Specialized Treatment for Juvenile Steller’s Jay

Wildlife Rescue Association of BC is a leader in rehabilitating wildlife and in promoting the welfare of wild animals in urban environments. To fully execute this mission Wildlife Rescue staff and volunteers to practice species-specific care for all wildlife including those vulnerable to imprinting and habituation.

This care is essential for the healthy development and rehabilitation for each animal, so they are successful in their natural environments upon release.

Each year Wildlife Rescue cares for hundreds of wildlife vulnerable to these behaviors including the Steller’s Jay, Pileated Woodpecker, Great Blue Herons and Ravens to name a few. These birds are prone to adapting to people, places, and things they associate with. Wildlife Rescue takes extensive measures to mimic their natural environment, feeding habits and hunting skills.

For Wildlife Rescue release is the number one goal and practices are put into place to achieve this. Extensive imprinting gear is used to disguise the human face and relationship with the bird when providing care especially for nestlings whose first contact may be a human.

In some cases, with impressionable birds’ staff with use techniques like standing behind a mirror or behind a structure where the angle is distorted enough to allow for them to feel the food is coming from another object such as a decoy. Creativity is a must when it comes to impressionable species, costumes, or boxes covered with tinfoil can be used for different species or needs. Natural enrichment is also used to encourage natural hunting, foraging,  stashing, feeding, and resting.

What is Habituation?

Habituation is a type of non-associative learning, in which the wildlife after a period of exposure to a stimulus stops responding. Habitation in wildlife is usually reduced natural behaviour in the animal.

Wildlife Rescue treats both premature and adult birds who are prone to this behavior. If the birds get to familiar with the humans in the process of rehabilitation, they will lack the skills and behaviors needed to survive in the wild. For example, the Steller’s Jay and the Raven are a few of the birds who can be easily habituated with their food choice and foraging skills when in care. To counteract this behavior Wildlife Rescue uses puppets or various feeding techniques as mentioned above to prevent this from happening.

Wildlife Rescue also mixes birds in groups of different ages and experiences where natural behavior can be learned through observation in these enrichment enclosures. It also helps promote native birds to mix as they would in the wild. Staff and volunteers continuously monitor the birds for competition, stereotypic behaviour, stress and bullying.

There is also a big risk where songbirds can miss the crucial step of learning their specie-typical song and vocalization. If this happens in early development this creates a significant challenge for the animal to gain their territory in the wild. They may also hinder the ability to attract a place and mate in the bird hierarchy. Wildlife Rescue uses songbird recordings of local species to remove these potential challenges. These recordings help the birds to become familiar with sounds that are native to their environment.

 What Is Imprinting?

Imprinting in wildlife can occur at a specific age or development stage. For birds, this time is when they are young and learning to establish who is taking care of them. All birds have different imprinting windows in which they become susceptible to the process of imprinting.

If wildlife is raised without companions of their own kind and rely on humans as their source of food and protection, then they are likely to imprint on humans when maturing.

How Wildlife Rescue Prevents Habituation

Recently, Wildlife Rescue treated a juvenile Steller’s Jay who needed immediate attention after a cat attack. Steller’s Jay Juveniles are sensitive species prone to imprinting because of their high intelligence and developmental needs.  They rely heavily on their parents to provide food, shelter, and protection but unfortunately when primary caregivers are removed a provider must be replaced immediately to prevent dehydration and other natural developmental needs critical to the bird.

Wildlife Rescue staff and volunteers wear imprinting gear which reduces the appearance of the human form and hides faces and other distinguishing features. This helps to not associate human interactions with feeding, cleaning, care, or other interactions that people have with the bird. Staff also play local bird songs to not only teach natural songs but to mimic the natural sounds they would hear in the wild and help reduce the stressful sounds of the work environment. All WRA staff and volunteers keep their voices down when on-site WRA and do not speak in front of any impressionable species.

Other enrichment items such as mirrors, natural perches, and natural foods help to associate the natural elements of the wild. This not only helps the birds to associate and seek out these natural components but it also helps to not associate unnatural human-made objects and spaces with food and security. Since natural food sources are never exactly in the same location, staff and volunteers have an enrichment schedule where they move perches, hide different foods, and change up the environment regularly. This helps the animal to become adaptable to different environments and food sources.

When a juvenile Steller’s Jay is ready for release, volunteers will do what we call a soft release. A soft release is where we release the animal in a safe area where we provide short term food and shelter. We monitor the animal for 1-2 weeks or until it disperses naturally to find natural food, shelter, and friends. Steller’s Jay is very smart and need a little more encouragement to adapt to new situations. Without fail the Steller’s Jay sticks around for about a week, then slowly returns as they venture further and from their release site and eventually return months later indicating their strength and ability to forage and stay healthy.

Wildlife Rescue staff and volunteers use proper handling and participate in workshops to learn how to best feed, raise and interact with vulnerable wildlife so they safely return to the wild.

Since imprinting and habituation are such delicate issues, Wildlife Rescue practices many safety measures that will guarantee the safety of birds and other animals. If you see a bird that has exposed bone or blood, bugs or insects covering it, no feathers, or a bird that is sleeping, human intervention is required. Call Wildlife Rescue’s Support Centre at 604-526-7275. To help us return your call quickly, please leave your contact information and observation. We will make sure the bird is treated with kindness and compassion.

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