Rehab Centers Scramble to Keep Up as Drought Exacts Toll on Wildlife
Deer, like this one at Pinnacles National Park, are among the many species suffering during California's drought. (Dan Brekke/KQED)
Colorful kestrels squawk in an outdoor cage at the California Living Museum in Bakersfield. The cries sound like they could be coming from hundreds of the small falcons -- but there are only a few small orphan birds in the cage.
“They’re talkative because they just came out of the infant-rearing process, so they still think they’re supposed to be fed every time they see us,” says curator Don Richardson.
He says he’s seen a big increase in the number of orphaned animals brought into the museum’s wildlife rehab center. The kestrels were likely abandoned because the parents couldn’t find enough prey to feed them. They’ll be released once they learn to hunt and capture live mice and insects Richardson puts in their cage.
The drought is putting a strain on wildlife rehab centers like the California Living Museum. Richardson says intake has nearly doubled this year because more people are finding weak, emaciated animals near hiking trails and roads, or even stranded in irrigation canals.
“This is a great blue heron. She was found on the side of the road,” Richardson says, pointing to another cage across from the kestrels. But unlike the kestrels, this graceful bird isn’t making a peep.
Richardson took X-rays because he thought the bird had a leg fracture. But like many animals he’s seen, it was just too hungry to function. Rest and food are what many of these birds need to recover.
“With the drought, the water levels are dropping,” he says. “Food is not available because fish are dying off, the frogs are dying off, so these guys are going to have more and more of a hard time surviving.”
“I’ve gotten up to 50 calls a day, even more in baby bird season. I get them at 11 or 12 at night,” says Dan Turner, who operates Critter Creek with his partner, Louise Culver.
Turner and Culver have run the center for 30 years. Or, as they like to say, it’s run them. They operate on a shoestring budget and depend on donations. They say they always need more.
They’ve rescued hundreds of shorebirds since the drought – like the 50 or so young egrets they nursed back to health this summer. Turner says once they can fly, they get released. He says it with such conviction that I ask him jokingly if that’s his motto.
“You don’t want to know my motto,” Turner says with a smile.
“Yeah I do,” I say. “What is it? You’re too old for this?”
He laughs. “Ha ha! Yeah that’s it.”
Culver agrees it’s hard work, a 24/7 job. With the drought, she’s seen a big increase in starving western pond turtles.
“Fish and Game just recommends whatever direction they were heading, get them across the road, let them keep going in that direction. But some of them are just so skinny and thin that people have been bringing those to us,” Culver says.
She says they are also getting a lot more calls about “pest” animals, like raccoons. “They’re everywhere in the city, and unfortunately because of the drought, I think a lot of these animals have to interface with people,” she says.
The rural Critter Creek property is large enough that Turner drives a golf cart to get around. He takes me to one area where there are several outdoor cages he’s rebuilt.
“These are old zoo cages, they are probably 50 years old or 60 years old,” Turner says. There’s a hunting cage where birds learn to catch prey. One smaller cage is covered with a tarp. Underneath the tarp is a coyote puppy that someone found sick and emaciated on a road, most likely because of the drought.
“And so we just nursed him back to health and he’s going back out there soon,” Turner says. The tarp protects the coyote from too much human viewing. He needs to stay wild.
Turner drives his cart over what is now a dry creek bed and then up a small hill. He gets out and opens a gate to a 100-foot-long flight cage. He points to a golden eagle and a bald eagle, both perched up high.
“They were both starving,” Turner says. “They were just down flat on the ground. Caring citizens found them lying there, so they called us. A lot of these people don’t even think they are going make it, but they do.”
It will take a month or two for them to get their muscles back, he says. Then they’ll be released into the wild, where hopefully they’ll have the strength to survive the drought.