It is that season again. No, not tornado season. Although it is that season, too. It's baby season! Not just here at the zoo, but throughout our community and surrounding habitats. Already dozens of baby ducklings are paddling along at the wetland area of the zoo. These ducklings have it easy compared to their arboreal relatives. The little nestlings in the trees will have to learn to fly from high above the ground. Like most babies, their first ventures into locomotion tend to end with a crash. It is at this time that many people find the young and mistake them as uncared for or injured. It surprises many to learn that birds care for their young not only in the nest, but on the ground as well, by scaring off predators and feeding them until they are strong enough to fly on their own. At the zoo, we receive many calls asking what to do. And the bird we hear about the most is the Mississippi kite.
Mississippi kites are beautiful, grey, hawk-like birds that visit us every spring and summer to rear their young. They are voracious insect eaters and devout protectors of their young. Early August brings the traditional fledging time of this well-known Kansas species. When the young are in the nest, most people don't notice. It is when they start to leave the nest and are learning to fly that people begin to notice them. Migratory birds like Mississippi kites mature very quickly so they can join their parents on the next trip to the Gulf of Mexico. With fall on the horizon, the young must start testing their wings now. Very rarely do they figure out the art of flying on the first try. Because of this, you will see what looks like an adult bird hopping around on the ground. Unless they are in immediate danger from pets or cars, don't fear for these young birds. The parents continue to care for the young fledglings. The dedicated parents protect their young and are perched nearby ready to dive at and scare away potential threats. If you encounter a young kite, just leave the young bird where it is and enjoy witnessing the cycle of nature.
Should you find yourself in a situation where you must intervene, be safe. Remember the threat from a raptor is not only the sharp beak, but the talons. Wear leather gloves and use a sheet, pillow case or towel to cover the animal to relocate it, picking it up from behind. Move it to a nearby place where it will be safe but still allow the parents to find the fledgling. Also remember that it is illegal to care for wildlife without a rehabilitation permit from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Department. This law exists to protect unique species from random collection that may affect populations of wildlife. Our nearest rehabilitator is the Great Bend Raptor Center, located at the Brit Spaugh Zoo in Great Bend. Also feel free to contact Lee Richardson Zoo at 276-1250 if you have questions regarding any wildlife. But take it from my experience, most of the time it is best to leave them be.
During my time in college, I volunteered at the Wildlife Care Clinic in Ames, Iowa. The experience was enjoyable and eye opening. From American kestrels to woodchucks, we cared for broken limbs, concussions, electrical burns and numerous other ailments. Of course we also had the babies. People would bring in babies by the droves. The babies, of course, were the most rewarding and the most frustrating. At one point in time, we were caring for 85 baby bunnies and 40-plus young nestling birds. Since they were so young, their food needed to be warmed up to body temperature and then slowly fed to each young animal every hour. Not only was this a lot of work, but it was unnecessary work because the majority of the young animals brought in were still being cared for by their wild parents. The people bringing in the baby animals had their hearts in the right place, but did not understand the babies did not need human help.
Growing up I wanted to care for every animal that I found, so I can completely understand the drive people have to care for young animals. The problem is that most of the time the animals, like the young Mississippi kites, don't need our help. Oftentimes the scenario goes as follows: You stumble upon a nest of baby bunnies. The mother is nowhere to be seen. Sometime in your life you heard that the young would be abandoned if the mother could smell you. Now you have to care for the baby bunnies. What most people don't realize is that the mother bunny is not far. They are excellent at hiding and will hide until the danger has passed. Also, the parents don't abandon their young because they smell humans. This is especially true for birds because the majority of birds have little to no sense of smell. What many parent animals will do is move the nest. But that can't be done until the scary human is out of sight. The best thing to do for the baby animals you find is leave them where they are. This is true the vast majority of the time. Animals are much better at caring for their young than humans ever will be. When we intervene and hand-rear young with the intent of releasing them, they often lack the survival skills critical for making it in the wild. It also may cause them to associate humans as a food source, putting both the animals and humans in potential danger. Deer fawns and raccoons can grow up to be rather dangerous to humans when they have lost their natural fear of us.
Now is a great time to see baby animals at Lee Richardson Zoo. This year has been a bountiful year for babies, and it isn't over yet. From the Bactrian camel calf to the gorral kid to trumpeter swan cygnets you will have many opportunities to view the wonder of life and the antics of these young animals. Our extended summer hours are from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. through Labor Day.