Among the 400 visitors to the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch’s open house held this past spring, there was a very special—and tiny—guest: a baby vulture. The ranch’s semi-annual weekend event highlights ranch activities and allows visitors the opportunity to meet the rescued animal residents. It is highly unusual to receive animals in need of care at the open house event, as the ranch is a sanctuary, not a rehabilitative center providing emergency care. However, this was an unusual case, and I was fortunate to be able to help the youngster. Here is the chick’s story:
Around 2:00 p.m., I was asked for my location by radio. I replied that I was at the silent auction tent, supervising the volunteers. Soon the director of the ranch, Richard Farinato, approached me holding a metal bucket. In addition to my duties as an employee with The Fund for Animals, I am also a licensed wildlife rehabilitator and the only one at Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch. People often transport wild animals in all types of carriers, and therefore I had a sinking feeling about what might be in the bucket in Richard’s hand.
As I looked inside, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There, hunched down in an old towel, was a five-day-old vulture chick. “Oh my God!” I gasped, “Where did he come from?” Listening with only one ear, I was at the same time assessing his medical condition. I learned that he had been dropped off by a family who found him after they had cut down a tree. The family had been feeding this chick worms for four days, an improper diet for a vulture.
Vulture nests are elaborately built with grass and sticks, built high in trees or cliffs, and are frequently used year after year. Eggs are laid between April and July, and both parents incubate the nest for nearly two months. The chicks typically fledge between their second and third month of life. [The Hawk Conservancy Trust] In Texas, vultures frequently build nests on the ground.
The fact that his nest had been destroyed meant that he would likely not be able to be reunited with his parents and would starve without intervention. His sibling did not survive.
Cold and shivering to the touch, the chick’s breathing was shallow, and his eyes were closed. I could hear a click when he breathed, which told me he needed emergency care. “Get me a heating pad, some fuzzy blankets, and blend up some beef right now,” I shouted to no one in particular. I rushed him inside where I began to warm him up by placing him on top of a heating pad wrapped in a towel. Tony, a new ranch worker who had only started a few days prior, helped round up the items. I called Cindy Traisi at The Fund for Animals Wildlife Center in Ramona, Calif., who helped me calculate the dosage of medication needed to address his respiratory problem.
As the chick warmed up, I was able to give him a few drops of Normosol, a hydrating electrolyte solution to help stabilize him. In another half hour, he was alert enough to be fed tiny amounts of blended beef stew every half hour. By 5:00 p.m., the small chick made a little noise and could now hold his head up, a significant step forward.
I rushed to a store and bought some fresh liver. Though his parents would be feeding him regurgitated meat they had scavenged in the wild, this was the best substitute I could find at our local grocery. Using tweezers to feed thin strips of the liver, I noticed the baby vulture begin to extend his neck and vibrate it, just as he would do to beg for food from his parents. This was another positive sign.
At this point it looked as though he had a good chance at full recovery and survival, but from previous experience with vultures, I knew the cards were stacked against him. He was going to need other baby vultures to grow up with to prevent him from being imprinted upon by humans. Imprinted vultures cannot be released to live in the wild, since they see humans as friends and will approach them for food rather than hunting on their own. Finding a nest, or a rehabilitator who also had baby vultures, would be difficult.
I located a licensed wildlife rehabilitator in Smith County, Tex., and delivered the stabilized chick to her the next day. She said she would make every effort to locate other vulture babies with whom he could grow up and would also work to minimize his direct contact with humans while he was in her care. Though he was now safe in the care of a trained professional, and I knew I had saved his life, I was unsure of what the future held for him. As I drove away, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad for this little creature who had already suffered loss of home and family. Fortunately due to the family’s foresight in bringing the youngster to the open house where he could receive immediate rehabilitative care, he now, at least, would have a chance to live.