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Every schoolchild in Juneau knows the story of Kira, the Juneau Raptor Center's peregrine falcon.
In 1990, while making her first migration from Alaska's Interior to a sunny Latin American wintering location, Kira was hit by several cars on Egan Drive. Remarkably, the 112-pound Kira survived her clash with tons of steel, although with a lasting brain injury that destroyed her eye-foot coordination and hence her ability to catch prey.
Each year, hundreds of birds that we know about are hit by cars, crash into windows, or are shot, poisoned, sickened by something eaten in a Dumpster, taloned, electrocuted, or mauled by cats and dogs.
More than 200 birds of various species arrive at the Juneau Raptor Center for treatment and rehabilitation in a given year. They don't look up JRC in the phone book - they come in because people care about these most visible wild neighbors and feel a very human need to help an animal in distress.
What's the best thing to do when you find an injured bird? The physicians' motto, "first, do no harm," is an important one. If a bird is on the ground and appears to have an injury, observe it for obvious symptoms. Approach and collect the bird only if that seems to be the only safe option for the bird, to prevent it from flying or running out of reach, or to prevent further injury.
If you do pick up an injured or sick bird, there are precautions to take for the bird and for yourself. Most birds will "shut down," or become quiet and still when they're put in a dark place. A box with air holes in it is a good place to keep a smaller injured bird until help arrives. Care must be taken to avoid damage to a bird's wings, feathers and feet. Care also must be taken to avoid injury to yourself; an eagle, owl or raven can do severe damage with talons or beak and should be respected for that ability. Also, some diseases and infections can be transmitted to humans by birds, including salmonella (bacterial) and aspergillosis (fungal), as well as various viruses.
Get trained help for a bird that's hurt. Call the Juneau Raptor Center to collect the bird or take it to a veterinary clinic. Often, when a bird hits the window of a home or office, observers pick it up and release it when it seems to have recovered. However, a slowly developing head injury may later kill the bird. Treatment, in the form of a steroid shot and a few days in a warm, dark place, can help the bird recover.
Not all injuries meet the eye. Each bird that comes into the raptor center gets a complete examination of bones, eyes, feathers, mouth, crop, feet, skin condition, alertness. We check for the number of parasites, such as the bird lice that may be lurking among the feathers. We sniff the mouth for odors that might indicate a digestive problem. A wing may start to droop or a fever may be present. An X-ray may show a broken bone that is not observable from the outside.
Baby birds often arouse the mothering instinct in people. Downy, cheeping, trusting little birds may seem like a good community service project for a child, or a way to bond with a wild animal. A bird that has been separated from the nest, however, should not automatically be picked up and brought into the house.
Watch first to see if the parents continue to feed and protect it on the ground. If the nest is accessible, it is OK to put the baby back in the nest. Many people believe that bird parents will ignore a baby that has acquired a human scent - but nearly all birds have no sense of smell. If a bird is rejected by the parents it is possible that there is a flaw in the chick that we can't see, but the parents can. The baby may be blind, have a deformity, or be too weak for the parents to rear.
JRC volunteers raise as many as 50 chicks during a summer. Not all survive, for a variety of reasons. Trauma, injuries, lack of siblings, having gone unfed for too long, room temperature, or inappropriate food for the species can be critical factors for survival of a chick. Some of the birds that come to the center each year have been kept in a home for days or weeks. The cute chick has become noisy, messy, too demanding, or is weak and failing from lack of proper diet or continuous feeding. Sadly, some of the birds have been treated as pets and become "imprinted," too trusting of humans and too cut off from their essential bird education to function successfully in the wild.
The Juneau Raptor Center accepts and treats all species of birds. Rehabbing is a fascinating and rewarding service, and we welcome volunteers. More training and volunteer opportunity will become available at the new center facility planned for Brotherhood Park. To contact JRC, call 586-8393 (office), or to report an injured bird, call our pager at 790-5424.
Sandy Harbanuk has volunteered in rehabilitation and education for the Juneau Raptor Center for nine years, and is its president.