I AM NOT A HAWK!

While enjoying the activity at his bird feeder a few weeks ago, a Beaufort, NC resident witnessed a distressing bird on bird attack. Most of us are aware that some birds such as hawks eat other birds, mainly songbirds, and this appeared to be a hawk on hawk situation. By the time the man ventured outside, the larger hawk, which we theorize to have been a Cooper’s Hawk, was gone and the smaller hawk, lay injured on the ground. The Good Samaritan scooped him up and transported him to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) in Newport for evaluation and treatment. It turned out to be a species that had never been admitted to our shelter before, because the only time we see a Merlin, which is a Falcon rather than a Hawk, in this area is when they are passing through during migration. You may be asking, what’s the difference between a hawk and a falcon? Falcons have notched beaks while hawks have a curved beak. Falcons also use their beaks to attack prey, while hawks use the talons on their feet to kill prey, so their hunting methods are completely different. Also, hawks are generally larger in size than falcons. A thorough examination of the admitted Merlin revealed a laceration under one wing and numerous puncture wounds from the larger bird’s talons. He was treated for shock and his injuries cleaned and dressed to prevent infection, as well as to promote healing. From the beginning of his stay with OWLS, he was a good eater (down-right famished!!) In the wild, Merlins eat a variety of birds from sparrows to quail, and large insects, such as dragonflies, don’t go unnoticed. After calculating that the time needed for him to recover and get back into shape for his return to the wild will be extensive, the decision was made to transfer him to Cape Fear Raptor Center for the extended stay he required. In addition, it will give him the opportunity to work with the Falconer they have on staff at their center. Merlins are small but fierce falcons who are powerful fliers. They look similar to the more common American Kestrel familiar to this area, especially in coloring, but the Merlin is broader and heavily built, with females stockier than males. Male Merlins are dark gray with a lighter chest that almost looks striped or mottled in dark brown. Females and immature Merlins are more brown all over than gray. A Merlin is 9 to 13 inches long with a wingspan of 20 to 29 inches. They have pointy wings and a medium tail that is dark in color and sports thin, white bands from rump to tip. Their eyes and beak are dark and their slender feet are yellow with black talons. This specific bird of prey has the least amount of markings than any other type of hawk or falcon. Merlins usually nest in forested areas and along waterway edges but have adapted to loss of habitat by moving into towns and cities up north. During migration, we may see them in our coastal regions where flocks of small songbirds or shorebirds reside. It would be very rare to see a Merlin nesting in eastern North Carolina because of their very northern breeding range. Even Ohio is considered south of its breeding range. It is interesting to note that after a male Merlin has wooed and won his mate with his “extreme” acrobatic displays, they look for a “pre-owned” nest together rather than build their own. They simply search out an abandoned crow’s, hawk’s or woodpecker’s nest and move in. The female usually lays 4 to 6 rusty brown eggs that are incubated for 28 to 32 days. In another 30 days after hatching, the young will fledge but still be dependent upon their parents for another four weeks or more. It’s tough out there for infant Merlins though, because statistics show that only one in three infants make it to adulthood. We, wildlife rehabilitators at the shelter, feel honored to have played a role in saving this one! Merlins have had a few nicknames since Medieval times and used to be referred to as Pigeon Hawks or Lady Hawks, although they are not hawks at all. They have also been called “The Falcon for a Lady” when used as a falconry bird because of its petite size. The greatest threats to Merlins are pesticide use, loss of habitat, predators such as larger birds of prey and speed injuries. Although they are reported as capable of the most agile aerial maneuvers of all hawks and falcons, they sometimes focus so intently on their prey when hunting that when they swoop in at top speed for the catch they have been known to suffer collision with an obstacle in its path. Merlins are powerful, straight path fliers who don’t understand the words glide or pause. The oldest Merlin on record is said to have lived 13 winters. That is one careful or lucky falcon that may have figured out the need to glide and pause occasionally!! Merlins are widespread during migration, but seeing them is very unpredictable, so when you are out for a walk or driving by and suddenly see a flock of birds burst into flight from a bush, tree or shoreline, you just might have a Merlin in the area. You will have to scan the sky quickly because they are so fast they will be out of range in just a few seconds. Good Luck!

best always and Happy Thanksgiving!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

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“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

“Blockheads; Loggerhead Shrikes”

The Good Samaritan had no idea what type of bird it was, but knew it was a baby, on its own and on the ground with cats in the area that would soon be checking it out or worse. With no parents or nest in sight, it was time to scoop up the little one and get it to safety. After leaving a few messages at wildlife centers with no return calls (it’s baby season, so everyone is very, very busy!), she decided to jump in her car and drive over two hours from her home in Dunn, NC to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport. During the infant bird’s admission, discussion threw out possible identities such as an odd Blue Jay or Northern Mockingbird because the colors were similar, but after research his true identity was revealed; Loggerhead Shrike and the first of its kind to be admitted at our shelter. Loggerhead Shrikes are native to North America and have been introduced to some island groups such as the Bahamas or Caicos. Initially we placed the LHS youngster with four young Mockingbirds since they were all the same size, however we learned that a Loggerhead Shrike is indeed a songbird, but with raptor habits. So, we knew that the togetherness they now shared could not last forever. After a few weeks of growing, he was moved to his own playpen for the Mockingbirds’ safety. A Shrike eats many insects to include grasshoppers and beetles which is similar to the Mockingbird’s diet, but they also eat lizards, snakes, frogs, turtles, mice, shrews, small mammals, roadkill, carrion and other birds. They will also not shy away from poisonous food items such as monarch butterflies or narrow-mouthed toads, but will wait about three days before eating them to allow for the poisons to break down. Shrikes prefer to hunt on cold mornings when insect prey are immobilized by the chilly temperatures. Therefore, working smarter not harder! A Loggerhead Shrike is smaller and more slender than an adult Robin, but larger and longer-tailed than a Western Bluebird. The head of a LHS is unusually large in relation to its body which is where the name Loggerhead, a synonym for “blockhead,” came from. They have gray feathers on the upperpart of their bodies and paler gray underneath. They wear a black feathered mask and their throat is white. Their 11 – 12” wingspan, flying low and swift, exposes black feathers with white patches. Sometimes, while hunting on the ground, they will flash those white patches to startle prey out of hiding. The tail is long and black with a white edge. To look at a Loggerhead Shrike, you would not think they are the heavy hunters they are, but it’s their bill that is very ‘raptoresque!’ It’s thick, strong, hooked like a hawk’s and features two pointy tomial teeth. Shrikes use their hooked bills to break the necks of vertebrate prey and can carry an animal as large as itself with its feet or beak. This masked predator hunts from utility poles, fence posts and other perches in much the same way raptors do. They do lack talons that hawks use for holding a meal in place while they eat, therefore Shrikes utilize a very unusual method for presenting their kill for eating. Shrikes will skewer their prey on thorns or barbed wire or wedge them into tree limbs for safe keeping, easy eating or caching for later consumption. So, if you see a large insect or a mouse impaled on barbed wire or possibly a thorn, that was no accident. You have a Loggerhead Shrike, sometimes referred to as a “Butcherbird,” in the area! They enjoy open country, including grasslands and shrub-steppe areas, where there are scattered trees, tall shrubs, fence posts, utility wires or other lookout posts. They tend to nest in northeast or southeast facing ravines in open country such as agricultural fields, pastures, prairies, golf course and cemeteries. Both sexes help find a nest site, inspect many locations before choosing and together they gather nesting materials such as twigs, bark strips, grasses, feathers, moss, fur, lichen and even flowers. The nest is about six inches round and the depression is approximately three inches deep. Loggerhead Shrikes often build their nests in thorny vegetation, which may help keep predators away. In the absence of trees or shrubs, they sometimes nest in brush piles or tumbleweeds. The average height of nests above the ground ranges from 2.5 to 4 feet. A clutch of five to six grayish buff eggs with yellowish brown markings are laid and incubated for 15 – 17 days. After hatching, the young will be fed by both parents for nearly three weeks before leaving the nest. Once fledged, the parents will continue to tend to their young Shrikes for three to four weeks by feeding them and teaching them adult hunting behaviors. The youngsters will practice hunting by picking up various objects and repeatedly press them against branches as if they are trying to make them stick.   The Loggerhead Shrike is recognized as a “common species in decline” due to habitat loss, harsh winters, collisions and human disturbance. It needs a large range for hunting and to accommodate their social grouping. A flock of Loggerhead Shrikes is known as an “abattoir” or a “watch” of Shrikes. There are groups across the U.S. who have implemented LHS breeding and release programs to increase their population. The longest living Loggerhead Shrike on record was a male from California who enjoyed 11 years and 9 months on the planet. Our little “Wild One” at the shelter is doing very well on his own in the nursery, demands his daily flight time and consumes his share of hearty food while awaiting his release day!!

best always and hope you are enjoying your summer!!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of  “Save Them All”

“BIG (but little) BROWN BATS!”

Yes, I am a mammal, and Yes, I can fly! The only mammal that is truly capable of free flight and able to launch under their own flapping power from a still position is a bat. They are not gliders like Southern Flying Squirrels, and like other mammals, they give birth to and nurse live young. Big Brown Bats, who are not very big at all, are one of the most common bats in North Carolina. Although their bodies are about five inches long, not counting the tail, and they have a wingspan up to 13 inches, they weigh only .5 to 1.5 ounces. Big Brown Bats have brown fur above and paler fur below. Their wings are black and devoid of fur. The bat’s wing is an extension of the skin of the abdomen that runs to the tip of each digit, uniting the forelimb with the body. It’s comprised of two tightly stretched layers of skin membranes joined by connective tissue without any flesh between layers. We are able to see through a bat’s wings because of this anatomical construction. This formation of skin membranes is called the patagium. The first digit of a bat’s wing, which is similar to our thumb, is small, clawed and used in climbing or walking on the ground. Their unfurred ears are rounded and dark in color, matching their wing membranes and tail. Their lips are fleshy and their nose is quite wide for the size of their face. Bats are not brought to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport for rehabilitation, but we do get calls asking about them. Some calls, from environmental enthusiasts, question how they can encourage a bat colony to reside in their neighborhood, because they are aware that bats help keep pesky insect populations down. One caller wondered why a bat seemed to be parked on their swimming pool pump during the day when bats are usually not active. That bat turned out to be a youngster just trying his wings and, unfortunately, didn’t make it home before morning. Bats are primarily nocturnal (active only at night), though they also forage in the early evening and early morning hours. All bats found in North Carolina eat insects and because they are nocturnal, they feed on nocturnal insects including mosquitoes and many important agricultural pests. A large colony of Big Brown Bats can eat 18 million corn rootworms each summer placing them in the roles of farmers protecting valuable harvests. A single bat can wipe out 21,000 insects, such as moths, flies, wasps, flying ants and beetles (their favorite meal), annually. All bat species can have a major impact on controlling insect populations, therefore bats are integral to ecosystems worldwide. A nursing female may consume almost her entire body weight in insects in one night. Just imagine how many insects an entire colony of bats would consume. Tropical bats disperse large amounts of seed and pollen, which aids in plant reproduction and forest regrowth. Although bats have relatively good eyesight, most depend on their expertly developed echolocation (or sonar) system to navigate and capture insect prey in the dark. By listening to the echoes reflected to them, they can perceive objects and bugs in their path by size, shape and texture of any tiny insect from its echo. Their echolocation ability is so acute they can avoid obstacles no wider than a piece of thread and capture some itty bitty flying insects, even in complete darkness. Bats produce ultrasonic sounds through their mouth and nose to communicate with each other. You won’t see them, but Big Brown Bats are roosting during the day in hollow trees, beneath loose tree bark, in the crevices of rocks, or in man-made structures such as attics, barns, old buildings, eaves, and window shutters. Bats have adapted well to our urban and suburban environments. Bats can also be found in and around commercial buildings and bridges. The most common place to find bats in homes are the gable vents. Gable vents are screened vents located in roof peaks that aid in proper attic ventilation. Bats generally don’t come in contact with humans unless they are sick, injured or have moved into your house. Despite misconceptions, rabies is not very common in bats, but it’s still best to avoid handling bats and to always use proper caution in their presence as with any wild animal. Big Brown Bats mate during the fall and winter before they go into hibernation, but the female does not become pregnant until the spring as she stores the sperm during hibernation. Female Big Brown Bats form nursery colonies to raise their young. The size of these colonies can vary, but usually fall within the range of a modest 20 to a massive presence of 300. Bachelor BBB’s roost alone or in small groups during this time. In late May or early June, the female gives birth to one or two pups. The babies are born blind, with no fur and completely depend on their mother for nourishment. They grow quickly and will fly within a month to six weeks. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission conducts monitoring studies in a variety of areas across our state to ensure the protection and presence of the Big Brown Bat continues as it is an environmental partner who improves our quality of life. Through a variety of methods, such as mist netting, trapping, banding and radio telemetry, commission biologists collect age, weight and gender information on bats so they can track species distribution and locate hibernation areas which helps to develop effective conservation plans. You can do your part to conserve bats as well by installing bat boxes around your home, planting native foliage that attracts helpful insects to provide food for bats, limiting the use of insecticides and herbicides, avoiding hibernation areas and maternity colonies, joining a conservation organization to remain updated on bat conservation efforts and continuing to educate yourself and others regarding the importance of bats and why they are beneficial. Bat populations have declined over the years mainly due to pesticide use and human disturbances, as well as, persecution. Natural predators include snakes, owls and raccoons, but if a bat can outwit, outplay and outlast predation Big Brown Bats are relatively long-lived mammals and can survive 20 to 30 years in the wild. That is a mighty long, free contract we can all enjoy with our furry, flying natural pest exterminators!

best always,

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

“THEY ARE HERE!”

blog_armadilloxxeThe state small mammal of Texas has been heading our way for a few years now and by observation accounts to the North Carolina Wildlife Commission, some have made it! Armadillos were spotted in South Carolina in the late 1990’s, and word was they would not get as far as North Carolina because our winters are too cold for them to tolerate. Well, SURPRISE! This nocturnal, omnivorous mammal covered in bony plates has dumfounded biologists. The animal considered not intelligent enough to avoid traffic has made its way up U.S. Highway 17 along the coast into the Tar Heel state, and witnesses have observed an armadillo leaping three to four feet straight up in the air to avoid an oncoming car. There are different species of armadillo, but the one moving into our area is the Nine-banded Armadillo. They have also been found in mountain counties in far western North Carolina, which begs us to think, if they can live in high elevations like the Smokies, they can live anywhere. There is debate on their method of arrival, though. Are they being transported, deliberately or not, or are they waddling their way here? The biggest deterrent for the presence of armadillos is weather because the animals can’t endure prolonged cold and frozen soil, but our mild winters as of late have opened the door for Nine-Banded Armadillo travel. Their presence is well established in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, and it was always believed the “armored” brownish-gray animal the size of an opossum or housecat could only thrive in warm, wetland habitats and preferably the arid landscape of Texas, but now we know, it ain’t so! Even farther north, Illinois and Indiana, are experiencing the arrival of the NB Armadillo. Maybe the weather isn’t as important as the abundance of fresh water, forests, bugs and critters to eat, although frozen ground makes foraging for grubs almost impossible. Armadillos need to be able to forage steadily. Since they are coming and some are already here, the staff at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport need to become knowledgeable on the topic of Armadillo rehabilitation and how to raise orphaned Armadillos, so we have taken on the task to learn everything we can about the new wildlife coming our way. As with all wildlife, the need to wear our personal protective equipment (PPE) will be required to ensure anything zoonotic will not be passed from animal to human. This pre-historic and exotic looking little creature with a bulbous snout that we are now learning about has been given quite a few nick-names; Texas Turkey, Armored Pig, Possum on a Half Shell, Hoover Hog, Rabbit Turtle which is a name given them by the ancient Aztecs, and they are also described as a “Platypus in a conquistador helmet.” blog_armadilloxyeThe Nine-banded Armadillo weighs between 5 and 14 pounds and is 25 – 42 inches long, including the tail. They have short legs, but can move rather quickly. Their body is covered by nonoverlapping scales that are connected by flexible bands of skin. The shell or armor covers the back, sides, head, tail and outer sides of the legs. Their underbelly protection is comprised of thick skin and coarse hair, and they have long, shovel like claws for digging. We now know the Armadillo is a very adaptable animal that primarily feeds on invertebrates such as insects, snails and earthworms. They forage for meals while making snorting noises by thrusting their snouts into loose soil and leaves and frantically dig to surface grubs, beetles, carrion with maggots, ants, termites and those juicy worms, which their sensitive noses can detect through eight inches of soil. They are amazing in their uniqueness! Although the NBA can’t roll itself into a ball as other armadillos, such as the Three-banded can, it will inflate its intestines to float or dog-paddle across a river or it may choose to hold its breath for up to six minutes while sinking into the water and running underwater across the riverbed. Their teeth are similar to those of sloths and anteaters; all small molars, no incisors and no enamel. Armadillos live in eight-inch entranced burrows that can be seven feet deep and 25 feet long. They will mark their territory with urine, feces and excretions from scent glands found on their feet, nose and eyelids. If there is a territorial dispute, a bit of kicking and chasing will usually end it. Breeding takes place during July and August producing a litter of four optimally. As reptilian as an Armadillo may look, they are mammals and will nurse the infants for about three months before the youngsters begin foraging for food with Mom. They will stay with Mom, the sole provider, for six months to a year. NBA’s will be sexually mature at one year and will reproduce every year throughout their 12-15 year lifespan. That’s a lot of babies and could be one of the reasons for the species expansion north! Although Armadillos can wreck havoc with gardens and root systems while they forage or create elaborate burrows, on the positive side, they eat pesky bugs, create habitats for other wildlife and are known to bring more song birds to an area because birds, such as warblers, will follow and hang out with Armadillos. The birds will capitalize on the NBA’s unearthing of insects and invertebrates to supplement their own nutritional needs. Not many animals mess with Armadillos in the wild, so they have few real predators, but although it’s not easy, alligators and panthers have been known to partake in an adult NBA or two. Infant Nine-banded Armadillos are at risk of predation by bobcats, coyotes and hawks. But of course, the greatest threat for an Armadillo has treaded tires and rolls in the form of trucks, cars and motorcycles. Like opossums, the NBA, has the unfortunate tendency to stare at approaching headlights, so although armadillos can jump, it’s not always high or fast enough to win the vehicular battle. blog_armadilloxyzeThese solitary, dinosaur era animals may look a little funny or downright odd, but they are survivors and have been around for 50 million years!! Ok, so they’re not cute balls of fluff. They still need protection, cover, water and loose soil for stirring up some food, and North Carolina has all of that. We used to say, “They Are Coming!” but now we know “They Are Here!

BEST ALWAYS,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All