I got a call Christmas day from a couple,Chente and Melina, vacationing on the Florida panhandle. They had found a horned grebe quite a ways up a beach and chosen to rescue the bird. Their story follows in the next post. This is one of those situations in which knowing what the best action to take is quite difficult. In this case, they made the decision to take the bird with them in hopes that they could find help for it.
Birds who winter near or on the sea do get on the beach - gulls, shorebirds, crows, pelicans. But how do you know if the bird sitting on the beach is in peril or not? How do you know what to do with a bird that seems in distress? Take it back to the water? Rescue it? Leave it?
In some cases, the bird will look beat up, full of sand, and barely alive. Rescue is the right and obvious choice. In others, the bird might have just come up on the beach and its situation is less clear. Birds are excellent at faking injury; predatory birds and animals look for the injured.
There are some bird species whose presence on a beach should cause immediate concern: sea ducks (pretty much any of them), loons, grebes (any), puffins (any alcids), murres -- pretty much any of the birds that live on the sea either year-round or winters. All of these are categorized as "water" birds or "sea" birds - what they have in common is that they all live the majority of their lives on water. The common beach-goers - gulls, shorebirds, some songbirds, and the corvid family and raptors/eagles - while living near water, are not water birds.
There are freshwater birds as well and some of these (loons, grebes, some cormorants) live part of the year on sea water and the other part on lakes and rivers. The pelican is the water bird that does visit the beach and is an exception to this rule. Note too that surf scoters are named right - they are nature's surfers and ride the waves looking for what the water churns up to eat. Any other bird being tossed around in surf is not a good thing.
Water birds have unique anatomies that allow them to literally float on water year round. Loons and grebes are so water-attached that they even build their nests on reeds floating on the edges of lakes, their babies ride on their backs to stay dry and warm for the first 2 weeks.
So, how can these birds live like this? How do they stay warm and dry?
The feather is one of the world's most amazing anatomical structures. As we all know, down is super warm, and waterbirds have a lot of it. The other feathers work like skin-diving suits, physically preventing water from getting onto the skin of the bird. They do this through microscopic barbs that hook together like Velcro. A fully waterproof bird's feathers will shed water and be completely dry immediately after full submersion in water. In rehab, one of the most extraordinary processes to watch is to see a bird's feathers go from wet to dry as the bird preens or is washed (do not attempt to waterproof a bird, it requires expert knowledge, do not attempt this yourself).
Back to our Horned Grebe:
The little Horned Grebe was most likely not waterproof. Any kind of contamination (pollution, a seeping wound from an injury,serious physical disarray of feathers like from surf) can impair waterproofing. I cannot know what this little bird ran into as I was not there to examine her, but clearly she was cold. When water - even "warm" water like in Florida - gets on the skin of a bird, it begins to drain heat from the bird. Eventually, the bird will get more and more wet, and colder, until the bird knows she or he has to get out of the water. Once the outer flight feathers are too wet, the bird can no longer fly, and has to waddle up onto the shore. First, she has to go through the surf where she gets more debris and sand in her feathers, and thus wetter and colder. Our little grebe likely needed a good bath.
Our story ends well: the little horned grebe was taken to the Pensacola Wildlife Sanctuary. The full story will be continued in my next post - stay tuned!
What Can You Do?
Chente and Melina followed their gut feelings about our little grebe. And they made a wise choice in picking that bird up. They no doubt saved that bird's life as she would have been either killed by another animal or died from starvation.
Here are some questions you can ask if you find a bird on the beach:
1) What kind of bird is she or he? Chente and Melina got on their smart phones and identified their bird as a horned grebe. If you find you have a true water bird, and they are not general beach goers...then you can assume you need to rescue.
2) What is the bird's condition? Is she or he filthy, like they took a bath in sand? Rescue. Oiled, greasy, dirty, unkempt, etc. Rescue.
2.b). Is the bird injured? Obvious broken wing? Leg dragging? Wing dragging? Blood? Rescue
3). Can the bird walk? Is the bird trying to get away, and if so, how is it walking? Does it try to stand up and waddle a few inches or feet then fall back down? That is likely a grebe or loon, their feet are placed to far back on their bodies to keep them upright for anymore than a few feet at a time. If another bird acts like this, it is injured. In either case - Rescue.
4). When you walk away and stop looking at it, does the bird drop his head back down and "rest"? Does it look exhausted? Watch a gull, how it sits on the sand, alert, clean. How does your bird look generally?
While we want and need to respect wildlife, and they are truly magicians in terms of what they go through to stay alive, we still need to be aware. Intervening when its not necessary is not good, we can accidentally "kidnap" babies from their parents, disrupt their ability to migrate, etc etc....but to not act when a bird is truly in distress, is to resign the bird to death.
With just a bit of observation, a smart phone, a quick phone call....Chente and Melina saved this bird. You can too.
My next post will be Melina's story about exactly what happened. She offers an excellent example of how to rescue a horned grebe on a beach...on a holiday!
May the birds be with you.
Author: Elise Wolf
I have fascinated by wild birds my whole life. I finally got involved in avian rescue when it became clear that while we need to do all we can to save habitat and ecological systems, for many populations of birds, every single bird matters. And thus, saving them one at a time is increasingly important.