Crash Landings and Recent Mass Grounding of Grebes in Utah

Through the combined efforts of Southwest Wildlife Foundation, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, and volunteers, rescued Grebes this week were released back into the wild.

Staff members at International Bird Rescue are no strangers to the phenomenon of “crash landed” birds, which we typically call “grounded” birds. Severe storm conditions can bring down birds – and sometimes they mistake wet pavement and large puddles as landing areas. The birds most vulnerable to this phenomenon are Grebes, Loons and some species of waterfowl.

This week, approximately 3,000 Eared Grebes crashed in various locations around Southern Utah, presumably mistaking wet surfaces, like one Walmart parking lot, for large bodies of water.

After hard landings on solid ground or in shallow puddles, birds like this cannot get lift off. They require a water runway to gain momentum and height. Grounded birds are vulnerable to predators and vehicles, and as they struggle to fly they can injure themselves even more. About 2,000 of Utah’s grounded Eared Grebes have been rescued and released into open water, which is an excellent percentage in light of an occurrence of this magnitude.

International Bird Rescue has had a few smaller scale incidents like the crash landings in Utah, especially during fall and spring migrations, when birds are active and on the move. The lucky ones are brought into our two California wildlife rehabilitation centers. These birds are mostly very healthy and strong, with cuts and bruises that are easily treated. They are released as quickly as possible.

I remember 30 years ago when a very powerful storm with high winds moved through the San Francisco Bay Area and grounded a large number of Pacific Loons. 40 of these Loons were brought to our wildlife rehabilitation center within 6 hours. It was crazy – the pools were full, but all but 2 were released.

The situation in Utah is unusual in that so many Eared Grebes were brought down at one time. Ideally every survivor would be examined and treated prior to release, but in an emergency situation like this, where expertise and resources are limited, the best thing to do is to capture the survivors and get them to open water ASAP.

It looks like the rescuers in Utah did that as best they could, and I am sure that many of the birds that survived a hard landing did so because the snow and grassy areas acted as a cushion for them. All of us at International Bird Rescue would like to acknowledge and thank the people who spent many hours helping these birds and giving them a second chance.

Jay Holcomb
Director Emeritus
International Bird Rescue