It Started with Two Wrens: Advice on Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation from a Biology Teacher

by Nicole de Cárdenas

Spring is the time of rebirth and fresh starts, both symbolically and biologically. While we get out our gardening boots and enter a seasonal change that feels somehow even more symbolically transformative given the recent global pandemic, the plants and animals carry on with their spring plans as they have for millions of years. Resources become the name of the game as birds and mammals compete for mates and territory. There’s an unspoken urgency in the natural world this time of year, males showing off for all to see, and females swiping left until they find someone suitable.  

As a child living with my immigrant grandmother who befriended every neighborhood cat within a 5-mile radius and my mother who routinely mounted rescue efforts for strays or the downtrodden pets of negligent humans, I garnered a healthy respect for other beings. They weren’t objects of ownership, but rather their own beings with their own agendas to be respected and mindful of. 

I never cared to make friends or yearned for a sense of belonging with my peers; elementary school was the closest thing to a hell on Earth I had ever encountered, and my friends were the squirrels and birds that flitted along the tree line of my grandmother’s backyard. Watching ants break apart and carry off pieces of saltine crackers was an actual legitimate form of entertainment. Finally getting a squirrel to take a peanut from my hand earned me an imaginary Lifetime Achievement Award. In these moments, life made sense.  

Majoring in the biological sciences seemed predestined, working at vet hospitals while at university provided me with valuable knowledge, and field work for a month in Central America provided me with a chance to experience nature with a more scientific lens. Science requests of us a lens of detached objectivity when interacting with nature. Numbers and statistical trends matter more than individuals, and the goal is to never interfere but simply observe. Chart. Graph. Assign them numbers not names. Don’t anthropomorphize. Don’t assign them emotions.  

But the more you dive into cognitive research, the more you realize it’s just an endless stream of funding for a bunch of humans in lab coats trying to put their finger on what makes humans unique–all the while constantly proving how alike we all are. Just because we can label love doesn’t make this abstraction any less accessible to other beings on this planet. Just because we can mark grief with diary entries and a timetable doesn’t make it any less impactful upon non-human animals.  

Just like all things shown to me over my many years on this planet, I accept the truths I see evidence for and refuse to prop up perspectives we have yet to explain as a species or ones I see as counterintuitive. When I first started using my knowledge in wildlife rehabilitation, I was told to “let nature take its course,” but the way I see it, humans are plenty invested in steering nature off course in any way it can, so if an opportunity presents itself to me where I may be of service, I see no reason not to help.  

Wildlife Rescue Rehabilitation

It started with two wrens. They fell out of a sign above a small locally-owned record shop I worked at. With no way to reconstruct the nest which was strewn about the grass underneath, I opted to raise them myself. Borrowing a cage, setting up a shaped nest from bits of fabric and cut shirts, then investing in powdered baby bird food, I began my journey into wildlife rehabilitation. Now, I am able to offer advice to others, and I hope you will find the following instruction helpful if you find yourself in a situation where a baby bird or other injured animal lands on your doorstep and you are unable to connect with an official rehabilitation center. After all, Spring is the season for babies, so it’s a good time to become more educated. .

First and foremost, you cannot give water to most wildlife orphans. More often than not, it results in asphyxiation and crackling noises in the lungs of baby animals. Babies of any species cannot thermoregulate well yet, so they require warmth. This is a fine line though, since people have been known to roast newly found baby birds or mammals trying to use heating pads. To play it safe, I suggest putting a heat pad under the crate or cage, providing ventilation, but covering most of the cage with a blanket to prevent drafts. I told you it’s a fine line. The first few hours after finding an orphaned animal is like a delicate balancing act until they stabilize from whatever trauma they experienced before landing in your capable hands after all.  

I like to keep the air relatively humid, so I often run humidifiers unless it’s already humid in the room. Babies get their hydration from their food, which should have a high-water content. With baby mammals, the formula has a water base to it anyway (I use Fox Valley formula). With baby birds, I rely on the “guts” of blueberries to hydrate them. 

Sample Crow Lunch: Organic peas, sweet corn, spinach, and rabbit meat; Mazuri parrot pellets mix with Harrison’s baby bird formula and Feather Up; mixed in with ground egg shells and blue berries; ground-up chicken meat with organ/bone from local butcher

For infant opossums, do not feed or hydrate at all, since they need to be tube fed if they’re naked. Get them to a licensed rehabber as quickly as possible. Baby doves also require special feeding techniques, so it’s best get them to someone quickly as well. 

If you find a baby bat, never handle without gloves. This is for your protection as much as theirs. The bones or bats are extremely delicate, and there are only a couple ways to safely handle them. Whoever does handle them needs to have their rabies vaccine or else the bat suffers from the ignorance of people and must get killed to test it for rabies. Contact a licensed rehabber, which can be found on your state’s Fish & Wildlife Department’s website.  For anyone interested in specializing in bat rehabilitation, look into workshops run by the world’s leading bat care facility, located in Austin Texas, Bat World Sanctuary.  

To get involved in wildlife rehabilitation, you could offer to be a wildlife transport volunteer. You would get to meet a lot of fascinating animals and learn tidbits of knowledge along the way. I always have formula for birds and mammals on hand, as well as crates and heat pads and subcutaneous fluids to hydrate safe and quick.  

Everyone who does this for enough years seems to fall into a specialty. I learned baby bat care while living in California from a mentor and licensed rehabber who learned under the guidance of Amanda Lollar, the founder of Bat World Sanctuary. 

 I think birds were always my calling though. I seem to be a magnet for finding fallen nests and naked little dinosaur wanna-be babies with closed bulging eyes and wobbly heads balancing on skinny little necks. Crows are my favorite by far though. These relatively ginormous baby birds have needs that differ from the typical songbirds people tend to find.  They have giant gapping mouths, and I prefer to use my finger rather than a syringe when feeding. They need maternal warmth and comfort more like a mammal than the average bird. Their nutritional needs require more calcium than most birds to avoid metabolic bone disease. When I rescued crows, I designated a blender just for their food prep, which consisted of fresh meat, some organic egg shell I powdered up, fresh veggies and fruit, and supplements for feather health. I varied their ingredients and was picky about where I sourced them from, a veritable Michelin Star restaurant for corvids. 

Ultimately, it’s best to reach out to skilled wildlife rehabilitation centers if an orphaned animals lands in your life, but it is possible to educate yourself and do a good job until the baby can be passed onto professional or to learn to become a skilled rehabber yourself.

My Rehabilitation Story of Hope

His name was Tomo. I received a call about a baby crow in the corner of an outside café in downtown St.Petersburg, Florida. At this point, I had picked up at least a dozen baby crows that season. Raising the ones I could and passing on the ones who needed more than a surrogate mother to the licensed rehabber our organization worked with. 

Tomo was unlike the other baby crows, he was angry, really angry. Ready to channel his inner velociraptor and tear me to pieces, if only he wasn’t the size of an angry little grapefruit. I tossed a towel on this fierce tiny dinosaur and headed home to triage the situation. Tomo was emaciated and covered in mites–my arch nemesis. I set him up in my quarantine suite, treated him for mites, and got him hydrated. Feeding was easy since he used to back himself in a corner and scream with his mouth wide open at me every time I had to treat him or interact with him. Tomo was a complete drama queen but did manage to calm down once his mites were gone, and I brought him inside where he could be with other baby crows his age.  

Tomo became my favorite baby. I’d like to say I loved all my babies equally–and I did absolutely adore them all–but Tomo was definitely special. When he began to fly, he would fly to my shoulder when I called his name. I would do my rounds inside my little Florida cottage and outside to my flight cage with Tomo riding on me the whole time. I started taking him on walks and he never left me. 

I noticed during one of our walks downtown that there was a distinct crow family territory overlapping with the outside café he had been found at. A couple months has passed since that initial pick up; soon Tomo would be joining all my juvenile crows on a journey to another licensed rehabber with a massive flight cage and they would be put through wildlife bootcamp. Crows stay with their families for years, so survival of hand reared crow babies is really a toss of the dice. They learn so much from their parents and older siblings. Their community mimics primates more than most bird species. 

But then something remarkable happened, the crow family that lived near the café caught sight of Tomo. He was generally my most quiet crow baby, but he let out a big “CAW CAW”! They noticed! The crow family made quite a ruckus and landed in a tree near where I was sitting with my tea and a crow on my shoulder. They then followed me to my car, landing in trees overhead and cawing up a storm. When I got in my car, I heard sticks and small branches being thrown on my roof. 

There was some recognition happening, and I made it my mission to reunite Tomo rather than send him off to take his chances as a human-raised crow. We visited the café area almost daily in the wee hours of morning, before anyone’s morning routine brought them to the streets. Tomo and the crow family called to each other, but Tomo refused to budge from my shoulder. Each afternoon, I forced Tomo to fly in my home, building his confidence and muscles. Once he garnered the strength to fly to them, he would need to keep up with his siblings who had the advantage of not having fallen from the nest and being nearly eaten by mites. 

On that fateful morning visit with Tomo, I knew this might be the day. We nuzzled and I kissed his beak. My ferocious velociraptor had become my friend, but this moment was the greatest gift I could give him–a second chance so rarely afforded wildlife separated from their family. The palm trees stretched to the clear skies, a whole other world up there, and the one Tomo belonged to. 

He cawed out to his family as they all perched above me, two adults and two juvenile crows the same age as Tomo. He leapt from my world and his wings proved strong enough to lift him to his family. They made quite a racket as only crows can. Within a few fleeting moments they took off, and Tomo followed them, and I cried for endings and the best of beginnings. 

This was a best case scenario, but my shoulder still felt too light as I drove home alone. A couple of days later I sat at the open café with a cup of tea and watched the crow family do their predictable fly-through. I stood up and ran after them as they vanished around the tall apartment building across the street, I called his name….positive that I looked certifiably bonkers to the other patrons of the café….but then there he was. 

Tomo did a double-take and perched on the edge of the building right above me.  I called his name again, not sure why or what I expected; I guess I just wanted to know he was safe. He looked down at me, then I heard the caws of crows from ahead of him and off he flew. He never acknowledged me or his name again, but I knew that particular crow family included a little crow with a fierce spirit for survival and an aptitude for drama when the occasion called for it. 

May we all find ways to let nature in and to let nature shape us in the most positive and beautiful ways.