2015’s Rehab Failure: Imprinting in Baby Wildlife

On my Animal Family page, I describe briefly how my pet Starlings and House Sparrows arrived in my life. In addition to the various other animal-servant hats I wear, I’m also a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. In particular, I care for baby songbirds, raising them for release back into the wild. Most of the time, this goes pretty smoothly. I’m able to keep the babies in an area separate from human activity, with other birds. That way, they imprint on their own (or similar) species, and not on people.

Imprinting is a major problem in wildlife rehab, and one where many caregivers new to the field foul up. We all see the “adorable” videos of deer living in people’s homes, raccoons playing with the family dog, and cute little baby squirrels wreaking havoc throughout the house. They may be cute to those who are not in the know, but videos like that are every legitimate wildlife rehabilitator’s nightmare. Not only do wild animals carry diseases that can be very dangerous to domestic animals and humans (the raccoon is probably the most dangerous animal, for that reason, that rehabbers have to care for — the diseases they carry are frequently fatal to people), but the danger of animals imprinting on humans is enormous.

Imprinted animals, if released into the wild, are a danger to themselves, as well. They focus on human contact rather than understanding that they are their own species. They have trouble finding food because they’re overly dependent on being provided for. They get themselves into all kinds of trouble by attempting to make contact with humans who have no idea that the hawk attempting to get into their front porch is just lonely, and not trying to eat the cat. They have very little defense against predators. They can’t recognize their own species, so will almost never adapt to a normal social and reproductive life. They often die alone and afraid, with no way to understand why they have been rejected.

These reasons are why I always strive to keep babies well out of the family picture. Most of the time I am very successful. There have been a few failures, however, over the years. You’ve met Stars, Stripes, Whistle, French Fry and Tater Tot. To be fair to myself, though, aside from Whistle, all of the above had other issues that meant that survival would not be a given if released (especially French Fry), so they were allowed to imprint. Whistle was another story. One of six in the clutch, I did everything possible to keep him separate, and it certainly seemed like he was bonded to his clutch mates and not me. His entire clutch released with no problem at all.  Whistle outright refused to go, and we had to bring him back into the house before he severely injured himself by dashing himself against the sides of the aviary.

This season, I once again had a Starling Sixpack. In this case, they did not come to me till they were a bit older–well past the age of imprinting. I was extremely careful with them for that reason, as I did not know how much human exposure they had before they arrived here. Everything appeared to be going just fine. They bonded to each other, seemed to be afraid of human contact, did wonderfully in the soft-release aviary as they adapted to the outdoors, and it was a flawless release….

…Until the following morning, when one of them had returned. And stayed. She hung around all day yesterday, and by afternoon I was very suspicious, as every time I went out to the area near the aviary, she would approach quite close, and even started following me. When she rushed to me and ate out of my hand, I knew that Houston had a Very Big Problem. Somehow, despite all my efforts, one Starling out of six had imprinted on humans.

I spent all afternoon trying, unsuccessfully, to recapture her. She would come and feed from my hand, or from a dish that I held up to her, but when I tried to apprehend her, would dart into branches just out of reach. We played this game on and off for hours, till it was too dark to continue. Then, I was awake most of the night, peering out into the dark and rain, worrying myself sick over this little bird.

This morning, however, she had decided, “Enough is Enough”.  When I went outside, she came right to me, followed me through the  release area, and landed level with my face when I paused near a low branch. I reached out a hand.

She flew right into it.

She is in, safe, and very happy. She’s eating up a storm (I think the only food she got yesterday was what I hand-fed her, as the Blue Jays decided that the food I was leaving in the dishes was perfect easy-pickings for their own over-grown screaming offspring). She has bathed numerous times. She’s currently sitting on her rope perch, singing away. She’s relieved.

So am I.

I already have a home for this little one; she will very likely be living a safe and pampered life with a friend who lives not far from here.

It is, of course, always best for wild-born animals to remain wild, and rehabbers take in every case with that best intention in mind. At times the best laid plans, at least from our perspective, go astray. But who knows what plans fate, the Universe, or the Higher Self have in mind when a being enters this world. This baby was destined to travel a different path.