“An Unlikely Pair!”

Over a year ago an adolescent female Mallard with a leg injury was admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) in Newport, NC. A thorough examination revealed what appeared to be an old injury that had healed in a way that caused her to limp or to occasionally tuck her bad leg and hop on the good leg. Another theory was that the bad leg could be the result of a congenital defect. We really didn’t know for sure, but the shelter staff decided to give her a second chance by raising her at the shelter and monitoring whether she could overcompensate for her disability and still live a quality duck life. A short time after she was taken into shelter care, an even younger Mallard mix was admitted who had been plucked naked! Really! He had no feathering anywhere on his body but his head! The Good Samaritan who brought in the naked duckling believes that his siblings had bullied him and picked at him so much that eventually, all his down and feathers were gone. With no thermal insulation and skin protection, he would be at risk for all kinds of bad things. We kept him isolated for a while to make sure he was eating well and that there was no disease or illness present. After a few weeks, the decision was made to put the two young Mallards together for socialization as they both were going to spend a lot of time in rehabilitation. They shared an inside enclosure with plenty of food, a heated spot for the little naked duck, and a water tub for an occasional dip if they desired. The two got along famously and became inseparable. It was heart-warming to watch the little naked Mallard stick like glue to the not much older female with the imperfect leg. Although little naked duck would not get into the water because it was too cold for him, he would stand next to the tub while the young female floated around comfortably and very duck-like. They stayed inside the shelter until this Spring; eating, growing, bonding and becoming stronger in their duck behaviors. After the weather warmed they were both moved to an outside enclosure where they could graze on grass, dig bugs, get to know their natural outside habitat and enjoy a large pool maintained just for them. Little Naked Duck still looked like he was given a buzz-cut for there was no evidence of primary feathers even after eight months in rehab. Our female Mallard with the bum leg was getting around quite well, and both seemed to enjoy the larger space which is as close to the wild as we could let them get. About a month ago we noticed the female had laid a couple eggs, and now they have a duckling!! Not only did this unlikely pair, who got off to a difficult start in life, bond and become what we thought to be best duck friends, they are now partnered mates! The saga will continue for our two disabled ducks who made the best of a difficult situation; one naked but not afraid and the other wanting to live normally despite her leg impairment! Mallards, perhaps the most familiar of all ducks, are “dabbling ducks,” which means they feed by tipping forward in the water and grazing on underwater plants. Mallards have hefty bodies (two to three pounds), rounded heads and wide, flat bills. Females and juveniles have mottled brown plumage with orange and brown bills. The more colorful male, called a Drake, has a dark, shiny green head, a brilliant yellow bill and a curl at the end of his black feathered tail; so with this duck species it’s easy to tell the males from the females. Both sexes have a white and iridescent blue patch on their wings which span 32 to 39 inches. Their body is long and their blunt tail rides high out of the water. Mallards can live almost anywhere and can often be spotted grouping with other species of dabbling ducks such as Wood Ducks, Pintails, Wigeons and Teals. You might spy them on lakes, ponds, marshes, rivers, coastal habitats and city parks, as well as residential backyards. Mallards are omnivores so they eat plants (especially grasses, grains and pondweeds), as well as, insects, tadpoles, frogs, earthworms, small fish and crustaceans. During breeding season, Mallards will nest in a down lined, shallow bowl of plant material gathered at a site within a mile of water. Seven to 10, sometimes more, whitish to olive buff eggs are laid and incubation takes 26 – 30 days. After hatching, the ducklings will be able to swim and eat on their own immediately, so Momma Duck will lead her string of dabblers to water. Within 52 to 60 days, the youngsters will be ready to fly. Mallards are a very adaptable species that is not in decline and prolific throughout the world, however, North American is home to more Mallards than any other continent. Mallards are known to breed with other duck species, therefore, genetic pollution is quite evident. So, the Mallard is not the hybrid it used to be and could result in extinction at some point due to interbreeding. Predators are many for Mallards of all ages, so they must be on the lookout for a wide diversity of dangers to include humans, birds of prey, snakes, crows, Herring Gulls, heron, geese, raccoons, opossums, skunks, turtles, large fish, swans, fox, coyotes, wild cats and domestic cats and dogs. It’s a harsh world for Mallards, young and old! However, somehow, they manage to keep their average life span statistics stable at five to ten years. Our enclosed and protected Mallard duck family at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter is safe and thriving in our care, and we are anticipating long and happy lives for all three (or more) of them! At this point, they just might need to be given names other than, Little Naked Duck, Crazy Leg and Baby! Any Ideas?

best always and please enjoy the upcoming ‘Holiday Season!’

Linda Bergman-Althouse
author of “Save Them All

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“Summer Bird Feeding”

There’s always the big debate whether bird enthusiasts should feed wild birds in the Summer, mainly because some folks believe the birds will become dependent on handouts, too lazy to look for natural food sources and supplemental feeding could alter their migration behaviors. Research has proven that three-fold theory to be untrue. Studies show that wild birds typically receive no more than 25 percent of their daily food from feeders, and for numerous backyard species the percent is even lower. We, at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) in Newport, believe, as well as other professionals in wildlife fields, summertime is a perfect time to feed wild birds for a variety of reasons. Of course, at OWLS, we release many birds on our property that are raised and rehabilitated during baby season, therefore we keep the feeders plentiful for the young birds to take advantage of the food offered until they feel confident to wing away on their own or have met up with bird elders who show them the way. Feeding backyard birds is beneficial to the birds and rewarding for the home owners who enjoy seeing and listening to gorgeous birds and observing their interesting behaviors. Although, if we choose to feed, it is important to understand the needs birds have in the summer and how we can provide a suitable birdie buffet. In the summer the days are long, so there is ample time for bird watching where we can identify and appreciate different species in their more colorful breeding plumage. If convenient food is present, bird families may choose your yard for nesting and raising their young. Watching nestlings mature is extremely joyful for most birders. There is a bounty of natural foods, such as fruits, insects and seeds, in the summer, so birds may only visit a feeder briefly, especially if they have hatchlings in their nest. However, stocking your feeders with nutritional bird diet favorites will attract a variety of summer bird species. The best foods to have on hand are seeds, especially black oil sunflower seeds, mixed seed (millet, corn, thistle, safflower and sunflower) and Nyjer, which attracts Finches, Sparrows, Buntings and Mourning Doves. Cardinals, Catbirds and Tanagers will eat grains and seeds, but they also love fruit such as apple chunks, banana slices and orange halves that can be presented on a platform feeder or stuffed into a hanging suet feeder. Wrens, Grosbeaks, Warblers, Bluebirds, Mockingbirds, Robins and Brown Thrashers, who are all insect-eating birds, will appreciate a dish of mealworms and although fresh is best, they will not snub dried meal worms added to seed mixes. Raw peanuts, shelled or whole, gets Blue-Jays, Chickadees, Titmice and Nuthatches very excited, but don’t offer coated or seasoned nuts which are dangerous for wild birds. No-melt suet is appetizing for Woodpeckers, Jays, Chickadees, Starlings, Thrashers and Grackles, as well as, a great source of energy and convenience if they are caring for hungry nestlings. Some birders put jelly out as a treat, which Robins, Gray Catbirds and Orioles enjoy, but as with any “sweet” thing, jelly could put ants on the march and in the heat, jelly can go rancid. So, if you decide to provide this sweet treat, it should be offered early morning in a small amount and the dish removed before the day gets too hot or the ants arrive. We all love our little jets, the hummingbirds, who draw nectar from flowers. To supplement their feedings we can offer sugar water (1 part sugar to 4 parts water, i.e. ¼ cup sugar and 1 cup water) in a special hummingbird feeder which will entice them to stop by. It’s important not to put too much sugar in the mixture to protect their liver and kidneys. Hummingbird feeders need to be changed out and cleaned every 4 – 5 days to prevent fungus which will cause infection, tongue swelling, starvation and death. You might also find orioles, woodpeckers and nuthatches taking sips from this feeder or resident bats who discover the feeder at night! Some foods that should not be offered would be in the category of kitchen scraps such as bread and rice (which is considered junk food because they provide no nutritional value and would be a death sentence for nestlings), peanut butter (which is ok in the winter but will melt in the summer becoming a hazard to a bird’s feathering) also spoils on hot days due to the high oil content). Soft suet blends will breakdown in the heat too and grow mold and bacteria that can be dangerous to birds. The down side to Summer Bird Feeding doesn’t involve the birds at all. It’s our responsibility to keep the feeders clean to ensure the food remains mold and bacteria free. Clean feeders will prevent diseases the birds could contract such as an eye condition called conjunctivitis, which is an affliction birds are admitted to our wildlife shelter with every summer. Their eyes are infected and crusted over which renders them blind until we can treat and clear that up. We know the bird has been eating at a dirty feeder. Also problematic are the other animals that could be attracted to your feeders, the largest being a bear! Bears in the backyard puts pets and property at risk, so to make your yard less appealing to bears, you could take your feeders down each evening, or as this author does, put out a rationed amount of seed mix and other food items in the morning and when it’s gone, it’s gone until tomorrow. That way, the night roaming critters will not be enticed to come into your yard and eat your backyard birds’ food. A few tips to also be mindful of if you choose to feed are: a) position your feeders away from windows or make your windows more visible by using anti-reflective techniques to prevent bird strikes, b) choose shaded areas for your feeders to minimize spoilage, c) use mesh or open feeders to allow seed to dry out if it gets wet, d) keep your cats indoors and discourage feral or free roaming cats from trekking through your yard, e) view feeders as only supplements to a bird’s natural foods and f) always CLEAN YOUR FEEDERS routinely to avoid mold, bacteria or fungal growth. NO FUNGUS AMONGUS! If you consider yourself to be an avid bird watcher and you are going to feed backyard birds, you might as well go all the way and provide a bird bath to keep them hydrated with fresh water, clean and full of summer fun (for you and them)! Overworked bird parents will enjoy a dip at their spa to cool off! Backyard birding is a pleasure and an honor. Those fragile little beings chose your yard to visit, eat, sing, play and raise their babies because you made healthy and compassionate choices for them. Many people agree, especially birders, that there is no better way to enjoy a Summer day than sitting on your deck or patio while watching a variety of adult and fledged birds at feeders and birdbaths! Spectacular!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“Herring Gulls, Pirates or Loafers?”

Adult Herring Gulls are quite common on our coast, and they make themselves comfortable everywhere they choose to be; patrolling shorelines, hanging out in parking lots, the marsh, fish processing plants, docks, rooftops, picnic areas, newly plowed acreage, athletic fields, following whales and dolphins at sea (hoping to snatch small prey driven to the water’s surface), hovering above fishing boats, landfills and even airport runways. However, we hardly ever if never see their babies because they generally nest off shore in areas known to be human and predator free! So, it was quite the surprise when a boater on vacation showed up at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport recently carrying an infant Herring Gull. During the boater’s day on the water, he hauled onto an island’s shore to explore and came across a nest in the sand occupied by the little HGull and unfortunately, two deceased siblings. His boating party decided to stay away from the nest and observe for a while to see if Herring parents were still tending to it. One of the party knew that with seabirds one parent is always at the nest until the chicks are at least a month old. So, after a few hours of waiting, watching and seeing no adults return to the nest, the decision was made to take the chick and find a wildlife rehabilitator to ensure the infant’s best chance at survival. It is believed that due to the intact condition of the two infants that passed, no predators were involved and possibly something had happened to the Herring Gull parents. Our report on the admitted baby Herring Gull is extremely favorable, for he is doing very well. He is comfy in his warm brooder, eating mud minnows on his own and going for swims in his makeshift ocean (the laundry room sink). Herring Gulls, one of the most familiar of gulls, are often referred to as “Seagulls,” when in fact, every gull species carries its own name and identification. As an infant, the chick is a gray-tan and spotted brown, fluff ball with a white tipped black beak and tan legs. Young Herrings take four years to reach full adult plumage and go through several plumage stages that vary in appearance. That is why Herring Gulls are misidentified so often. They tend to look like different gulls rather than one in the same due to their lengthy physical maturity process. First-winter birds are gray-brown with a dark tail, a brown rump with dark bars, dark outer primaries and pale inner primaries, dark eyes, and a dark bill, which usually develops a paler base through the winter. The head is often lighter in color than the body. Second-winter birds typically have pale eyes, lighter bill with black tip, pale head and begin to show gray feathers on the back. Third-winter birds are closer to adults but still have some black on the bill and brown on the body and wings and have a black band on the tail, until they finally become the statuesque, white with gray and black wings and heavily built large gull they are meant to be. They are over two feet in length and weigh between 2 to 3.6 pounds, depending on whether they are male or female. Males run heavier. Herring Gulls are larger than Ringed-billed and Laughing Gulls, but not as big as the Great Black-backed Gull. The Herring Gull’s wingspan is 47 to 61 inches. Their physically mature head and chest are white, back is gray with black wing tips adorned with white dots called mirrors. Their legs are pink, sturdy and sport webbed feet, making them equally adept at swimming, walking on land and flying. Their yellowish bills have a red spot on the lower mandible, and that red spot plays an important role when feeding young. The chick will tap on the spot with its bill to let the parent know it’s hungry. This is an innate “fixed action pattern,” so, baby Herring Gulls will peck at any red dot! The eyes of a mature Herring Gull are bright to medium yellow, with a yellow or orange ring around each eye, and those eyes can scope out the tiniest morsel of food from quite a distance. A Herring Gull can be quite loud with a variety of cries and calls that are very high pitched. They are communicators who talk to each other during courtship, to emit warnings, while assigning territory and who also seem to be making noise just for the sake of making noise, but what do WE know since we don’t speak the language?!? Adult Herring Gulls will eat just about anything (and that might also be what they’re squawking about). They are scavenging, opportunistic feeders and effective, lethal hunters.  Because their habitat is always close to water sources, marine invertebrates such as mussels, crabs, urchins, clams, squid, crayfish, as well as fish and discarded fish offal are definitely on the menu, but let’s not leave out insects, berries, worms, other birds’ eggs or chicks, cottontails, carrion and human litter or garbage. They are as smart as a Crow, using tools to hunt such as spreading bread crumbs on the water to lure fish and dropping shellfish on rocks to break them open. They are also very aggressive and will pirate food from another bird’s take or catch! To wash it all down, they prefer fresh water, but will drink seawater if they must. The special glands above their eyes excrete excess salt from seawater that would dangerously dehydrate any other animals, including humans. Considerable time between feedings is spent bathing, preening and “loafing.” Loafing is a term animal behaviorists use to describe a bird that isn’t doing much of anything, and most seabirds spend many long hours loafing. Pairing, that remains monogamous, occurs during April and May, and both male and female are involved in nest construction. They nest in 10 to 15” wide depressions, with smaller depressions within the nest to hold each egg in place, on secluded shores, or they may choose to wedge nests into rocky crevices on isolated islands. The nest is lined with vegetation, feathers, litter and usually hidden from predators and protected from high winds behind a large rock, log or bush. One to three brown speckled buff or greenish eggs are laid and incubated for approximately 32 days. Herring Gulls lay heavy, large eggs and have the highest hatching success of all gulls. Youngsters are born eyes open, fluffy with brown spots and able to move about the nesting area within a few hours. They fledge at 6-7 weeks but continue to be fed by their parents until they are six months old. An interesting factoid regarding young Herring Gulls is that they are known to pant like a dog to cool off, especially if their parents have nested in direct sun, because their mouth lining is their best means of shedding heat. The longest living Herring Gull claims the record of 32 years of age. We, at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter, have stepped into the parent role for our little Herring Gull and will help him grow, get stronger and become capable. When he is tall, mottled gray-brown, hunting and flying he will join his place as one of many in a flock of North Carolina Herring Gulls to enjoy many “bird-days,” and hopefully, break the current longevity record!

Best Always and hope you are having a Spectacular Summer!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“Ballerina Birds!”

Big Bird has landed!! An elegant and exotic Mute Swan found grounded in Morehead City unable to stand, appearing sickly and underweight has been admitted to The Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport. With no injuries evident during examination, the staff has theorized toxicity and is flushing her system to rid her of possible poisons or lead ingestion. Time will tell if our efforts will win the race against organ damage. She is still weak, but is eating very well, which is always a good sign. The admission of a Mute Swan is atypical to the shelter because they are not native here. They are common place in Europe and Asia and a few were imported to northern regions of the United States during the 18th century. Their American population has grown in the last few years and although rare to see Mute Swans this far south, it is believed that because they are not migratory, developers or land owners are bringing them in to decorate ponds and lakes. Probably not the best thing to do, but it is happening. If a few have made it here on their own, that is a major feat for one of the heaviest flying birds on the planet! Male Mute Swans, known as Cobs, typically weigh between 23 to 27 pounds, and females weigh in at a little less. The only waterfowl heavier than the Mute Swan is the Trumpeter Swan. The beautiful, adult Mute Swan can tower four feet high, cover 56 to 62 inches of length in ground space and their wing span is an impressive 79 to 94 inches! Their bill is vibrant orange with a black base and sports a bulging black knob on the base. A Mute Swan is easily recognizable with its long neck curved into an S and its snowy-white plumage. Sometimes under-feathering presents in orange or brown, but that is stain caused by iron and tannins in the water. These gorgeous, giant water birds are written into fairy tales, romanticized because a pair of Swans, who mate for life, create a “lover’s heart” as their heads touch when they greet or during mating and are represented in ballets during dance. As a child, this author always referred to beautiful swans as ‘Ballerina Birds’ after experiencing “Swan Lake.” Mute Swans feed on aquatic plants, exclusively on submerged aquatic vegetation, such as read head grass and widgeon grass, as well as, fish, frogs and insects. It is estimated that the adult male Mute Swan eats up to nine pounds of aquatic vegetation every day and for that reason alone, their presence is controversial. That voracious appetite can easily disturb local ecosystems and displace native wildlife species. They feed on underwater plants by plunging their long neck into the water. Our Mute Swan at the shelter is currently putting away quite the haul of greens and trout chow. Mute Swans nest on large mounds they build in the middle of a shallow lake or pond. They reuse the same nest each year, restoring or rebuilding as needed. Male and female swans share the care of the nest. Although Mute Swans appear very statuesque and dignified, they are strongly territorial and become fiercely aggressive when defending their nest. They have been known to attack people who venture into their nesting area by biting and jabbing with the bony spurs on their wings. So, if you catch a glimpse of a Mute Swan and choose to go bold by moving in to get a closer look, be careful. If you hear a hissing or grunting sound and see the Swan’s wings half raised, that is a threat display, and they will be coming after you! The Female Mute Swan, called the Pen, lays four to eight greenish brown eggs and the hatchlings, called cygnets, are ash gray-brown born within 35 to 38 days. Their bill is grayish rather than orange for the first year. Once the cygnets fledge, it is not uncommon to see the whole family looking for food. In approximately three months after hatching they are adult size but do not match adult coloring. Within 6 to 7 months the youngsters develop the famous white plumage and the long neck that helps them reach through the water to snatch the aquatic food they enjoy. The young start pairing at age one and become sexually mature at age two but usually don’t reproduce until age three or four. Mute Swans spend most of their time floating on the water, and in our area you may find them in city park ponds, rivers, lakes, coastal bays, wetlands, marshes, streams, slow flowing areas, large fresh water areas and estuaries. Although they do grunt when making a threat, they are generally silent waterfowl. The most familiar sound associated with the Mute Swan is the ‘whooshing’ of their wings in flight because it takes extreme effort to take off from the water. Adult Mute Swans don’t have many natural enemies, other than the Fox, who have been known to attack, but because the Mute Swan is so big, fierce and agile for a bird that size, the fox doesn’t always win! There are threats greater to the swan than predators. Pollution, lead poisoning, swallowing discarded fishing hooks and fishing line entanglements are extremely dangerous encounters for Mute Swans. Also, if they take flight, collisions with overhead power lines have been known to occur. Their longevity in the wild is only five to six years but in domestication, up to 25 years. Please keep in mind that it is unlawful for anyone to release Mute Swans into the public waters of North Carolina, but they can be maintained on privately controlled waters that do not have access to public waters, but then you must ensure the Mute Swans understand that they must stay put, and therein lies the challenge. We are working hard to help our big, beautiful girl recover so she can return to her Mute Swan mate, as well as, goose and swan friends in her neighborhood pond that does not reach public NC water!

best always and Happy Easter!,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“Whistle Pigs & Chucklings!”

By now, we all know that Punxsutawney Phil emerged from hibernation on February 2nd and saw his shadow, which means six more weeks of winter, but those of us on the coast of North Carolina who are enjoying warmer weather as of late are not putting a lot of stock in his prediction. We all know that Phil is a Groundhog turned weatherman, right? Groundhogs, also called “Woodchucks,” a name originating from the Cree Indian word “wuchak” and nicknamed “Whistlepigs,” because they are known to give a shrill whistle alarm that carries for quite a distance to warn other Groundhogs of impending danger, are native to North America including North Carolina and although found more often in the Western part of our state, they have expanded to our Piedmont and Coastal regions more recently. Although these little diggers aren’t prevalent yet on the coast, the few who are here can still run into trouble such as injury or illness that may require rehabilitation intervention at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport. So, wildlife rehabilitators at our facility must be familiar with every species that could possibly come through the clinic door, even as rare in our area as they may be. Groundhogs are large pudgy-bodied mammals of the rodent family that weigh in at 5 to 12 pounds and can reach two feet in length. They are covered with coarse fur that ranges in color from brown to reddish or yellowish brown with a silver shine on the tips of their hair. Their head is short and wide. Groundhogs are well adapted for digging with their short, powerful limbs and five curved, thick claws on each foot. They will run on all fours and frequently stand on their hind feet to survey the area or sound the alarm. Their tail is densely haired, slightly flattened and one-fifth to one-third of the animal’s total length. A groundhog’s ears are short, broad, rounded and well haired, and their eyes are circular and small. Besides the high-pitched whistle they are known for, they also squeal when fighting, produce low barks and produce an unusual teeth grinding sound. They are diurnal animals which means they are most active during the early morning and late afternoon hours and not at night. Groundhogs have been observed climbing trees near residential areas or standing in open country at the edge of woodlands, but never too far from their burrow entrance. So they are comfortable in a variety of habitats such as pastures, brushy woodlots, open woods and areas along stream banks. Although they prefer forest habitats, the choices of under deck patios, sheds, in gardens and anything surrounded by wood or brush in residential areas are not ruled out. Woodchucks have adapted well to human activities such as agriculture and urban development. Therefore, taking up residence close to humans can become a problem for home owners when you consider the type of property damage Groundhogs are capable of as they dig networks of burrows under houses, sheds or any manmade structure. Please keep in mind that it has been stated by Humane Society professionals that it would take a lot of woodchucks working over many years to create tunnel systems that would pose any significant risk to a structure. However, Groundhogs leave their mark everywhere they go by chewing, gnawing, digging and causing the disappearance of tasty flowers, fruits and vegetables. Gardeners are usually not too happy with their presence. Woodchucks enjoy a strict herbivore diet and prefer the more tender parts of new growth from a variety of wild and cultivated, succulent plants such as clover, alfalfa and grasses. They hibernate during the winter from November until February. Mating occurs in March or April, and four to six young are produced after a 32-day gestation period, and of course, like all furry mammal babies, they are adorable! The young, called “Chucklings,” are born blind, helpless, toothless, almost naked and weigh one to two ounces, and because they are mammals, they will nurse for about 3 months. Between 3 to 5 months the youngsters will leave the birth area and head out on their own to burrow their own den. Groundhogs become sexually mature at one year and can have two litters annually. Although groundhogs are the most solitary of all marmots, which are burrowing rodents, several individuals may occupy adjacent burrows or dens. Burrows with den chambers 20 inches to three feet below ground will have five to eight entrance/exists to enable rapid escape from predators, such as coyote, fox, bobcat, eagle, cougar, dog, wolf and man. Snakes pose the most threat to infant Groundhogs. Despite this little plant lover’s tendency to wreck a garden and dig tunnels that could compromise some structural integrity, they also do some good in the world! Although an indirect benefit, Groundhogs’ burrows become homes for animals such as fox and skunks who feed upon mice, grasshoppers, bugs and other menacing creatures that would destroy a farmer’s crops. A groundhog’s expert digging skills also brings healthy and nutritious subsoil to the surface.

The presence of Woodchucks has been responsible for unearthing artifacts such as pottery and stones that archeologists then claim as a new dig site. This unique animal with a variety of names, is very interesting to watch, but if you encounter a Groundhog, it is best NOT to make or attempt physical contact, because they can bite and may carry certain zoonotic conditions that can be passed from them to you. Observation while keeping your distance is always the best policy. In zoo environments or wildlife sanctuaries where non-releaseable Groundhogs serve as Education Ambassadors, their recorded life spans have reached 9 to 14 years, but the average life expectancy for a Woodchuck in the wild is only 2 to 3 years. If by chance a “WhistlePig” reaches 5 or 6 years in the wild, that is considered an extremely long and lucky life!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“Night Gliders”

a_blog_sfs_x“It’s a bird! No . . it’s a bat!” It could very well be that both guesses are wrong. The diminutive night flyer, gliding from tree to tree on folds of outstretched skin is the most common mammal never seen by humans in North Carolina, so it is easily misidentified. The Southern Flying Squirrel is a small rodent with big saucer like eyes that occupies habitat similar to his larger cousins, the gray squirrel and the fox squirrel, however this itty-bitty squirrel is nocturnal, becoming active and feeding only at night while foraging on the ground. It weighs no more than 2 to 3 oz. and measures from 8 1/2 in. to 9 7/8 in., including a 3 to 4-inch tail. The Southern Flying Squirrel is the smallest of North Carolina’s 5 tree squirrel species. Its fur is a ravishing reddish brown or gray, although its belly is colored a creamy white. The most distinctive feature it sports is the cape of loose skin that stretches from its wrists to its ankles and forms a membrane, called the patagium, with which it is capable of gliding. The membrane is bordered in black. When the squirrel stretches its legs to their fullest extent, the membrane opens and supports the animal on glides of considerable distance. Although it is called a “flying” squirrel, it actually jumps and parachutes rather than flies! It’s amazing to catch a visual of them in “flight.” a_blog_squirrelflyingeThe gliding membrane billows up, and by varying the tension on the patagium and using its tail as a rudder (like the tail on a kite), the SFS can direct its glide around branches and other obstacles with remarkable agility, although it cannot gain altitude during a glide. However, it can make a sudden 90-degree angle turn in the direction of its glide. That fluffy little “multi-purpose” tail is also used for communication and thermal regulation. Although the distance they glide is usually short, the longest flight on record was measured at around 200 feet. The flying squirrel lands hind feet first, head up and scampers to the side of the tree to avoid detection. The Southern Flying Squirrel is one of two flying squirrels found in North America— the other one is the Northern Flying Squirrel. While both are found in North Carolina, the Northern FS is rare and found only at higher elevations in the western part of our state. Although a fairly quiet animal, flying squirrels can produce birdlike chirping sounds, but some of their vocalizations are not audible to the human ear. Preferred habitats for Southern Flying Squirrels include hardwood and mixed pine-hardwood forests. They require older trees with cavities that provide 11/2 to 2 in. in diameter entrances for roosting and nesting, and in winter these adorable squirrels readily gather in surprisingly large numbers. Tree cavities have been found with as many as 50 roosting squirrels. Because of their need for tree cavity habitats, they are a natural competitor for woodpeckers’ homes, and even though they are quite cute, they’ve been known to bully an endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker from its nesting cavity and take over the residence. Bluebird boxes are also quite attractive to flying squirrels. Wildlife rehabilitators at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport get involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of this delightful, tiny squirrel when the little one chooses a cavity precariously close to a residence or possibly, even manages to enter a house. It’s not uncommon for Southern Flying Squirrels to find a cavity somewhere on a residential structure and make their way into an attic or a wall to find a perfect and safe dwelling to nest and raise babies, which some folks object to. Sometimes a tree is cut down before realizing it is home to nesting or roosting flyers. Tree cutters bring the homeless little gliders to the shelter to ensure they are cared for and raised properly for eventual release back into the wild, giving them that second chance we at the shelter are known for. When they are admitted, usually due to displacement rather than injury, we attempt to replicate their omnivorous natural diet as best we can. If very young, shelter staff will provide syringe formula until they are ready for solid foods such as meal worms, fruits, berries, flower blossoms, vegetables, seeds and nuts.a_blog_flying-squirrel-009e Nesting and breeding usually occurs twice a year; January-February and June-July. A typical nest will be lined with finely chewed bark, especially cedar bark in the east and grasses. Lichen, moss and even feathers will provide a soft bed. More than one nest is constructed as a necessary Plan B in the wild, because Mom will need to move her infants if the nest is disturbed by natural elements such as damaging weather or predator presence such as owls, hawks, snakes, bobcats, coyotes, raccoons, weasels, foxes and the common house or feral cat (which is the most prevalent and lethal danger posed to them). The average litter produces one to three young that weigh in at less than a quarter ounce each. The youngsters will open their eyes at four weeks and stay with Mom until she births her next litter. Although SFS are mammals and babies will nurse for about a month, they will be gliding and eating on their own by eight weeks. Unfortunately, Mom is on her own during this time, as males do not assist with the rearing of babies. It will take about a year for the youngin’s to mature before reproducing. Life expectancy for these cute little rodents is up to 13 years in captivity, but not more than 4 or 5 years in the wild.a_blog_sfs_ Flying squirrels are the oldest living line of “modern” squirrels, and fossil records date back over 30 million years. SFS are a nongame species and although not listed as endangered, we should still be mindful that their presence gives humans a better quality of life. Those cutie-patooties glide through the night feeding on a variety of insects and big ‘ole bugs that would surely be annoying to us during the day! So, if you find Southern Flying Squirrels have moved into your home or they are now homeless due to a tree ‘fell,’ please contact your nearest wildlife rehabilitation center or wildlife control officer for assistance, not just because they are cute, but because we need to protect and relocate our environmental partners!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“Wintering Scoters”

a_blog_malescoterflightThere are so many species of duck that belong to the Anatidae family of birds; Dabbling Ducks, Stiff-Tailed Ducks, Sea Ducks, Whistling Ducks, Diving Ducks, that it’s hard to know them all, especially the identity of ducks we don’t see in our area very often. Some ducks live and breed far removed from the U.S. as far as the north of England or Scotland and only pass this way during winter migration. The coast of North Carolina has been a good choice for wintering Scoters for many years. They gather in tightly packed, large flocks that take off together when they choose to move either in a straight line or in a V formation. A group of Scoters is called a ‘Mooter’ or a ‘Scooter.’ Avid bird watchers have also discovered that freshwater rivers and lakes are not off limits to wintering Scoters. Recently, a wildlife enthusiast in Emerald Isle noticed a rather stocky brown duck who seemed to be having trouble getting lift off to fly. After it appeared flight wasn’t going to happen, he managed to scoop up the duck and transport her to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport for a check-up. The little, diving sea duck turned out to be a Common Scoter, which are also called Black Scoters, depending upon gender. The scientific name of the Common Scoter is ‘Nigra,’ which means black. Our juvenile Scoter patient had pale cheeks, a milk chocolate body with a whitish belly and a dark brownish-black, wide bill which we assessed as female. An adult male has glossy black plumage with a shiny black bill adorned with a colorful yellow or orange bulbous knob at the base. Both have dark brown eyes. Their legs are brown to black and their webbed feet, are also black. Generally speaking, this is a dark, cold water duck (but not so cold it doesn’t head south for the winter!). Her examination revealed no injuries, but she was underweight. Since there was a covered swimming pool in the area where she was found, our theory is she landed on the cover thinking it was a body of water, and did not have the water source required to maneuver her usual run across the water for take-off. a_blog_femalescoter3She basically grounded herself. A sea-duck’s legs, such as a Scoter’s, are situated a little farther back than those of a Mallard, Muscovy or Pekin, so they don’t walk upright on land very well. It’s not known how long she’d been sitting there with no food or water, but we do know she hadn’t eaten in some time because she was very, very hungry. A Scoter is a coastal duck that usually breeds in the sub-artic and has not been studied extensively in North America. Only a few nests in our country have ever been found. The common Scoter is a highly sociable species and is often seen in large groups, especially during the winter. For this reason, we knew rehabilitation timing would be an issue. She needs to pack on weight quickly so we can return her to her own kind before she succumbs to severe depression or the stress of captivity. A Scoter is a bulky little duck who weighs on average 2 to 2 ½ pounds with the male typically heavier in weight, wingspan is 28 inches and their height, bill to tail, is 18 to 20 inches. They have a long, pointy tail they hold straight up while sitting on water. This duck species dives for food, so it was a little tricky getting her to eat fish, shrimp, worms and insects in a hospital setting, but her rumbling tummy won out. It won’t be long now! In the wild, she will add crustaceans, mussels, fish eggs and duck weed to her diet. Scoters swallow mullosks whole and crush the shells in its gizzard. An interesting factoid regarding this diving duck is that they literally spread their wings under water and fly through the water to catch their prey! The Common Scoter is a fairly quiet bird, so we don’t hear much from her, but when we do catch a rare vocalization, it’s a harsh, raspy quack and just one. During courtship the male Scoter gets a little noisier with some high, shrill whistles and is known to be the most vocal of all waterfowl year’round. In their native territories, (Europe and Asia) male and female Scoters build a nest during April or May which is nothing more than a hefty scrape on the ground near water, lined with a grass/down mix and hidden by vegetation. a_blog_scoterf7The female will lay 6 to 8 off-white to pinkish buff eggs which hatch in about 30 days. The ducklings are born eyes-open, dark brown and able to swim and feed themselves soon after hatching, although they are not able to fly until around 45 days old. The youngsters then head out on their own, and the parents return to their flock to molt, which will render them unable to fly during the time they are losing and growing in new feathers. The Common Scoter is found all over the world, depending upon the time of year, but in their native countries, numbers of Scoters have fallen by 47% over the past two decades and although the reason is not pinpointed, the huge decline in population has been attributed to a number of factors such as oil spills, offshore wind farms, disturbance by boat traffic, hunting, climate change, pollution, development, natural predation, commercial exploitation and possibly, lower breeding success. England has placed the Common Scoter on their “Red List” which means they recognize urgent conservation action is needed for this stocky, diminutive, community oriented duck. We hope our “plumping” Common Scoter continues to thrive and is able to return to her flock. We aren’t sure what country she’s from, but we think we’ve heard a wee bit of an English accent in her quack!!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All