“Birds Love Messy Winter Yards!”

Most people don’t like to entertain the word “Messy” or even be associated with “Messy,” but if we are wildlife activists and dedicated conservationists, we might need to rethink that term. It turns out that the survival and reproductive success in the spring for birds and mammals that we enjoy and love, are largely dependent upon the conditions of their winter habitat. It is crucial that all wildlife be able to forage during the winter on seed-heads, shriveled fruits, dried plants, insects (that feed on dead and decaying plant life), fungi and bacteria, and what better place to do that than in a messy, unkept yard! Maybe it’s time to put down the garden tools and go easy on yard work this winter. If you’ve had a garden in your yard, that is a bonus to wildlife. Gardens are alive, no matter what time of year. Whether resident or migrating, finches, sparrows, chickadees, buntings, blue-jays, nuthatches, blackbirds and grosbeaks will be stopping by an unkept garden, and the messier the better. Bird feeders that are kept full and clean are nice and a little extra, but a messy yard or garden provides the opportunity for more natural foraging. Insect eating birds or mammals will discover a smorgasbord in the “galls” of plants, which are bulbous swellings created by insects, such as beetles, flies or wasps, who move in to lay eggs and allow the eggs to incubate until spring. That is unless a hungry woodpecker or mammal finds the plump larvae first and makes a hearty meal out of them! This is a glorious and nutritious find during a bleak winter, which is a great reason to leave our yards messy. Bees also use messy yards to provide habitat and protection during the winter. Piles of dried leaves, decomposing logs or cavities in hollowed out sticks or fallen limbs attract a variety of bees for overwintering. Bees might be accompanied by butterflies who will be encouraged to overwinter as well, if they are offered thick mounds of leaf litter or other cavities to crawl in to weather the cold and harsh elements presented during winter. If butterfly presence is not convincing enough, hundreds of other critters can overwinter in gardens; assassin bugs, praying mantises, lace wings, wolf spiders, minute pirate bugs, damsel bugs, ground beetles and ladybugs. All these insects and arachnids are beneficial to birds as a food source which means that, as a gardener, you benefit from having them around. Most birds are predators because many eat insects, as well as, seeds. American Robins, Brown Thrashers, Eastern Towhees, Crows and White-throated Sparrows routinely flip leaves over in search of food. Leaf cover improves their odds of finding protein-rich invertebrates such as beetles, earthworms and millipedes, which seek shelter under the security of leaves. So, birds are taking out insect pests that, if left unchecked, could become problematic in flower and vegetable gardens in the spring. Also, leaving layers of leaf litter for animals, such as opossums to burrow under in the winter, allows them to get a jump-start on minimizing pesky insect infestations in the spring and summer. Let’s see, how do we encourage messiness in our yards? Here are a few tips; put down the rake and leave your leaves in your yard (in mounds or as a blanket because leaves will rot, enrich the soil and provide places for bugs and birds to forage), create patches of habitat for critters such as salamanders, snails, worms and toads with leaf litter, allow dried flower heads to remain standing (save the seeds and refrain from snipping the stems of perennial flowers. Coneflowers , Black-Eyed Susans , and other native wildflowers provide an excellent source of winter calories for birds), don’t mow your grass as often (allow it to be a little taller), build brush piles with fallen branches rather than remove them which will serve to shelter birds, as well as other beneficial wildlife, from bad weather and predators, do not use chemicals in your yard for they will render the space uninhabitable for birds and other critters (besides, native grasses, shrubs, trees and flowering plants don’t need chemical fertilizers. Grass clippings and mulched leaf litter provide plenty of plant nutrition), leave snags on your property and just delay the whole garden clean-up until spring. Now, if mammals are more your focus, be assured that squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, opossums, deer and others will also enjoy the end of season bounty in the form of dried seeds, unharvested vegetables, or the hardy leaves left widespread for them. So, a messy yard can be a very good thing when you consider the food and shelter it offers birds and other visiting critters during cold winter months. Don’t forget the bonus of a spent garden that will provide nourishment at all levels of the food chain. Besides helping our wildlife survive in our messy yards, we need to focus on continuing the growing awareness of the value of supporting native biodiversity. What is truly beautiful? You decide; is it a clean, tidy yard or the amazing birds and other wildlife that pass through your property or take up residency within your view? That’s what I thought, too! Let’s be okay with feeling a little lazy and celebrate the abundance of activity and beauty that can emerge from a messy yard!


best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “SAVE THEM ALL

“The Tiniest Need Our Help!!”

Blog_CSMag_BabyBirds_The incubators are filling up at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) in Newport, NC because the tiniest need our help! Baby birds aren’t the cutest little critters to come through the doors of the shelter, but they are the most fragile and definitely will not make it on their own if abandoned or displaced. If they are newborns, we might not be able to make the call on what they are until they develop a little more because many baby birds start life looking quite similar and the smaller the bird species the more similar they look at birth; a skin blob of a body with no feathers, a limp neck trying to hold up a tiny head with a beak that shoots straight up to let Mom or Dad know when it’s hungry. When we admit newborn birds, we might even refer to them as UBBs (unidentified baby birds) until we hear a sound we recognize, the shape and coloring of their beak becomes more pronounced or they start to feather. Then we will know for sure!Blog_CSMag_BabyBird_
Larger song bird babies are easier to identify. When the nursery is full of baby birds, it becomes a full time job for baby bird feeders because these little creatures eat every 30 minutes because their metabolism is so fast and they develop much more quickly than mammals do. Also keep in mind, their meals don’t stop, this is seven days a week! Most people outside the shelter probably do not have the time to devote to this strict feeding schedule. If you add “day olds” or newborns to the mix, the feeding schedule for them is adjusted to every 15 minutes! We also need three shifts (morning, afternoon and evening until the sun goes down) to get the job done because that’s the way their parents would do it! There is no down time for the nursery workers. By the time you finish one round of feeding, it’s time to start all over again. Along with feeding, of course, is cleaning, because just like human babies, baby birds spend all their time eating, sleeping and pooping. Mom and Dad would be cleaning their nest area continually, so wildlife rehabilitators will do that as well. Recently, a nest of five House Finches were displaced when their nest gourd fell apart and the babies found themselves on the ground, four infant Carolina Wrens were discovered in a propane tank, a featherless baby Grackle was found sitting in the road (how that happened is anybody’s guess) and two Nuthatch babies were sighted inside a screen door with no Mom around. When you don’t see how it happened, it’s all speculation and pure wonderment on our part. There will be more baby bird calls and more to join the nursery this summer. Blog_CSMag_I7Z1049__Of course, when someone calls the shelter to tell us they have found baby birds on the ground or their nest is in a dangerous or precarious location, we initially give instructions on how to re-nest the little ones because that would be best for the whole bird family, but when that is impossible, we ask them to bring the youngins in for the care and safety they will need to survive. Wildlife rehabilitators are so important in the equation of raising and giving songbirds the second chance that they definitely deserve because, quite frankly, it’s usually human interference that displaces the little ones and causes a perilous situation for birds that are so important to our ecosystem, and as we are all aware, songbird numbers are on the decline. Blog_BabyBirds In NestWildlife rehabilitators are well trained and licensed, so they possess the “know-how” to provide appropriate species specific diets and habitat, as well as, anticipate and monitor species unique behaviors that when evaluated will let us know when bird youngsters are ready to spend the time needed in an outside enclosure to perfect perching, flight and eating on their own, which is one step away from a wild release. The Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter raises them all! We are not bias on which species to accept. Need is the key word!!! So, in our nursery in any given Spring, we house the tiniest of our feathered friends from Hummingbirds (although rare) to Finches, Wrens, Nuthatches, Titmouse, Warblers and Sparrows and the larger songbirds (who are usually the easier babies to raise because one: they are bigger and two: aren’t as ‘flitty.’) Larger nursery birds would include Eastern Blue Birds, Northern Mockingbirds, Robins, Blue Jays, Brown Thrashers, Cardinals, Gray Cat Birds, Starlings, Grackles, Boat Tailed Grackles, Chimney Swifts, Purple Martins, Fly Catchers, Barn Swallows, Red-Winged Blackbirds and the biggest nursery babies; a variety of Wood Peckers or Flickers, Mourning Doves and Pigeons. They are all so different, and they all have special needs!Blog_CSMag_I7Z1054__ Some are bugs and worm eaters (and we go through thousands of meal worms per week!), while others prefer seeds and berries, then again, some are omnivores and will include all the choices in their diet, but yes, we proudly raise them all!

Please enjoy your Memorial Day and always remember the reason this day has been set aside to be honored by those of us who owe so much to sacrifices made by others.

Best Always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

It’s a Murder!

Crow,_American_XXEECrows, members of the Corvidae family, live everywhere in the world except Antarctica and are part of myths and legends in many global societies including American culture. The stories range from comedies to horror and curiously, a flock of crows is referred to as a murder. A folktale explains the reference because it is said that crows will gather to decide the capital fate of another crow guilty of wrong doing. If you’ve heard crows are smart, there’s a whole lot of truth in that because they are among the most intelligent animals on the planet. Many studies and observations support their awesome problem solving skills as well as a few other behaviors also very human like such as recall, memory, gossiping and holding grudges. Researchers in Seattle spent many years banding crows, which the crows were not too happy about, and the humans found that crows never forgot a face. And remember they do, for a very, very long time. Even crows that were never banded would scold and dive-bomb human banders because, it is believed, the bandees “told” the other crows about this horribly unwanted and anxiety producing activity humans engage in and were advised to be wary of certain people and those who associate with them. It is reported that crow assaults and “mobbings” went on for years in that area. Wildlife rehabilitators experience first-hand the savviness and intelligence of the crow. When American Crows or Fish Crows (the smaller of the two), which are the only two crows indigenous to North Carolina, are admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport for treatment, we take precaution to ensure fasteners on their enclosures will be difficult and hopefully, impossible for the crow to figure out. That prevents us from having to look all over the building to find him or her. We also provide enrichment tools and toys because they can get bored in captivity which may cause them to become depressed, and that is not good for recovery. Sometimes we put food inside containers so they have to work to get it out. They enjoy a varied omnivorous diet, so we give them lots of food choices; insects, fish, earthworms, fruits, eggs, vegetables and nuts. In the wild, you may see them dining on frogs, snakes, mice, berries, carrion such as road-kill or even garbage. An adult crow needs about 11 ounces of food daily, so they are adaptable and consummate opportunists. As scavengers they often associate with other hunting animals to take advantage of unguarded or abandoned prey carcasses. When you think about it, humans are some of those hunting animals who exploit the environment and tend to leave waste behind, so it’s only natural to find crows wherever you find people. In the way of description, there’s not much to tell that you don’t already know. They are black, all black; feathers, beak, legs, feet, talons, even their tongue is blue-black in color. Some people consider this big, black bird scary while others describe them as elegant. They measure 16-21 inches in length and the tail takes up 40% of that measurement. Their wingspan extends 33 to 39 inches. Males tend to be larger than females. The flight of the American Crow is swift but prolonged and performed at great heights, although they are also very comfortable on the ground. Its gait, while on the ground, is lofty and graceful, with the progression being a calm and composed walk, although it occasionally hops when excited. Crow,_American_ECrows are very social, caring creatures and have tight-knit families. Older crow siblings take on the responsibility of care for younger siblings. They roost in huge numbers, in the thousands in some areas, to protect themselves from enemies like Red-Tailed Hawks, Great Horned Owls and raccoons. Crows also, amazingly, use at least 250 different calls; however, the sound we are most familiar with is the rapid caaw-caaw-caaw. That call is unmistakable. Their distress call brings other crows to their aid, as crows will defend unrelated crows. Crows are monogamous, mate for life and raise their young for up to five years. Their nests are formed externally of dry sticks, interwoven with grasses, and plastered with mud or clay while lined with roots and feathers. They lay four to six eggs of pale green spotted with purplish-grey and brownish-green. In our region they may raise two broods a season but further north, seldom more than one. Both sexes incubate, and their parental care and mutual attachment are not surpassed by any other bird. The average life span of the American Crow in the wild is 7–8 years, but captive birds are known to have lived up to 30 years. There’s a lot to admire about the crow. The crow is extremely courageous when encountering any of its winged enemies and appears to find pleasure in outwitting and teasing them. They also are known to use tools just like humans, chimpanzees and elephants do. When contending with unfamiliar tools, they use common sense to come up with ways to make them work. Studies show crows work together to protect their flock, hunt and have been observed overtly sharing food. A crow family can eat 40,000 grubs, caterpillars, ants, worms and other insects in one nesting season. That’s a lot of insects gardeners and farmers consider troublesome. These great environmental citizens also transport, distribute and store seeds, thus propagating forest renewal. Their habit of eating carrion makes them part of nature’s cleanup crew. So let’s give crows the “props” they deserve for being impressive environmental partners. Crows might have a scary reputation, but the most frightening thing might be how much they know about us and how little we know about them!

Best Always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of, “Save Them All”