There are several options you should consider before attempting to hand
raise young (downy) raptors. Special precautions should be made to stop them imprinting on humans. Although these may seem inconvenient or too extreme,
they benefit the quality of life for the birds, as well as the reputation of raptors.
that has been raised from a completely downy chick with no precautions against human imprinting
is going to have doubtful release prospects. Human imprints are known to
seek out humans for food, so the chances of recapture are high. This could
be into a budgie cage with a regular supply of cat food!
Even if a particular bird does not tend to approach strangers for food,
it may direct territorial aggression towards people and hunt and kill its own kind when
it becomes sexually mature. Releasing an aggressive raptor is a good way to get someone to fear and kill all the raptors in the area. DON'T DO IT!
Here are some responsible alternatives to keeping a
mentally unbalanced (and unhappy) bird for the rest of it's life.
Any raptor that has been raised from a completely downy chick with no precautions against human imprinting is going to have doubtful release prospects. Human imprints are known to seek out humans for food, so the chances of recapture are high. This could be into a budgie cage with a regular supply of cat food!
Even if a particular bird does not tend to approach strangers for food, it may direct territorial aggression towards people and hunt and kill its own kind when it becomes sexually mature. Releasing an aggressive raptor is a good way to get someone to fear and kill all the raptors in the area. DON'T DO IT!
Here are some responsible alternatives to keeping a mentally unbalanced (and unhappy) bird for the rest of it's life.
The Natural Way...
A new nest can be built near the old unreachable / damaged one the chicks have come from. In many cases parents will adapt to bringing food to the new site. Even if separated from the chicks for a day or two, they should still be in 'parenting mode' and accept them back. If they still have one or more of the brood with them, this separation period can be a little longer. This gives you a day to arrange to put chicks back or put up a substitute nest.
If another breeding pair of the same species are located, chicks can be fostered into that nest. Care should be taken, though, to not overload the parents with a huge brood to feed. As long as the pair's own chicks are of similar age, this does work.
If no wild foster parents can be found, a non-releasable
captive bird may foster them. This bird does not necessarily have to be
a female, or have a mate. The main feature of a fostering candidate is
'broodiness', and a response to the begging cries of hungry chicks. Of
major importance is that potential foster parents are supervised closely
to see that they are not going to eat the chicks! If your educational raptor starts calling,
lays an egg or builds a nest, and you know chicks of that species may turn
up on your doorstep, you have a good possibility of them fostering. Of course, fostering educational birds get maternity / paternity leave while they are raising chicks!
Hand Rearing the Right Way...
If all else fails, and you must hand feed the chicks, this does not have to mean human imprinting and permanent captivity for the 'babies'. With some effort, and planning, you can set up a nest area where the brood will not see too much human activity. If there is only a single chick, it is a good idea to try and find a carer who has some more chicks, and put them together. If not, try a mirror so the bird can see what another chick looks like. The most important factor is to avoid the chicks figuring out where the food comes from. This is because the bringer of food is the parent, and the parent is the chick's species. Or at least that is what their instincts tell them. There are ways of avoiding human imprinting.
For the youngsters who can't yet eat on their own, a hand puppet that looks like 'mum' can be used to hand the cut up food to the birds. At the same time, you will have to have 'disappeared'. The professional breeding projects overseas use camouflaged blankets over the handler's head, with a peep hole for the person to see out. You could also use a solid wall between the birds and you, with peep holes and a small hatch for your arm and hand puppet. Anything so that the bird does not recognise you (or any part of you- including shoes,) as a human being. Don't forget not to talk to them while you are 'hiding'.
Young raptors who are picking up their food on their own are much less
likely to imprint on people than younger birds. It is still important to avoid them seeing you bringing the food. You can do this by
bringing food in a container with a cloth over the top. After you have
been out of sight for a few minutes, you pull the string that is attached
to the cloth, revealing the food to the birds while you are not there. A similar
effect can be achieved by darkening the room or enclosure where the birds
are, and bringing in the food while it is still dark. Wait a few moments,
and put the light back on, without being seen. You can also build a food
chute into an enclosure, where you can stand unobserved, and drop the food
Hacking, or, Soft Release...
This is the way to release hand raised or captive bred birds, once they are beginning to fledge. This method was invented by falconers a couple hundred years ago, and has been adapted for endangered species recovery programs in other countries.
The basic principle is to set up a predator proof nest enclosure in suitable habitat. The young birds (one by itself does not usually work) are kept there before fledging, so that they consider the place 'home'. The earlier they are put in this enclosure, the better their chances. Ideally, this is as soon as they have contour feathers and are eating on their own. Once they are ready to fly, or preferably have mastered take off and landings, the enclosure is left open. The opening of the door has to be done with care (before dawn with diurnal, before dusk with nocturnal birds). Giving a fledgling a fright and causing it to fly in panic can result in it getting lost and starving to death. The fledgelings are free to come and go as they please, and continue being fed from this place. Remember, though, that the birds must not associate you with food, or they may start hanging around people.
The reason this method works so well, is that the raptors continue to
be fed while they learn to fly and hunt in the wild. This is what their
parents do for them naturally. You can get more information from
the Peregrine Fund on how to build a 'hack box'. An aviary with a large release door can also be used. Unfortunately, the 'site fidelity' that keeps fledging raptors close to their nest gradually fades once they have fledged. If raptors are kept (or arrive) past this age, releasing them will be a 'hard release'. This is because they will not stay to be fed, and will most likely die of starvation unless you have given them the chance to learn how to hunt.
Of course, there are exceptions to the rules. There are hand raised human imprints
that have been released without any problems. This applies most to birds
that are group raised, or to Accipiter and Ninox species, who's breeding instincts may override their imprinting instincts. Anyone, however,
who considers releasing an aggressive, food soliciting raptor risks
giving all of us, as well as the birds, a bad name. Large
raptors (or even small extremely aggressive ones) are dangerous. Releasing them in a remote area is also no guarantee,
given the ability of raptors to travel.