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Too much ‘help’ hurts wildlife

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By Carol Bogart, Sacramento Nature Examiner

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Springtime coupled with the drought is inundating Sacramento-region wildlife rescue organizations with dropped off ducklings. In early May, a just-hatched Mallard duckling fell through a manhole cover grate in a West Sacramento apartment complex; was rescued by a college student intent on one-day being a career wildlife whisperer (animal behaviorist); then was brought back from death’s door by an elderly immigrant who once raised ducks and chickens in her native Belarus.

Why the duckling needed help is a cautionary tale for those tempted to interfere with wildlife’s natural order.

A pair of Mallards was observed swimming on the not-yet-open small swimming pool at the seniors complex in April. A resident began feeding the female duck. Soon, the Mallard came right to the resident’s door, looking for its handout. Being fed encouraged the duck to lay its eggs close to the ready food source. When the eggs hatched, the mother promptly marched her brood toward the ‘pond’ (swimming pool).

To get there, she had to cross the complex’s parking lot. She was startled by a car. With ducklings close behind, the mother Mallard took off waddle-running. That’s when three tiny ducklings dropped through spaces in the manhole grate.

All three disappeared into 4-inch drainage pipes at the bottom of the manhole. Two came out and were reunited with the mother duck. One stayed hidden far inside a pipe that connected with another manhole about 18 feet away. No one could reach it. The daytime high was 94. For six hours the distressed duckling peeped. Lost in the dark. No food. No water.

Mike Bogart, the Sacramento City College student, learning of the duckling’s plight, stretched out on the asphalt, leaned into the manhole, and mimicked the duckling’s peep. After about 15 minutes, he saw a little black foot emerge from the shadows. With someone holding his ankles so he could reach the bottom of the manhole, Bogart, 28, wiggled his fingers by the drainpipe. The baby duck stepped into the light of the penlight Bogart had in his mouth, and settled into his outstretched palm. (In the interests of transparency, Mike Bogart is the son of Sacramento Nature Examiner Carol Bogart who also lives in the complex.)

Lydia, the immigrant from Belarus, took the exhausted, dehydrated duckling back to her apartment and gave it a drink of water. It started drinking on its own by morning. She gave the duckling free run of her apartment, fed it moistened chick&duckling starter, kept it warm against her stockinged foot, and sang it lullabies. As you might expect, the two became attached. In fact, inseparable.

The lonely duckling demanded non-stop attention; following Lydia everywhere she went, just like ducklings do a mother duck. As it ate, it grew. The trail it left became a growing problem. Lydia was ready to re-home the baby duck but didn’t know where to take it.

Certified wildlife rehabilitators found online responded and liked Bogart’s plan. He wanted to try to find the duckling’s family and reunite it with its mother. That, everyone agreed, “would be ideal.”

On Friday May 9, Mike got on his bike and started searching West Sac’s former Lighthouse Golf Course. A portion not yet developed has a small containment pond. He found a mother Mallard and seven ducklings.

He told Lydia and together they went back with the duckling in a box. He asked her how many ducklings the mother Mallard had before the three fell in the manhole. “Eight,” said Lydia. She watched anxiously as Mike waded out into the pond, carrying the long-handled skim net from apartment complex pool.

In the net was the little duck. Mike turned it loose as close as he could to the shoreline reeds where last he’d seen the mother and other ducklings. Lydia, uncertain whether the mother duck would attack the duckling, fretted as it immediately let loose a string of high-pitched peeps from within the reeds: “PEEP-PEEP-PEEP-PEEP-PEEP!”

“Quack,” said the mother duck from somewhere near it. A spate of silence followed. Then, again, more shrill peeping. “Quackquackquackquackquack,” responded the mother Mallard. No beating of wings. Her tone to hopeful ears sounded reassuring.

As all grew quiet, the mother duck emerged, followed by seven ducklings. The group swam to the other end of the pond. Twice the single duckling ventured out from the reeds and paddled to the middle of the pond. Twice the mother duck approached the duckling. Wary of this GREAT BIG duck, the duckling darted back, again hiding in the reeds.

The mother duck and her brood of seven meandered about on a strip of beach, then went back in the water, paddling along the small pond’s shore. The ducklings followed their mother single file in two groups of … four! Eight ducklings! Had the little duck rejoined its siblings? The rescuers, eyes moist, confirmed the head count, then went home happy.

But wait, the story’s not over.

Back at the complex, Lydia was worrying. Her maternal instinct said, “Something’s wrong.” Returning alone to the pond she counted the baby ducks again. Eight? Or was it six? No … eight. Satisfied, she stood up, planning to go home. Thump-thump – something hit her toe. Weeds and native grasses surround the pond. “Snake!” thought Lydia. Warily she looked down.

Looking up at her was the little duck.

Wildlife Rehabilitator Dawn DeBerry says the duckling, so habituated to people, may have had a frightening experience after the rescue unit left. Maybe the mother duck did reject it. Maybe, DeBerry says, the duckling saw a human shape and made a beeline for what it perceived as ‘safety.’ If the duckling’s mother didn’t tuck it in under her with the other ducklings, as the night grew cold, the duckling “would not survive,” DeBerry said. After just over an hour in the cold pond, the duckling at Lydia’s feet warmed itself doing what it always did. It climbed up inside her pant leg. The two arrived back at the complex with the duckling snuggled against Lydia’s shoulder inside her jacket.

DeBerry is Species Manager for Waterfowl at Sacramento’s Wildlife Care Association (WCA) at McClellan Air Force Base. She also is a resident of West Sacramento. On Saturday May 10 DeBerry made an unusual ‘house call’: She went to Lydia’s apartment and picked up the duckling.

As of Mother’s Day May 11, the duckling had a new family group to replace its duck and human ‘mothers.’ Each week, DeBerry’s WCA transfers as many as 60 Mallard ducklings to the renowned International Bird Rescue Center in Solano County (Fairfield). On May 11, she sent 40. Lydia’s duckling is now being raised with a group of like-sized ducklings. When they’re big enough to fly, DeBerry says the 12 will be released together.

Wild ducks that stay too long with people often cannot successfully be released. DeBerry says, “They think they’re human.” And if well meaning people feed a rescued duckling the wrong things, DeBerry says, too often, she sees ducklings with deformed legs. (Lydia’s duckling, she agreed, was strong and healthy.)

Nature, of course, has dangers of its own. A pair of coyotes was seen last year stalking the pond where Mike found the mother duck, and now, coyote scat on the surrounding sidewalk proves that they’re still there. When the pond dried up last year, a group of 11 Wood Duck ducklings disappeared. Hawks, too, are frequently seen hunting. DeBerry says had Lydia not been standing there when the duckling exited the pond, it might very well have been eaten by a predator.

Is it too late to release the little West Sac Mallard that thinks it’s human? “Oh, no,” says DeBerry. Now that it’s growing up with Mallard ducklings, she says it will learn how to be a duck.

TWO DAYS MAX:

Important to remember – it is illegal in California to possess native wildlife for more than 48 hours. DeBerry warns that Mallards are federally protected birds and having one in your possession can mean stiff fines from California Fish and Wildlife.

To survive in the wild, wildlife needs its natural fear of humans.

California Fish & Wildlife Biologist Nicole Carion says some animals may be infected with diseases such as rabies or tularemia (wild rabbits). She agrees that baby animals are very cute, but become hard to handle and even dangerous when they mature.

Wildlife experts urge those who recover a wild bird or animal to immediately take it to an area wildlife care center. Such centers are open seven days a week and are trained and equipped to give wildlife the care it needs until it can successfully be released.

If there’s any chance the wild mother may be close by, Fish&Wildlife urges the well-intentioned to leave wildlife alone. “We are currently overwhelmed with squirrels, and fawns and skunk babies are coming soon,” says Sierra Wildlife Rescue certified rehabilitator Nan Powers. “The drought has caused all rehabbers to receive a lot more orphaned or sick babies than usual since last year.”

CERTIFIED WILDLIFE CARE & RESCUE CENTERS NEAR SACRAMENTO INCLUDE:

  • The Sacramento Wildlife Care Association & Education Center, (McClellan Park, 5211 Patrol Rd., McClellan Air Force Base, 95652) serves the greater Sacramento Area. Intake hours for dropped off wildlife are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. For information, call the HOTLINE, 965-WILD (9453). Volunteers are needed. To learn more, e-mail Debbie Daniels at wcavolunteers@yahoo.com.
  • International Bird Rescue (4369 Cordelia Rd, Fairfield, CA 94534) can be reached at (707) 207-0380 (8 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday through Saturday).
  • Sierra Wildlife Rescue’s Waterfowl & Water Bird expert, Stefanie Stewart, is a wealth of helpful information as is Powers. Sierra Wildlife Rescue successfully released Chips, the bobcat kitten rescued by firefighters in the aftermath of a Lake Tahoe-area wildfire. Reach Sierra Wildlife Rescue in Placerville at info@sierrarescue.org but for issues that require a quick response, best is to call (530) 621-4661 or the wildlife center closest to you. The quicker the response, the more likely the wildlife will survive.
  • Gold Country Wildlife Rescue’s intake center (3221 Rippey Rd., Loomis, CA 95650) is open 7 a.m.-7p.m., seven days a week. For more information and directions, contact Waterfowl & Water Bird Team Leader Stefanie Stewart at (530) 262-8292 for more information.
  • California Fish & Wildlife has a list of wildlife rehabilitation facilities that may be closer to you. To learn more, go to www.dfg.ca.gov/wildlife/rehab/facilities.html.

Sacramento Nature Examiner Carol Bogart is an independent journalist. Read more of her work at www.westsacweb.com and visit Bogart Communications.

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