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Blane Klemek column: Hands off usually best policy for wildlife

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outdoors Bemidji, 56619
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Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

It's a common occurrence. A fawn is found by a well meaning person who thinks that the animal has been abandoned by its mother. The person carries the young deer home and calls the DNR to ask what they should do.

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The correct action is frequently the most difficult thing for anyone to do; that is, leave the animal alone, where it was found, and walk away. After all, what mother would leave a vulnerable baby all alone, right?

The fact is, deer routinely do this. Fawns instinctively know they must hide, and their mothers instinctively know how to communicate this message to their fawns: "Hide, hide right now, and stay hidden until I return and tell you it's safe." It's Nature's way and it works quite well.

But we human beings are compassionate creatures, and there's nothing wrong with that whatsoever. Yet, when it comes to wildlife intervention, some of our actions are unnecessary and harmful.

Take me for example. I have been monitoring this spring and summer a pair of American kestrels that accepted an artificial nest box that my son and I had built especially for their species a couple of years ago. It has been interesting and enjoyable to observe the pair throughout their courtship and nest site selection.

It was almost two months ago that the female kestrel had laid five speckled, brownish eggs in the box. Weeks later all five eggs had hatched and five white, down-covered kestrels lay quietly in the nest box. Throughout the ensuing days, I found myself spending a lot of time observing the entrance hole hoping to catch sight of the parents bringing food to the fast-growing chicks.

Then came the torturous heat wave of mid-July.

By this time the five chicks were close to fledging, but the demands that their near adult-sized bodies required - perhaps too much for the confines of the nest box and the oppressive heat - took a toll as their parents tried keeping the brood nourished and hydrated.

I could clearly see that the chicks were stressed when I climbed the ladder to peek inside the nest box on hot day, and I actually thought about intervening. I thought I should "rescue" one or more of the weakest looking chicks and "do something." But, as hard as it was, I left them alone.

What happened next was something I've known all along was possible under the circumstances: the chicks turned on each other. Because one day, in fact only a few days after I had initially contemplated an intervention, I was shocked to discover upon opening the box that only two chicks were alive.

The other three chicks were dead, their bodies almost completely gone save for a few feathers and entrails. It was a prime example of "siblicide," a behavior common in some species of birds as a means of brood reduction brought on by stressors such as shortage of food. Just two days later the surviving chicks had fledged and were gone. At this writing, I can hear the adult kestrels vocalizing near the nest site, evidently caring for their two fledged offspring.

But I'm not perfect. Sometimes, against my better judgment, I do interfere with Mother Nature once in a while - in fact, just last month. While on the job assisting a contractor on a trail mowing project, I was operating an all-terrain vehicle on a narrow, little-used and overgrown wooded trail.

A portion of the trail about 10 feet wide and 20 feet long was inundated with water from a recent rain. As I steered the vehicle alongside the water hole, I noticed a single duckling skittering across the surface of the water in an attempt to escape and hide in the vegetation. I stopped the machine, dismounted and captured the little duck - a common goldeneye. The bird wasn't much more than a day or two old.

I guessed that the duckling had lost its way after hatching from its tree cavity nest, probably unable to keep up with its mother and siblings. Or, it simply waited too long to leave the cavity in the first place. Regardless, the duckling was now inside my front shirt pocket, buttoned closed, without a clue of its fate, much less what was happening.

My plan was to release the little fellow in the nearby beaver pond, the closest body of water from the puddle where I found the stranded little duck.

"Maybe," I thought, "just maybe the duckling will vocalize loud enough to attract the attention of its mother."

It was, from my perspective anyway, worth a try.

So that's what I did. I released the duckling and watched as it paddled itself furiously with its webbed feet across the pond, peeping loudly as it swam, until the bird disappeared into the emergent vegetation. And then I left.

About an hour later I returned to the area with the four-wheeler to wait for the contractor's return to the trail. As I sat in the quiet woods, birds everywhere were singing and vocalizing. As I waited, I heard the faint call of a hen goldeneye emanating through the woods from the nearby beaver pond.

I listened.

Seconds later, lo and behold, I was astonished when I heard the call of a lone duckling answering the hen's call. And soon, both were excitedly vocalizing to one another.

When I reached the edge of the beaver pond to search for the two ducks, I witnessed the impossible reunion of the hen goldeneye and the lone duckling. (My duckling?) I was thrilled as I stood and watched the two birds disappear, together, with the hen in the lead and the little duckling following closely behind.

And so it goes. We can no sooner change human nature as we can change Mother Nature. Sometimes we help and sometimes we should - perhaps - reconsider as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com

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