June 9, 2005 in Outdoors, Sports

It’s tempting to aid wildlife, but not wise

Rich Landers The Spokesman-Review
 

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heir legs were a blur as the fresh family of quail ran across 57th Avenue.

I parked my car to watch as two adults were leading eight yellow fluff balls in a perfectly timed dash through weekend traffic.

At the other side of the street, the cock and hen hopped up the curb without breaking stride while the little ones pooled against the concrete like water behind a dam.

They milled around briefly until one chick popped upward as though it were the first kernel to burst from a steaming kettle of popcorn.

When that chick landed on top of the curb, the rest of the chicks boiled and started leaping like salmon trying to climb a waterfall.

Mostly they failed and tumbled back into the yellow heap of down. But every few leaps, another one would claw its way to the top. Then another and another, until only one remained down on the street.

The hen had been ushering the brood, one at a time, into the bushes while the male stood bravely on the curb, apparently urging the last chick to keep trying.

The little one ran back and forth, occasionally hopping, but it couldn’t get enough height to surmount the quail-chick equivalent of El Capitan.

The male decoyed the attention of a passing bicyclist and even a pedestrian, who didn’t have a clue that she’d just stepped 18 inches from the struggling chick below the curb.

I was tempted to end the ordeal by running over and simply scooping up the chick onto the curb so the quail family could put this episode behind them.

But maybe the intervention would cause the chick to flee the other direction and be squashed by a passing car.

Or maybe I’d scatter the rest of the brood and cause more hardship for the parents.

Worse, I could distract the adults and leave them vulnerable to a cat or a car and exacerbate the situation into a case of eight orphans.

Instead, I took advantage of my front-row seat for the original version of Survivor.

The animal world looks at these situations in callous black and white. This particular quail family – indeed, all valley quail – would be better off without a chick that couldn’t keep up with the rest of the brood.

That’s the cold reality. Nature could not stay intact with a no-child-left-behind policy. Survival of the fittest assures that the honors of breeding go to critters adapted to their environment with traits such as color, size, speed, endurance and, in some cases, even jumping ability.

The elimination of inferior wild creatures is critical to the future of their species as well as to the immediate nutritional requirements of predators and scavengers.

Knowing all of this, I still cheered when the street-bound chick finally made a leap, caught a toehold in the concrete and scrambled onto the sidewalk.

In an instant, the chick and the gallant male vanished into the bushes – surely soon to face the next challenge.

When to intervene? Almost anyone who goes about outside will eventually encounter seemingly orphaned critters.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists highly recommend leaving nature be in all but the most exceptional cases.

First, the agency doesn’t have the money or facilities to care for an onslaught of orphaned critters.

Second, most young critters scooped up by well-wishers aren’t abandoned – that is until somebody interferes and “rescues” them.

Aside from putting some helpless critters such as chicks or squirrels back in their nests, it’s generally best to simply leave them be.

Lois Blanchette, the department’s Spokane regional office manager, said she gets dozens of calls each week starting in May from well-intentioned people who find a critter, bring it home to a box and then wonder what they should do with it.

Most young wildlife picked up by people do not survive in captivity and have no survival skills to allow release back to the wild, department officials say.

“If you encounter young wildlife that seems stranded, it’s best to leave it alone,” cautioned Jay Crenshaw, state wildlife manager. “Chances are the mother is close by waiting for you to leave.”

Deer and elk routinely leave their fawns and calves curled and motionless on the ground for an hour or more while they venture off to detour predators and forage before coming back to nurse.

Personal preference: A friend called recently and noted that a mallard pair had been coming into their backyard swimming pool. “The hen laid an egg, but it rolled into the pool,” he said. “What should we do with it?”

I suggested scrambled with toast.

Cat crazy: Of the 66 million cats in the United States, about 40 million are free to roam outside.

Even well-fed cats kill wildlife because the hunting instinct is independent of the urge to eat.

Studies have shown that bells on collars do not deter cats from killing birds.

A University of Wisconsin study calculated that free-roaming cats kill a minimum of 7.8 million birds a year in that state alone, and the number could be as high as 217 million, the researchers said.

Love birds? Then save the rainforests, monitor the pesticides, and keep the cats inside.


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