“The Under-Appreciated Sparrow!”

Color catches our eyes as we avid bird watchers will probably agree; take for example the bright red Cardinal or the royal Bluebird and the brilliant, rusty breast of the American Robin. How about the rich black, white and orange-rust color blocking of the Towhee or the adorned Blue Jay, the vivid Purple Finch or the glamorous Painted Bunting? We can’t miss those birds because they announce their presence in living color! What we tend to miss are the little guys, who blend in and are only here in the coastal region of North Carolina during the grayness of winter such as fast, unobtrusive and flitting sparrows. There are 43 species of sparrows worldwide that make up an extended family of tiny passerine birds, and the ones we see most on the coast are the House, Chipping, Song Sparrow and the White-Throated Sparrow. Most sparrows breed as far north as Canada and only migrate to or through North Carolina during October before the harsh cold season hits up north. They will stay through late April, early May and then head back to their northern habitat for breeding. Recently, a White-Throated Sparrow smacked the patio glass door of this author’s home, and Frizbee, an “indoor only” feline alerted me to his still and lifeless presence on the deck. The limp sparrow was placed in a comfy, towel lined container and placed in the warm, wildlife triage to monitor just how serious his injuries were and if in fact, he could recover from only being stunned or knocked out. Happy to report that within a half hour, he was on his feet and making his desire to be released known. Thankfully, he pulled through, and there was no reason to transport him to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC. White-Throated Sparrows, from the family of New World Sparrows, are brown and gray, diminutive birds that weigh only one ounce on the average. They one thing that might stand out in their appearance is a striking head pattern that includes a yellow or tan stripe, as well as a patch of white on their throat. Sparrows are small but plump with short tails and stubby but powerful beaks similar to the beaks of other seed eating birds such as the House Finch. To help them hold and break seeds, the sparrow has an extra bone in their tongue called the preglossale, which stiffens the tongue while eating. White-throated Sparrows eat seeds of grasses and weeds, including ragweed and buckwheat, as well as fruits of sumac, grape, cranberry, mountain ash, rose, blueberry, blackberry, and dogwood. In summer they eat large numbers of insects caught on the forest floor or during quick flights out from low vegetation. Their insect diet includes dragonflies, wasps, stinkbugs, beetles, flies, caterpillars, spiders, millipedes, centipedes and snails. Parents feed their nestlings almost exclusively insects. During winter, which is when they hang out with us on the coast, White-throated Sparrows readily visit our bird feeders for millet and black oil sunflower seeds. In spring they eat the tender buds, blossoms and young seeds of oak, apple, maple, beech and elm to ready themselves for their return migration north. Hierarchies, or pecking orders, exist in these winter flocks where males are typically dominant over females. Because of the sparrows abundance, accessibility on both breeding and wintering grounds and the relative ease it can be maintained in captivity, they have been used in many types of bird monitoring, in addition to studies related to breeding biology, physiology in relation to the annual cycle, circadian rhythms, migration, dominance and territoriality, functions of song and the effects of pesticides and forestry practices. Although sparrows have these unique benefits and values; ecological importance, beautiful earth-toned color schemes and that they are quite often mentioned in song lyrics, as well as a frequent topic in folklore, they may very well be the least appreciated of all birds, even though the White-Throated Sparrow is one of the most abundant birds found in the forests of North America. Their winter range covers most of the eastern United States, including all of North Carolina, and it is one of the most numerous birds to winter in our state, along with the Dark-eyed Junco and the Song Sparrow. You’ll find White-throated sparrows on the ground, often in flocks, while they scratch through leaves with both feet in search of seeds, fruits and insects. White-throated Sparrows hop when they’re on the ground rather than walking or running, then pounce forward at anything they’ve uncovered. These winter visitors love leafy urban spaces with brushy edges or hedgerows and active bird feeders. To encourage them to visit your feeder, add a brush pile of plentiful groundcover. Use a ground feeder with millet and sunflower hearts, and scatter millet under the brush from now until April for cold weather energy and to ensure safe refuge. Also, keep your birdbaths thawed and full. White-throated sparrows are a joy to listen to and are adored for their clear whistle of “Sweet Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada” which is the song of their homeland. In their breeding region, the female WT Sparrow will build an open cup nest on the ground, hidden by low shrubs or high grass, made of grasses, twigs, weeds, pine needles, fine roots and animal hair. While the female is building the nest, the male will sing to defend their territory and aggressively chase any intruders away. Momma will lay 4 to 5 pale blue or greenish blue eggs marked with reddish brown and lavender that she incubates for about two weeks. After hatching, both parents will feed the nestlings. In about 10 days, the young leave the nest but will still be cared for by their parents for another two weeks. The parents stay together for the summer, but they often choose new partners the next year. The White-throated Sparrow is still wide spread and tallies taken of them during the annual national bird count suggests only a slight decline in the last few decades. Although White-throated Sparrows are not an endangered bird species, we probably should keep our eye on this sparrow. Historically, the sparrow has legendary status and is mentioned in numerous formal literary works. Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, considered the Sparrow a sacred bird, a symbol of true love (although they do get a bad rap for not being monogamous!) and capable of a spiritual connection. In some European countries, the belief is if a sparrow flies into your home you will have good luck and even better luck if the sparrow builds a nest! Or it could mean that a wedding will happen soon. It is also said that Egyptians believe sparrows catch the souls of the recently deceased and carry them to heaven, and that’s why so many sailors get sparrow tattoos (just in case they die at sea). The call of the Sparrow will bring rain! Wow. All these beliefs seem like very heavy burdens to place on a tiny sparrow! Still, considering all that, it might be wise to keep our eyes on the sparrow.

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

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Bumblebees, “Ghosts in the Making”

It’s unusual for the staff and volunteers of the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC to be as highly concerned about a wild creature we don’t rehabilitate as we are, but this living being . . . this insect . . . rules the world! That is not an exaggeration. The Bumblebee, especially the Rusty Patched Bumblebee which was once a common sight throughout the entire continental United States, is in serious trouble. Now it can only be found in small, scattered groups in 13 states. The bee’s population has plummeted by 87 percent since the 1990’s, and as of 9 November 2018 and for the first time in history, the RP Bumble Bee is officially listed as an endangered species on the brink of extinction. It is a ghost in the making. Yes, it is only one listed bee species, but it is a significant start to stronger action that needs to be taken to recover our bees! We are finally acknowledging in a formal and proactive way that if we lose our bumble bees, there will be no plants or parks, no forests or shrublands, no meadows and no vibrant life the bees support such as wildlife, domestic animals and the human animal. All these life forms simply cannot survive without bees. Bees have now joined the Grizzly Bear and the Northern Spotted Owl as heading for extinction if we don’t do something quick! 347 species of bees have drastically diminished over decades due to habitat loss, use of pesticides, mechanization of agriculture, disease, parasites and climate change, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. This tiny creature, the bumblebee, known for growing our world is now protected, and we all need to do our part to help save them. Bees certainly don’t get the respect they deserve for all they do. Most people don’t like bugs of any kind and see the bee as a menace to their immediate environment, so they end up swatting it and possibly killing it, not realizing the devastating effects the loss of that bee will create. And how about the large number exterminated at one time when bees have taken up residence in an area or pocket deemed an inconvenience to a human, such as between the walls of a shed or under a porch, and they are all sprayed dead? Bumblebees do not damage wood or other structural components. If a bumblebee nest is discovered on your property, its best and safer to just leave it alone unless there is a good chance your activities will take place near the nest. If that’s the case, calling bee experts to orchestrate a safe conservational move might be the way to go. Foraging bumblebees will almost never divert from their tasks to intentionally sting someone or their pets. A few other reasons to accommodate a bumblebee nest is of course, their huge value as pollinators, the small size of their nest and their short life span when compared to other stinging insects such as yellow jackets and hornets. Although bumblebees are capable of stinging, they are quite gentle, docile and not as aggressive or likely to sting as wasps such as those hornets and yellowjackets. The male bumblebee cannot sting, and females only do so when they feel threatened. Also, in their defense, bumblebees make up for that unique and unappreciated behavior of stinging by being among the most important pollinators of crops such as blueberries, cranberries and clover and almost the only insect pollinators of tomatoes. They basically pollinate everything, which emphasizes what a food security issue the loss of bees presents! According to the U.S. FWS, “the economic value of pollination services provided by native insects (mostly bees) is estimated at $3 billion per year in the United States.” Bees are tiny and usually go unnoticed unless they buzz by you or in your face, but keep in mind when you deem them an annoyance that these pollinators are a huge part of the natural mechanism that sustains us and our world. Without them, food will not grow. Bumblebees are large, fuzzy insects with short stubby wings that beat 130 times or more per second in a sweeping motion rather than up and down. They seem to defy aerodynamics when you consider their tiny wings versus their rotund body. How they manage to stay in the air is a mystery to many bumblebee fans. Their extremely fast metabolism requires them to eat nectar or pollen constantly when they are on the move. It is said that “a bumblebee with a full stomach is only 40 minutes away from starvation.” Bumblebees are some of the most social creatures in the animal kingdom. A group of bumblebees is called a colony, and colonies can contain between 50 and 500 individual bees. Bumblebees are larger than honeybees but don’t produce much honey, because their role and mission is that of a remarkable pollinator. Other animals are pollinators as well to include birds, bats and butterflies, but there’s no question that bees are the most important, significant and vital pollinators in our ecosystems around the world. Bees are dying, but there are ways for everyone to help stop the bees’ decline. Recommendations are to plant native and bee-friendly flowers, limit or avoid pesticides, foster natural landscapes, leave grass and garden plants uncut after summer to provide habitat for overwintering bees, strategically place old logs on not frequented areas of your property, plant new habitats for the bees to thrive in, provide supplemental nectar (30% sugar & 70% water in bottle caps in and around flower beds) and even build nesting boxes for bees. As we enjoy the aesthetic beauty all around us; the greenery, the flowers, the trees, wildlife, please give credit where credit is due, to the bumblebee, which is also beautiful in its fuzzy, buzzy way! Our community goal should be to bring the bumble bees’ numbers back to a healthy level. If you haven’t yet, let’s get ready and start this process now. There are things we can do to prevent the decline of our precious bees, and so we should. Please join us in the efforts to save these fat, fuzzy fliers. It just might be the best Christmas present we will ever give ourselves and those we love! Bee Merry!

best always & HAPPY 2019!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All”

The “Regal” Purple Martin!

She was built like a race car; smooth, sleek and shiny black with an aerodynamic head. From the beginning, the adult Purple Martin did not enjoy her stay at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport and probably couldn’t figure out why she was there, but a day earlier she had a moment of stillness on the ground long enough for a human to pick her up, place her in a box and transport her to our shelter. For an individual to be able to do that with a wild bird is evidence that something isn’t right. A thorough examination revealed no injuries or illness, so theories were shared that she may have been knocked out or stunned by running into something or maybe because of the heat, dehydration occurred. We didn’t know how long she’d been on the ground without food or water, so keeping her with us for a couple days while providing hydration and a steady diet of mealworms and crickets would ensure she wasn’t malnourished when returned to the wild, but she wasn’t having any of it! She refused to eat, even though nestlings were chirping and gaping all around her in the nursery while being fed every 30 minutes. She watched them eat, but she was not a baby and would not be doing that. She hid behind a basket of youngsters when feeding time began and would not accept mealworms offered her by tweezers or allow a wildlife rehabilitator to open her mouth to drop a few worms in. That was not going to happen; how undignified!! With no food or water, she would only get weaker, so this could not continue. She was removed from the enclosure with the young birds, even though there were a few juvenile Purple Martins present we thought she could relate to and placed in a transport bin by herself. A pile of mealworms and crickets were dropped into the bin, and the bin was covered so she could not see us, and we could not see her. In a half hour, she was checked on, and although Purple Martins eat on the wing, most of the mealworms and all the crickets were gone. Good Girl! How about some more? She ate to her tummy’s content, and that evening she was assimilated with a well-known flock of Purple Martins living in a wetlands area that provides three, man-made Purple Martin condos. When the lid of her transport carrier lifted, she rapidly flew to join her kind, who were vacuuming the sky of insects for their evening meal, and we could tell she was one much relieved bird. The Queen was happy and where she needed to be. The Purple Martin is North America’s largest, broad-chested swallow. They have stout, slightly hooked bills, short-forked tails and long, streamlined and tapered wings. Their wingspan is between 15 – 16 inches, and they fly gracefully and swiftly with a mix of flapping and gliding. Adult males are black and lustrously shiny. When the light catches that shine, they look dark blue-purple. Females and immature Purple Martins are black on the top side but have splotches of gray around the throat and sport light gray feathering on their chest and belly. Purple Martins like to talk to each other in chortles, rattles, gurgling and croaks. Purple Martins are aerial insectivores which means they catch insects such as dragon flies, house flies, wasps, moths and butterflies in midair, as well as, drink and bathe during flight. The birds are alert and nimble hunters and do eat a variety of winged insects but not mosquitos. We must leave that task to the Chimney Swifts and Fly Catchers who hunt at a lower level. Rarely, will a Purple Martin come to the ground to eat insects because they usually fly higher than most insectivores when they hunt. However, recent research has found Purple Martins occasionally feeding on invasive fire ants. Purple Martins are colonial, therefore feed and roost in flocks, often with other species of swallows mixed in. They feed in open areas, especially near water and in our area of the east coast, nest exclusively in boxes and martin houses provided by humans who appreciate their value. That human initiative goes back to the Native Americans, who once hung empty gourds to attract Purple Martins. Martins do very well near caring humans, but it’s a look but don’t touch relationship. Purple Martin condos should be monitored because very aggressive and non-native species birds such as Starlings and House Sparrows are known to invade a Martin condo in a take-over and possibly kill their nestlings. Advocates for Purple Martins are extremely concerned that the Purple Martin will simply disappear from eastern North America if human condo security is not provided. In the west Purple Martins search out natural cavities for nesting. The nest inside the cavity, condo or gourd is made of twigs, mud and small stones, then lined with grasses and leaves. Three to six white eggs are laid, and the female is the main incubator for 15 – 18 days. A pair of martins will generally raise only one brood per year, with both male and female alternating the feedings of the nestlings. Fledging occurs in about a month after birth, but the parents continue to feed them while teaching them to hunt. Purple Martins are highly social birds and migrate in large, noisy flocks to winter in South America at the Amazon Basin or the Barba Azul Reserve. They show up in Eastern North Carolina to breed in the Spring during March and April, depending upon weather warm enough to produce insects. Males arrive at the nesting area, which is usually the same site year after year, before the females. They stay until breeding season is over, then head back during July through October, also, depending upon the weather, to South America. Purple Martins have shown a steep population decline over the past two decades and as a result have been placed on ‘The Watch List of Special Concern.’ Factors that contribute to the loss of PM’s include pesticide use, colliding with buildings and bridges, unseasonably cold or wet weather (wipes out insects which causes food source loss), aerial predators such as hawks and owls, ground predators such as raccoons and snakes and, those invaders mentioned earlier; Starlings and Sparrows. With every subsequent Purple Martin admitted to our shelter for care from here on out, we will think of our regal PM girl who knew herself all to well and wanted absolutely nothing to do with us! We hope our sassy girl is still flying high and appreciating the precious freedom she proved to hold dear.

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“Mr. Stabby, Jailbird!”

Blog_IMG_9378Most people are familiar with and able to identify big owls such as a Barn, Barred or Great Horned or even a Snowy Owl if they’ve seen a Harry Potter movie, but how about the little owls that do not go “Hoo, Hoo, Hoo” at night. Very small owls, not much larger than adult Robins or European Starlings, live amongst us inconspicuously in parks and shady suburbs where many human residents are unaware that a tiny owl called a Screech is their neighbor. Although they are quite common in our area, there will be occasions when a Screech Owl, found injured or orphaned and being transported to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, is misidentified during the call-in as a baby Great Horned Owl. Most people just don’t expect owls to be that small and do not realize it is close to fully grown. When a Lieutenant from the Carteret County Sheriff’s Department recently saw a gray owlet on a country road close to a forest line, he had a pretty good idea it was a Screech but had no idea why it was sitting there, alone and not even close to a possible nest overhead. Blog_IMG_4090With so much wind on that Saturday night a theory formed that the baby had been blown out of a nest and because he couldn’t get back up the tree, beat feet in confusion and ended up where he ended up. Thankfully for that little owl, the kind deputy happened by to help him. Because it was very late and our shelter was unable to receive the baby owl, he spent the night in jail. Now, how many owls will be able to share that story with their offspring! Early Sunday morning, the tiny Screech was delivered to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter where he is being raised for his eventual return to the wild. The Police Officer shared the story during check-in at the shelter that although he felt sure the little owl didn’t mean to, his talons grabbed the deputy’s hand while being picked up Saturday night and unfortunately, drew blood. For that reason, the officer named him “Mr. Stabby.” Of course, any wildlife being handled by humans is experiencing highly abnormal contact. They will be scared and utilize whatever defenses they have. With owls, large or small, their talons can cut like a knife! At the shelter, we will wear leather gloves when the need arises to handle ‘Mr. Stabby.’ In the wild, a Screech Owl spends the day roosting in holes found in wooded environments or in dense cover and only becomes active at dusk. Despite the name, Screech Owls don’t really screech; their voice features a series of whinnies and soft trills but will intensify when sounding an alarm. The Eastern Screech Owl is a short, compact bird, with a large head and almost no neck. Its wings are rounded; its tail is short and square. Pointed ear tufts are prominent when raised, lending its head a distinctive silhouette. Eastern Screech Owls can be either mostly gray or mostly reddish-brown. Blog_EasternScreechOwlWhatever the overall color, they are patterned with bands and spots that give the bird excellent camouflage against tree bark. Their eyes are most often bright yellow. Eastern Screech Owls have gray-green bills. They are about 7 to 10 inches tall and have a wingspan of 18 to 24 inches. They hunt from perches, swoop down on prey and snatch a meal with well-developed raptorial claws. They usually carry their food to their nest before eating it. Their curved bill and talons are used as tools to tear their meals into pieces small enough for them to swallow. A Screech Owl’s prey includes insects they catch in midair such as beetles, moths, crickets; reptiles such as lizards, frogs, earthworms and small snakes; small mammals to include bats and mice, and other small birds. They are opportunistic hunters and will even grab a small fish occasionally. Screech Owls are known to tackle prey much large than itself, such as adult rabbits or ducks. Their excellent sense of hearing helps to locate prey in any habitat. Their digestive system requires the expulsion of a few pellets a day that contain fur, feathers, bones and teeth, which are prey body parts they cannot process. Eastern Screech Owls are nocturnal, active at night and far more often heard than seen. Most bird watchers know this species only from its trilling or whinnying song. Blog_Eastern_Screech-OwlAlthough this cavity-roosting owl prefers trees, it can be attracted to nest boxes if erected at least 10 to 30 feet above ground and occasionally it will nest behind loose boards on abandoned buildings or barns. During the day and if you’re extremely sharp-eyed, you may spot a Screech Owl at the entrance of its home in a tree cavity or a strategically placed and enticing nest box. However, trees define the Eastern Screech-Owl’s natural habitat. This owl is common in most types of woods (evergreen or deciduous; urban or rural), particularly near water. Treeless expanses of mountains or plains is not suitable habitat for Screech Owls. Breeding season for Eastern Screech Owls is generally mid-April but can range from mid-March to mid-May. They have an elaborate courtship ritual. Males approach females, calling from different branches until they are close. The male then bobs his entire body, swivels his head, and even slowly winks one eye at the female. If she ignores him, bobbing and swiveling motions intensify. If she accepts him, she moves close, they touch bills and preen each other. The female will check out the nesting accommodations he is offering to ensure it’s suitable, and he will also try to impress her with food he has placed in the nesting cavity. Screech Owls mate for life but will accept a new partner if something happens to their previous mate. Grey and amber SO’s will mate together. Nests are almost always found in deciduous trees such as oaks, elms, maples, sycamores, willows, apples and occasionally in pines where three to five white eggs are laid on the natural floor of a cavity. No nesting material is added, and pairs of Screech Owls will often reuse nest sites through the years, to include former woodpecker (especially Pileated and Flicker) cavities. Incubation averages 26 days and these monogamous pairs share the care for their hatchlings. The male takes on the responsibility of providing food for his mate during incubation, and they both will hunt for food to feed their offspring. Although the young owls leave the nest at about four weeks after hatching, they are still fed by their parents and taught to hunt from dusk until dawn for quite some time. ‘Mr. Stabby,’ our little jailbird, is still very much a baby and his human foster parents at the shelter are tending to his needs. Blog_IMG_2768He is a hearty eater and growing in strength and size, but when appropriate and before his release, we must ensure his capability to hunt for food and recognize dangerous predators such as larger owls, weasels, raccoons, snakes, Crows and Blue Jays that might be in his path. The shelter boards a resident Screech Owl who we rely on to help us teach him everything he needs to know in the wild. Although it may be rare, one Screech Owl’s longevity on record states over twenty years, and we are intently focused on giving ‘Mr. Stabby’ the very best chance at living a long and healthy Screech Owl life!!

best always and Happy Baby Season,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All
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“Graceful and Elusive” The Least Bittern

He must have looked like a statue in the backyard, with his beak pointed straight up to the sky, standing so still and if movement was occurring, it was imperceptible to humans. However, the cat knew he was there and pounced before the resident of the Atlantic Beach home could stop the attack. The gentleman quickly intervened and lifted the wisp of a marsh bird from the feline’s clutches. The Good Samaritan did not know how badly the bird was injured, but did know its best chance for survival after a cat attack would be in the hands and care of a wildlife rehabilitator. When admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, positive identification recorded him as a Least Bittern, which is a very elusive marsh bird and one of the smallest herons in the world, averaging 11 to 14 inches in length with a 16 to 18-inch wingspan. A full examination revealed one small puncture wound, and he was on the thin side, but he was still a lucky bird! Medications to prevent infection, getting him to eat in captivity and quiet for rest & recuperation became the treatment plan. Within three days, he was on his feet and eating mud minnows on his own from a bowl. Good Boy! This small heron is adapted for life in dense marshes, but rather than wading in the shallows like most herons, the graceful Least Bittern climbs about in cattails and reeds, clinging to the stems with its long toes. Its narrow body allows it to slip through dense, tangled vegetation with ease. Thanks to its habit of perching among the reeds, the Least Bittern can feed from the surface of water that would be too deep for the wading strategy of other herons. Because of its habitat choice, it is often unseen until it flies. Although it is a rare sight to see, its cooing and clucking calls are frequently heard at dawn and dusk and sometimes at night. This primarily black and tan bird has a blackish-green crown and back, brown neck and brown and white underparts and a white throat. The Least Bittern is most readily identified in flight by conspicuous, chestnut-colored wing patches. Males are more colorful and have a darker back than females. The yellow bill for both is thin and the toes at the end of their short green and yellow legs sport long, curved toenails that work perfectly for grasping dense vegetation. The plumage of juveniles is similar to an adult female but paler. This skinny bittern eats mostly small fish such as minnows, sunfish and perch and large insects to include dragonflies. If available, the Least Bittern will not pass on crayfish, leeches, frogs, tadpoles, salamanders, slugs, shrews or mice. To search for these tasty treats, the LB awkwardly moves about in vegetation above water and jabs downward with its long bill to capture prey at the water’s surface. It will also flick it’s wings open and shut to startle prey into motion. If the feeding site is good, the bittern has been known to build a hunting stand by bending down many reeds to form a platform. These birds nest in saltwater, brackish or freshwater marshes with dense vegetation from southern Canada to northern Argentina. The nest is a well-concealed platform built from cattails and other plants. Their nest usually presents as an elevated platform with an overhead canopy and is built of emergent aquatic vegetation and sticks. Least Bitterns are colonial nesters, and nests are usually widely scattered in the marsh and occasionally in close association with Boat-tailed Grackles. You may discover 15 LB nests in one breeding area! The female lays four or five eggs and in extreme cases, from two to seven. The eggs are pale blue or green and incubation is by both sexes for 17-20 days. After hatching, both parents feed the young by regurgitating food. Legs and feet of young LB’s develop quickly, and the youngsters may leave the nest as early as 6 days after hatching if the nest is disturbed, if not, they ordinarily remain in the nest for about 2 weeks, and near the nest for another week or more. Least Bitterns are known to produce one to two broods per year. When threatened, the Least Bittern will freeze in place with its bill pointing up, turn its front and both eyes toward the source of alarm, and sometimes sway to resemble wind-blown marsh vegetation. This is believed to be a predator-avoidance behavior, since its diminutive size makes the bittern vulnerable to potential predators such as coyotes, foxes and the great horned owl. When alarmed, they may also puff out their feathers to make themselves look larger or burrow through dense undergrowth that is impossible for larger animals to pass through, and if those tactics don’t work, the shy and elusive bittern often slips away by inconspicuously walking or running through the reeds for they would rather escape on foot than fly anyway. Although considered weak fliers, Least Bitterns do migrate from the northern parts of their range in winter for the southernmost coasts of the United States and areas further south, travelling only at night. The population of these birds have declined in some areas due to loss of wetland habitat and the encroachment of exotic species of marsh vegetation. The Least Bittern is listed as a threatened species at the state level due to the adverse effects of draining and the filling in of wetlands. Therefore, the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan rates it a Species of High Concern, and all migratory birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Now that our bittern patient has passed live fishing school, he is ready to be wild again! We’re hoping he will rejoin his Atlantic Beach “dash or freeze or siege,” which are all names for a group of bitterns. Without the support of the people in our community, our Least Bittern release may never have been rescued, given the opportunity to recover and rejoin his flock. Dash On, LB!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All

“Beaver’s Little Brother”

A little ‘brother of the beaver’ came into the shelter recently. He was tiny (only eight ounces), needy and fully self-aware that he required help. That’s exactly why a caring human managed to get his hands on a young Muskrat found wandering along the road in Newport. Fearing the infant musky would run into the road, the gentleman pulled his car over and proceeded to walk towards the little one to shoo him away from oncoming traffic, and how the gentleman saw the diminutive ‘eight-ouncer’ in the first place is remarkable. Rather than run away from the good Samaritan, which is normal avoidance behavior in the wild, the infant muskrat literally ran toward him. So, the caring rescuer picked him up, which is what we do with babies who are in distress, human or otherwise. The young Muskrat was alone, confused, scared and hungry. The youngster then took a ride to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter. A muskrat is more accurately a ‘cousin’ to the beaver, but “little brothers of the beaver” is what Native Americans named them many years ago. There is a definite resemblance between the beaver and the muskrat, but the muskrat’s long, skinny and nearly hairless tail rather than the ‘paddle’ tail, gives it away! Like a beaver, dark brown muskrats have a pair of musk glands they use to send messages to other muskrats and different species of animals as well. Of course, the “rat” part of their name refers to that long, skinny tail. Our little musky is doing well at the shelter; enjoying his mega amounts of formula (he’s still of nursing age), toying with some solids like vegetables and mud minnows and relishing his swim time in the deep sink. We are currently checking the wildlife rehabilitation communities in our state for another lone muskrat that could join him. They rehab much better in pairs, and we don’t want this little one imprinting on humans. If we allow him to bond with us, his chances of survival in the wild will be nil. Aquatic muskrats are a North Carolina indigenous species, however, the shelter does not admit them often. Muskrats are easier to keep wild than most wildlife because they tend to be skittish, frightful of people and non-aggressive, although they will bite if they perceive danger (and if you are close enough, which of course is unreasonably close if their teeth can make it into your skin!). When given appropriate respect regarding space and interference, muskrats are virtually harmless to humans, and fascinating and entertaining little creatures to watch for anyone who stops to take time to appreciate them. A fluffy, adult muskrat 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 their 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 available. Muskrats are rodents and capable of chewing through almost anything, so a metal enclosure at the shelter is the only way to go as our little one physically develops and matures. And because they are timid, his enclosure will be stocked with leaved limbs, many hiding places and water pans to laze about in. In defense of the chewing “in the wild” muskrat, they seldom invade our residential spaces because they are always close to water, and usually marshy, human uninhabitable wetlands at that. Muskrats do not build lodges like the beaver, although they will occasionally move in with beavers. Instead of lodges they construct free standing houses by piling aquatic vegetation into a hill only a few feet high, then excavate a nest cavity in the center with several chambers and tunnels leading into the water which is quite impressive and masterful engineering. The grassy muskrat residence is called a ‘push-up’ or ‘mound.’ 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, but muskrats and beavers are the only mammals that build homes on water. Also, unlike the beaver, 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 litter size averages 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 and sometimes, harshly, encourages her eldest children to move out and build a home of their own. Every time a muskrat is admitted to our shelter, we still reminisce the story of 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 positioned deep, functional water pans for her necessary water moments in efforts to keep her safe during the wretched and dangerous weather. The question of why she came to the door was never truly answered but a few theories were; the weight of the snow collapsed the push-up or a predator, such as a wolf or mink, tried to dig in, but she was smart, lightning fast and managed to escape. Although the plan at the nursing home was to release her back into the wild in the spring, she became very content with her newly-found caretakers and remained with the residents of the home. Now that’s a true story of “Muskrat Love!” We love them too, even if we are way south of Canada! We don’t see muskrats as often in this area, but we are aware of their importance to our ecological system and how they benefit many wetland species by creating open water areas for waterfowl. They are excellent environmental partners for they are true indicators of environmental quality.

Best Always and let’s bless America (and the world) by living

harmoniously with nature, wildlife and each other. . . . . . . . .

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“Squirrels, Blurred Breeding Seasons!”

We all know Squirrels! They live among us, are easily recognizable, and what’s not to love about watching the joyful, fast and furious antics of squirrels!? We also have certain expectations of squirrels, especially of the more common variety here in the east, the Eastern Gray Squirrel. We expect EG Squirrels to birth a litter twice a year, once in the Spring and again in the Fall. Wildlife Rehabilitators at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport prepare for incoming baby squirrels, but for the past few years EG Squirrels have blurred the breeding season lines. As soon as our last Fall squirrel youngsters are released into the wild, brand new, pinkie babies are being admitted during the dead of winter, way before Spring! We have begun to see infant squirrel admits year ‘round. At the beginning of February this year, we admitted our first newborn EG Squirrels, which of course means there is no break in the action of rehabbing baby squirrels at the shelter and the continuation of squirrel formula, seeds, nuts, fruits and vegetables is an absolute requirement. Squirrels are tree-dwelling members of the rodent family of mammals. Eastern gray squirrels build nests or dreys for sleeping, but those nests are being used for more than sleeping these days. Child rearing has become a year ‘round responsibility for Momma Squirrels. The adults may rotate between as many as three nests, depending on the population density where they live. These nests are usually occupied either by a single adult squirrel or by a mother and her kittens which is what baby squirrels are called. Winter baby admits at the shelter present specific challenges such as hypothermia and malnutrition because, one, its cold and two, food sources for Mom are not as prevalent in the winter. Although squirrels are very hearty and adaptable wildlife, if they are lacking nutrition themselves it can adversely affect milk production which in turn will deprive the babies. So, if you are a backyard wildlife feeder who supplements your critters’ diets, adding a little extra to the menu during winter would be helpful. Most people don’t see baby squirrels because the infants are very mindful of their Mom and stay unassumingly quiet in their nest until venturing out fully furred and looking very adult like at 10 – 12 weeks. The shelter usually receives baby squirrels only after a nest has been compromised by weather or predators. Either they have fallen through a weakened nest structure, their tree has fallen, or they have been tossed out during an attack on the nest. So, when you find a baby squirrel on the ground, it’s best to look around the area, while stepping very carefully, to ensure there are no more displaced infants who might need your help. Even if your dog or cat brings a baby squirrel home uninjured, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are orphaned. It’s always best to try to reunite healthy babies with their Mother. If possible (and if it’s not freezing cold out), place the baby close to a tree and monitor the situation from a distance to see if Mom will “rescue” her baby and carry the infant back to one of her nests. There are occasions when Mom doesn’t make it back to the nest due to an unfortunate meeting with a predator, automobile collision or some freak accident, but when possible, always give Mom the chance to get her baby back. Please dismiss the old wives’ tale that wildlife Moms will not accept the baby if she smells human scent because there is NO TRUTH to that. She will just be content, and although we haven’t truly assessed a squirrel’s emotions, might even be ‘happy’ to have her baby back. So, always assess the situation at hand to surmise the probability of reuniting them. If the baby you’ve found is injured; covered with fly eggs (they look like grains of rice) or has ant bites, is extremely cold and crying nonstop (their alarm sound is like a shrill whistle) or puncture wounds are apparent, the infant squirrel is more than likely orphaned. A squirrel infant is totally dependent upon Mom and has the best chance of survival when cared for by its mother. However, when Mom is removed from the equation, foster Moms, such as wildlife rehabilitators, are the next best option. Male squirrels do not raise baby squirrels, even if they fathered them. If you find a truly orphaned or injured baby squirrel, you will have to take over for Mom to save the baby’s life. Get a small box or container without a lid. If the baby is moving around quite a bit, use a covering that allows air flow. Place some soft fabric on the bottom so they will have something to hang on to and not slide around in the box. Put on some leather gloves (they probably don’t have teeth yet but just to be safe). If they are pinkies (no fur and eyes closed), there’s no need for gloves. Gently pick up the baby and place it in the container. Put the container on a heating pad on the lowest setting in a dark, quiet area in your home (a closed-door bathroom or closet is good). If you do not have a heating pad, place a plastic bottle filled with warm water and wrapped in a dish towel in the box. Make sure the lid to the bottle is on tight and the water is not too hot. Do not attempt to feed an infant squirrel, and keep the baby or babies away from any other living beings such as dogs, cats, parrots or other humans of any size. Then, contact your nearest independent wildlife rehabilitator or wildlife shelter for transport instructions. It’s tempting to want to raise a cute baby squirrel on your own, but it’s unlawful and you can be heavily fined in the state of North Carolina for keeping it in your home. So, it’s always best to take the baby or babies to a wildlife rehabilitator who possesses the knowledge and state permits required to take on the responsibility of providing appropriate care which includes assessing nutritional needs, treating injuries, ensuring they are raised properly with other squirrels and creating habitat conducive to learning skills and behaviors essential for ultimate release in the wild. Yes, we know and love squirrels, but we also want to give these entertaining and intelligent little acrobats the best second chance we can.  Thank you in advance for caring, and here’s an interesting squirrel factoid: Did you know Squirrels are named after the old Greek word Skiouros? Their bushy tail is one of their most distinguishing and beautiful features, and Skiouros means “shadow tail.” Good to know!

best always and Happy Spring (Baby) Season!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All