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

“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

Wild Babies Amongst Us

_LT_0664FB“ALL ABOARD for the Baby Train!” We have officially shifted into the busiest time of the year at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) in Newport. Wildlife babies of all shapes, sizes and species are making their way to the care of wildlife rehabilitators everywhere, and our shelter is no exception. It all started a month ago when a couple of baby squirrels were admitted after being found on the ground after a storm went through the area. Then, a litter of baby opossums, weighing only 20 something grams each was brought to us after their Mom was hit by a car. Once the baby train started chugging, it just gained speed and the number of admits grew large. An infant Barred Owl is on board after being found on the ground in the same place we have picked up baby Barred Owls for the past three years. We always see the Mother in a tree close by and although it’s sad to remove the little one, especially with her looking on, we know the ball of fluff will not make it if she remains on the ground. We find solace in thinking Mom may boot them out of the nest because she’s stressed or tired and knows someone will show up to take over with their care. I mean . . . three years in a row, really? By the way, the little girl is doing great and started eating on her own the first day. We’re having quite the influx of Eastern Cottontail admits for a variety of reasons such as a dog or cat discovering the nest site, but mainly as a result of those engaged in yard work. BlogIMG_0407May2013It is Spring, and that’s what humans do! If you come across a nest of bunnies in the wild and mother is nowhere to be seen, please DO NOT disturb them if they are not in eminent danger … this is normal. You will not see the mom as mom will only come back in the middle of the night to feed her babies. Mother rabbits only nurse their babies for approximately five minutes twice a day. By removing them from the nest you greatly reduce their chances of survival. So, if you do pick up a baby before thinking it through, please put it back. Infant cottontails are the most difficult of all furry wildlife orphans to rehab because they are ever alert to danger and subject to fatally overstressing. Holding baby bunnies can easily cause them to succumb to heart failure. Cottontails will still care for their babies even if they have been touched by human hands. We recommend putting a string around their nest area and checking back a few times to see if the string is mussed. If the babies still look plump and healthy, Mom is taking care of them, as it should be. In four weeks or less they’ll be out on their own. In rare situations where you know the bunnies are orphaned, such as evidence momma rabbit has been killed by another animal or found in the road, that is definitely the time to get the babies to a skilled wildlife rehabilitator, trained to provide appropriate care to ensure their best chance of survival. Speaking of more babies, our brooders are full of Mallard, Muscovy and Wood ducklings who found themselves alone, confused and separated from their Mother and siblings as a result of whatever the crisis was at the moment. FBBrooderDucklings_May2013We can only speculate. Baby birds are now heading into the shelter as well. First in was a House Finch, all by her lonesome and found on the ground. Breeding season for birds gets started a little later than mammals, but when it happens, it is full on! The environment can be very hard on baby birds just trying to make their way into the world. The reasons are many; from numerous wild or domestic predators wanting to dine on them or the ‘incredible edible egg’ to humans who find their presence annoying (that one is hard to figure out from a wildlife rehabilitator’s perspective). Baby birds are brought to the shelter daily throughout spring and summer and care for baby birds is quite time consuming. There is no down time between feedings because baby birds, especially songbirds, eat every thirty minutes or less, depending upon their size when admitted to the shelter. By the time a wildlife rehabilitator at OWLS has made the bird nursery feeding rounds, it’s time to start the process all over again. And because birds eat from sun up to sun down, the shelter adds a third shift of volunteer personnel to cover evening hours until the sun dips beneath the horizon. So the bottom line for OWLS this time of year . . . We are very, very busy, but as wildlife rehabilitators, we don’t mind working earnestly to ensure all baby critters in peril get their second chance! Please watch out for the Wild Babies Amongst Us.

Happy Sunny Days Everyone!

Linda Bergman-Althouse
Author of “Save them All