Wild bird can’t return to the wild | VailDaily.com
Dennis Webb
Vail, CO Colorado

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Wild bird can’t return to the wild

Kelley Cox / Post IndependentBaby the sandhill crane has landed at the wildlife rehab center near Silt under the care of Nanci Limbach.

SILT ” A bird now sheltered near Silt has known celebrity status and human love, but has yet to know itself.

It may be too late for that ever to happen, which suggests a not-so-happy ending in store for the animal now widely known as Baby the crane.

The problem is that the crane doesn’t know it’s a crane and thinks it’s a human. That may make it impossible for it ever to be released into the wild.

It reportedly had been raised by a ranch hand in Nucla in southwestern Colorado after a dog killed and chased off other members of its family. After the man was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he asked friends to set the bird free among other cranes.

Those efforts failed, according to several stories by the Denver Post chronicling the crane’s misadventures. When released among cranes migrating through western Colorado it defied the assertion that birds of a feather flock together. It was frightened by other cranes and uninterested in them, and sought out human company.

Some Audubon Society members took in the bird and quickly grew to love it. Eventually, however, Silt wildlife rehabilitator Nanci Limbach was contacted.

The crane was delivered to Limbach’s rehabilitation center last week. It sits alone in a room of a pre-1900 log homestead that has been converted to an animal pen.

In a space warmed and brightened by a heat lamp hanging overhead, it welcomes Limbach with “ack, ack,” loving the company but being all too comfortable around people. A bird that should be at home among a crowd of cranes, it made no fuss Friday despite being joined in its pen by Limbach and two journalists.

“It’s sort of just weird to me that we can even be in here with him. He ought to be bouncing off the walls,” Limbach said.

Instead, about all the redheaded crane did was occasionally flap its wings, and more occasionally take an interest in pecking at the boots and blue jeans of a photographer. Cranes also will peck to defend their territory.

“He’s basically doing everything that comes naturally to sandhills,” Limbach said.

The crane’s actions showed why it wouldn’t be wise to let the crane continue to hang around humans. Limbach can just imagine a child getting too close and having its eyes pecked by the crane’s sharp beak.

Limbach doesn’t fault the crane. The problem stems from people raising wildlife as pets.

Limbach and Colorado Division of Wildlife officials see the same thing a lot, especially with baby deer and elk. People come across fawns or calves when they’re alone and assume they’re orphaned and “rescue” them.

“Really Mom’s just off getting a lunch somewhere. When she comes back they’re nowhere to be found,” said Steve Yamashita, assistant manager of the Division of Wildlife’s Northwest Region.

Most of the young deer and elk Limbach ends up working with were “abducted” by humans, as she puts it. Last week, she dealt with a young deer that had become habituated to humans in the New Castle area. It was too habituated, as it turned out; and as it grew it started to pose a danger. On Friday Limbach handed the animal over to be transported to a Division of Wildlife research facility.

She may be caring for the crane for as little as a week, or possibly several. It’s undergoing a quarantine at her center. The sincere but misguided efforts to reintroduce it to its own kind exposed it to disease.

It’s also being tested to determine its gender. Limbach would love to know if it’s a greater or lesser sandhill crane, but said there may be no way to find out. At about 3 years old, it seems too small to be the more common greater crane. But it’s also possible it’s malnourished because it has been living off human provisions such as cat food.

The birds are omnivores. Limbach fed the crane some mussels Friday. “I don’t have any frogs around and they like that,” she said.

Limbach playfully tussled with it as it pecked at her. She won’t go so far as to call it “Baby,” though. Naming animals at a rehabilitation center suggests they are pets rather than wildlife.

Limbach doesn’t think the crane ever can return to the wild. She said it has become too imprinted on humans and their behavior. Even if it ever migrated with cranes, it later would seek out its old home in Nucla, she said.

The crane could end up in some kind of education center or zoo, after Limbach gets federal approval based on the argument that rehabilitation is out of the question.

“Hopefully by people coming to see him he’ll be happy, seeing two-legged people running around,” she said. “At this point he’s going to have to be an ambassador to why people shouldn’t take in wild pets, because he has no idea what he is.”

Limbach doesn’t see a particularly pleasant future ahead for the crane. She heard from someone last week who wanted to write a book on “The Wonderful Life of Baby.”

“I said, ‘It’s not a wonderful life being stuck in captivity for the rest of its life,” she said. “No matter where he ends up it’s going to be tough.”

Yamashita said euthanasia also is a possibility in such cases.

“It’s always one of the options. It’s the last option. We don’t want to do that,” he said.

For the time being, the crane will remain in Limbach’s care, awaiting a decision on its fate. Meanwhile, Limbach has a thought about a short-term solution to its loneliness.

“I’ve got a chicken that doesn’t know it’s a chicken either,” she said. “Maybe they can be together for a while.”