Keeping an eye out: when wildlife needs your help

“The most beneficial and effective reaction to wildlife, then, (for humans and animals alike) is to learn to share the land we inhabit. Even if you live in an urban environment and have no outdoor space or limited outdoor space, or if you have a pet cat or dog; the way in which these spaces and animals are managed can make a significant difference to wildlife populations within urban contexts.”

'Black and white native Australian magpie (Cracticus tibicen)' by SJ Allen. Sourced via Shutterstock, stock photo ID: 202013578.

For World Wildlife Day 2018, we asked Jacinta Shrimpton, University of Sydney Honours Student and Volunteer for Sydney Wildlife Rescue, to share her story on what inspired her to get involved with wildlife rescue and care. Below, find out what to do, and what not to do, when encountering wildlife in need.

About six months ago I saw a magpie with its legs entangled in red string, flapping madly as it hung upside down from a low tree branch. I looked on as people attempted to disconnect the magpie from the tree.

In this situation, the best thing to do does not include fashioning a poking device to poke at the magpie and the string with, nor does it include batting at the magpie with your hands, a shoe, or some other object. The people doing this had good intentions but made the situation more stressful for the magpie and themselves. Instead, the best thing to do is to contact a wildlife rescue organisation, using the app IFAW Wildlife Rescue, or calling one you already know, such as Wires. While these are relevant only in NSW, keep in mind that each state government lists registered wildlife rescue organisations online. If the phone-lines are engaged when you ring, the website of the organisation will offer temporary measures for you to employ when dealing with wildlife in distress. My attempts to help this particular magpie led me to Sydney Wildlife, a charity that exists to rescue, rehabilitate and release native wildlife.

By the time I made it downstairs and across the street, the well-meaning members of the public had dispersed, and the magpie was free of the tree and flying around attempting to alight on any horizontal surface available; its string entangled legs made it impossible for it to stand. Eventually, exhausted, it lay down on an open stretch of grass, vulnerable to dogs, cats, and several swooping ravens. My partner and I stood protectively nearby and called Sydney Wildlife. On their advice, we grabbed an intact towel with no holes in it, no loose strings extending from it, and began operation Catch-The-Magpie.

We were able to get quite close to the magpie; this is a clear signal with most wildlife that their well-being is compromised. Throwing a towel over the animal imparts a darkness and closeness that will, after some time, quiet and calm them. If we were to succeed in getting the towel over the magpie, our intention was then to gently gather it up and put it in a cardboard box with a lid and air holes, ready for collection by a qualified rescuer, or to take to the vet if need be. We would’ve held off offering food or water to the bird; this should be done only under advisement from the wildlife organisation.

However, this was our maiden bird-catching voyage; we were slow and afraid, and the magpie’s wings were unencumbered. It escaped our towel and took flight, perching on wires at 2 pm, wobbling and uncomfortable; a tree at 2.30pm, cawing sadly; another tree at 2.45pm, still cawing, still wobbling; another at 3 pm, and on it went as the hours rolled by, and our backwards craning necks discovered new depths of cricks and aching. Occasionally we were joined by passers-by, residents in apartments wondering why we were huddled underneath their windows gazing up, and, most heart-warmingly, people who had seen the magpie hours earlier on their way to work and had come back to check on it.

Ultimately we were unsuccessful; we couldn’t catch the magpie. But we also did the right thing; we called Sydney Wildlife and followed their advice. And by ineffectually following this poor, beleaguered magpie around, I realised something. Wildlife depends on me for survival. Not this particular magpie, which got itself free of the string entwining its legs, and not necessarily me, but individuals who take it upon themselves to notice, to care, and to do something.

This prompted me to sign myself up (and conscript my partner) for the two-day Rescue and Care course with Sydney Wildlife. Since joining, I have been volunteering in the office. This means that I take calls from members of the public who are concerned about the wildlife they’ve seen or encountered, I find out what has happened, provide advice, coordinate rescue and care efforts, and follow up on wildlife cases that are yet to be resolved.

When people call the office, they are often experiencing some distress themselves. For the most part, they are worried and upset. However, some are afraid or irritated, which tends to result in aggressive and anthropocentric reactions. While it is sometimes correct to approach wildlife (cautiously and under advisement); throwing things, yelling, chasing off, or similarly confronting wildlife will have unpredictable results; you may only encourage the animal to defend itself by attacking you. On the flip side, if the animal is injured, such behaviour may stress it to the point of death. When we encounter people who are afraid of the wildlife that they are calling us about, we find that offering them knowledge about the animal is an efficient way to help them feel they have more control in the situation. The animal becomes less of an unknown, unpredictable quantity, and more a being with recognisable behaviour and needs. If you’re afraid of the wildlife that you encounter, you might find learning about it diminishes this fear and allows you to enjoy a new dimension of your surroundings. For instance, Gisela Kaplan, Professor of Animal Behaviour at UNE, has undoubtedly assuaged the fears of many living with magpie-phobia by writing about human/magpie relations.

Furthermore, requesting wildlife rescue organisations to remove wildlife that annoys you (or trying to do it yourself) may not result in the outcome that you hope for. There are strict legal regulations that govern where wildlife may be released, and who it may be captured or released by. For instance, possums must be released by a registered permit holder within 150 meters of where they were originally found. They are territorial animals, and release into another animal’s territory can result in competition for resources and death.

The most beneficial and effective reaction to wildlife, then, (for humans and animals alike) is to learn to share the land we inhabit. Even if you live in an urban environment and have no outdoor space or limited outdoor space, or if you have a pet cat or dog; the way in which these spaces and animals are managed can make a significant difference to wildlife populations within urban contexts (Parsons, 2018, p.97). Densely populated inner-city suburbs contain wildlife too, although it is often invisible until in need of our assistance. Find out how you can support the wildlife you live alongside, or if this is too overwhelming, keep an eye out and give us a call if you see an animal that needs our help!


Cubby, Ben. (2010, June 6). Possum dumping ‘a death sentence’. The Sydney Morning Herald.
Kaplan, Gisela. (2017, October 17). Magpies can form friendships with people – here’s how. The Conversation.
Law, Margot. (2017, December 1). The Wild Wild Inner West.
NSW Office of Environment and Heritage. How do I get a possum out of my roof?
Ondinea, Danie. (February 28, 2018). Protecting and Recreating Habitat for Urban Wildlife.
Parsons, Holly. (February 28, 2018). Best Practice Guidelines for Enhancing Urban Bird Habitat.
Addison Road Community Centre. (February 28, 2018). Urban Habitats.

Jacinta Shrimpton is an Honours student at the University of Sydney and has a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Philosophy. Research for Jacinta’s thesis will include looking at what nature is, the division between humans and nature, how aesthetic experiences of nature prompt relationships between humans and nature, and whether these relationships dispose humans to behave ethically towards nature.

This blog is a part of SEI’s Student Blog Series, which features original content by Honours, Masters and PhD students at the University of Sydney who are undertaking research on environmental issues and topics. If you are a current postgraduate student at the University of Sydney who would like to participate in the series, click here for details.