Celebrating the Icky Factor!

CSMag_Vulture_Black and Turkey_WPWhat better time than the month of Halloween to introduce you to the Vulture, commonly referred to as a buzzard. Some people consider vultures creepy, scary, ugly and even icky, but what they may lack in good looks they make up for in personality and a purposeful life. There are 23 species of vultures found worldwide (except Australia and Antarctica), but our resident girls at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC (Xena & Zelda)  represent the only two vulture species found in North Carolina. Xena, the red faced, brown feathered bird with whitish flight feathers underneath is a Turkey Vulture, and Zelda, the Black Vulture, has black plumage with a gray neck and head. Some folks say the Black Vulture has the “prettier face,” but don’t tell Xena that! Both girls were admitted to the shelter years ago with car graze injuries that when healed, rendered them non-releasable. They have been part of our shelter’s education program, best friends and enclosure-mates ever since. Vultures are extremely gregarious, social and practice the concept of family. You will often see large community groups of vultures roosting together in trees and unfortunately, sometimes on rooftops. Groups of vultures are referred to as a committee, vortex, venue and even a wake. A circling of vultures in the air is called a kettle which relates to the appearance of something boiling in a cauldron. Vultures are considered raptors, but rather than taking down prey like an eagle or a hawk does, their prey is already down. Vultures in general feed on dead animals. buzzardsWPThey are scavengers of roadkill and animals who have expired by other means as well. If dead animals or carrion is scarce, they will eat eggs or kill newborn animals. In defense of the Turkey Vulture, it’s usually the more aggressive Black Vulture that may attack living prey. If protein sources are hard to find, they both will eat almost anything; pumpkins, grass and seeds. In areas populated by humans, garbage dumps become stomping grounds for vultures. In the wild, vultures find meals either by using their keen eyesight or by following other vultures. Most birds’ olfactory senses are minimal to none, but a vulture’s sense of smell is elevated which helps them locate their meals, even in the density of a forest. They are referred to as “tearers,” which is what the word vulture means in Latin. They use their hooked, long beak as a ripping tool when dining on dead carcasses. Both Turkey and Black Vultures have bald heads to prevent getting their feathers contaminated from carrion. Vultures occasionally consume too much of a good thing, ultimately gorging themselves. At that point, they can’t fly and will have to wait out digestion to get off the ground again. Although they are raptors, their feet are quite different than birds that rely on powerful talons to capture prey. A vulture’s feet are more adapted to walking, running and hopping and look more like chickens’ feet.  The vulture’s anatomy lacks a syrinx, which is the vocal organ in birds, so the only vocalizations they share and we can hear are grunts or hisses. Vultures must chuckle a bit when they are mistaken for the majestic eagle or the considered more beautiful osprey, as they soar high in the sky with their 6 foot wingspan. An avian sports contender, the vulture can glide for hours without flapping a wing, which attests to its remarkable endurance. VultureInFlightWPVultures enjoy sunny days over gray days because they need warmed air with sufficient thermals to support soaring. It’s actually easy to tell vultures from other birds in the sky if you know what to look for. A vulture’s wings form the shape of a “V” in flight, and they tilt from side to side as they soar, unlike eagles and hawks. In our coastal region, we see vultures year round. They are permanent residents, mostly non-migratory. Most vultures mate for life after winning their significant other with impressive courtship dance moves. During breeding season, trees are not their choice for nesting. Their eggs are laid on the ground and hidden under cover, in rock crevices, in hollow trees or logs, or sometimes in hillside depressions or caves. The eggs are whitish with lots of dark brown markings and both parents incubate the eggs from 38 to 41 days. Vultures generally raise two chicks each year and feed their young by regurgitation. Like most species, young birds look different than the adult birds, although baby vultures are unfortunately, still homely. CSMag_Vulture_Baby_WPYoung vultures have a gray head, bill and legs. They get their adult coloration and plumage when they are 1-2 years old. One might wonder how vultures don’t get sick feeding on dead and rotting food choices. The answer is; they have a digestive system that contains special acids that can dissolve some pretty bad stuff such as anthrax, botulism, salmonella and cholera bacteria. Medical researchers continue to look at the vulture’s innate protection system in attempts to find an effective treatment for humans suffering with serious and deadly afflictions. In the spirit of the “spooky” holiday this month, the vulture tops the “Icky-Factor” list. Yes, they eat dead and spoiled things, but they also use projectile vomiting as a defense mechanism. So be careful if you wonder into a vulture roosting area. You will be perceived as a disturbance and some of the icky stuff could be heading your way very quickly and accurately in attempts to scare you off! Another icky-factor includes the knowledge that they cool themselves by urinating or defecating on their own legs. Quite the air-conditioning system! Just a few more reasons why people don’t want them too close to their house, but in the United States, the vulture receives legal protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. It is illegal to take, kill, or possess vultures and violation of the law is punishable by a fine of up to $15,000 and imprisonment of up to six months. So despite all the ickiness, how about a little respect for these dutiful birds who fulfill their inherent role in nature to cleanse disease from our environment, which helps other animals and people from getting sick. And who knows, these prehistoric creatures may just have the answer and cure for medical conditions the human race has been struggling with since the beginning of time.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN EVERYONE!!

LINDA BERGMAN-ALTHOUSE

author of “Save Them All

 

Happy Hummer!

BlogSep2014_LP1A9605XI hope everyone has been enjoying the increased number of Hummingbirds visiting our coastal region this season. The wild Hummingbirds at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport can’t get enough of the sweet nectar substitute we provide them in our extra wide, bottom feeder that we replenish constantly to accommodate their demands and keep them happy! We love their presence and are used to them buzzing around us at 30 miles per hour while we clean kennel cabs and hose out soaking pools on the deck, but with the welcomed co-habitation comes a duty on our part to keep the hummingbird feeder clean. Many people don’t think about that as they generously supplement a wild bird’s diet with feeders stationed at homes or businesses, but neglecting maintenance could unintentionally and unknowingly put the lives of the birds we love to watch so much in danger. Hanging a hummingbird feeder means assuming a certain amount of responsibility for the well-being of a fragile and trusting animal who weighs less than a nickel. If you are not prepared to follow a rigorous maintenance routine to rid the feeder of life threatening bacteria or mold, you should consider planting a hummingbird garden instead. BlogSep2014_LP1A9413XClean your feeder thoroughly at least once a month or as necessary. If the sugar solution in your feeder turns cloudy, it’s spoiled and needs to be replaced. This can happen in as little as two days depending upon hot and humid weather. It’s best not to use soap as soap residue is hard to remove, and hummingbirds don’t like the taste of soap. Who does? Use a solution of 1/4 cup bleach to one gallon of water. Soak the feeder in this solution for about an hour, then clean with a scrub or bottle brush. Rinse well with hot running water and refill with store bought hummingbird nectar or a 4 parts tap or well water to 1 part sugar solution is just as good, if not better. All they really need from our feeders is the quick energy they get from ordinary white cane sugar. It’s fuel for chasing the bugs that make up a huge portion of their natural diet, and the sugar causes no known health problems in hummingbirds, as long as the sugar does not exceed the 1 to 4 parts ratio. It’s tough on their liver if you bump up the sugar.  BlogSep2014X__LT_1141USEIf you are concerned about any remaining traces of bleach after cleaning, it will be neutralized by reacting with the fresh syrup. There’s also no need to air dry the feeder before refilling. Although bleach is a very effective disinfectant, you can use white vinegar if you don’t like bleach. Some people have chosen to bolster their homemade nectar with additives such as honey, Jell-O, brown sugar, fruit or red food coloring. They DO NOT need any of that, so DO NOT do that! Honey ferments rapidly when diluted with water and can kill hummingbirds. The effects of food coloring have not been scientifically tested, but there are reports, although unverified, that red dye can cause tumors in hummingbirds, so why take the chance? Besides, it’s not necessary to color the water to attract birds to your feeder. Hummingbirds will feed 5–10 times per hour for 30-60 seconds during daylight hours. There is also the debate as to whether to provide a feeder with or without a perch. Hummingbirds always live on the edge of their energy limits, so why not provide a feeder with a circular perch to save calories. Hovering is more tiring and uses way more calories, so that tiny bar to rest on will be appreciated. It’s interesting to note that the flight muscles of a hummingbird make up 25% of their total weight compared to only 5% pectoral weight in humans. Also, although their heart is only 2.5% of their total body weight, that happy wee heart beats about 250 times per minute at rest and 1,220 per minute while flying. Some attitudinal hummingbirds don’t like to share their feeder with other hummingbirds and will furiously run them off, demanding a “take your turn when I’m not around” process of feeding. Hummingbirds also don’t enjoy the presence of ants, bees or wasps, which are other opportunistic feeders, another reason to check your feeder often. Bees or wasps will crawl inside and be unable to get back out, die and decompose in the liquid. That process will turn the sugar solution rancid and unappealing to the hummers. To keep bees and wasps away, choose hummingbird feeders that are not decorated with yellow flowers, plastic or painted on. It has been tested and proven that these insects are attracted to the color yellow and bees, especially, will communicate with each other about the discovery of nectar sources. If you wake up each day noticing your hummingbird feeder is bone dry, even though you know you just filled it the day before, you may be experiencing nocturnal visitors such as raccoons or bats who love the sweet stuff too. If you bring your feeder in at night, just remember hummingbirds start feeding about 45 minutes before sunrise, and they will need a boost of energy after a long cool night. It won’t be long before most of our hummingbirds will be on their way to winter in Central America or on a Caribbean island, however, some will remain with us and challenge our mild winter. Mammals develop a thicker coat for winter, but these tiny, tropical birds will depend upon a hibernation-like state known as torpor during cold spells to conserve energy, so we need to keep our little forward, downward, upward and even, upside-down flyers happy and healthy by timely attending to their feeder no matter what time of year. Those who do migrate will return to our area March through May, so keep an eye out, get those feeders ready and continue to maintain them throughout their stay. A hummingbird’s life span, if they make it past the first uncertain year, is five to ten years, so your returnees may have been part of your wildlife family for years and look forward to meeting up with you again! BlogSep2014_7Z2048XX_edited-1Hummingbirds are a joy to most people and with your choice to provide them a few supplemental calories, they will choose your yard to guard against unwanted insects. Happy for us and Happy for them!!!

HAPPY AUTUMN  &

FALL FESTIVAL TIME!!!

author of

Save Them All

Linda Bergman-Althouse

 

Dancing With Wrens

Blog_Carolina_Wren_XTiny but mighty is an accurate description of Carolina Wrens. We’ve admitted a ton of these little flyers this baby season at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, and if there is one bird we wildlife rehabilitators need to up our athleticism with, it’s the Carolina Wren. They may be some of the smallest, featherless, blind and helpless babies when they arrive in the nursery, but they develop quickly and become fast and furious. Carolina Wrens don’t need much of an opening to dart out of a playpen after graduating from the incubator, and they will capitalize on any opportunity. Then, the dance begins. They are faster than we are, more agile and very good at hiding in the slimmest of crevices. They don’t make it easy on us like our heavier Robin or Blue Jay babies who sit in the open after trying their wings and wait for the human pickup and return drill. Sometimes it takes hours to find an escaped, cinnamon colored Carolina Wren who is quick to give us a grumpy ‘keep your distance’ look while squinting those big round eyes adorned with a white brow stripe. Seasoned rehabilitators have developed some pretty quick dance moves to ensure any possible escape is thwarted thereby preventing those long, unwanted searches. This small but chunky bird with a round body, very little neck and long tail that is snootily cocked upward can deliver an amazing number of decibels for its size. When they are hungry, we know it. They are loud! But if they don’t want to be found, you won’t hear a peep. These babies grow into adulthood within 4 weeks of birth, weighing only .6 to .8 ounces with a length measurement of 4 to 5.5 inches. So basically, they still look like babies, but they are extremely competent, diligent and capable. Their wingspan is around 11 inches. When the babies are 12 to 14 days old in the wild, they leave the nest, but their parents still feed them for another couple weeks. Blog_Carolina Wren 4_XInsects and spiders make up the bulk of a Carolina Wren’s diet, so they put away a huge amount of mealworms at the shelter while they grow in our care. Common foods in the wild include caterpillars, moths, stick bugs, leafhoppers, beetles, grasshoppers, crickets and cockroaches. Their bill is pointed and curved, which is engineered perfectly to turn over decaying vegetation and to hammer and shake apart large bugs. Carolina Wrens will occasionally eat lizards, frogs or small snakes. They also consume a small amount of plant matter, such as fruit pulp and poison ivy. They move into shrubby, wooded residential areas, overgrown farmland, dilapidated buildings and brushy suburban yards. Unlike migratory birds, Carolina Wrens stay in their chosen territory year round. Male and female Carolina Wrens build their nest together. Pairs mate for life and will usually remain in each other’s company all year long. Their bulky 3 to 9 inches long and 3 to 6 inches wide nest is cup-shaped, usually domed, with a side entrance and often a woven extension resembling a porch or entrance ramp. It’s loosely constructed with a variety of materials such as bark strips, dried grasses, dead leaves, moss, pine needles, hair, feathers, straw, shed snakeskin, paper and even plastic or string, in which the latter two are not safe nesting materials. The female lines the nest’s inner bowl with the comfiest of her chosen nest components and may add more elements after incubation begins. The nest they build is grand and accommodates 4 to 7 eggs, white with brown speckles, which are incubated for 12 to 16 days and ultimately, their rambunctious nestlings as well. So lack of quality nest structure is not the reason why our shelter ends up with so many Carolina Wrens every year. It’s WHERE they build a nest that becomes problematic, which could be anywhere!!! They build in flowerpots, mailboxes, propane-tank covers, door wreaths, old coat pockets (or even a pocket in clothing hanging on the line), boots, garage door openers, on lawn mowers (if they have been sitting too long), helmets, cinder blocks and vents on a boat. Anywhere a cavity can accommodate them, they move in. When calls to the shelter begin with “I have a nest of wrens in my hanging plant or under the rake in my wheel barrel,” we always advise the caller to wait them out if possible. The wrens will be on their way in just a few weeks, and you will have enjoyed the privilege of hosting a family of bug zapping environmental partners. This year, a Carolina Wren family nested in this author’s kayak. Blog_CarolinaWrenNest_XFour little ones were discovered while Momma and Daddy Wrens looked on from the fence. The decision was made to land lock the boat until the wren children fledged! They are still seen flitting around the yard together defending their territory by aggressively scolding and chasing off intruders. Besides vigilantly standing guard and being the first birds to send up the alarm with chidingly shrill notes when a predator is in the area, Carolina Wrens also love to sing happy songs. Males and females are constantly vocalizing, however males only will produce the creation of song, singing rain or shine from dawn to dusk and up to 3,000 times a day. So, as long as they are singing the songs, let’s take time to do the happy dance with them (it just might be the most enjoyable part of your day)!!

best always and keep on dancin’!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All

“Keeper of Dreams”

ACSMag_BlackBearEIn North Carolina we do not concern ourselves with the presence of free roaming lions and tigers but bears, OH MY!! A 300 pound black bear was recently seen running through a playground in Eastern North Carolina, and only a few days earlier, an adolescent black bear visited a Community College Campus. Since these bear sightings are so close to home, it’s best that we get it all out on the table to keep ourselves, as well as the bears, safe. We don’t get many calls at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport regarding Black Bears, which is the only bear species found in North Carolina, but when we do, it’s usually a “What do I do?” call about sightings in their yard or at a business. Our advice is always focused on safety such as don’t keep your garbage cans close to the house and do not leave pet food on the deck when you know bears are in the area. We also provide phone numbers for County Wildlife Control Officers who are authorized and have the means to tranquilize and relocate bears, if necessary. Black Bears once dipped to very low population levels in the 90’s, but the comeback of the American Black bear is one of wildlife management’s greatest achievements in our state. It’s thrilling for many of us to view bears from a distance (key word – distance), but you should never approach it, try to feed it or leave food out for the bear. When you feed a bear, you are training a bear to expect hand outs from humans, and a trained bear is not a tame bear. Black Bears are omnivores, but approximately 75 to 85% of their diet is vegetable matter. Common foods in our area include clover, dandelions, tubers, wild berries, persimmons, pecans, acorns, wild oats, honey and the larvae of ants, bees, hornets and other insects. Our coastal bears also rely on agricultural crops such as wheat, soybeans, peanuts and corn. Black Bears are not very effective predators but will occasionally snag a prey animal. When natural foods are scarce or if they have experienced human hand outs, they can be attracted to homes, campgrounds or garbage dumps. Once a bear has been lured by people into bad habits, it becomes a danger and will probably have to be killed, an enormous loss of an extraordinarily majestic animal and just as huge a loss for people who want to responsibly enjoy observing a bear. Yes, they are unique and intriguing, but they are still wild animals, large and capable wild animals, and this magnificent animal should be treated with healthy respect.  Black Bears in North Carolina are usually black with a brown muzzle and a white patch on its chest. They have five toes on each foot with curved claws at the end of each toe enabling them to feed on insects and grubs in rotting logs. Although their eyesight is poor, they are adept at climbing, swimming, digging and running in which they have been clocked at 35 miles per hour. Bears prefer large expanses of uninhabited woodland or swampland with dense cover. In the east, lowland hardwoods, swamps and marshes provide good bear habitat because these terrains offer necessary travel paths, escape cover and natural foods that bears need to grow strong. Male bears, called boars, grow significantly larger than females and can weigh 500-600 pounds. However, North Carolina history gives Craven County props for the largest and current world record Black Bear tipping the scales at a whopping 880 lbs! Females, called sows, generally average between 250–300 pounds and usually birth two to four, 8 to 10 ounce cubs in the January time frame, who grow quickly on mother’s milk. Their dens are usually built in tree and ground cavities or in hollowed out logs, which they line with leaves, sticks and grasses. The cubs emerge from their den in early March but stay close, as they will continue to be nursed by Mom and stay with her for almost eighteen months. ACSMag_BlackBearCubEBy the time they reach six months they weigh between 10 to 15 pounds, not much larger than an average house cat.  This time of year, cubs will be roaming with their Mom, and females guarding their young will aggressively protect her babies from any perceived threat, including you. You never want to get between a mother and her young. If you see a cub, pay attention, don’t go anywhere near it, and know that the mother is not far away. Bears are intelligent, have keen senses of smell and hearing but fairly poor vision. They can usually see movement but might not be able to determine what it is. A Black Bear may appear to be docile and uninterested in your presence, but all wildlife can be unpredictable. Park Rangers and wildlife biologists advise that if a black bear approaches you, get big by waving your arms and also get loud, but do not run or climb a tree! They are faster and more efficient at both those physical activities than humans. Make as much noise as you can; clap, yell, throw rocks or bang on something. If you are holding food, throw it as far from you as possible. Black bears are generally shy and when you stand your ground they will avoid the commotion in most cases. A human’s change in attitude or perception will help keep people and bears safe. Bears do not have to be perceived as dangerous animals, but they are also not cuddly pets! ACSMag_CubInTreeEWillfully approaching a bear within 50 yards is illegal and violation of this federal regulation can result in fines and arrest. In the grand scheme of things, humans and bears were not really made to interact. According to Cherokee Legend, a bear is a “Keeper of Dreams, so in that same spirit of romancing the wild, it would be best to maintain a dream’s distance to ensure your own safety and that of the bear’s.

Have a safe and happy SUMMER!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of  “Save Them All

The Good Mothers (revisit)

ACSMag-BarnSwallowsX_Nursery attendants have shifted into high gear to accommodate the every thirty minutes feeding schedule for the bird newborns and fledglings who now and will claim the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter at 100 Wildlife Way in Newport as their foster home this summer. The incubators are full and the table and counters are covered with crab boxes, waterless fish tanks and netted doll playpens, all housing a variety of infant and juvenile bird species. Same size and compatible youngins like robins, blue jays and mockingbirds can room together, while some loners, who don’t get along with anybody, get their own space. We learned this the hard way when we tried to buddy a Titmouse with a House Finch years ago. We never knew a cute, tiny Titmouse could be so vicious. It was a frenzied evacuation, and we apologized to the terrorized Finch for the rest of the day. Wildlife rehabilitators squeeze in between and around canopied, human baby playpens on the floor used to restrict fully feathered adolescents who are still learning to eat on their own before the big move to an outside enclosure for flight school. Well-meaning people, who do not understand the natural behaviors of wildlife, deliver birdnapped, bobble-headed babies to the shelter every day. Unfeathered infant birds are the most fragile of all babies we receive during spring breeding season. The list of admit reasons is quite extensive; “I think they’ve been abandoned” (probably not) or “the big birds keep flying at me when I go near the nest” (but that’s understandable – protecting their children), or “they leave droppings on my car” (so . . maybe. . . move your car?), or “they nested in my mailbox” (how about . . . using a temporary mail container on top or to the side of the box for a few weeks, just until the little birds wave thank you, adios, hasta luego!). It’s a very slim chance they’ve been abandoned in most cases. Even if something happens to one bird parent the other will continue to bring food to the nest until the newborns are ready to take flight. ACSMag_2starlingsBlogEThe only excuses that really carry weight at the shelter are ” The cat was about to get them” or “I pulled the snake out of the nesting box, but he’d already eaten two.” (Yes, the snake must eat, but two is more than enough.) Living in the wild is harsh, even the semi-wild such as your backyard or workplace. Unfortunately, bird parents do not have the defenses needed to save their young from domestic or feral cats and dogs that injure, kill or orphan millions of birds each year, and they don’t pack the punch to whip up on an aggressive snake, either. Those little hollow legs just don’t have the Disney Ninja kick they need to do business. So, there are some good reasons to disrupt the family unit but not many. Although natural mothers provide better care, nutrition and survival training than any wildlife rehabilitator, we do our best as foster moms for the orphans in our care. We can feed the babies comparable diets, be it syringe fed formula, fruits, crickets, a variety of seed, meal worms and for the robins, juicy earthworms we dig out of the compost pile, but we don’t look like their parents (although some might want to debate that) and try as we might, we can’t teach them to be wild.ACSMag_feedingbirds_0202XBlog They just don’t take us seriously enough. They will have to depend on each other for that. Our golden advice is and has always been; if they are not in danger and there is a possibility the mother is around, wait. There are plenty of good mothers out there, even if you don’t see them. Wildlife mothers (and fathers) are devoted to the survival of their offspring, but Mom must leave the nest from time to time to feed herself and find food for the babies. After fledging, young birds will still hang with their parents and beg for food, much like human babies old enough to leave the nest but smart enough to know a good thing when they’ve got it. Have faith in the good wildlife mothers. They possess instinctive loyalty and tenacity far beyond our awareness. One of the Good Mothers we came in contact with a while back was a Mourning Dove who nested in a hanging plant every year at a hardware store. ACSMag_Good Mothers-1After situating herself, the clerks would pull other plants around her for safety, place a “Do Not Disturb” sign and pile straw beneath her chosen nesting spot to cushion a fall if a baby dove took a dive. One year, during a tropical storm, the torrential rains didn’t let up for hours, and we couldn’t help thinking about her; wondering if the hanging plant could possibly drain fast enough to prevent drowning the babies. A wildlife rehabilitator threw on her rain poncho and headed to the store, which was closed due to the hurricane threat, only to find the Good Mother hunkered down on her nest and although soaked herself, keeping her dependent brood dry. If you come across an active bird nest you feel is in a danger zone or has become a nuisance to you, please call us (OWLS) at (252)-240-1200 or a wildlife shelter close to you before displacing it. The bird world will thank you!
The first wild babies displaced this spring who reached our rehab door were mammals; squirrels, opossums and cottontails. They arrived in all stages of development, and our staff morphed into the Good Mothers needed for each species. We have already released the strong, feisty and ready to go their wild way early borns, and we are prepared to steadfastly stay the course throughout the summer, ensuring all wildlife orphans are properly raised and become strong and cleverly keen enough to live their second chance!

Best Always, (and have a safe and sensational summer!)

Linda Berman-Althouse

Author of  “Save Them All

“Smart as a Fox”

CS_FoxLT_Kit.We once received an evening call about a bunny burrow being unearthed by a snoopy Jack Russell Terrier. Although the cottontails were unharmed, separation of dog and bunny had to happen, as well as repairing the bunnies’ home. While replacing the nesting material and putting the infants back to ensure their Mom would continue feeding them, the wildlife rehabilitator noticed a shadowy figure across the road sitting very still and watching her every move. After closer examination, the patient observer turned out to be a very interested Red Fox. I probably don’t have to tell you that plans changed immediately, and the bunnies headed to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport to be raised and eventually released. It’s exciting when you catch a not so common glimpse of wildlife, especially an elusive species known to avoid people as they live their wild lives, but its unfortunate such a gorgeous creature as a Red Fox has so many unappreciative things said about it even though it’s part of the dog family, which is man’s best friend. Although they don’t readily sport any nicknames, people describe them as smart, clever and sly! They have taken on these descriptive terms because the problem solving fox is known for its many sophisticated tricks for losing predators like backtracking and running on fence poles to confuse or eliminate tracks. Although due to North Carolina law we cannot rehabilitate a Red Fox at our shelter, we have seen our share of beautiful foxes passing through the grounds at the facility and feel blessed that the bordering states’ wildlife rehabilitators can and do take on the task of fox rehabilitation. Because they are here, in Eastern North Carolina, we should know more about these stunning wild dogs and how to co-exist with them peacefully, especially since they eat lots of insects, mice and rats that would multiply much faster than we could manage if they weren’t on duty. The Red Fox is distinguished from other fox species by its ability to adapt quickly to new environments, however, foxes are shy, non-aggressive and primarily nocturnal animals, so it’s not likely most people will encounter a Red Fox in the wild. However, the Red Fox is the most widely distributed canid or wild dog in the world. CS_FoxLT_0089X (1)EIt is named for its red-orange coloration. The tail, body and top of the head are all some shade of yellow-orange to reddish-orange. The undersides are light, and the tips of the ears and lower legs are black. Red Foxes can occur in other color variations, such as black, silver, or a cross between red and silver, commonly known as a “cross fox.” A rare genetic condition, can also cause a Red Fox to appear brown or gray in color. The Red Fox may be active during warmer hours of the day since their thin coat lacks insulation. The tail, used for balance, signaling and thermal regulation, is long (about 70 percent as long as the head and body length), bushy and has a white tip. Adults are the size of a small dog and weigh from 7.7 to 15.4 pounds, but their skulls and muzzles are narrower than most domestic dogs. Their canine teeth are relatively long. Their eyes are specially adapted to night vision with a unique layer of cells that reflect light back through the eye, which is very cat like. North American Red Foxes are generally lightly built, with comparatively long bodies rather than the stout and heavy build of the European Red Fox. Preferred habitats include farm land, pastures, brushy fields and open forest stands. They frequently hunt the edges of these open habitats. The Red Fox, unlike other mammals, hears low-frequency sounds very well and can hear small animals digging underground. They frequently dig in the dirt to catch prey. Mice, meadow voles, squirrels and rabbits form the bulk of its diet, but it will also eat insects, reptiles, invertebrates, birds (including game birds, so keep your chickens close, very close), eggs, fruits and berries in spring, summer and fall. Since the Red Fox is also a scavenger, it may also eat carrion and garbage. They continue to hunt even when full and store the extra food under leaves and dirt. They are agile and capable of jumping over 6 to 7 foot fences and can swim well. Foxes are so athletic they have been known to climb trees and settle on low branches. The Red Fox mates from January through March. The female will make one or more dens or burrows, also called earths, right after mating. The extra den locations are used if the original den is disturbed. The same dens may be utilized year after year. A little less than two months after mating, the female gives birth to a litter of between one and seven kits. The male brings the female food while she is caring for the kits. The kits have short noses and resemble puppies when born. The parents create a patted down dirt area just outside the den, and the kits are allowed to play there when they are about a month old.CS_FoxLT_0019XE Mom discourages the youngsters from leaving that mound of dirt, especially when she is away hunting. CS_FoxLT_0047XEThe mother begins feeding her kits regurgitated food to wean them, and eventually she brings them live prey to “play” with and eat. Playing with live prey helps the young kits develop the skills they will need for hunting. They catch small rodents with a characteristic high pounce. This technique is one of the first things cubs learn as they begin to hunt. Red Foxes are usually together in pairs or small groups consisting of families, such as a mated pair and their young, or a male with several females with kinship ties. The young of the mated pair remains with their parents until at least the fall of the year they were born and will sometimes remain longer, especially females, to assist in caring for new kits. Although the Red Fox tends to prey on small mammals and smaller predators, it is vulnerable to attack from larger predators, such as wolves or coyotes, but in our coastal area, the human and their motor vehicles are the Red Fox’s most dangerous predators. Red Foxes have been known to live 10 – 14 years in captivity but live on average 5 years in the wild. Unfortunately, the Red Fox can become habituated to humans if easy access to unnatural foods exists. To avoid conflicts, people should keep their yards and neighborhoods free of feeding sources such as pet food. Sometimes well-intentioned people who feed feral cats attract red foxes, as well as coyotes, raccoons and opossums. A concentration of many species of wild animals sharing food sources could result in outbreaks of certain diseases, such as rabies or canine distemper. Sharing the planet with the Red Fox, as with any wild animals, demands that safety precautions be taken. Makes sense!

Happy Spring Everyone!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of  “Same Them All”

“Cardinal College”

Blog_10Mar2013_LT_0007E Songbirds don’t get much attention in my shelter write-ups, because people see them routinely and, quite frankly, most of us take them for granted. With the recent white-outs across the region, the songbird who simply pops against the backdrop of falling and resting snow is the Northern Cardinal. This bird can be seen year round because it does not migrate as most other songbirds do and is probably the most easily recognized bird in our area and yours. The Northern Cardinal is a fairly large, long-tailed songbird with a short, very thick bill and a prominent crest. The cardinal is the only red bird in eastern North America with a crest on top of his or her head, which rises when the bird senses danger. They are gorgeous, be it an 8 to 9 inch long male cardinal who is brilliant red all over with a black mask or the stunning, pale brown female also with black face but who sports a bright orange bill that looks like recently applied coral lipstick.Blog_IMG_0185E Males with a brighter red color have more success finding a mate and enjoy greater reproductive rates than a duller color male. So, in this case, what you’re wearing counts! At the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, we get our share of infant cardinals to raise in the Spring and year around, the occasional window smacked or cat attacked adult who drops feathers everywhere in their attempt to survive an aggressive feline. Barring more serious injury than feather loss, the adults usually stay at the shelter for a long time, growing back their primary feathers, which is imperative to returning them to flight status. This year we’ve taken on a resident cardinal we named Duncan. As an infant he was admitted as an orphan with an eye problem and eventually lost sight in his right eye. He has, what we believe to be, a very comfortable and nicely decorated enclosure in the clinic hallway, where the action is, and he seems to enjoy all the attention he gets from the staff and the occasional tour. Routinely, we let him stretch his wings by flying around the building, and he accommodates all turns and straight aways very well despite his diminished sight. He loves to sing, and we love to hear his sweet whistling song. Both male and female cardinals sing, unlike many other songbirds in North America where only a male songbird is capable of singing. It’s interesting to note that biologists report some cardinal songs are sung with accents. Duncan also loves “shiny.” We make a point not to wear earrings around wildlife for some fairly obvious reasons, but one day one of our staffers forgot she was wearing her small diamond studs. Duncan spied one of the sparklies and zoomed in to remove the bauble to make it his own. He was relentless and clasped onto the stone fiercely with his vice-grip beak before the earring was removed from her ear and eventually pried from Duncan’s beak. Fortunately, the staffer was not injured. Duncan is such a little pistol! Blog_Duncan_Feb2014_IMG_0077EWe often see cardinals in our backyards, parks, wooded areas, brushy swamps and forest edges. You will also often see them in pairs because they are monogamous and mate for life. Their common name, as well as the scientific name, Cardinal, refers to the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church, who wear distinctive red robes and caps. “Northern” refers to the region where they are found. Cardinals are also called Red Birds and Virginia Nightingales. A group of cardinals has a number of names to include a college, conclave, deck, radiance and Vatican. Northern Cardinals begin their breeding season in early Spring. The males and females sing to each other during courtship, and the male has been observed feeding seed to the female beak-to-beak. A male becomes very territorial, defending his territory and mate aggressively. They often attack their own reflections, mistaking them for other males. During breeding season, they nest generally less than eight feet off the ground in dense tangles of shrubs and vines. Northern Cardinals build a cup-shaped nest using twigs, leaves, grass, bark strips, roots, weed stems, paper and hair. They have also been known to use threads from Poison Ivy stems! A clutch of three to four eggs is laid and incubation, which the female takes sole responsibility for, lasts only 12-13 days. Fledglings and immature cardinals look more like females than males. CardinalFledgling1Cardinals keep a very neat house or nest I should say. When hatched youngsters defecate, one of the parents removes the fecal sacs and carries them away from the nest to ensure their location remains hidden from predators such as owls, hawks, foxes, cats, raccoons, skunks and opossums. After fledging, the juveniles continue to be cared for by the male for approximately 3 weeks. The young are taught to forage for insects, seeds and fruit. Northern Cardinals are known to include 51 kinds of beetles, four types of grasshoppers, termites, ants, flies, dragonflies, leaf hoppers, cicadas and aphids in their diet. Although they do good works to help keep pest insects at bay, cardinals usually have a fairly short life span. Most cardinals live only a few years or less, however rare 10-15 year banded birds have been discovered still living in the wild and of course, captivity increases their longevity. Many years ago, the cardinal was once prized as a pet, but although it is not a migratory bird, its sale as a cage bird is banned in the United States by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The Northern Cardinal is so beloved, it is the state bird of seven states; Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and the great state of North Carolina! With Duncan in the house, we know why this resplendent red bird is chosen as a favorite so often!

Happy Spring!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All