FAIRFIELD — Larry Herzig slowly opened the top of the plastic animal carrier.
Out flew one bird, toward the blue sky. A second quickly followed. The third wasn’t far behind and headed for the white oak tree. It’s the same oak tree whose limb broke off, sending the three acorn woodpeckers about 15 feet to the ground.
Herzig was riding his mountain bike in that area of Rockville Park when he heard hissing and chirping noises. A few feet away, he found the bird siblings. One had fallen out of the nest. The other two were inside the limb, where the nest was.
A few hours passed before the birds could be rescued. It was nearing midnight when Rockville Park ranger Terry Lucchini, Herzig and Keith Truex reached the creatures.
Lucchini thought the one on the ground was dead. She picked it up, gave it a gentle touch, and it began to squawk.
“We got to them just in time,” she said.
The three were rounded up, put in a cardboard box and transported to Truex’s home for the night. The ride was noisy.
“Every time you took your hands off them, they got upset,” Truex said. “When you put your hands back on them, it was like, ‘we are cool.’ “ They needed the warmth of human hands.
The birds were transported the next morning to Suisun City’s Wildlife Center.
They looked like baby pterodactyl, said Kris Reiger, wildlife director at the center. She has a cellphone picture taken shortly after their arrival that backs up her statement. Three hairless birds. Three hungry birds and just a few days old. Their eyes weren’t open.
“They were aggressive toward each other at first,” Reiger said. “They were competitive for the food.”
Hand feeding was done every 20 minutes until the birds could eat on their own. Bugs and meal worms were their diet.
The birds were very vocal, Reiger said. When they were hungry, they let the staff know they wanted their food.
“We didn’t have to set a timer,” she said.
She watched their feathers come in and their tails develop.
“It’s been a real learning experience for all of us,” Reiger said of the acorn woodpeckers. “These are the youngest ones (birds) I’ve known of.”
After almost seven weeks of caring for them, Reiger gathered them from an outside aviary Friday morning and put them in the animal carrier. Lucchini and Truex took over from there.
The woodpeckers traveled in Lucchini’s park ranger truck and were driven to the location where they were found. The hope was one of the three woodpecker colonies at the park would welcome them into the fold.
At the release, Herzig saw the birds for the first time since he helped rescue them. Once Lucchini lifted the towel off the crate, Herzig looked on in amazement.
Lucchini, Herzig and Truex watched the birds for about 10 minutes. Each said they would be checking on the acorn woodpeckers to see if the colony they were from welcomed them back.
Herzig, who has volunteered at the park for about 20 years, was moved by the release.
“I feel like I got to see something from start to finish,” he said.
Lucchini estimated it had been at least 10 years since acorn woodpeckers had been released back into the park. With 18 years of service at the park, Lucchini has seen her share of animal releases.
“A lot of times I see the not-so-happy endings,” she said.
If the acorn woodpeckers aren’t welcomed back into their colony, they may set up one of their own. Sticking together will be a plus for the trio, she said.
The bigger issue might be finding another oak tree.
“Their habitat is quickly disappearing,” Lucchini said. “They are cavity nesters. We don’t have oak trees replacing our old ones.”
Why the trees are dying is a mystery, she said. Attempts to grow new ones aren’t working, either. Seedlings only seem to last a year or two, Lucchini said.
If neither of those works, there is the option to capture the acorn woodpeckers and relocate them, she said.
“This is the best shot we can give them,” Lucchini said. “I think they will do fine.”
Reach Amy Maginnis-Honey at 427-6957 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/amaginnisdr.