Urban myth fuelling waves of bird 'kidnappings' across Australia

·News and Video Producer
·4-min read
  • Wildlife carers should be called for advice

  • Birds can be picked up and reunited with their parents

  • Hand-raised birds can be difficult to rewild

Well-meaning members of the public are inadvertently kidnapping baby birds, a wildlife hospital is warning.

With spring coming to an end, many fledglings are flexing their wings and learning how to fly, while mum and dad work tirelessly to feed them.

Sick and injured birds do need to be taken to a vet, but the majority of birds found on the ground by members of the public are in perfect health and just exploring the world while strengthening their flight muscles.

Three images. A plover chick, a tawny frogmouth chick and a kookaburra chick - all in care.
Members of the public are being warned to stop kidnapping wildlife. Source: Supplied

Before scooping up a bird and taking it to a vet, South East Queensland’s Currumbin Wildlife Hospital is urging bird lovers to call their local wildlife rescue group for advice.

If the creature does need medical attention, then noting down the exact location where the bird came from is a crucial piece of information rescuers will need to reunite it with its parents once its healthy.

Urban myth fuelling kidnapping of baby birds

With members of the public more aware of wildlife issues, Currumbin had its busiest year ever in 2020, admitting 14,000 animals last year compared to 12,198 in 2019.

A pervasive urban legend continues to make many people falsely believe the reunification of chicks with their parents in impossible, Currumbin's senior vet Michael Pyne warns.

An orange basket full of baby birds including noisy miners.
Carers are often overwhelmed with too many chicks during spring. Source: Currumbin Wildlife Hospital

“There is a myth that baby birds won’t be accepted by their parents if they have been touched by a human, but this is not true,” he said.

“We can successfully reunite a baby with its parents, sometimes up to two weeks after separation.”

Key challenges making human-raised chicks a struggle to release

This year the Currumbin has reported reunited approximately 70 per cent of baby birds admitted into the hospital back with their parents. 

This is the best result for both overworked wildlife volunteers and the creatures themselves which thrive under feathered parental care.

With most Australian native birds highly territorial, those raised in care can be a struggle to release back into the wild without creating conflict with established populations, Currumbin vet Dr Tara Gatehouse warns. 

Imprinting is another issue which commonly affects human-raised birds, even when they receive care from experienced volunteers.

"Black and white birds, so magpies, currawongs and peewees, they imprint really easily," Dr Gatehouse told Yahoo News.

"They are very intelligent birds and they're also really territorial."

Birds then have be be slowly rewilded from a carer's home, using a process known as soft releasing, but this can be time consuming and lead to large concentrations of a single species in one area. 

Tawny frogmouths commonly 'kidnapped' by Good Samaritans

There are of course some bird species that are a challenge to reunite with their parents.

Kookaburra chicks, for instance, will commit siblicide when there isn't enough food being brought in to sustain the entire brood, and for this reason many cannot be returned. 

Other species fall foul of parasitic species of cuckoo, whose young once laid in the nest of another species will dominate or even kill the host parent's actual young.

Left - two tawny frogmouth chicks in a basket. Right - the parent nearby on a tree branch.
Carers from WIRES returned these chicks (left) in a makeshift nest in the NSW suburb of Coogee while their parents (right) watched on. Source: Supplied

Tawny frogmouths are one of the most common needlessly kidnapped birds, but they can usually be returned to their doting parents within 10 days of being taken away.

Often the best course of action is to seek guidance from a wildlife care group and they will build a fake nest or hang a shallow basket in the tree that the fledgling likely fell from.

Although tawny frogmouths' strong camouflage makes it tough for humans to spot them, their young have a specific call that their parents will hear, and once the sun goes down, within no time they’ll fly down and protect their baby.

NSW rescue groups WIRES and Wildlife ARC have both reported reuniting a number of tawny frogmouth chicks with their parents this year, with recent successes in Bondi and Coogee.

The author, Michael Dahlstrom, is a registered native bird carer with Wildlife ARC.

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