Abandoned U.S. bird to become Manitoba wildlife ambassador

A baby bird abandoned in 2014 is in training to become a wildlife ambassador for the Wildlife Haven Rehabilitation Centre, who took her in when no one else could.

Rare pair of Mississippi kites flew far afield of southern U.S. range, nested in Winnipeg in 2014

A baby bird that was abandoned as a chick two summers ago in Winnipeg is now in training to become a wildlife ambassador for the people who took her in.

"Because this bird is such a unique one, we decided it was a good education ambassador, a good story to tell people about," says Tiffany Lui, animal care co-ordinator with the Wildlife Haven Rehabilitation Centre (WHRC). "She's a very cute one."

In the summer of 2014, a pair of feathery foreign residents nested in a tall, burly tree near the Assiniboine River not far from downtown Winnipeg. This was uncharacteristic behaviour for the birds; their kind typically prefer to stay close to home, nearer to the warm and buggy habitats of the south-central and southeastern United States.

Their presence attracted attention from locals, who flocked to areas on and near Wellington Crescent to see the mysterious birds. To the nerdy delight of birders, the inky gray-coloured duo were identified as Mississippi kites, a predatory species that is commonly found in places like Texas. It was the first confirmed sighting of the species in the province's history.
Its parents flew way beyond the species' normal range and up into Manitoba in 2014 to breed right in the middle of Winnipeg. (Christian Artuso)

Bird-lovers descended on the area, cricking their necks and binoculars to the tree canopies for a glimpse. Biologist Christian Artuso with Bird Studies Canada was among the first rush of birders to hit the scene for a spotting. 

To everyone's surprise, against the odds and possibly their better judgment, the birds bred and gave birth to a baby in a world unknown to them. They were out of their element, but you couldn't really tell that to look at them.

Mississippi kites thrive on a diet of tasty insects like dragonflies, which they found in abundant supply near their nesting site by the Assiniboine River. (Christian Artuso)

Mississippi kites feast on a diet of insects primarily, but will also hunt snakes and lizards. As luck would have it, mom and dad were decent hunters. They were photographed picking off dragonflies in mid-flight near the Assiniboine that summer, which they faithfully flew back to their wee one.

Wildlife officials worked hard to keep the exact location of the nest a secret. Word was spreading and there was a fear too much attention could spook them away or hurt their chances of raising the chick.

Premature perch departure

And then one evening in July, something unfortunate happened.

"The chick fell from the nest just prior to natural fledgling," Artuso said. "I got there as soon as I could."

The baby bird was flexing and flapping away on the rim of the nest, when mom and dad unexpectedly arrived home.

"Both parents landed on the nest simultaneously. Their sudden simultaneous landing caused the chick to fall (at least this is how it was described to me by the two people who observed it: one of my crew members and a volunteer of the Delta Marsh Bird Observatory)."

They made a costly mistake. That happens in nature — it's kind of cruel sometimes.- Christian Artuso

The chick didn't appear to be that injured at the time, so after a few minutes Artuso put the bird as high as he could in the tree and left for the night.

"The chick was calling and we were hopeful the parents would resume feeding," he says.

"We really were thinking that the parents would come back.... It was becoming apparent as time went by that was not going to happen."
The mother snatched this dragonfly out of thin air to deliver it to her baby.

The next day, the chick still perched in the tree and unfed by its parents, Tracy Maconachie (the co-ordinator of the Peregrine Falcon Recovery Project), Jim Duncan (the director of Manitoba Conservation's wildlife branch) and Artuso discussed next steps.

A group of volunteers came together to help, including an arborist who had access to a bucket truck. They used the extending arm on the truck to place a crate (an artificial nest), and the bird with it, as high as they could in the tree.

The parents didn't show, so they took the chick to the Assiniboine Park Zoo's animal hospital for a check up with a veterinarian. "The prognosis was pretty good... It was relatively healthy," Artuso says. This bird wasn't going to be reunited with its parents after all, but everyone was still optimistic it could be set free.

They looked for specialists in the U.S. with experience with Mississippi kites but things didn't work out. The Wildlife Haven Rehabilitation Centre was next on the list.

People at the centre worked with the bird for a while, hopeful it could be rehabilitated and released into the wild. Those hopes didn't last long.
The baby (can you see her?) was fed well by mom and dad for a little while. One evening in July, she fell from the nest. (Christian Artuso)

In order to be rehabilitated, everything possible must be done to prevent babies like this bird from imprinting, coming to identify with their caregivers and essentially forgetting they are birds.

Raptor chicks are particularly susceptible to imprinting on their owners, which is one reason why Artuso fought every urge to visit with the bird.

"Once the decision was made to bring the bird in, I chose not to visit the bird, not to go see the bird, obviously to minimize human contact with the animal and maximize the chances of a rehabilitation," he said. 

"It became apparent pretty quickly to them (WHRC) that the bird would not be releasable."


The centre is now training the bird to be its next wildlife ambassador.
Biologist Christian Artuso works with Birds Studies Canada. He and others tried to get the chick back into its nest before the Wildlife Haven and Rehabilitation Centre took over. (Christian Artuso)

"That can be stressful for any bird. Some birds are able to work the crowd, so to speak. Others are not."

She's been responding well to the trainer, but hasn't yet been trotted out in front of a loud and gleeful crowd. While it isn't clear yet when she'll officially be introduced to the public, the centre is hoping the bird will make its first public appearance this spring.

"It's quite possible those parents were young, inexperienced ... could've been their first time breeding. They made a costly mistake. That happens in nature — it's kind of cruel sometimes," Artuso says.

"I certainly hope the bird brings something positive in the way that it educates the public."