in the fireplace after falling from the chimney above. Such was the recent experience of two separate homeowners from the Kent area.

On July 14th six young Vaux’s Swifts arrived at the PAWS Wildlife Center after they were found in a fireplace in Kent. A week later, five more swifts arrived, also from a fireplace in Kent. The two groups of birds were from separate homes, but they had both experienced the same unfortunate twist of fate. They had fallen from their nest cavity (the chimney) and were unable to climb back up to where their parents could care for them. Upon arrival, they all required rehydrating fluids, and the first group required treatment for feather lice. The second group did not have a lice, but they did need a good cleaning as their feathers were coated with soot. After their initial exams and treatments, all 11 birds were housed together in a darkened cage. Their first enclosure was a large, towel-lined aquarium, but they were quickly moved to a specially designed cage that resembles a wooden chimney. They clung to the wall in a tightly packed group as they awaited their twice hourly feedings. As the swifts grew and became more active, their “chimney” was placed in an outdoor aviary and the top was removed.

Once in the aviary, the swifts began to test their wings. Two large doormats were affixed to the aviary wall and the swifts quickly relocated from the wooden chimney to these mats. They still clung together in a tight group and only occasionally ventured away from the wall to take a circling flight around the cage. Unlike the other insectivorous bird species that PAWS receives, swifts are unable to self-feed while at the center. They will take food that is offered directly to them, as they would from their parents, but they are self-feeding only in flight. Even swallows, which feed almost entirely on the wing, can learn to pick a mealworm out of a hanging dish. But swallows have the advantage of being able to perch on the edge of a dish. Swifts are not equipped to do this. With the possible exception of eating a mosquito or two that unwittingly enters the aviary, the swifts rely entirely on the hand feedings provided by their human caregivers for sustenance throughout their stay. As stated earlier, two wildlife care interns, Jennifer and April, were responsible for the majority of the swifts’ feeding and care. It is a testament to their hard work, and that of the staff and volunteers that assisted them, that 9 of the 11 birds were successfully raised to the point of release.

Barn swallow

A juvenile Barn Swallow shows what it can do and a swift cannot- perch.

Release day came on August 8th. After a quick test flight, the swifts were placed in a carrier (specially modified for their clinging needs), and driven to a large park in Kent. The park was less than a half mile from the neighborhood in which the first batch of swifts had originated, and it contained a good mix of wetland (for insect production) and forest (for the swifts’ roosting needs). The interns and I walked for more than a mile and a half before finding what I believed to be an ideal release site. We climbed a small hill to a patch of mixed forest that overlooked the wetlands. We made our way through a reasonably manageable (I’m not sure they’d agree) patch of brambles to a large, partially dead tree. We stopped at the base of the tree, and I watched as Jennifer and April freed their former charges.

When the box was opened two swifts exited immediately. I had instructed the interns to place any reluctant birds on the nearby tree trunk so that they could assess their surroundings before taking flight. As each of the seven remaining birds were removed from their transport carrier, they took flight as soon as they saw the open sky. The interns and I made our way back out of the blackberry brambles to an open area, and we were met with an amazing sight. A breathtaking aerial ballet was taking place high in the sky above us. The swifts were realizing their potential in a way that they could never hope to experience in the confines of an aviary. They exhibited the speed and maneuverability that is an inseparable component of who and what they are. They banked, turned, dove, climbed, and circled, all of them looking skilled and confident- as if they had been doing this for years. I began to notice patterns in their flight that brought an immediate smile to my face. As the swifts flew, they started making short and rapid deviations from their flight paths. They made sudden lunges up, down, left, and right...they were feeding. They needed nothing more from us. They were home. They were still going strong as we headed back up the path towards the car.

This release took place at dusk, and as the interns and I were leaving the release site, the moon was beginning to show very clearly in the darkening sky. Although it shined brightly, its light paled in comparison to that given off by the nine beings that were circling overhead as we left.

Wildlife Release tally: July 23rd to July 29th, 2003

1 Band-tailed Pigeon
4 Rock Doves
2 Bewick's Wrens
1 Black-capped Chickadee
1 Chestnut-backed Chickadee
1 Eastern Cottontail
1 Common Murre
4 Northern Flickers
1 Cliff Swallow
8 Tree Swallows
1 Violet-green Swallow
3 Barn Swallows
1 Mountain Beaver

Wildlife Release tally: 2003
615 animals

All rights reserved. 2003 Progressive Animal Welfare Society