“The Ravishing Ruddy Duck”

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERADucks, ducks and more ducks!! We treat many a duck at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC; Mallards, Muskovies, Wood Ducks, Scoters, Scaups, Buffleheads, Megansers and even a rare Canvasback, but the Ruddy Duck, originally from Canada, is a distinct chubby little thing that doesn’t come through our door very often. However, about a month ago, during our major cold snap, a short, wintering brown, male Ruddy with characteristic white cheek patches arrived. He had been observed sitting in a Swansboro resident’s yard without moving for two days. The concerned wildlife enthusiast managed to approach the stubby winged duck, pick him up without much trouble and place him in a box for transport to our shelter. Upon arrival, the Ruddy’s examination proved emaciation was an issue, but no injury or illness was found. Migratory Ruddy Ducks dive to feed on pondweeds, algae and wild celery, as well as the seeds of sedges, smartweeds and grasses. They also eat aquatic insects and their larvae, shellfish and crustaceans. During breeding season they adjust their diet and feed mainly on invertebrates, primarily larvae and pupae while sieving bottom debris during dives. With icy precipitation and freezing temperatures occurring during his rescue, our theory is the little diving duck found it difficult to find food during the unusual cold spell he, as well as we were experiencing and was basically starving. At that point, our shelter become exactly what he needed; protection from the adverse conditions and a “bed & breakfast” where he would be assured enough good food and the opportunity to gain back the bulk the small compact duck had lost. Because it was winter, our Ruddy was not the colorful male with a gleaming chestnut body, sky-blue bill, black capped head and gray-blue feet most people see during Spring and Summer in the prairie regions breeding areas of North America. East coast bays, ponds and marshes in the south will winter 25 per cent of migrating Ruddy Ducks, but males will appear an inconspicuous dull, buff-brown with a darker brown head cap. Blog_RuddyDuck_OWLS2EFemales are always grayish brown with beige rather than white cheek patches, although in winter they appear darker. The average length of a Ruddy Duck is 15 inches and when healthy, weighs about 1- 2 lbs, with males weighing more than females. Their wings are rounded rather than angular and span 21 – 24 inches. During breeding season, which begins in April, the cartoonishly colorful and bold male ruddy will court females by beating their blue bill against their neck hard enough to create a tapping noise and a swirl of bubbles in the water. They are relatively silent ducks until breeding season, but only the male will vocalize with a “chuck-uck-uck-uck-ur-r-r,” which sounds almost like a belch, while displaying for females. They also make popping sounds with their feet while running across the water during flaunting flights. The only vocalizations known for females are hisses when threatened and a nasally noise made to call her brood. Their domed nest, made out of grasses by the female, will be hidden from predators in dense vegetation adjacent to lakes, marshes and ponds, but some nests are made from old nests of other ducks or constructed on muskrat houses or on floating logs. Ruddies will often take up residence in the vicinity of other diving ducks such as Buffleheads and Goldeneyes and are known to interbreed, which causes concern and frustration for some conservationists, especially in other countries like the United Kingdom and Spain. On the average, female Ruddies will not reproduce until they are 2 years old and will lay 4 to 8 eggs (one a day), that are said to be almost 2 inches each in length, which is very large for their size. Incubation is 25-26 days and after hatching, the lone female will feed and protect the young. The youngsters will fledge in 50-55 days. Ruddy ducks spend the majority of their lives in water and are hardly ever seen on land. Their legs are set back further than most ducks, therefore, an upright stance is difficult, but they are great swimmers and divers, and use their stiff tail, that stands straight up, similar to a cute Carolina Wren, as a rudder to maneuver when they swim and dive. Ruddy Duck, Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Huntington Beach, CaliforniaWhen taking off from a lake or pond, Ruddy Ducks are very awkward due to their unusual wing design and must use their legs and wings to “run” across the surface of the water (like a runway) and once in flight, the ruddy duck will beat its wings very fast. Some people say it looks like a huge hummingbird. When threatened by predators, of which they have many, such as raccoons, minks, crows, red-tailed and Swainson’s hawks, great horned owls, foxes, ringed-billed gulls, night herons and humans, they will sink slowly beneath the water or dive with great speed for protection rather than fly. After nesting season, Ruddies will form tight flocks on open water in great numbers for preservation from injury or harm, although habitat destruction, droughts and drainage in their breeding range and exposure to oil spills have recently decreased Ruddy Duck numbers. Their average lifespan in the wild is 2 years with 13 years the record holder. Ruddy Ducks living in zoo environments typically enjoy the longevity of 8 years. Our Ruddy Duck seemed to find pleasure in his stay at our shelter and became chubby once again. Krill, greens and beaucoup meal worms (which were his favorite meals) vanished in his presence, and he was offered as much as he could put away! Once his weight was back to normal and our southern weather turned warm again, he was released in an area where Ruddy Ducks frequent. 2012 Waterfowl Stamp ArtworkBy now, we’re sure he’s on his way north to meet up with a mature Ruddy Duck gal willing to bear his children, and probably at this very moment, like the colors of a rainbow, our little Ruddy is morphing into his strikingly handsome and vibrant summer self!

Happy Spring Everyone!!!  Wildlife babies are already blooming!!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse,  author of “Save Them All

“Otters Just Wanna Have Fun!”

Blog2015Mar_American River Otter2Full of fun, grace and beauty one might describe North American River Otters who have, over the years, been restored throughout North Carolina to their former population glory. It’s a sheer pity that these gorgeous creatures nearly became extinct in the early 1900’s due to exploitation and greed surrounding the fur trade. Otters in swampy, marshes found in our coastal regions had a better chance at survival though, because food was plenty and the wetlands areas were inaccessible to hunters and trappers. Although secretive animals, sightings are reported by outdoor enthusiasts who say given the opportunity to observe otters in the wild they became awestruck and captivated by their behaviors. Most enjoyable to watch is the spirited otters’ expression of fun as they revel in sliding down mud hills into the river or skidding across snow like they are riding a skimmer board. And boy do they like to play and frolic! Reported as some of the most playful wild animals, young otters love to wrestle and chase each other, and both activities are good training for survival skills; agility, endurance and the raw power they need as an adult otter. At the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, we have only experienced one admit of a river otter in many years. He was a youngster found alone and unable to fend for himself. It was important to maintain his wild side while being raised at the shelter, so important that a staff member posted a sign for everyone to see: “Do Not Speak to the Otter.” He was adorable but also wild and meant to stay wild; therefore, we were very careful in preventing our little otter from habituating with humans. He had many vocalizations, and we came to know when he was hungry and when he needed attention. Otters are very social animals, so the goal was to pack on some weight, ensure expert swimming accomplishments, teach him to hunt and ready him to colonize with other otters. The North American River Otter is a carnivore mammal that belongs to the Mustelidae family, along with weasels and minks. They look very similar to a weasel, only much, much larger, weighing up to 30 lbs and measuring nearly 4 feet in length. Otters have characteristic elongated and streamlined bodies with stout and sturdy legs. Their waterproof fur is a sleek, dense dark brown with a light tan underbelly, and their face is adorned with a cute oval and blunt snout. River Otters have a thick neck, a long furry and thick tail, extensive whiskers used for detecting vibrations indicating the proximity of prey, and their eyes and ears are found high on their head to aid in surface swimming. Blog2015Mar_River Otter3They can go deep in the water as well, a depth of 60 feet has been recorded, and they can stay under for up to eight minutes. Otters have that nictitating membrane that covers and protects their eyes while swimming under-water. Their feet have five toes with nonretractable claws and webbing between each toe which helps them maneuver in a variety of marine and fresh-water habitats ranging from slow moving coastal streams to rapidly running mountain streams. On land, frisky otters can leap and run almost as effectively as they swim and have been clocked as fast as 18 mph. Generally nocturnal, otters are semi-aquatic predators who feed on fish, crayfish, crabs, rodents, birds, eggs and amphibians such as frogs. Although they need to be near water, which provides most of their food source, they spend two-thirds of their time on land. They live in dens with many tunnel openings along the river bank or they may take up residence in a convenient log jam, thick cover vegetation or any natural cavity they find. Although the fun-loving otter is not known as a fighter, it will charge or scratch those who invade their feces marked territory. They communicate with each other by whistling, growling, chuckling or screaming. Their scent glands near the base of their tail also produce a form of communication by allowing them to mark scent a musky odor, fencing off their home range. Otters live in bands of 5 to 10 adults with spring breeding season pups. Otters become sexually mature within two years, although many males do not mate until they are 5 to 7 years of age, but when they do, they are promiscuous and will breed with a number of females during breeding season. Pups are born in the spring after “delayed implantation” which means the female may have been impregnated almost a year before. Three to six, fully furred pups are born weighing 4 to 6 ounces and will nurse from Mom for only three months but usually remain with her for almost a year. Blog2015Mar_River OtterThe male is not considered part of the family and does not help with pup rearing. It might be that “cheating” thing! All Otters must be wary of predators such as bobcats, coyotes or fox, domestic dogs, black bear, large raptors such as eagles, alligators and man (intentional or unintentional). Although, they mainly escape predation through their agility in the water, they aren’t quite as quick and maneuverable on land. North American River Otters are, themselves, important predators who help maintain a healthy, aquatic ecosystem by eating “trash” fish that compete with more economically desirable game fish, and the presence of otters generally does not affect humans in any adverse way. An otter’s life expectancy in the wild is 8 to 9 years, although in captivity, a record high of 21 years is reported. When our young otter of years ago was ready for the move from our rehabilitative intensive care in the shelter facility to the great outdoors, we moved him into the reinforced pelican enclosure (in the absence of pelicans at the time), which accommodated him with a grand pool and ground cover. His otter skills developed rapidly, and although his weight was up, he fished on his own and displayed Olympic swimmer moves, he seemed lonely and sad, so we urgently made arrangements to transport him to a rehabilitator’s home in Merrimon, NC along the river where otter presence was known. We set up his makeshift den close to the house where our volunteer, Heather, could keep an eye on his comings and goings and provide supplement food. Routinely, she watched him go to the river to eat and play, then return to his otter apartment daily, but within a few weeks, she started to see him less and less. Blog2015Mar_342174_640Our theory is; he eventually found others of his own kind down the water way, and because he was so darned cute, we’re almost certain our otter has had a positive impact in helping to repopulate the North American River Otters in our coastal region. You go boy, and hope you’re still having fun!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All”

Happy Spring Everyone!!!!!!!

“Snowbirds”

Blog_Junco_Jan2015XAlthough we don’t get much snow in eastern North Carolina, it doesn’t stop diminutive Dark-eyed Juncos, commonly referred to as “Snowbirds,” from wintering with us. One might say, their presence is the first sign that winter has arrived in the south. They are the sparrow size birds, dark gray with white bellies and white outer tail feathers that flash in flight and who have stout, pale pinkish bills that suddenly appear at our feeding stations at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC and in our back yards at home. Another theory for their “Snowbird” nickname is their coloring, which has been described as “leaden skies above and snow below.” They have also been observed burrowing through snow in search of covered over seeds. So the name “Snowbirds” is understandable, but why they are called Juncos, no one can figure out! The word Junco is derived from juncus, which is Latin for the “rush” plant, an emergent reed found in wetlands, but Juncos are not found in that habitat. The coloration of the Junco does vary throughout the country, but no matter the brown in California or black, two-tones in Alaska, they all fashion a white belly, and females tend to be lighter shades of whatever color, gray or slate in our case, than the males. Except for a few groups of permanents in our Appalachian Mountains during the warmer months, Juncos are found in the forests and mountains of Canada, but before the uber cold hits, they flood the lower continent of North America to wait out the harsh weather and frigid temperatures. Blog_Junco_Jan2015XX_edited-2Even though they head south to avoid the cold, they still bulk up for winter by growing 30% more feathering by weight in the winter than in the summer. Females migrate south before the males do and fly at very low altitudes at night making them susceptible to a number of obstacles, such as towers, along the way. Although official bird counters record the Junco population as multi-millions (3 to 4) in North America (second only to the American Robin), they come in numbers of 10 to 30 to each feeding territory and a dominance hierarchy or strict pecking order is immediately set up. Each little Junco knows its place in the power structure of the flock, however, some bold youngster males may challenge the status of adult males with aggressive displays of lunges and tail flicking. Some males choose to stay farther north during the winter to avoid competition and gain that advantage of arriving first for breeding season after return migration. One study showed that in Michigan only 20% of the Juncos observed were female, but in Alabama, 80% were female. They are the most common bird found near feeders in all of North America every winter and tend to return to the same area each year. Chances are we have many of the same birds at our feeder this winter that we had in previous years. Feeding stations do attract them, but you won’t see Juncos perched at a feeder for they are birds of the ground, spending over 65% of their time foraging the spillage. Backyard WIldlifeSo, with Juncos present, nothing goes to waste. They dine on a variety of seeds to include sunflower, niger thistle, cracked corn, millet, suet (peanut butter seems to be their favorite!), weed greens such as chickweed, ragweed, crab grass, timothy hay and occasionally fruit. One quarter of their diet is made up of insects, which offer the protein they need. Juncos, as well as other sparrows, engage in a foraging method called “riding.” That’s when they land on a weed’s or grass stem’s seed cluster and bear their weight to “ride” it to the ground where they pick off the seeds while standing on it. They may have learned that behavior by watching the surfers in our area! Visiting Juncos will usually stay within a 10 acre area as they winter. At night they will roost in evergreens, tall grasses or brush piles and frequent that location repeatedly, sharing their space with others from their flock, but it has been observed that no matter the chill, they don’t huddle together as other birds do. Their song is a trill similar to the chipping sparrow, but the Junco throws in some tick sounds and high pitched, bell-like tinkling chirps, making their voice more musical some say. For those who study bird language, Juncos are purported to be excellent subjects. When our little winter guests return to their breeding areas up north, they will nest in hidden bowls or depressions in the ground or in low hanging branches or shrubs. The small nests are cup-shaped and made of grass, twigs, bark, other plant materials and hair. The female Junco lays 3 to 5 blotchy eggs in a variety of ground color shades such as brown, gray or muted purple. Mom, solely, will incubate the eggs and that period usually lasts a day or two less than two weeks. Dad is delivering food to Mom and eventually the little ones. Strongly territorial, the male Junco also helps his mate defend against nest predators such as chipmunks and deer mice. Both parents feed the young and attend to nest-keeping which includes removing the nestlings’ fecal sacs. Usually the Juncos diet is three parts seed to one part insects, but during the nesting period, the parents increase their intake of insects 50-60% to maintain the stamina it takes to raise and protect their youngins. The fledglings will leave the nest in 9-12 days. The highest longevities recorded for Juncos range between 7 and 11 years, which is impressive for any bird, but to get there they must remain alert, fast, injury free and nutritionally sound! John James Audubon wrote in 1831 that “there is not an individual in the union who does not know the little Snowbird.” Blog_LT_0562X_edited-1We are enjoying our wee Snowbirds! Are you enjoying yours?

Stay Warm Everybody! (And please bring your pets inside.) We’re experiencing some really frigid temps all across the country!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All

“Your Place Ermine?”

FB_BLOG_weasel_19Jan2015Cute as buttons is the best way to describe the smallest North American carnivores, the Least and Short-tailed Weasels. Weasels belong to the animal family biologists call Mustelidae, which translates to “mouse stealers” and includes 64 species worldwide. So you will find skunks, minks, badgers, the powerful wolverine, martens, black footed ferrets and the largest of the lot, the sea otter in this group. Short-tailed Weasels, also called Ermine, look very similar to the Long-tailed Weasel, except for the variation in size. Short-tailed Weasels are only half the body length of a Long-tailed and, of course, the tail is much shorter, although their tails share the same characteristic black tip. Weasels don’t like to be seen, so in our rehabilitation world at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, we understand they want to hide and are extremely effective escape artists. That means securing their enclosures beyond their problem solving skills is a must. Our last Short-tailed Weasel admit came in as an infant found abandoned in a North Carolina “Hill” town, Snow or Pink, don’t recall off hand. What a cutie–patootie! Although not old enough to be on her own, she was a capable little weasel who was ready for solid food. Although weasels are mammals, they nurse for only a very short time before needing meat in their diet. Short-tailed Weasels sport brown fur on top, white fur on their belly and white feet. With their long, slender bodies, long necks, short legs and rather flattish head, they are designed exclusively as hunters and mouse harvesting machines! Short-tailed Weasels weigh about 7 ounces fully grown with bodies 7 to 13 inches long. Males grow larger than females. They are slinky with no expression of shoulders or hips. FB_BLOG_IMG_0203_19Jan2015When you see them in action, they exude graceful agility as they move about doing all that they do; play, swim, climb, run, hunt, court and raise their kits. They have keenly developed senses of sight, hearing and smell, keeping them acutely aware and attentive to their surroundings. Short-tailed Weasels are found in a variety of habitats but primarily near wet sites such as swamps, marshes and especially where brushy thickets reach a waterline. Other habitats include woodlands, brushy areas, stream banks and the borders of forests and fields. They usually nest in hollow trees or stumps, rotting logs, underground burrows, stone walls and mole runs. Dens are also found in abandoned burrows made by other mammals, rock crevices or in spaces among tree roots; one individual weasel may use multiple dens. They are known to tolerate close proximity to humans, but like most predators, they rely on skills of stealth and surprise for their very survival and will almost always see us before we see them. For relatively small creatures, Short-tailed Weasels are courageous and fierce predators, and although they feed primarily on mice and rats, they are known to take on other prey that can be ten times larger than themselves, such as rabbits. Their fierceness led to them being referred to as a “Stoat,” which is of Belgic or Dutch origin, meaning pushy and bold. As strict carnivores, Short-tailed Weasels eat no plant food of any kind. They have high metabolic rates and require 40 percent of their body weight in food daily and up to 70 percent for lactating females. Short-tailed Weasels live alone except to mate. Though it can be more than 9 months between the time they mate and the female births 4 to 12 closed eyed and ears sealed young, weasels are not truly pregnant until March, and their litter is born about 6 weeks later in late April or early May. This reproductive process is called delayed implantation and many wild mammals have this same adaptation. It allows the animals to mate in the fall when they are more active rather than trying to find each other in late winter. Within 2 months of life, kits have been taught to kill their own prey. The crazy, physical games played among siblings help develop strategies and tactics they will need to catch prey. They must be alert, fast and able to turn on a dime to hunt effectively. FB_BLOG_weasel_19Jan2015XDespite their small size and short legs, Ermine develop endurance and stamina during play that allow them to outrun prey that becomes fatigued. Although they are most active at night, they can be out any time of day. Short-tailed Weasels communicate among themselves through body language and with visual, sound and scent cues. Adults will trill, whine, hiss and squeal, while kits utter chirping noises. They also communicate by using scent glands that can produce a pungent musky odor. Females emit this attractive scent when they are ready to mate. Some folks associate weasels with being trouble makers, because they are capable of making quite a ruckus in a chicken coop if humans render their chickens accessible at night, but please remember all the good they do in the way of controlling our mouse and rat populations. All weasels have an important role to play in maintaining a healthy ecosystem.FB_BLOG_IMG_0208_19Jan2015 The longevity of a Short-tailed Weasel is not long at all. Only a small percentage of kits make it to their first birthday. Predators abound for this cute little racer. They need to outrun and hide from owls, large snakes, coyotes, foxes, falcons, hawks and humans. If they do survive that first year, they may live for several years. In captivity the record life span has been registered at 8 years. Short-tailed Weasels are so secretive that we don’t know a lot about them, and there is certainly more to be learned. It was a thrill for the volunteers and staff at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC to raise our tiny stoat and learn as much as we could from everything she had to teach us. Hopefully, she is still out in the wild living her little weasel life and staying out of trouble!

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!!!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“More Fierce Than Merry!”

BlogDec2014_MockerAlthough the Northern Mockingbird, the only mockingbird found in North America, has a repertoire of 200 songs and is capable of singing over 1,000 songs an hour we, wildlife rehabilitators, don’t perceive that ability as a demonstration of happy or merry as one generally would, especially during the caroling season. Mockingbirds are made to mimic all birds they hear, as well as other interesting sounds. So when infant or juvenile mockingbirds are admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC during baby season, we’re not always sure who we’re hearing when we walk into the nursery. Mockingbirds are renowned for their mimicking ability, as reflected by the meaning of its Latin scientific name Mimus polyglottos, ‘many-tongued mimic.’ Behind every song is intent and purpose. As an infant, songs are meant to proclaim “feed me, feed me” time. Their favorite mimic in our nursery is of a Northern Cardinal; a high pitched, shrill sound (almost headache producing) that definitely gets our attention. They must be thinking that piercing sensation will put them in the feeding line first. BlogDec2014_mockbabiesMockingbirds can even imitate sounds such as squeaky gates, sirens, pianos and barking dogs so well that professionals engaged in acoustical analysis cannot tell the difference between them and the real thing. Males and females, who reach sexual maturity after their first birthday, sing both day and night as an essential part of mating, making their presence known, denouncing trespassers in their territory, attacking potential predators and menacing or mobbing anything or anyone, to include humans, they perceive a threat. The bird you see perched conspicuously on high vegetation, fences, eaves, telephone wires, a rooftop or on your mail box is probably a Northern Mockingbird on sentry duty, ready to fiercely swoop and flagrantly harass other birds, animals or people in defense of their self-assigned boundaries. Even on the ground, they will stretch their legs tall, extend their wings while hopping and prancing around an intruder in attempts to scare it away. BlogDec2014_MockerWings
If a predator persists, mockingbirds will summon other mockingbirds from neighboring territories by vocalizing distinct alarms, calling them to join forces in attack mode. These birds are absolutely unafraid and will assault large, dangerous targets such as hawks and capable cats. They should feel no need to apologize for their aggressive behaviors, though. They need to be fierce given the long list of predators they must routinely deal with such as Sharp-Shinned Hawks, Screech Owls, Great Horned Owls, squirrels and snakes, just to name a few. You might think a bird predisposed with unabashed ferocity might be pretty big, but nope, they are medium-sized songbirds and a bit more slender than thrashers who are their closest living relatives. Males are slightly larger than females and their average wingspan is 12 to 14 inches. Most Northern Mockingbirds have a gray or white underbelly and exhibit white wing bars. They have small heads, a long, thin dark bill with a hint of a downward curve and long legs. Their wings are short, rounded and broad, making the tail seem particularly long in flight. The Northern Mockingbird is an omnivore, meaning it eats insects and fruits. The birds’ diet consists of a variety of insects, spiders, earthworms, berries, fruits, seeds and sometimes lizards. BlogDec2014_MockingbirdLunchXTheir favorite insects include butterflies, beetles, ants, bees, wasps and grasshoppers. Mockingbirds drink from puddles, river and lake edges, or dew and rain droplets found on plants. Adult mockingbirds also drink sap from cuts on recently pruned trees. Their diet heavily consists of more animal prey during the breeding season, but takes an extreme shift to fruits during fall and winter. The habitat they prefer is usually open areas, forest edges, grass lands for foraging, but they have adapted well to residential living. Northern Mockingbirds visit feeding stations, especially in winter where they dine on fruit, mealworms and suet. They often bully other birds away from feeding areas, even if it contains foods they do not like. They don’t share well. Mockingbird nests, constructed in bushes or trees usually 3 to 10 feet off the ground, consist of dead twigs shaped like an open cup, lined with grasses, small roots, leaves and sometimes bits of trash, plastic, aluminum foil and shredded cigarette butts which are not the best materials to choose, but they are resourceful recyclers. The male constructs the twig foundation while the female stands watch, then they switch duties and the female fashions the lining. In a breeding season, the Northern Mockingbird lays an average of 3-5 eggs. They are light blue or greenish in color, speckled with brown dots and hatch after 11 to 14 days of incubation. Both the parents will feed their little brood, and after about 10 to 15 days of life, the offspring become independent. You may see youngins still begging in the trees for food because it’s hard for a child to give up that free ride, and the parents will accommodate for a while, but soon tough love will encourage self-sufficiency. As they raise young and feed on insects, they’re paying attention and remembering everything that comes near their territory. Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) with a blue sky backgroundThe mockingbird has the remarkable ability to tell the difference between individual humans, even after only 60 seconds of contact, despite changes of clothing. The Northern Mockingbird is known for its intelligence and is much smarter than bird experts previously thought. They rank right up there with the natural capacity and genius of the American Crow. These songbirds also recognize their specific breeding spots and return to areas in which they had greatest success in previous years. Although the Northern Mockingbird’s lifespan in the wild is 8 years, the 1800’s took them to near extinction because people, who valued their exceptional vocal talent, captured them for pets. When kidnapping them became illegal their numbers recovered significantly. The Northern Mockingbird, also called an American Nightingale, is the third popular state bird behind the Northern Cardinal and Western Meadowlark. In light of what we now know about this impressive and boldly assertive songbird, it might be easier to understand when all that fussing starts next Spring. Although it might sound merry at first, that bird is strictly talking business. Northern Mockingbirds need to do what needs to be done to keep us and any other threat moving along and away from their family. Isn’t that what we all do?

Happy New Year Everyone!!!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

Thank the Beavers!!

FB_beaverpond_edited-1Yes, there might be a few complaints about the presence of beavers in some areas, but it’s time to take a look at the beaver in a positive light that focuses on the benefits and inspirational values of these industrious and social, primarily nocturnal, semi-aquatic mammals. This is a species of wildlife that is a “few and far between” admit to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC, but when it happens, it’s quite the event for the staffers and volunteers who work there. Despite some people’s displeasure regarding beaver behaviors, we wildlife rehabilitators stand tall, on each side of the beaver, in support of this magnificent animal capable of engineering landscape like very few animals can. Because the beaver is second only to humans in their ability to manipulate their environment, Native Americans called them “Little People,” conveying great respect for their abilities. The beaver is the largest rodent (mammals that gnaw) in North America, weighing between 35 and 50 pounds as adults. However, beavers weighing up to 90 lbs have been reported. Beavers are 2-3 feet in length, with an additional 10-18 inches for the tail. When they reach 2 1/2 years of age, they select mates for life, and males and females are similar in size. Beavers live in large family groups called colonies made up of monogamous parents, newborns called kits and the yearlings from the previous spring. Beavers have short front legs and webbed hind feet with a double claw on the second toe that they use to comb their fur. The beaver’s fluffy fur, made waterproof by coating it with castoreum, an oily secretion from its scent glands, is chestnut brown to blackish. Two noticeable features are its large, bright orange incisor teeth that never stop growing which are used for cutting bark and chiseling trees and its very large, uniquely flat, hairless tail.FB_Blog_BeaverTail_edited-1 The beaver uses its flat, stiff tail as a rudder for swimming, slapping the water to communicate warnings, storing fat and also as a third leg for support when standing upright. Beavers are slow and merely waddle on land, but agile and quick in the water. Some of the physical features and capabilities of the beaver are unparalleled and downright amazing! Did you know they have a set of transparent eyelids allowing them to see under water? Beavers also close their ears and nose while submerged. They can hold their breath under water for up to 15 minutes, and their lips seal behind their incisors, allowing them to gnaw wood underwater. Astounding! They live in freshwater lakes, ponds, rivers and streams, usually near woodlands, although beavers do not eat fish. They are strict herbivores and their favorite foods include leaves and green bark (cambium) from aspen, twigs, roots, aquatic plants such as water lily tubers, clover, grasses, apples, alfalfa and fast-growing trees. Beaver pruning stimulates trees and bushes to grow healthier and larger in the spring. When they take down a tree they don’t waste a thing.FB_Blog_beaver-02 They eat the bark and buds before cutting up branches and sections of the trunk which are carried away for use in the construction of dams or lodges. Lodges built with tree limbs, sticks, twigs, mud and sometimes rocks help slow the flow of floodwaters, control erosion and sedimentation, provides or enlarges habitat for wood ducks and other wetland wildlife, increases fish and aquatic plant populations, creates an ecosystem that breaks down pesticides thereby producing cleaner water downstream and dramatically influences the maintenance of wetlands during extreme drought, recharging ground water resources. Now wouldn’t you agree that’s quite a bit to say “Thank You” for? Although beavers mark their territory with “scent mounds,” piles of mud and sticks that the beaver coats in musk oil, they will occasionally share their home with another species such as a family of muskrats. Their lodges typically contain two dens, one for drying off after entering the lodge under water and a dryer den where the family will live and socialize. The damming that results from the construction of their lodge serves a number of purposes for the beaver; water becomes deep enough for the beaver to swim in, they are able to stockpile food under water, and beaver lodges are designed with multiple, deep entrances and exits for protection from predators. Coyotes, black bear, eagles and humans are common predators of beavers. Beavers do not hibernate, remaining active all winter long. Most beaver mates will not reproduce until they are 3 years of age and typically birth one litter of offspring between March and May after a gestation period of 4 months. Two to six, eyes open, kits are born weighing about one pound each and able to swim the day they are born, but to stay safe they stick to the water inside the lodge. FB_Blog_BeaverKit_edited-1They are weaned from mother’s milk within 6-8 weeks, but beaver young stay with their parents for at least 2 years before venturing out on their own, after stern encouragement from their parents, to find a mate and build their own domelike home. A beaver’s longevity can be 20 years, but most live only half that. Okay, so they take a few trees here and there, they aren’t wasteful! They fell a particular tree for a particular reason; a larger mature tree will be felled to form the basis of a dam. A young, second growth tree will be felled for food. Beavers will also fell broad-leaved trees to encourage new growth, creating a closer food source. And okay, they may reroute a stream or two, but let’s say thanks to the beavers for all the good things they do and the amazing, adorable creatures they are. I’m guessing most people will agree that the beaver is quite cute, especially baby beavers! However, never approach a beaver, even if it appears docile, friendly or cute. They will become frightened and start hissing or blowing. That means the beaver is not happy. A beaver is a wild animal and capable of great harm to you (remember, they chew trees), so respect for these incredible little architects and environmental partners is due. This month, when we reflect on all we are thankful for, let’s thank the beavers!

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

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