DEEP: Wildlife Are Harmed By Thoughtless Actions

Wildlife Are Harmed By Thoughtless Actions
Adapted from an article that appeared in the July/August 2002 issue of  Connecticut Wildlife.

{Sign at bird nesting area.}
Signs at heron and egret nesting areas on Charles and Duck Islands ask people to respect the nesting birds. During 2002, there were several instances of people ignoring the signs and causing repeated disturbance to the birds. Many birds have left the area or moved from their preferred nest sites because of the disturbance. To protect the wildlife, the islands will be closed to the public from June 21 to September 9, 2002.

Every spring, the Wildlife Division tries to spread several important messages about people’s interactions with wildlife (see May/June 2002 Connecticut Wildlife). Some of the more important messages include “preparing for bears” by securing garbage and not feeding bears, respecting nesting areas used by shorebirds and waterbirds along the Connecticut coastline and not bringing home “abandoned” young wild animals. We realize it is difficult to get the message out to everybody. But, as hard as we try to spread the word, each year we document several instances of people harming wildlife, usually unintentionally. Either out of a desire to help or just general curiosity, people often, by their very actions, end up hurting wildlife instead of helping.

Maybe the yearly warnings, reminders and signs telling people what they should or should not do when they encounter wildlife is not enough. People tend to learn best by example and experience. Therefore, the intent of this article is to go beyond the “do’s and do not’s” and explain what happens when people disregard warnings and/or do not use common sense.

Bald Eagle Chicks Die Due to Human Disturbance

Most of us have heard the story. Bald eagles stopped nesting in Connecticut in the 1950s. However, in 1992, a pair in Barkhamsted made history when they successfully produced two chicks. Ten years later, eight pairs of eagles set up nesting territories in five Connecticut counties.

2002 was a great year for bald eagles in Connecticut, except for one mishap that should never have happened. A new pair of eagles chose to nest on private property along the Connecticut River in Rocky Hill. The first year that a bald eagle pair begins to nest is a very critical and tentative time. If human attention is drawn to the area and the adults are continually disturbed off the nest, the nest may fail and the pair will not return to the site. Fortunately, the landowner, Wildlife Division biologists and town officials from both Rocky Hill and Wethersfield recognized the need to restrict access to this highly sensitive area. The roadway to the nest tree was blocked off and signs instructing people to stay away were installed.

According to Wildlife Division biologist, Julie Victoria, the cooperation of town officials and local police and highway departments to help protect the nesting eagles was commendable. However, an article about the nesting eagles and photographs printed in a major Connecticut newspaper were unwelcome. The article and photographs that were published actually pinpointed the location of the nest.

Don Hopkins, spokesman for Connecticut’s Bald Eagle Study Group, a small group of raptor enthusiasts who donate countless hours to study bald eagles and conduct field observations, noted that the publicity surrounding the nest was unfortunate but avoidable. “Publishing the location and photographs of this nest was like painting a bull’s-eye on it,” said Hopkins.

Despite the road barriers and signs, people did not respect the posted areas or the eagles’ habitat and they did not keep their distance. Because of the intense and continuous disturbance at the nesting site, the adult eagles constantly had to fly to defend their nest, which kept them from tending to their young. With the adults so busy defending their nest, the young probably were not fed and sheltered adequately. Thus the young died and the adults subsequently left the area.

In this situation, if people had heeded the signs and not trespassed beyond the barriers, the eagle chicks probably would have fledged and left the nest. The lesson learned here is that, although curiosity with a rare and fascinating creature is understandable, we cannot let our “curiosity kill the creature.” There is an important reason behind the signs and barriers that the DEP or other officials erect around sensitive wildlife areas. The end result when people don’t follow the rules is that the wild animals that many of us enjoy watching and learning about are ultimately harmed.

Bonfire Disturbs Heron/Egret Rookery

Duck Island, just off the coast of Westbrook, is a special place during summer. It is special not simply because it is a quaint, little island in Long Island Sound, but because it serves as a summer home to several members of the heron family, such as great and snowy egrets. It is here that these birds build nests and raise their young. Duck Island is so important to these long-legged wading birds that it was recently designated a Connecticut Natural Area Preserve. For several years, the DEP Wildlife Division has worked with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to cooperatively protect the nesting colony. The interior portion of the island is closed for the season and fenced off from the beach. Nesting area closure signs and a large educational sign explain to visitors why the island is closed and why it is important.

For several years, the birds and island visitors have shared Duck Island without incident. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. During the 2002 nesting season, the birds had returned as usual and began the task of building nests and laying eggs. Early in the nesting season, human visitors to the island decided it was an ideal spot to build a bonfire. The bonfire was built outside the fence; ironically, right in front of the educational sign detailing the importance of the island to herons and egrets. The resulting smoke and disturbance caused the majority of great and snowy egrets, glossy ibis, little blue herons and others to abandon the rookery entirely. A handful of birds did eventually return to try again, only to be confronted a month later with people off-loading cookout supplies, grills and their canine companions from their boat. The end result for the birds of Duck Island? A lack of common sense and a blatant disregard for this Natural Area turned a peaceful nesting site into a place unfit for raising young birds. Only time will tell if the birds that abandoned Duck Island abandoned it forever. (Duck and Charles Islands have been closed to the public until September 9.)

Oystercatcher Chicks Snatched
{Adult oystercatcher with chick.}
Two oystercatcher chicks were taken from an offshore island in Long Island Sound this past nesting season. One chick died and one survived, but it must remain in captivity.

This past May, two oystercatcher chicks were taken from an offshore island in Long Island Sound and endured an ordeal that should never have happened. One chick eventually died; the other survived, but will have to spend the rest of its life in captivity. Oystercatchers are shorebirds that nest on Connecticut beaches in very small numbers. They are a species of special concern on Connecticut’s Endangered and Threatened Species List because of their low population.

The ordeal started when a high school student from Stamford found the young chicks on the shoreline of an island while kayaking in Long Island Sound. Thinking they would make great pets, he brought them home and eventually gave one to a friend. The friend decided to bring the chick to school to show around. Fortunately, another student who was concerned about the welfare of the chick, contacted licensed wildlife rehabilitator Meredith Sampson. Ms. Sampson came to the school and took the chick so that she could care for it and try to save it from further harm. Upon learning that there was a second chick, Ms. Sampson worked with the Stamford Animal Control Officer to locate the person who originally took the chicks from their nesting beach and who still had the second chick. By the time they arrived at the person’s home, the chick was in very poor condition. It was cold, wet and undernourished. The person had attempted to occasionally feed the chick ham and bread; not a healthy diet for a young oystercatcher. Despite Ms. Sampson’s efforts to save the chick, it died shortly after being rescued.

Fortunately, the other chick survived. However, it cannot be released back into the wild. Instead, a permanent home, such as a zoo, will have to be found for the bird.

What is the lesson learned from this story? First of all, shorebirds, just like any other wild bird, should never be kept as pets and it is illegal to do so. Shorebirds have very specialized diets and needs, and those taken into captivity rarely ever survive. If shorebird chicks are found alone on the beach, that doesn’t mean they are abandoned. The adults are either watching or foraging nearby. The best thing to do is to leave the chicks where you found them and walk away from the area. Remember also that shorebirds and most other birds found in our state are protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act and violators may be arrested and fined.

Leave Fawns in the Woods

Every May and June, the Wildlife Division receives numerous calls about supposedly “abandoned” fawns. Many animals, including deer, leave their young alone while they are feeding. This is especially true with female deer (does) and their fawns. Does only feed their fawns four to six times a day for about 15 minutes each time. Fawns are also left alone in order to minimize attention to the bedding site. It is extremely unlikely that any young fawn found alone is abandoned. For the first several days after birth, fawns instinctively freeze and will lie motionless when approached. It is best to not touch a fawn, but rather leave it alone for at least 24 hours to determine whether the adult is still returning for feedings.

Fawns removed from the woods and raised in captivity fare poorly when released back into the wild. Deer fawns are far better off if raised in a natural environment. Wildlife rehabilitator Dara Reed, who specializes in fawns, recommends that the best action to take if you find a fawn is to leave it alone and walk away from the area immediately. When she receives calls from people who have brought home healthy fawns with no apparent injuries, she tells them to return the fawn to the exact area it was taken from. Before leaving, she suggests that any human scent be removed from the fawn by wiping it from head to hooves with a cloth that has been rubbed in the dirt at the site. Ms. Reed has had some success in returning fawns to their mothers. Usually the doe is still in the area and will come back and take care of and nurse the fawn once the people have left the woods.

Remember that it is illegal to remove fawns from the wild. It is also illegal to keep wild animals as pets. Raising wildlife for successful return to the environment requires considerable knowledge of appropriate feeding formulas, hours of care and sufficient facilities, in addition to the proper training and required state and federal permits. Improper care results in underweight and undernourished animals or animals that are not releasable because they have become too accustomed to being around people.

Stories Are Endless

When talking with wildlife rehabilitators and biologists, it is apparent that the stories of people disturbing and harming wildlife, as well as causing more harm than good, are endless. Most of the problems are caused by well-intentioned but ill-informed citizens. Other problems are a result of a lack of common sense, a lack of knowledge or disregarding the rules. Hopefully, by describing actual examples, we can spread the word and prevent future incidents. You can also help by contacting the Wildlife Division or the TIP hotline (1-800-842-HELP) to report any violations or concerns.