CEDAR CITY – Thousands of migrating birds crash-landed across Cedar City and the surrounding area Monday night.
The Cedar City office of the Utah Division of Wildlife Recourses was contacted around 10:30 p.m. on Monday night and was alerted to the presence of hundreds of birds crashing into the Wal-Mart parking lot.
Rain of the Grebes
Lynn Chamberlain, a conservation outreach manager for DWR, said initial reports made the event look exclusive to the Wal-Mart parking lot, but hat was not the case.
“It happened in the entire city of Cedar,” Chamberlain said.
The area surrounding Cedar City was bombarded by the birds, as well as portions of Washington County like Anderson Junction.
Chamberlain said the birds, small duck-like water fowl called Eared Grebes, were migrating south for winter when they became confused by a number of factors which led to their attempting to land in Cedar City. Caught in the storm taking place at the time, the Grebes were looking for a place to touch down. Beneath them, the birds thought they saw bodies of water. Instead, what was perceived to be water was actually snow-covered ground illuminated by lights in parking lots and other areas.
Many birds were killed or injured upon hitting the ground, Chamberlain said, and added that once the Grebes were grounded, they were helpless and easy prey for larger animals like cats, dogs, and foxes.
The Grebe lives its entire life on the water, he said, and while its legs are built for swimming, they are not built for walking on land. The bird can only land and take-off in water as well. Once on the ground, they are practically stranded.
“They are completely defenseless when they get on the ground,” Chamberlain said.
Despite the apparent disadvantage for the Grebes once they landed – a circumstance Chamberlain said must have left the birds “very disappointed” – not being able to get away quickly actually worked in their favor. It allowed the DWR officials to gather the birds with little trouble. In some cases the birds offered little, if any resistance to being handled.
While deceased birds were disposed of, Chamberlain remarked many had actually survived contact with the surface. And while DWR officials did their part to collect the Grebes and transport them to Washington County were unfrozen ponds were available, they were not the only ones caring for the birds.
To the rescue
“The people [of Cedar City] pitch in and bring in birds too,” Chamberlain added.
Wherever the downed birds were found, people from the community picked them up and brought them to the DWR’s office on Airport Road.
The round up of the water fowl went through the night and on into Tuesday morning.
“I’ve never seen such volunteering and support from the community,” said Teresa Griffin, the wildlife program manager for DWR in southern Utah region.
She told of how two Southern Utah University students, who despite having finals the next morning, spent the entire night helping DWR gather the birds. People from all over Cedar had brought in box-loads of Grebes, even as late as Thursday.
“[The Grebes] are still being brought in,” Griffin said. “It’s amazing.”
For people who continued to find birds, Chamberlain encourages them to take the birds to the BWR offices in Cedar City or the Washington County Field Office near Quail Lake. He also suggested they wear leather gloves when handling the birds. They have sharp beaks that, while they do not easily break the skin, can still be an annoyance. The only danger a Grebe can pose to someone is if he or she lets the bird too close to the face where the bird could a peck at an eye.
Chamberlain also estimated between 3000 and 3500 Grebes had been taken to Grandpa’s Pond (Stratton Pond) near Hurricane and released.
For people who handle the birds barehanded, Chamberlain said the best thing was to wash their hands thoroughly afterward. The birds are not known to carry any infections, he added, but said it best to be cautious.
It’s happened before
This has not been the first time the Grebes have made surprise stops in southern Utah.
Griffin remembered a particular time in the spring of 1997 when the Grebe’s paid a visit. It happened in an area 20 miles south of Cedar City, and in the exact same manner.
The birds navigate using the stars, Griffin said, and when they descend below the clouds they become disoriented.
During his 21 years with DWR, Chamberlain said he had seen birds come down in Kanarraville and Enoch. However, in each case, the bird-fall had been relatively small.
“This time was by far the most,” he said.
While he couldn’t put an official number to it, Chamberlain said that tens of thousands of Grebes might have made parts of Iron and Washington County an impromptu rest stop. Unfortunately for the Grebes, that rest stop had some unforeseen consequences.
The Cedar City office of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is located at 1470 N. Airport Road, and can be reached at 435-865-6100. The Washington County Field Office is located at 351 N. SR-318 in Hurricane, and can be reached 435-879-8694.
Copyright 2011 St. George News. This material may not be published or rewritten without written consent.