A Tern For The Better: Rescued Baby Birds Returned To Their Native Habitat

Caspian Terns, with green marking for study purposes, get ready to be released at the Salton Sea. Photo: Jay Holcomb – International Bird Rescue

After nearly 6 weeks in care, rescued Elegant and Caspian Terns have been returned to the wild.

Our rescue story begins in the spring of 2006 as adult Caspian and Elegant terns began nesting on two empty barges anchored in the Long Beach Harbor. The barges quickly became covered with thousands of the beautiful white birds; nesting, incubating and feeding their young. The colony was the northernmost breeding colony in the world and the first recorded colony established on barges.

News of the rare colony spread quickly and stories began appearing in newspaper, television and birder blogs. Biologists, bird lovers and kids learning about nature were thrilled by the sight and the viewing the colonies became the high point of Long Beach harbor cruise tours.

But on things turned tragic on Wednesday, and Friday, June 28, and June 30 – when 911 calls came into Bird Rescue’s San Pedro Center. One barge, and then the other, had been cleaned of all the terns – the colonies were completely destroyed. Dead baby terns lay on the beach like trash. Bird Rescue staff and veterinarians who responded to the grizzly scene found only nine elegant and 15 Caspian tern chicks still alive among the hundreds of dead and dying.

It was a tragic and heartbreaking ending to what had become a thrilling sight for everyone who saw the thriving colony. The cold, wet and hungry survivors were rushed back to the center while other responders counted and collected every body as evidence. (Migratory birds are protected by both state and federal laws and animal cruelty is a felony in California.) News crews recorded the crime scene while USFWS and California Department of Fish & Game began investigating.

Photo of Elegant Terns before being released from San Pedro bird center at International Bird Rescue
Surviving Elegant Terns before being released from San Pedro bird center. Photo: International Bird Rescue

Would the baby terns survive in captivity?

Without their parents, baby terns are most certainly at a disadvantage and it was unknown whether they could be raised in captivity and released back to the wild. Terns are incredibly attentive parents who feed their young for many months while also teaching them how to fish. Fortunately, these babies were at the best wildlife rescue center in California and they did survive, and thrive. Bird Rescue staff and volunteers where thrilled when they saw adult terns, with fish in their mouths, flying above the cages that housed the chicks. Could the parents have found their babies? Stranger things have happened.

Rescued Elegant Tern before being released from the San Pedro bird center. Photo: Jay Holcomb – International Bird Rescue

Six weeks later, the Caspian and Elegant terns were fully feathered juveniles and deemed ready for release back to the wild – a major wildlife rehabilitation accomplishment. The Elegant Terns had caught on quickly and grew to be strong and capable hunters; the Caspian Terns continued to beg and were more of a challenge to Bird Rescue staff. However, every tern survived and the decision was made to release the two species separately, at two different locations.

On August 14, 2006, as cameras snapped, the nine elegant terns were released at Cabrillo Beach, in San Pedro, CA where other of their species were feeding.  They had been fitted with double bands, one Federal and one color and also had been marked with a bright green dot, so birders could easily identify and report the sighting of them.

Photo of surviving baby Caspian Terns released at Salton Sea in August 2006 by International Bird Rescue
Raised at the San Pedro Center, 15 surviving baby Caspian Terns were released at Salton Sea in August 2006. Photo: Jay Holcomb – International Bird Rescue

The almost complete destruction of the tern colonies on two barges in Long Beach Harbor is still being investigated by both Federal and State wildlife authorities.  The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) posted a $10,000 reward as well as providing $5,000 for the care of the terns.