Wingin’ it in the Nursery!

All the counter space, incubators and playpens are full of baby birds of all sizes and species in the infant nursery at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport. It’s Spring and everyone is doing what they do when the weather turns warm. Momma and Papa birds discovered safe and out of the way places to nest and raise their offspring, and humans are getting outside in the nice weather to plug holes in their siding, clean their soffit areas, mow the grass and remove dead or nuisance trees they feel are threatening their homes. And that’s when the conflict begins. Displaced nestlings are admitted to the shelter routinely because their parents chose a homestead not agreeable with the resident homeowners. Quite often we can convince the homeowners to wait only four weeks to make home repairs or take that tree down because the newborns will be fledging by then and on their way into big sky, but quite often, we can’t and agree to take in the newly orphaned. There are other instances when an onlooker sees what’s going on and rushes in to rescue the baby birds so they will not be harmed and delivers them to us to finish the job their dedicated bird parents started.
A few weeks ago, Black-capped Chickadee newborns were evicted by maintenance workers at an apartment complex much to the dismay of the residents, and the list of ousted baby birds begins. Nesting Starlings were removed from spaces created when a house lost siding during a storm and Carolina Wrens from a cozy squeeze of space on top a lawn mower after a snake tried to take out the whole wren family, but that was a necessary removal for the greater good. House Sparrows were extracted from a roof’s eaves, Robins and Mockingbirds from nests in bushes too close to the ground (homeowners worried about free-roaming cats) and Mourning Doves from a hanging plant above a deck. Occasionally flighty youngsters, such as our quivery Cardinal babies get too full of themselves and tumble out of the nest. In the cases of rambunctious little ones that stretch their stubby wings and lanky stick legs, then go “whoa – oops, where am I,” hopefully an empathic and sympathetic human comes along to help them out. Unfortunately, most humans don’t know that they can put the infant back into the nest if found and still intact, and Mom will be happy her baby was returned. For many years, based on teachings as a child, I thought the mother bird would not accept the baby if it was touched by human hands; the scent would linger, and the baby would be rejected. The theory turned out not to be true. Other than the vulture, some seabirds and parrots, birds have little use for the sense of smell. Odors disperse in the wind quickly. They do possess olfactory glands, but they’re not well developed. Same goes for taste. Humans have nearly 9,000 taste buds, but songbirds have fewer than 50. Most backyard birds rely on sight, touch and hearing, which are senses that are highly developed. Okay, back to nesting; of course, trees are a very traditional choice for nesting, whether the nest is anchored in bobbing limbs or in a cavity, which is very popular for woodpeckers, flycatchers, nuthatches, screech owls and other omnivores. Recently, Tufted Titmice were admitted to the shelter after a tree was cut down. When you nest in a tree cavity, most of the time you won’t be noticed until after the tree is down (fortunately the babies survived the potentially hazardous thump). Nuthatches were also brought to the shelter about the same time for the same reason. Ideally for wildlife rehabilitators and the wildlife infants, no one would remove a tree until after “Baby Season,” but not everyone is aware of the consequences of tree removal until after the crisis presents itself. Then, based on the trauma incurred during the tree felling, it’s a 50-50 shot at a positive outcome. Luck definitely plays a card. Birds recognize no human presence, little activity and stillness as opportunity to nest, and they get busy doing what they do in the Spring before we do. So, we shouldn’t be surprised when we find a nest in our BBQ grill, on the boat, in a car that hasn’t been driven in a while, in signage at the store or in the cradle of a warm stop light. Birds have lost the majority of their habitat in urban and residential areas and are forced to adjust to our environment. They are doing the best they can. We only ask that you be sensitive to these little feathered folks and give them the time needed to raise their young until they fledge, unless they are in a dangerous, life threatening situation. If that is the case, please bring them to a wildlife rehabilitator, and they will take it from there. We appreciate the caring, time and effort you give to bring in the little tweeters found in harm’s way.

Linda Bergman-Althouse
Author of
“Save Them All” (Amazon)

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Muskrat Love!

Native Americans call them “little brothers of the beaver.” They swim, gnaw, build houses, eat the same foods and even resemble beavers. They received the name Muskrat, because like the beaver, they have a pair of musk glands to use when they need to scent message other animals in the area to include those of their own kind. So that’s where the “musk” part came from, and the “rat” part came from that long, skinny and seemingly hairless when wet, tail, which is a dead give-away that you’re not looking at a beaver. We don’t get many muskrats, orphans or adults, admitted for care at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, but when we do, despite the muskrat’s persecution for centuries, OWLS is a safe haven for them because we treat all wildlife equally and with respect. They get the same royal treatment just like any other indigenous species admitted to our clinic. Besides, these chunky little mammals are way too cute, wear strikingly beautiful fur and have squeaky and intriguing conversations with each other! A while back, we raised two orphans who treated us to quite the aquatic mammal experience. Aware of the timid ways of the elusive and shy beaver cousins, we ensured their makeshift habitat was loaded with leaved limbs, hiding places, and water sources to enjoy. They didn’t do anything to get themselves in trouble, but we still had to place them behind steel bars or as all efficient rodents would do, they’d chew out whenever they wanted. With all our infant wildlife, we take extreme measures to ensure they don’t become friendly towards people. If we allow them to bond with us, their chances of survival in the wild would be zero. Muskrats are easier to keep wild than most because they tend to be skittish, frightful of people and non-aggressive, although will bite if they perceive danger. In defense of the “in the wild” muskrat though, they seldom invade our residential spaces because they are always close to water, and usually marshy, human uninhabitable wetlands at that. So, muskrats are virtually harmless to humans, fascinating little creatures and can entertain anyone who stops to take time to appreciate them. In North Carolina, muskrats are common in most river systems but rare in our southeastern coastal regions, which is the main reason OWLS’s rehabilitators don’t get much hands-on with muskrats. Where ever a musky chooses to call home, it will dig into a bank or build a free standing house by piling aquatic vegetation into a mound, then excavate a nest cavity in the center with several chambers and tunnels leading into the water; quite impressive and masterful engineering. These lodges, also called push-ups or mounds, are not as grand as beaver lodges. The muskrat does not haul in logs and slap on mud. The fashioned mounds of grasses, reeds, and small sticks are only a few feet high. Sometimes they build the mounds around trunks of dead bushes or trees. In contrast to a beaver’s lodge, there is often no structure below the water. Muskrats and beavers are the only mammals that build homes in the water. Unlike the beaver though, the muskrat does not store food for the winter. They need to eat fresh plants every day and maintain a home range of less than one mile from their push-up. Muskrats can breed any time of the year and more than once with pregnancy lasting 25-30 days. The average litter size is four to six and kits are hairless, blind at birth and weigh less than one ounce each. Over time the youngsters are weaned from mother’s milk and often stay with their parents for a year, but when overcrowding develops, the parents, usually Mom, dramatically encourages her eldest members to move out and build a home of their own. An adult ranges in size from 10-14 inches in length and weighs two to three pounds. Muskrats are excellent swimmers and can stay under water for up to 15 minutes at a time. Their webbed hind feet, great for swimming, are much larger than the front five-toed feet used for digging and manipulating food. They are nocturnal, although often seen during daylight hours working on the house and spend most of their life in water. They are primarily plant eaters feeding on roots, shoots and leaves but will enjoy frogs, small fish, crayfish, mussels or clams if the opportunity presents itself.
I once read a story about a young muskrat found scratching at the back door of a nursing home in Ontario, Canada during a horrific snow and ice storm. One of the workers let her in and fashioned a warm kennel with food and a number of deep, functional water pans. The question of why she came to the door was never answered but a couple theories were; the weight of the snow collapsed the lodge or a predator, such as a wolf or mink, tried to dig in, but she was smart, lightning fast and escaped. Although the plan at the home was to release her back to the wild in the spring, last I heard, she is very content and lives with the residents still. Muskrats benefit many wetland species by creating open water areas for waterfowl and are an excellent indicator of environmental quality. Gotta love ‘em! I know I do!

Linda Bergman-Althouse
Author of “Save Them All” (which is now available as an ebook on Amazon)