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‘Hawkpocalypse’: Baby birds of prey have leaped from their nests to escape West’s extreme heat

A wildlife center in Oregon was swamped with calls in late June when a record-breaking heatwave spurred baby birds to flee their nests. (Video: Reuters)

One wildlife rehabilitation center in rural Oregon says it got “three months’ worth of birds” in three days.

Another, in northern California, declared a “hawkpocalypse” in June.

And earlier in the summer, Portland Audubon, a nonprofit environmental organization, took in more than 100 Cooper’s hawks over four days as temperatures soared to record highs in the 110s. Normally, it might get a dozen in a year.

Around the West, young birds of prey have been jumping out of their nests before they can fly to escape historic heat, landing helpless on the ground and in some cases suffering injuries so serious they are euthanized. With more scorching temperatures coming for the northwestern United States and Canada starting this weekend, experts worry extreme weather fueled by climate change is set to take a growing toll on wildlife.

The creatures picked up by humans and delivered to rehabilitation centers are just “the tip of the iceberg,” said Bob Sallinger, director of conservation at Portland Audubon. He said the long-term effects are hard to predict but sees the recent spate of bird intakes as “data points” in a vast, still-unfolding and alarming story.

“I think these events really are wake-up calls,” he said, noting that birds in Oregon have already weathered intense wildfires and an ice storm in the past year. “That climate change is here, that the impacts are becoming more and more visible.”

He added: “What’s scary to me, as somebody that’s been working on bird conservation for decades, is that, you know, these incredibly abnormal events are starting to become common. … They’re occurring at a rapid pace. And no one fully understands the implications.”

Climate change has gotten deadly. It will get worse.

In Pendleton, Ore., “the phone just started ringing” as temperatures spiked and hit 117 degrees in late June, said Lynn Tompkins, head of Blue Mountain Wildlife rehabilitation facility. “I mean, I would answer the phone and I would miss two or three calls every time I talked to somebody. And it was always the same.”

The heat wave had run right into nesting season. Tompkins said they’re used to seeing the hottest temperatures in August, when young Swainson’s and Cooper’s hawks would be out of the nest and capable of finding their own shade.

Staff’s first advice to callers: Give the grounded birds some water. Turn on a sprinkler nearby. Leave them alone to recuperate if you can, especially if the parents are around.

But some birds were injured. Fifteen to 20 percent of the influx at Blue Mountain Wildlife could not be saved, she estimated. Some had fallen from as high as 60 feet, she said. A couple had broken both legs.

In California, Jeanne Capozzo, who goes by “Raven,” said the “hawkpocalypse” began for her one Saturday night in June. Eleven Cooper’s hawks arrived virtually all at once at Shasta Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation, a mostly volunteer operation in the town of Anderson.

“I was like, uh oh, we have a situation,” said Capozzo, the center’s coordinator and only full-time staffer. She had just ordered a thousand mice, but within days she was calling her rodent supplier to ask for thousands more.

Other birds are affected, too. In Seattle, conservationists blamed oppressive heat when Caspian Tern chicks plummeted to their deaths in late June. But hawks in particular are “just falling out of the sky,” Capozzo said.

“Is that going to keep happening?” she wondered Saturday, thinking ahead to next summer and lamenting a punishing combination of drought, wildfires and sweltering days. “Is this something that now we should just be sort of planning for?”

At first, Capozzo said she thought of the nest-leaping as a local phenomenon. But temperatures were spiking around California and beyond. She heard other centers were seeing the same problems.

“Our ICU has never been so full,” the OWL Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation Society tweeted from Canada this month.

“It was definitely happening across the entire state,” said Sally Compton, the executive director of wildlife nonprofit Think Wild in central Oregon.

Raptors — or birds of prey — nest high up in trees and in direct sunlight, said Compton, which means they are sensitive to hot days and might sustain injuries such as head trauma or fractured wings if they tumble down.

Many animals have come in to the rescue center overheated, she said. Staff members have been checking temperatures, alert for other signs such as all-day sleeping or mouth-wide-open breathing.

It’s hard to say if the heat could affect hawk numbers, Compton said. But she also believes it is part of a broader story. She thinks of pikas and Cascades frogs that thrive in cooler climates and great gray owls that depend on “old-growth forests” threatened by wildfires.

“We can definitely say that these really intense events and wildfires and heat waves. … The wildlife can’t keep up with it,” Compton said.

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