There’s a Bird in the Back Seat

When Raptor Injuries Warrant Rehab

Published online: Oct 19, 2021 Articles, East Idaho Outdoors
Viewed 2654 time(s)

Photos by Kris Millgate, Tight Line Media

I’m driving 90-minutes from Idaho Falls to Victor. My instructions are simple. Turn the music down and the A/C up. Nothing about speeding so I’m speeding. I’m pulled over 10 minutes away from my destination where the limit drops from 55 mph to 35 mph. I don’t slow down, but I immediately fess up when the officer approaches my driver’s side window.

“I’m speeding for a good reason,” I say in a rush. “There’s a wild bird in my back seat.”

The officer looks over my front seat to the dog crate on my back seat.

“It’s an injured osprey,” I say without smiling. “I’m its ambulance and it’s surprisingly hard not to speed.”

The law raises his eyebrows in surprise. He asks for my license, but doesn’t ask me to open the crate. Good thing because that’s the other instruction I have to follow. Don’t open the crate. The bird will want out. The person I’m meeting in Victor is a trained raptor handler at the Teton Raptor Center in Jackson, Wyo. She gets to open the crate, not me, and she’s opening a lot of crates lately.

Car strikes are the No.1 reason injured raptors end up at the center. It’s permitted to rehab raptors, including owls, osprey and falcons. It can only host crows, ravens and songbirds for two days. It averages 120 patients annually. The osprey I’m transporting is in decent shape so probably not vehicle-related, but feathers are missing and it won’t fly.

I didn’t find the bird. I just volunteered to drive it over the mountain, a do-good mission which may have helped me collect a warning rather than a ticket. I’m a certified Idaho Master Naturalist and that puts me on the call list for wildlife transport emergencies. An Idaho Department of Fish and Game staffer saw the osprey hopping around on a golf green, crated it, then called for help.

“It can be a shot in the dark, but we let the center know what the injury is and they tell us if it’s worth transporting,” says Gerren Steel, Idaho Department of Fish and Game volunteer service coordinator. “A wing injury that’s all twisted up is not something you can fix. Other injuries might be fixable so we call and the center decides.”

The osprey I’m transporting needs a well-managed diet and time to grow new feathers. Her case is promising, but not all cases are. Some injuries don’t warrant rehab and some birds don’t need rescue.

“Young raptors leave the nest but don’t fly a lot, especially owls. They spend a lot of time on the ground,” says Jessica Schonegg, Teton Raptor Center interim rehabilitation director. “We get a lot of calls about birds on the ground that can’t fly, but we try not to kidnap birds if we don’t need to.”

Here’s what to do when you find a grounded bird.

1. Document

Take pictures or record video of the bird’s behavior. Keep your distance while doing this so you don’t add more stress to a bird that’s already stressed about being grounded. Rehabilitators ask for a photo or video so they can see what you see and determine the best course of action. They’re looking for signs of injury like a droopy wing, a limp leg or closed eyes. 

2. Dial

Call your state wildlife agency or nearest raptor center. Every state has a department that manages wildlife. They may not host injured animals, but they’ll know who does. Raptor centers can be operated by the government, but often are specialized non-profit organizations instead. The closest raptor center may be a few hours away, even in states that have multiple facilities.

3. Dark

The center may ask you to keep the bird covered in a dark place until help arrives. That means different things for different birds and has a lot to do with size. If the bird is palm-sized and barely moving, putting it in a box is doable. That’s out of the question for an angry eagle with a wingspan that’s wider than you are tall. Skip the box and try to cover a big bird with a blanket that limits wing flap and what they see.

4. Diet

Refrain from tinkering with animal diet. Birds don’t drink water like we do. They don’t drink water like your dog does either. Raptors get much of their moisture from food. That food isn’t chicken and for many it isn’t even fish, something osprey often talon but hawks not so much. Don’t offer wildlife food or drink while you’re waiting for help to arrive. 

Outdoor journalist Kris Millgate is based in Idaho where she runs trails and chases trout. Sometimes she even catches them when she doesn’t have a camera, or a kid, on her back. Her new book My Place Among Fish is available now. See more of her work at


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