Photo by Jen Siska

[MakeShift was a column and competition, by MacGyver creator Lee Zlotoff, that ran in Make: magazine for its first five years. This challenge appeared in Make: Volume 24, 2010. Read past installments of MakeShift here.]

The Scenario

You’re one of a group of eight intrepid girl scouts, all 11 or 12 years old, who are off on your own for a hike in a mountain forest to prepare for a future overnighter. Suddenly you’re all stopped by the sharp, plaintive peeping of baby birds. Searching for the source, you come upon a large tree beside a rocky mountain stream, at the base of which you find a mother hawk struggling with a broken wing, helpless to feed or defend her brood in the nest perched high above. It’s clear that if you don’t intervene, both the mother and her chicks will soon fall prey to predators, and given the location, hiking back out for help is not an option.

The Challenge

The nest is a good 25 feet off of the ground, among a circle of sturdy branches, below which the tree is an almost perfect cylinder about 3 feet in diameter with no obvious way to climb. Still, all of you are determined to rescue this family and get them to the wildlife center near your base camp some five miles back down the mountain. How can you possibly do that without endangering the birds or yourselves? Well, you are scouts, after all, no?

What You’ve Got

All of you are physically fit and range in height from 4 to 5 feet tall. You each have a backpack, hiking boots, a water bottle, and a 3-foot-square bandana. You also have among you a Leatherman tool, a Swiss Army knife, a basic first-aid kit, a roll of duct tape, and two four-person tents of ripstop nylon with the bungee cords and metal tent pegs that go with them. In addition, you have an emergency whistle and several pounds of trail mix. All your cellphones were left back at the base camp (lest you spend the entire hike texting one another), and alas, you have no cookies. So now what?

Analysis and Commentary

In this challenge, you are one of eight young girl scouts (all characterized as “intrepid,” it’s worth noting) who come across a wounded mother hawk on the ground with her nest of chicks stranded some 25 feet up a tree, and it’s your job to figure out a way to rescue them all and safely transport them to the nearest wildlife shelter.

After devising a way to carefully secure and contain the mother hawk for transport (which most of you did with ease), this left you with two basic options: either find a way to get someone up the tree to collect the chicks, or conversely, find a way to somehow get the chicks down.

Of course, there were some who simply elected to punt and suggested sending half the troop out for help while the others kept watch over the birds to munch on the trail mix and fend off any potential predators. We tried to suggest this wasn’t really an option, but perhaps it just revealed that you weren’t quite as “intrepid” as your friends. Either way, that approach really just dodged the challenge and so didn’t earn much in the way of points.

For those who confronted the problem head on, interestingly enough, most of you found the height factor daunting and so devised any number of elaborate schemes to upend the nest and catch the falling baby birds in a spread open tent — a la a fireman’s net — or some other container. While these approaches showed plenty of creativity, and certainly avoided the risk of someone going up the tree, we found ourselves questioning whether any of these plans would really work as described. And, unless they worked flawlessly, the risk to some or all of the chicks was considerable. So, though we appreciated all the imagination involved, we felt this probably wasn’t the best way to tackle the problem.

As for those few who proposed getting someone up to the nest, a number of proposals were suggested, including one that devised a tree climber’s rig of a loop around the tree with tent pegs taped to their boots to use as spikes and a knife in each hand to insure hand-holds in the tree on the way up. Mucho points for clever thinking on that one. But we also saw that as dubious in the execution and carrying way too much risk for someone not really experienced in using such a rig regardless of how intrepid they were.

To our way of thinking, the most plausible approach was to use the bandanas, tents, and other available clothing to form a rope of sorts that could be tossed over a branch near the nest and lowered back down far enough that it could be caught from the ground. Or perhaps one girl standing atop the shoulders of another. Then, using the backpacks and tape to form a secure climbing harness fitted around the legs and shoulders of one of the lighter girls, the remaining seven girls could together hoist her up along the tree, perhaps with a tree-climbers loop around the tree trunk to allow those pulling from below to take a rest if needed. But with seven all pulling together while the harnessed girl used her arms and legs to assist in scrambling up the tree, we thought the height problem could be overcome fairly quickly and efficiently.

Once the climber was hoisted high enough to swing her weight up onto a branch near the nest, she could then use the climber’s loop to temporarily secure herself around the tree before pulling up another backpack with the rope. Then, carefully placing the whole nest with the chicks in the backpack, she could carefully lower it down to the girls below to cushion with clothing, etc. for transport. At that point the climbing girl would untie her loop, and with all seven girls back on the ground end of the rope, they could simply reverse the process and slowly lower her down to earth.

Granted there’s some risk involved here, and the climbing girl would need to be comfortable with the height factor and entrusting herself to her friends. But with eight girls, it seemed likely that one of them would be willing to take the leap as it were.

So we applaud all of you who entered for engaging the problem and thinking hard in the interest of protecting our all too often endangered wildlife. If we all did a bit more of that on a regular basis we might just help to ensure our own survival in the century to come. Our heartfelt congratulations to the winners for their imagination, effort and patience in forgiving me for my tardiness in announcing them.


MakeShift Master — Most Creative: Colleen Johnson (Age 12)
MakeShift Master — Most Creative: Daniel Chamudot
Honorable Mention — Matthew De Venecia (age 13)
Honorable Mention — Makefan (age 12)