For the Birds Radio Program: Baby Spotted Sandpipers

Original Air Date: July 12, 2004

Dealing with baby shorebirds is very tricky, but this story has a happy ending. (5:04) Date confirmed.

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Baby Spotted Sandpipers

When people chance upon baby birds, being all too human, something in us has trouble resisting the urge to “rescue” them. In a curious mixture of arrogance and kindness, somehow many people think that we oversized primates can raise baby birds better than their own parents can. Some people pick up a baby bird without knowing what species it is, what its natural food is, how its parents interact with it, how long it remains with its parents after fledgling, or how it gains the skills to successfully negotiate a wide variety of natural habitats. The more we know about the natural history of birds, the more we realize just how hard it is for even a knowledgeable human to give a young bird the skills and experiences it needs to be wild. In nature, nestlings of migratory species memorize the night sky such that they can recognize north when any portion of the sky is visible. They learn the vocalizations of their species—not just the songs, but various little calls that they will need to know when it comes time for them to raise their own babies. After they fledge, their parents teach them the best sources for a wide variety of foods, what to do when a hawk passes over, and other important lessons. Some baby birds need and stay with their parents through the long migratory journey to Central or South America.

I’ll never forget the man who boasted to me that he used to keep baby killdeers for pets every summer. He told me they were easy to care for because they didn’t eat anything at all, and were adorable and fun while they lasted. This was a reasonably intelligent man, yet it never had occurred to him that baby Killdeer are supposed to grow up to become adult Killdeer, which can live for many years—indeed, one banded bird survived for 10 years and 11 months. He saw them as nothing more than disposable toys that last about as long as an AA battery.

Fortunately, that happened a long time ago, and that attitude is rare nowadays, but people still pick up baby killdeer and other shorebirds even in 2004, and sometimes they do this when the little birds’ parents are doing right there. Baby shorebirds are extraordinarily appealing, with the fuzzy bodies of chicks, large eyes, and a babyish innocence that make them irresistible. No wonder children who discover them long to make the tiny birds pets. But shorebirds are among the most difficult of all birds to raise, because they so strongly imprint on their parents that it’s virtually impossible for anyone else to get a shorebird chick to accept food.

Two weeks ago, some children found a couple of downy Spotted Sandpiper chicks on a lake north of Duluth and brought them home to be pets. Fortunately, they told one of their friends who, with his mother, talked them into giving up the babies, but not until many hours after the birds had been taken, and it wasn’t until the next day that Tyler, the boy who rescued them from the kids, could get ahold of me and take me 30 miles out of town to the beach where they belonged. The baby birds were weak and dehydrated by the time we finally got them out there, but their tiny calls as we got out of the car alerted one of their parents, who called loudly. When we set them down on a narrow path, they scurried into the tall grass. Instantly another chick from their family ran across the path to join them, and we could see that the mother or father was heading their way, too. Just as baby birds imprint on their parents, many parent birds learn the voices of their children. With luck the babies hadn’t been away from food or traumatized for too long and would quickly recover their strength. And with luck, those people who kidnapped them in the first place learned never, ever to do this again.