The Baby Kestrel That Fell from the Stars

by Tyler Kujala, Wildlife Rehabilitation Assistant

“They just fell from the sky.” This was all the information we had for an American Kestrel chick that was brought in to the Wildlife Care Center in early May. While the chick was a bit dehydrated and fairly subdued, they seemed otherwise healthy with no injuries, quite the marvel given that they were little more than a ball of white fluff that couldn’t even stand, let alone attempt flight. Since there were no trees or other potential nest sites nearby, our best guess as to how this definitely-not-ready-for-flight chick ended up falling from the sky is that they were snatched from their cavity nest by another bird looking for a meal, then dropped mid-flight. If that is true, this kestrel took to the skies far earlier than intended and got very lucky to be dropped and then found by a Good Samaritan who knew how to help! They did exactly the right thing by giving the chick privacy and quiet, not offering food, and bringing them to the center as soon as possible.

American Kestrel WCC patient

As of the time of writing, just under three weeks since they came to us, this patient is still in our care. They can now move around, pick up pieces of food without assistance, and are healthy and doing well. As is hoped for with a growing baby, they have more than quintupled their weight since they were brought in!

This, however, does not mean it’s easy to properly care for such a young bird. A constant worry in wildlife rehabilitation is the risk of two different but related phenomena: habituation and imprinting. A wild animal is habituated when they learn to tolerate or even seek out human presence. The animal’s instincts to keep away from people are suppressed due to repeated neutral or, in the case of feeding, positively reinforced interactions with humans. Improper imprinting occurs when an infant animal develops an incorrect species identity during a specific time in their development, usually in the hours or days immediately after hatching/birth. Habituation and imprinting both result in unnatural behaviors that create major problems for wildlife and people. The affected animal will not identify and respond to predators and threats normally, will likely be unable to successfully interact or mate with others of their own kind, and may approach, territorially attack, or even display mating behaviors toward humans. Any of these issues prevent an animal from being responsibly released back into the wild, as it would be dangerous to the animal as well as to any people they might encounter after release.

Habituation and imprinting are serious concerns during wildlife rehabilitation, where wild animals experience far more exposure to humans and artificial things than they would in the wild. How do we prevent it? We keep the center quiet, limit contact, and use visual barriers so the animals see us as little as possible. Those are the foundation for reducing patient stress and preventing animals from developing abnormal associations with humans. For patients as young as this kestrel, extra care must be taken to prevent these associations. The next piece of the puzzle in most cases is to house young animals with other individuals of the same species. This isn’t possible for the lone kestrel chick since we don’t have any other kestrels close to that age in care. All of the wildlife centers in the area are on the lookout for a potential sibling, and if one comes in we’ll work to pair them, but in the meantime we do our best with other methods.

In the photo of the bird’s enclosure, you might notice a mirror and stuffed kestrel, which help the little one form their self-identity. As the bird grows we’ll continue to prevent them from seeing people while being fed and provide extra opportunities to practice and learn wild behaviors through enrichment. In a captive situation that is so incredibly different from being raised by their own parents, there is always a risk that everything we do won’t be enough to retain the bird’s natural behaviors. When young animals are kept, handled, or fed before being brought into the center, that risk grows exponentially—thankfully the chick was brought straight to us. Our program and others like it have been developing techniques and expertise for over a century, and wildlife rehabilitation care protocols have been vastly refined over those decades. Our past successes give us hope that this kestrel may ultimately be returned to the open sky and fly where once it fell.