Let me start by summing it all up: wild animals belong in the wild. I receive phone calls frequently from people wanting to give us an animal they picked up in the wild or the pet they no longer want. Within the last two weeks I have received phone calls for multiple Western pond turtles, an entire clutch of Stellar’s jays, and two unwanted parrots. I have been saying for years that more birds are harmed by people trying to help them than trying to hurt them. Here are a few things for you to know: foxes, raccoons and squirrels do not make good pets; some parrots can live to be 100; and that pet turtle just released into your backyard pond is contributing to the threatened status of our native turtles.
Let’s start with the turtles. Northern California has only one species of pond turtle: the Western pond turtle. Although pond turtles live in ponds and other waterways, they do spend time on land. During certain times of the year they will migrate from one pond to another and can travel great distances to do so. In the spring, the females will come onto land to dig out a nest and lay her eggs. This is usually when humans come upon them and, with no water nearby, think they need help. They do not. Other times people find them slowly crossing the road and worry for their safety, picking them up and bringing them home. They may need a little assistance but, like helping a little old lady, they just need a hand getting to the other side of the street. Please do not bring them home.
Now let’s talk about birds. I did an entire blog on baby birds in the springtime, but I will give an abridged version here: when a bird first hatches, it has no information on its brain–it is a blank slate. The first thing they learn is their identity. They will use auditory and visual cues to imprint this information on their brains. For some birds it happens immediately upon hatching, as in ducks and geese, while for most birds it happens over a longer period of time. This time, where they are learning who they are, is called the Imprinting Period. It is very important during this time period that these birds are with their parents. Once their identity is secured it is like a domino effect, allowing them to learn all of the proper behaviors for their species. If they are with a human, they will take the visual and auditory cues from that person and never be able to go out into the wild again to survive. It is crucial for their survival to be left alone during this period. Please put the chicks back in the nest and if you can’t find it, make one out of a cool whip style container and tack it to the tree so the parents can come take care of it. If the parents do not come back and you are worried for the chick, call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator to take it. These people are trained to raise baby birds in a way that they do not become imprinted on humans and will be able to go back into the wild when they are ready.
So, what about that baby bird you found on the ground hopping around, unable to fly? That is a perfectly healthy baby bird! Just like a human baby goes from not being able to roll over, to rolling, crawling, taking the first steps, etc., a young bird goes through a process to learn how to fly. While a human child does not go from crawling to running overnight, a bird does not go from sitting in a nest to flying in one step either. Although a bird’s learning process happens in a much more condensed amount of time, it is still a process and all the baby bird needs is another day or two and it will be ready to take their place in the world. We call these young birds fledglings (or branchers). If you find a fledgling on the ground that does not appear to be able to fly and you are worried for its safety, please keep your cats indoors for a few days until it takes off. Do not take the bird out of the wild as you risk making the bird non-releasable and for a perfectly healthy little bird, I feel this is tragic. If, however, you see blood, call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator to take it. Remember, it is illegal to take any native birds out of the wild without proper permits; this is for their safety.
Okay, now let’s talk pets. I am clearly an animal lover, I have pets of my own and I know there are millions of great pet owners out there. I think that everyone should have the privilege of experiencing the unconditional love of an animal. That said, there are certain animals that make better pets than others and there are a lot of unwanted pets out there, which is sad. I get calls almost every week from people who want us to take their unwanted pets, from parrots and turtles to snakes and lizards.
It is important to remember that even if an animal is available in a pet store, it does not mean it is an appropriate pet. Please make sure you research and learn everything you can before choosing the right pet for you. Make sure you know how long it lives, how big it gets, if you have a vet in the area to treat it if needed, what things they need in order to be psychologically healthy. Birds like amazon parrots live to be 50-60 years old while macaws and many turtles live to be over 100! Importantly, many large parrots choose one family member to bond with and will treat the other members of the household aggressively if proper training and time are not given to the bird.
Oh, and that turtle they sell you in the pet store that is the size of a silver dollar or smaller will most certainly outgrow the little tank they sold you with it. When this happens, please do not put that turtle in your pond in the backyard, or the one down the street where you see other turtles living. Turtles purchased in the pet store are not native turtles. The most common one is the Red-eared slider. For years now, people have been putting them out in their ponds, but remember earlier when I said turtles do spend time on ground migrating and moving from one pond to another? Well, that’s what has happened with all of those non-native turtles unsuspecting people put in their ponds. The red-eared slider is now considered a highly invasive species and is the main reason for the demise of our native Western pond turtle. If you bought a tortoise, the pet store may not have told you that if you put it out in your yard, it will dig its way out, so you have to have a deep dig barrier under your fence. I recently received a call from a man who told me they couldn’t care for their turtle anymore but “it has lived a good long life” with them. The turtle was only fifteen years old.
On the other end of the spectrum, I know a person who had their Amazon parrot for over 40 years, gave it attention, care and a proper diet for its entire life, giving this bird the good life it deserved. This is what we want to hear more of; this is what warms my heart.
Hearing a person tell me that they had a “scary” spider in their house and moved it outside instead of killing it. Or the person who took the time to show their child a rattlesnake up close and teach him how to stay safe around them, rather than kill them. These are the acts of kindness I wish to see more of as the years go on. Most of the people I talk to love animals as much as I do, so now it’s time to learn how to love them in a way that is healthy for them. Let’s all help protect the natural world around us and learn to leave wildlife wild and appreciate wild animals from a distance!
Sharon Clay, Curator of Animal Programs
“One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin”