Thursday, June 28, 2012

High Park Fire and the RMRP

Today I'm going to write in response to the numerous questions the Humans have been fielding at the RMRP, and the written questions I've received.  As I'm sure almost all of my readers know, there's a massive wildfire burning just west of Fort Collins, where I live at the RMRP.  The fire began June 9ths from a lightning strike in the forest.  Since then the fire has burned over 87,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of homes.  Finally today the fire is 75% contained, and there are hopes that it will be 100% contained over the weekend.  (By the way, I know all of this because the American Kestrel next door has a Twitter account: @RaptorProgram - subscribe to hear more fun updates from the birds!).

Out of concern for the RMRP, many Humans have been asking what the effect of the fire is on the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program. But before I get into that, I should point out that the fire and the drought/heatwave combined are what are causing all the problems. Colorado (and a lot of other places in the US, apparently) is in the middle of a record-breaking drought.  Hardly any rain this month, and hardly any snow all's scary.  The air tastes dry, and the grasses in the field outside my cage rustle like tinder all day long.  On top of that, we're in the middle of an exhausting heat wave!  And all of the problems feed back into each it's not just the High Park Fire that's the issue here.

The effects of all this on the RMRP hit in three different ways:

1. Effects on the educational ambassadors

Day 1 of the High Park Fire
During the first two weeks of the fire the smoke here in Fort Collins was really bad, and both Humans and birds were feeling the impact.  Everyone was so irritable and so worried!  I'm pretty sure I did nothing but hiss and glare and clack my beak those entire two weeks.  Because birds have more sensitive respiratory systems than Humans, the Humans at the RMRP restricted our activity a lot.  The fist-fed birds were taken out to be fed and weighed, then put right back.  The birds like me that are fed in the cage were completely left alone (except for cage cleaning and frequent checks, of course!).  The Humans just didn't want us to get riled up and start breathing heavily.  Not only are there immediate effects of smoke inhalation, but us birds can have long-term health issues because the low air quality makes us extra-susceptible to a mold called Aspergillus.  The Humans will be keeping a very close eye on us in case any of us gets sick.

In recent weeks the smoke has dissipated and the air is easier to breath, but in its place we've had an intense heat wave!  Of course, the heat and drought of the summer are contributors to the it's all cyclic and bad.  But the Humans are keeping us nice and cool in our cages, and feathers are crossed that the heat will be gone soon.

2. Effects on wild raptors

So first, there was a drought, and the animals in the mountains were already feeling the strain of it.  If there's no food where an animal has territory, the animal will move to better ground.  Add to that the fire which scorched 87,000 acres of previously habitable land (that's twice the size of Fort Collins and Loveland combined).  Now all the wildlife is definitely fleeing.  There have been reports of cougars in Loveland and moose in Fort Collins, and all manner of critters in between.

Now, keep in mind that most raptors currently have chicks in the nest.  What is a month Owl or Hawk or Eagle going to do when she's overwhelmed with smoke and the fire draws near?  The only thing she can do: fly away and save her life so she can have more chicks next year.  And the chicks that are left behind have practically zero chance of rescue because all the Humans that could help them have been evacuated.  It's a terrible loss of life but it's part of nature.

Size of the fire and distance from Fort Collins
So what about the birds that did survive?  They're going to fly until they find suitable habitat to start a new life.  But the problem with suitable habitat is that it's usually already taken.  That means the new arrivals will be competing with the current residents, and everybird involved is going to feel the strain.

And, finally, remember the drought: there's not a big prey-base to begin with this year, so now there are more birds on less land with less prey to go around.  And for the birds that didn't have to flee the fire, they're trying desperately to feed the chicks in their nest, but they're feeling the effects of the competition and if they can't make ends meet they will abandon the nest to save themselves and try again next year.  And the chicks, hungry and desperate themselves, start jumping out of the nest before they're ready in the hopes they'll find food.

No matter how you slice it, it's a sad state of affairs for wildlife in Colorado this year.

3. Overall effect on the RMRP

Aside from the worry and anxiety felt here at the RMRP as a result of the fire and the heat, the Humans are also seeing the more obvious effects of it all.  As usual, the problems manifest themselves in two ways: case load and money.

Immature American Kestrels
Case load:  With the combined effects of fire, drought and heat, the number of immature and starving birds the Humans are admitting is daunting.  How many dozens of Kestrels do we have right now??  And the numbers will only continue to rise as we progress further into the drought, and as the displaced animals begin to feel the effects of the increased competition.

But wait, there's more:  As the birds get hungry they'll start taking bigger risks to get food.  This may lead to an increase in traumatic injuries like car hits.  And, finally, the mosquito that carries West Nile Virus loves this hot, dry weather.  We can expect to see West Nile birds soon.

Money:  It's a worry, like always.  This time the worry stems from all the good and compassionate things that Humans are doing with their money right now: they're donating it to other deserving causes like the Red Cross and the Humane Society, trying to help in any way possible the people who have lost their homes in this fire, and the firefighters and other personnel who have worked so hard to beat back the fire.  With all that money going towards those causes, the donations coming to the RMRP have reduced to a trickle.  The Humans are seriously worried about how they'll pay the basic bills in the next few months.  And it's not that the RMRP begrudges the donations to the Red Cross, etc! Not at all--those people really do need help.  Unfortunately, at RMRP donations are significantly down at a time when our workload and number of patients is ever-increasing.  We simply cannot continue this work without your financial support.

Great Horned Owl

Since, as a Great Horned Owl, I can't go get a job and donate a portion of my paycheck to the RMRP (or anyone, for that matter), I'm going to send out a little plea here:  please help.  This year is almost assuredly going to bring record numbers of starved, injured and orphaned raptors to the RMRP.  If we want to save these birds, we need the financial support to do it.  Please donate here if you can. 

I hope this article has helped answer some of your questions about how the High Park Fire, drought and heat wave are affecting the raptors and the RMRP.  If you have any more questions, please don't hesitate to email me at  Thanks for reading!

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