LARGO — The baby hawk squatted amid the leaves on the ground, a swirl of 100 elementary school students barely missing its fragile little body as they ran around celebrating the last day of school with a picnic beneath an oak tree.
Daniel Stough, a stay-at-home father of a first-grader, spotted the bird first and worried it would get squashed. The baby's eyes had yet to open; it was gangly and could barely walk. Stough peered up at the massive oak tree behind Largo's Anona Elementary School and noticed a big nest 40 feet up.
"I told everyone, 'Don't touch it,' " Stough said. "I didn't want anyone to step on it."
Every year around nesting season, baby birds fall out of nests and land in driveways and yards and other public areas throughout the Tampa Bay area. The question for many is whether to let nature take its course or to intervene.
Stough called the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, a wild bird hospital in Indian Shores that receives about 30 to 40 birds a day, about a third of them babies.
Before long Stough was handing the bird over to Greg Slutzky, the sanctuary's rescue manager, who said he would take it to the sanctuary to get checked out. The two men gazed up at the baby's mother, perched on a branch next to the nest.
"If (the baby's) OK, I'll bring him back here and try and get him back up there with a ladder," said Slutzky, 57.
At the bird hospital, volunteers bustled around feeding babies and cleaning cages filled with injured birds and baby screech owls, songbirds, woodpeckers, herons and other fallen birds — victims of everything from sibling rivalry to encroaching development.
"This is our busiest time," said Barbara Suto, the hospital supervisor. "Our emergency room is jam packed."
Many are fed a combination of mealworms and chicken from baby food jars, some as often as every 15 to 20 minutes. Sometimes, volunteers stick the stuffed head of a yellow-crowned night heron into the cages at feeding time so the birds don't associate food with humans.
Not all the birds make it. Like the baby blue jay the size of a Matchbox car that arrived Tuesday.
"He's dying," said Rick Gechter, an avian care specialist at the sanctuary, as he tried to feed it. Minutes later, the blue jay was gone.
Often, birds are restored to their nests, because their mothers raise them best.
Such was the case with the baby Cooper's hawk found at the elementary school. It was mildly dehydrated, so Suto, the hospital supervisor, gave the bird some fluids and dusted it for mites.
Slutzky, the rescue manager, planned to put the hawk back into its nest today. The sanctuary also was trying to arrange help from Progress Energy for a crane to put a baby red-shouldered hawk back into its nest in Seminole.
But many birds, like the baby yellow-crowned night heron recently found by April Patelli in her Davis Island yard, will likely learn to fly at the sanctuary.
Patelli, 29, wanted to help the baby, which hid under her van and in the bushes for a day until she figured out she could take it to the sanctuary.
"I was very concerned this bird wasn't able to take care of himself," said Patelli, 29, a stay-at-home mother, "and if that was the case, it was going to die, and — I don't know — something in me thought, 'I can't let that happen.' "
Times staff writer Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at email@example.com or 727-893-8640.