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Birds rescued from Santa Rosa nesting site released at Laguna de Santa Rosa

A Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron lands on a branch in a tree at Laguna de Santa Rosa after being released by members of the Bird Rescue Center on Thursday, June 13, 2013.

(BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)
Published: Thursday, June 13, 2013 at 4:42 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 13, 2013 at 4:42 p.m.

For Isabel Luevano, rehabilitating lost and injured baby birds is a small way of making up for the effects humans have on the earth.

“Even though people do so much harm to nature and wildlife and the ecosystem in general, it's a really good feeling to know you're helping a part of it, doing better things rather than worse things,” said Luevano, a rehabilitation technician for International Bird Rescue, after releasing a flock of juvenile birds into the wild at the Laguna de Santa Rosa on Wednesday.

All but one of the 22 birds, a mix of snowy egrets and black-crowned night herons, were born in one of Santa Rosa's more peculiar natural features: a nesting site for hundreds of egrets and herons in two huge trees in the median along West Ninth Street, in the midst of one of the city's most densely populated areas.

These birds either fell or jumped from their nests before they were ready to fly. In a wilderness nest, they would be relatively safe on the ground until they learned to fly, but given the urban location many of these hatchlings plop down helplessly on the busy street, vulnerable to cars, people and predators.

Volunteers from Santa Rosa's Bird Rescue Center patrol the area rigorously during the nesting season, said Mary Ellen Rayner, executive director of the center. They scoop up the lost and injured chicks and send them to the International Bird Rescue Center in Fairfield, which specializes in raising waterfowl such as these.

Every year more than 100 Santa Rosa-born chicks wind up in the care of the facility, which feeds and protects them until they grow large enough to fly, and nurses injured animals back to health.

The birds released Wednesday were six or seven weeks old.

In previous years, the center has released rescued Santa Rosa birds elsewhere in the state, but this year it decided to do something new: release the young birds in the Laguna de Santa Rosa, just a few miles from the nests where they hatched.

The birds were tagged with identity bands, allowing researchers and bird watchers to identify them later, so rescuers will be able to tell where the animals end up.

Next year, they hope to see that at least some of the birds were able to get back and breed in their old home trees.

Nobody knows why the birds chose the trees in the middle of Ninth Street more than five years ago, but it appears the birds are part of a colony that was chased out of other areas by human activity over the years, said Susan Kirks, president of the Madrone Audubon Society, which helps monitor the Santa Rosa nesting site.

The birds probably were attracted to the trees because of their strategic location near the Laguna, a favorite spot for herons and egrets, said Denise Cadman, environmental specialist for the city of Santa Rosa, which owns both the nesting site and the land along the Laguna where the young birds were released.

West Ninth Street “seems like an unlikely spot ... but it's right there on Santa Rosa Creek and that's a conduit out to the Laguna de Santa Rosa. So, all of a sudden you've got all of your resources, the equivalent of a grocery store and a highway, Santa Rosa Creek, to get there,” she said.

Egrets are protected under a century-old international treaty that covers migratory birds, meaning it is illegal to disturb their nests during breeding season.

The city has closed down one travel lane on each side of the Ninth Street median to give the birds extra room and has posted signs warning people to avoid the nesting area. Madrone Audubon volunteers have surrounded the two huge trees with temporary fencing and covered the ground in straw to cushion the fall of birds that drop out of the nest.

Because the birds have been raised largely inside a rescue facility, their reactions can be hard to predict when they are faced with the outdoors. On Wednesday, most of the birds blasted out of their cages and immediately took to some nearby trees. One, however, seemed particularly shy and refused to leave his cage. It took several minutes to coax him out.

Another one turned out to have some unexpected damage to the feathers on the tip of its wings, making him a clumsy and awkward flyer. Luevano and the others on the release team lingered for more than 40 minutes watching the bird struggle, debating whether to recapture it and return it to rehab.

In the end, after watching the bird gain confidence and make its way into the upper branches of a small tree, they concluded that the stress of being recaptured would probably be more dangerous than any inconveniences implied by his inauspicious debut as an aviator.

“I think he will do OK here,” said Luevano, surveying the nearby brush teeming with birds of all types. “Seeing all of the species that have just flown over us, you know this is a pretty good habitat.”

(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.)

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