In our most recent post we discussed bird-napping, which harms young birds by taking them away from their parents and making it hard for them to develop survival skills. This week we want to talk about imprinting, yet another reason why birds are better off in the wild than in rehab.
Imprinting is when a young animal is learning to identify itself with a species. If the bird’s parents are taking care of it, then the bird realizes that it is a bird and can function normally within the wild. If a human bird-naps a healthy young bird and begins to feed it and take care of it, the bird will imprint on the human. Then the bird believes that the human will provide food and care to the bird, making it impossible to release back into the wild. Intelligent birds, like Crows, Blue Jays, Falcons, and Grackles, imprint more easily than others.
When we get fledgling birds in our care, we take steps to prevent them from imprinting on us. We cover their cage with a blanket, so they don’t see us often, and have less chance of believing we are their caretakers. We also put young Crows with our adult Crow Zen. Zen is our surrogate bird that came to us after getting hit by a car. Zen cannot fly so he isn’t releasable. When Zen came to our facility, he was already an adult and had not imprinted on humans. Once our young crows are old enough, we put them in the cage with Zen because he teaches the babies to be scared of humans by making alarm calls when we come into the enclosure to feed or clean. Zen only does this when he has fledglings in his space; during the winter, he just ignores people when they come and go.
When we get baby Crows who are with us for a long time, we wear Crow masks, shown in these pictures. That way, the bird does not associate food with a human face.
A bird that has imprinted on a human will not survive out in the wild. Under federal law, they cannot be released and must be euthanized if they cannot be placed in a licensed facility, such as a nature center.
The best way to prevent imprinting is to not bird-nap. If you do encounter a bird that is clearly bleeding, injured or has flies on it, of course take it to a rehab center as soon as possible. While you have the bird, keep it in a cage or box that is covered and do not handle the bird.