Whistling Ducks!

   “What have we here?” That was the first question asked by our intake personnel when the most unfamiliar ducklings were admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport recently. We’re knowledgeable of all the colorations and patterns for ducklings known to “these parts” of coastal Carolina, but these little quackers presented an identity crisis. The tiny orphaned ducks of splotchy yellow and black with short black bills were a mystery and didn’t seem to be from around here. It took a while to research the ID book, but we found them! Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks are “normally” found in the southernmost United States, such as Florida, Texas and Louisiana, as well as, on the continent of South America. We know that animals are on the move, but this is a first for us with Black Bellied Whistlers. The gentleman who brought them in initially thought they were Wood Ducks and said he found them while walking his tobacco field in Beaufort before harvest. A large colorful duck flew up from the ground as he passed the nesting area and noticed the little fluff balls under the leaves. He decided to wait and check later to see if their Mom would return, but after a few hours and no sight of Momma Duck, he changed course and figured the best thing to do was transport them to the wildlife shelter, especially since they would be in extreme danger when harvesting commenced. Nesting in a field is unusual for Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks, who are also called Black-Bellied Tree Ducks, because they like to perch or rest on low limbs above water. They may also perch high in dead trees if they are nesting in tree cavities or hollows. So, this nesting in a tobacco field is quite rare. The Black-Bellied Whistler babies look totally different than the adult plumage of their parents. With one look at Whistling Duck parents and their brood, you see a totally mix and match family where you’d swear adoption took place, but that’s not the case. The adult black-bellied whistling duck is a colorful mid-sized waterfowl species. It ranges in length from 19 to 22 inches with a brown wingspan of 30 to 37 inches and weighs 1.5 to 2.2 pounds. It is adorned with a brilliant pink-orange bill, long pale gray neck and legs and accented with a solid black belly and tail. The extensive white under their wings is exposed in flight and matches its distinct eye-ring. Adult male and female BB Whistlers, who remain monogamous like the behavior of geese and swans rather than ducks, look similar, but the hatchlings look nothing like Mom and Dad, at least for quite a while! They are called “whistlers” because these social ducks are boisterous and noisy waterfowl with a very clear whistling waa-chooo call. They have also been referred to as “Squealers” due to their high-pitched vocalizations. The Black Bellied Whistling Duck eats mainly during the night and enjoys huge amounts of plant material and seeds, which sheds some light on the decision of our BB ducklings’ parents to nest in the tobacco field. And because they are seed eaters, noisy flocks of these gaudy ducks are known to drop into fields to forage on seeds and waste grain left behind after harvest. They will also consume arthropods and invertebrates such as insects and snails when available, but those choices only make up 10% of their diet. During breeding season, the bonded parents search for tree cavities or the confines of a hollow tree, but as a last resort will nest on the ground. They occasionally find chimneys, abandoned buildings or nest boxes appealing as nest sites too, but always choose a site close to a water source. Cavity nests usually remain bare, but ground nests are woven of grasses and weeds. Females may lay 12 to 16 whitish eggs in their nest or lay their eggs in a large community nest with eggs from other females. The community nests are called “dump nests” and may contain 50 to 60 eggs. Incubation is provided by both sexes in a single nest for 25-30 days, but numerous contributions for incubation by the flock occurs in a “dump nest.” The young are tended to by both parents or all the parents. The splotchy, black and yellow ducklings in cavity nests can climb the walls of a hollow and leap from those high nest cavities to the ground within two days after hatching, be able to feed themselves immediately and will stay with the parents for up to eight weeks until they fledge. The longevity of a BB Whistling Duck is around eight years, but the oldest on record is a male, Louisiana BB Whistler who clocked out at 10 years and 7 months. The word is that these ducks are expanding northward, and we have first-hand evidence of that! So, if you live in a wetlands area and want to welcome their arrival, and since Black-Bellied Whistling-Ducks take readily to nest boxes, you might want to construct a nest box out of half-inch marine plywood. It should be about 24 inches high at the front and 20 inches at the back, with a hole about 5 to 6 inches in diameter. Situate the nest box on a pole or in the trees adjacent to marshlands, and they will feel right at home. Also, when you’re out for a walk on trails in Coastal Carolina’s marsh or wetlands in a month or two and you hear someone whistling at you, please don’t get offended. It may very well be one of our recently released Black Bellied Whistling Ducks just making their presence known or communicating with BB Whistler friends and family. No offense . . . really!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All

Birds Go Buggy!

WE are in the middle of Summer on the coast which means it’s time to go to the beach, have cookouts in the backyard, enjoy outdoor festivals, dabble in gardening and make all kinds of outside fun we’ve been chomping at the bit to do, but it also means dealing with lots of pesky bugs! Summer becomes very buggy for most of us, so we need all the help we can get to stave off menacing insects that annoy, frustrate or bite us! The nursery volunteers at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport are currently helping raise and staff the Army of birds we call insectivores who will eagerly and proactively keep those nasty bugs away from us! A great many birds eat a great many bugs; bugs that do harm to our plant life, as well as, annoy the crap out of us, but we should consider ourselves lucky that numerous birds come to our rescue as they feast on the great flood of insects and other cold-blooded vertebrates that become active during the summer months. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers, Warblers, and other “canopy” birds feed on caterpillars that eat the leaves of trees. As soon as tiny insects hatch, the bugs begin feeding on the tiny soft leaves as they begin opening, and migrating birds and eventually, our annual hatchlings that fledge or songbird “raise & releases” from the shelter, will arrive just in time to recognize those bugs as dinner! Birds feed on big caterpillars, beetles, grubs, and other medium and large insects and spiders they find near the ground. Blackbirds, bluebirds, sparrows, crows, wrens, and other birds get a lot of protein by hunting and catching these same bugs. Red-winged Blackbirds eat both seeds and insects. Some birds, such as swallows, swifts, nighthawks, flycatchers, some warblers, and Cedar Waxwings scoop up insects flying in the air. Swallows, swifts and nighthawks will fly for hours at a time to catch insects on the wing. Flycatchers, warblers, and waxwings flutter out from branches when they spot a succulent insect and gobble it up! (There, that’s a few mosquitoes or flies that will not be landing on you!) Chickadees, nuthatches, creepers, woodpeckers and the Black-and-white Warbler find insect eggs, larvae or pupae in the crevices of tree bark. Woodpeckers can hear bugs chewing within the wood and dig them out! Those insects can do major damage to our trees. We usually think of hummingbirds as miniature, buzzing birds we provide sugar water or nectar for in our window feeder, but the truth is Hummingbirds get most of their nutrition and proteins by picking tiny aphids and other chewing insects from the surfaces of flowers and leaves and by snatching very tiny flying insects such as gnats in midair. Some people feed hummingbirds and small fly-catching birds by setting out chunks of banana and melon in a small mesh bag because they notice the immediate interest hummingbirds show, but it’s really the tiny fruit flies that swarm the fruit that they really want. Some birds, called generalists, eat a wider variety of insects than others. The Yellow-Rumped Warbler is an example of a generalist. Watch out bug, whatever you are, YRWs will not discriminate, and they will eat you! The top songbird insectivores in our coastal North Carolina airspace who help humans de-bug immensely are the petite Chickadees and Carolina Wrens and medium-size birds; American Robins, Northern Mockingbirds, Purple Martins, Chimney Swifts and Flycatchers. The Chickadee’s favorite snacks are beetles and caterpillars, flies and wasps. Wrens prey on ants, millipedes, beetles and grasshoppers. Our American Robins eat a wide variety of insects but are usually noticed most when tugging earthworms out of the ground. Mockingbirds are quite territorial and aggressive when it comes to hunting and prey mostly on grasshoppers, beetles and tree ants. You may see Purple Martins zooming through the sky during early morning or at dusk. They feed mainly on flying insects and occasionally, fire ants. Also, high in the sky, you may hear the chattering of Chimney Swifts who are putting a huge dent in your mosquito population. A group of Swifts in your area will eat up to 12,000 mosquitoes, termites, flies and other insects every day. Although omnivores, Flycatchers and Brown Thrashers add a huge portion of flies, spiders, moths, beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, crickets, cicadas, sow bugs, bees and wasps to their diet that includes fruits, nuts and berries. If you have any of these birds nearby, you can be sure they are helping lessen the pest populations near you and your home. If you are a gardener, maintaining your garden won’t be as great a chore due to the natural and most perfect pest control you can ever have, insect-eating birds. These birds are of vital importance to our ecosystem and must be protected. Scientific research and resulting data show that the total biomass of wild bird-consumed insects amounts to between 400 and 500 million tons. Wow! On the average, individual birds consume more than 100 times their own body weight in bugs. That figure is amazing because it’s roughly equivalent to the weight of meat and fish consumed each year by humans. Many of our insect-eating bird species are declining or endangered due to habitat loss, widespread pesticide use, hunting, infrastructure mortality and predation by free-roaming cats. If we can not arrest the threats to these birds, the invaluable ecosystem services they provide will be lost forever. We need more near-natural forested areas for many songbird species, rather than tree plantations that only support a few species. It can be overwhelming to look at the global picture of this dilemma, but we each can do something where we are with what we have. Protect and value your backyard birds. The young songbird insectivores being raised at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter now, will be coming to help you soon and rid your yard of damaging and pesky bugs. Please, welcome and cheer on these little bug zappers!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“Don’t Kidnap Fawns!”

It’s fawn season and if you look about during your travels, you may see wobbly-legged baby deer right now standing in tree lines or curled up in the tall grasses or possibly in your own back yard close to the shed. Some wildlife rehabilitators call this time of the year, Kidnapping Season, which of course does not have a positive ring to it not matter how you say it. Most people are quick to want to help animals in distress or orphaned wildlife, but sometimes those benevolent intentions are not warranted and could have far-reaching negative impacts on the health of a perfectly fine baby and the distressed Mother who’s youngster has just been snatched from her. Such is the case with spotted fawns who have been strategically placed by Mom for their own protection during the day while she is foraging for food. A doe knows her baby is at predatory risk when they travel together, so she will leave her baby in a secluded, or what she perceives to be a safe place, for as long as 12 hours while she moves about on her own. This behavior distracts predators away from her youngster, who remains quiet while she is gone. The fawn’s camouflage and ability to remain still, generally keeps the little one safe. However, if a fawn is spotted and approached by a human predator or otherwise, the baby’s instinctual response is to lay very low and freeze in place. People often mistake this defensive behavior for injury, weakness or illness and feel they need to rescue the helpless little thing, but keep in mind; a still, quiet fawn is a healthy fawn. Wildlife rehabilitators have created a help list called the “Five C’s” to tell if a fawn indeed needs your help and eventual rescue. So, if a baby deer demonstrates any of these five symptoms, you may very well need to intervene to save a life. Is he or she CRYING? Fawns know to be quiet and still, so vocalizing may be a sign they are in trouble. Is he COMING toward you? This would not be deemed normal behavior if they are okay. Is the fawn COVERED with blood or insects? This is absolutely a fawn who needs assistance before it’s too late! Has he or she been CAUGHT by a cat or a dog? There are times when a human in the vicinity actually sees an attack occurring. The fawn may very well be injured or in shock. If possible, this is a time to intervene and transport the fawn to a wildlife rehabilitator. Is the fawn COLD? By touch or by noticing visible shivering, a drop in body temperature may be an indication that something has happened to the Mother, and the fawn has been left for way too long. This is definitely an emergency situation and the fawn does need to be rescued. In the case of fawns, observing any one of the Five C’s indicates the baby does need help. You should be concerned if you see a fawn acting contrary to the normal defense mechanisms of staying completely still, quiet and nestled into whatever spot his or her Mom placed him. If a fawn is up, walking around by itself, and crying, that’s a red flag, and of course, if a fawn is obviously ill, lying on its side, kicking or crying – pick it up and place it in a quiet location. A light cloth placed over the fawn’s head will sometimes calm it. Keep it away from pets and all human activity. Petting the fawn, talking to it or holding it provides no comfort. This cute little creature is a wild animal; therefore, human voices, odor and touch will only add to the stress of the situation and cause additional harm, compounding the pre-existing illness or injury. When a fawn seems calm it may very well be in shock. If the weather is cold, a blanket may be placed over its body to keep it from becoming chilled. In hot weather keep the fawn in a cool location but out of drafts. Please don’t feed the fawn anything other than water. Baby formula, cow’s milk, feed store mixes, pet store domestic animal formulas and soy products will cause diarrhea, dehydration and death. Call the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport or a wildlife shelter in your area at once for help. If a fawn is seen lying upright, eyes wide open, but flattened to the ground, do not touch it. If you do pick up the fawn just to check and make sure it is ok, the fawn will hold its legs tightly against its body with its head forward. Sometimes, although its legs aren’t broken, the fawn will also allow its body to become limp and dangle in your hands. Put the baby down, walk away and leave it alone. This fawn is too small to follow the doe for the long distance she must travel to find enough food to make milk for her baby. Her milk is very rich and will sustain the fawn for the many hours it spends alone. The doe will return only when there are no humans nearby. You may be curious, but please refrain from sitting and waiting for her to return. If you have removed the fawn from its resting spot take it back at once and walk away. The doe will be searching for her fawn, and when she finds it, she will accept it and provide better care than any human can. Humans cannot teach the fawn the skills it needs to survive in the wild. Also, humans, other than wildlife rehabilitators, do not have the correct diet to properly nourish this wild animal. Please leave it alone and allow it to retain its wildness and natural fear of humans. This is the greatest gift we can give it. If an uninjured fawn is seen on the road or beside the road, do not put it in your car. If no evidence exists that Mom has died by being hit by a vehicle or any other means, place it off the road about 20 feet or more and leave the area. The fawn would not be there if the doe was not nearby. You will not see her, but she’s there, somewhere, watching. She will return for the fawn and accept her baby, even if it has been touched by human hands, as soon as the human disturbance is gone. So, don’t linger in the area. Every Spring fawns are “kidnapped” by well-meaning people who find them alone and assume they need help. In fact, very few fawns brought to the shelter are injured or unhealthy, and healthy babies are promptly returned to their mothers. Fawns are fragile and their situations misunderstood at times, but for the truly injured or distressed fawns, the appropriate care and treatment provided by wildlife rehabilitators will allow them to grow into the majestic and beautiful adults they are meant to become, but they are a WHOLE LOT OF WORK!! Fawn rehabilitators are specially trained to rehabilitate injured or orphaned white-tailed deer fawns and licensed by the state with a Primary North Carolina Fawn Rehabilitation Permit. They are also authorized to temporarily confine deer for release back into the wild. Anyone found holding and raising deer without credentials is subject to heavy fines, and tragically, the innocent deer in their possession is euthanized, and no one wants that to happen. So, please don’t kidnap fawns, but also don’t hesitate to call on a wildlife rehabilitator if you come across a fawn in distress. Happy Spring to everyone, even Fawns and their Mommas!

best always,
Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“Water Weasels!”

Cute as a furry button, but feisty and aggressive as a hungry or perturbed bobcat, diminutive Minks, although seldom seen are quite prevalent in North Carolina. Every county has a mink presence, but they are so secretive, solitary and territorial that hardly anyone knows they’re there. They run everybody off, even other minks. So, there’s never a huge population in any one place. Minks need to be near waterways and wetlands, so Eastern North Carolina is perfect habitat for these commonly called “Water Weasels,” but they can be found in the mountains and Piedmont regions of our state, too. Our coastal minks run smaller than those in the western part of the state. It’s a very rare occasion, but an infant Mink was brought to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport after being found alone and in a Pamlico County resident’s driveway. After a full examination, a puncture wound was found that looked ‘talon-esque.’ One theory suggests he was grabbed by a nocturnal raptor, possibly a Great-Horned Owl, and miraculously, he wriggled free and fell to the ground. Initially, the tiny furry find in the gravel was thought to be an otter, probably because we expect to see otters in our area and often do. Our tiny Mink, who is known to be semi-aquatic, feeds on minnow-sized fish, turtles, snakes, small birds, crayfish, reptiles, crustaceans, insects, rabbits, mice and other small mammals. So, you may have guessed by now; the mink is a carnivore. Minks are often thought of as dainty looking but extremely vicious because of their capability to kill prey much larger than itself, and even though that may be way too much to eat all at one time, they are not wasteful. They take the leftovers to their den for munching later. The mink is a small mammal with a long, thin body and short, sturdy legs, a flattened head, small eyes and ears, and a pointed nose. Each foot has five toes with claws and slight webbing between each toe. The mink’s lustrous waterproof fur is generally chocolate brown to black, extremely attractive and often sports a white patch on the chin or chest. Long, furred tails are brown at the base tapering to black at the tip. The American male weighs about 2.2 pounds, and the American female weighs about 1.32 lb. Minks have excellent senses of vision, smell and hearing. They are mostly nocturnal but can be occasionally seen during the day. They are as fast if not faster than any Olympic swimmer and can also climb trees. Minks are very vocal, especially when threatened, and will growl, hiss, screech or sometimes purr when perceived as happy or content. Another method of communication is to discharge a strong, musky, foul scent from their anal glands. If they are taking a skunk’s lead, something tells this author that they are not happy when they do that! Prime locations in wetlands for mink include areas with irregular shorelines, dense emergent vegetation, availability of den sites and a variety of suitable food. Although mink will den just about anywhere, they prefer burrows made by other animals, usually muskrats or beavers. They may also choose dens in brush piles, log jams or cavities in the roots of trees. Mink move frequently and adopt temporary dens except when they are rearing young. Most minks are loners and typically come together only to breed. The breeding season occurs from late January through February. Females raise their first litter at one year of age. Minks fall into the category of over 100 mammal species in which the fertilized egg is not implanted in the womb for some time. In mink, this period of delayed implantation lasts 10-40 days and is followed by an active pregnancy of 28-30 days. One litter of 4-5 blind and hairless kits is produced each year. Kits are weaned at 6 to 10 weeks, though how long they stay with their mother depends on the species; American or European. American mink youngsters stay with their Moms longer, 6–10 months, while European kits, only 4 months. The offspring are sexually mature when one year old, and females produce litters after their first breeding season. Though they are not endangered and are common throughout their widespread range across the United States (except for Arizona and Hawaii where they are nonexistent), a mink’s lifestyle is so inaccessible, they have not been intensely studied. But we do know that minks live three to four years, with a maximum record of 10 years. Aside from humans, mink have few natural enemies, although they experience danger and some mortality from domestic dogs, bobcats, foxes, coyotes and owls. Minks need wetlands to survive, so wetlands availability is the primary influence on mink populations. Some biologists believe that mink numbers have declined though, largely because of the steady destruction of prime mink habitat in wetlands. As a predator, minks are near the top of the aquatic food chain, making them susceptible to contamination in the food chain. Elevated mercury concentrations have been found in mink kidneys. It has been suggested that mercury can cause sublethal effects on many physiological functions, such as reproduction, growth and behavior. These studies are stated as inconclusive however, so further studies are recommended to investigate if there is a strong link between presence of environmental contaminants in mink and mink populations. Biologists acknowledge that other factors affect mink populations more gravely, such as habitat loss due to increasing development along eastern shorelines which alters both mink activity and prey abundance. Most important to the future of the mink in North Carolina is the conservation of wetlands, for their future is only as promising as that of the wetlands. Swim on, Little Water Weasel! We were happy to be of service to you!

Best Always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“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

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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