The Smallest Falcon!

He was lying on his side in the box, pretty much flat out, when he arrived at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport. A driver saw a pile of feathers in the road as he pulled to a stop sign, and at first glance, thought the bird was dead, but before pulling away, the little bird lifted his head. That moment shifted the driver’s attention from heading to work into full-on rescue mode! He placed the injured bird inside a container and called ahead to let the shelter staff know he was bringing him in. The feathered one did not look good when he arrived, and no one could possibly know by sight how extensive or severe his injuries were, especially when theorized he had been smacked by a car. After the small bird of prey, which we identified as an American Kestrel, the smallest, most common and most numerous of all falcons, rested for a bit to de-stress, a thorough examination was conducted. No blood, no broken bones or punctured air sacs were found. Eyes were dilated and he was loopy, which we attributed to a concussion, and that meant he probably would not be able to eat on his own initially while in recovery. He was placed in intensive care and later that day an attempt was made to tweezer feed him tiny pieces of chicken. To his favor, he handled that well, ate like a champ and has continued to do so since his arrival a week ago. He is on his feet, still being tweezer fed but recovering well. Eating on his own and successful flight school are the goals now. The slender American Kestrel is roughly the size and shape of a Mourning Dove, which is between the size of a robin and a crow. They usually weigh in between 3 to 5.8 ounces with females typically 10% heavier than males, are 8 to 12 inches long and have a wingspan of 20 to 24 inches. The head looks a little too large for its body, and they sport long, narrow wings and a lengthy, square-tipped tail. In flight, the wings are often bent, and the wingtips sweep back. Their coloring is warm, rusty brown spotted with black on top and an overt, solid black band near the tip of the tail is obvious for males, but females are adorned with multiple bands on their tails. Males have slate-blue wings; females, who are paler, have wings that are muted, reddish brown. Both sexes have two bold and black vertical stripes on the sides of their face sometimes called a “mustache” or a “sideburn.” Both males and females also have bold, black eyespots at the napes of their necks. Early in the pairing-up process for breeding, groups of four to six birds may congregate to choose a mate. Courting pairs of Kestrels may exchange gifts of food, and usually the male feeds the female. These delicate falcons are secondary cavity nesters, who use woodpecker-excavated or natural cavities in large trees, crevices in rocks, and nooks in man-made structures rather than build their own nests. They simple lack the ability to excavate a nesting cavity and are dependent upon that skill in other species. Nesting materials are not necessary to line the cavities they discover, either. Barren will do! The male Kestrel will house hunt, and after finding something suitable, will show it to his mate, and she will make the final decision. Kestrels compete over the limited supply of nesting cavities with other cavity-nesters, and sometimes fight off or evict Bluebirds, Northern Flickers, small squirrels and other competitors from their chosen sites. When offered, American Kestrels will use artificial nest boxes, and there is increasing public interest in participating in nest-box programs to conserve this bird. The North American Breeding Bird Survey reports that American Kestrel populations have declined 50% between 1966 and 2015. This steep drop stems from continued clearing of land and felling of standing dead trees these birds depend on for their nest sites. The American Kestrel is also losing prey sources and nesting cavities to “clean” farming practices that remove trees and brush. An additional threat is exposure to pesticides and other pollutants, which can reduce clutch sizes and hatching success. For kestrels in North America, a larger problem is that pesticides destroy the insects, spiders and other prey on which these tiny falcons also depend. American Kestrels, who are day hunters, eat mostly insects and other invertebrates, as well as small rodents and birds. Common foods include grasshoppers, cicadas, beetles, and dragonflies; scorpions and spiders; butterflies and moths; voles, mice, shrews, bats, and small songbirds. American Kestrels, also called Sparrow Hawks, include small snakes, lizards, and frogs in their diet, too. Some people have reported seeing American Kestrels take larger prey, such as squirrels and Northern Flickers. They will usually snatch their victims from the ground, although some catch a meal on the wing. They are gracefully buoyant in flight but sometimes erratic because they are small enough to get tossed around in the wind. Their flight speed tops out at 39 mph when they’re bookin’. When perched, kestrels often pump their tails and look like they are trying to keep their balance. The American Kestrel inhabits open areas covered by short ground vegetation where it hunts mostly from perches, frequently from utility wires along the roadside, but can also hunt by hovering. The Kestrel faces into the wind when it hovers, with its head fixed, while the wings alternately flap and glide while the tail constantly adjusts to movements in the breeze. The kestrel is attracted to human-modified habitats, such as pastures and parklands and often is found near areas of human activity, even heavily developed urban areas. You may see a kestrel scanning for prey from the same perch all day long or changing perches every few minutes. Studies have shown that kestrels can see ultraviolet light like other hawks and falcons. This ability enables them to easily see the urine markings and trails that small mammals, such as voles and mice, leave as they run along the ground. These trails and urine markings probably look bright yellow to a kestrel which alerts them to a potential meal. A kestrel pounces on its prey, seizing it with one or both feet just as hawks or owls do, and a Kestrel may finish off a meal right there on the ground or carry larger prey back to a perch. During breeding season, males advertise their territory by repeatedly climbing and then diving while voicing a call of klee, klee, klee. Although diminutive and may seem unassuming, American Kestrels are known to harass large hawks and eagles during migration, and even attack hawks in their territories during breeding season. So, no wonder this little falcon is not long-lived in the wild, on the average, only 5 years. Kestrels are protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, but hawks, owls and eagles are probably not aware of that. The oldest banded kestrel in the wild made it to 11 years and 7 months. That one must have thought twice about getting into a scrap with a big hawk or an American Eagle. We’re hoping, once released, our little Kestrel will think twice about tangling with those tough guys, too!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All

Advertisements

The “Regal” Purple Martin!

She was built like a race car; smooth, sleek and shiny black with an aerodynamic head. From the beginning, the adult Purple Martin did not enjoy her stay at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport and probably couldn’t figure out why she was there, but a day earlier she had a moment of stillness on the ground long enough for a human to pick her up, place her in a box and transport her to our shelter. For an individual to be able to do that with a wild bird is evidence that something isn’t right. A thorough examination revealed no injuries or illness, so theories were shared that she may have been knocked out or stunned by running into something or maybe because of the heat, dehydration occurred. We didn’t know how long she’d been on the ground without food or water, so keeping her with us for a couple days while providing hydration and a steady diet of mealworms and crickets would ensure she wasn’t malnourished when returned to the wild, but she wasn’t having any of it! She refused to eat, even though nestlings were chirping and gaping all around her in the nursery while being fed every 30 minutes. She watched them eat, but she was not a baby and would not be doing that. She hid behind a basket of youngsters when feeding time began and would not accept mealworms offered her by tweezers or allow a wildlife rehabilitator to open her mouth to drop a few worms in. That was not going to happen; how undignified!! With no food or water, she would only get weaker, so this could not continue. She was removed from the enclosure with the young birds, even though there were a few juvenile Purple Martins present we thought she could relate to and placed in a transport bin by herself. A pile of mealworms and crickets were dropped into the bin, and the bin was covered so she could not see us, and we could not see her. In a half hour, she was checked on, and although Purple Martins eat on the wing, most of the mealworms and all the crickets were gone. Good Girl! How about some more? She ate to her tummy’s content, and that evening she was assimilated with a well-known flock of Purple Martins living in a wetlands area that provides three, man-made Purple Martin condos. When the lid of her transport carrier lifted, she rapidly flew to join her kind, who were vacuuming the sky of insects for their evening meal, and we could tell she was one much relieved bird. The Queen was happy and where she needed to be. The Purple Martin is North America’s largest, broad-chested swallow. They have stout, slightly hooked bills, short-forked tails and long, streamlined and tapered wings. Their wingspan is between 15 – 16 inches, and they fly gracefully and swiftly with a mix of flapping and gliding. Adult males are black and lustrously shiny. When the light catches that shine, they look dark blue-purple. Females and immature Purple Martins are black on the top side but have splotches of gray around the throat and sport light gray feathering on their chest and belly. Purple Martins like to talk to each other in chortles, rattles, gurgling and croaks. Purple Martins are aerial insectivores which means they catch insects such as dragon flies, house flies, wasps, moths and butterflies in midair, as well as, drink and bathe during flight. The birds are alert and nimble hunters and do eat a variety of winged insects but not mosquitos. We must leave that task to the Chimney Swifts and Fly Catchers who hunt at a lower level. Rarely, will a Purple Martin come to the ground to eat insects because they usually fly higher than most insectivores when they hunt. However, recent research has found Purple Martins occasionally feeding on invasive fire ants. Purple Martins are colonial, therefore feed and roost in flocks, often with other species of swallows mixed in. They feed in open areas, especially near water and in our area of the east coast, nest exclusively in boxes and martin houses provided by humans who appreciate their value. That human initiative goes back to the Native Americans, who once hung empty gourds to attract Purple Martins. Martins do very well near caring humans, but it’s a look but don’t touch relationship. Purple Martin condos should be monitored because very aggressive and non-native species birds such as Starlings and House Sparrows are known to invade a Martin condo in a take-over and possibly kill their nestlings. Advocates for Purple Martins are extremely concerned that the Purple Martin will simply disappear from eastern North America if human condo security is not provided. In the west Purple Martins search out natural cavities for nesting. The nest inside the cavity, condo or gourd is made of twigs, mud and small stones, then lined with grasses and leaves. Three to six white eggs are laid, and the female is the main incubator for 15 – 18 days. A pair of martins will generally raise only one brood per year, with both male and female alternating the feedings of the nestlings. Fledging occurs in about a month after birth, but the parents continue to feed them while teaching them to hunt. Purple Martins are highly social birds and migrate in large, noisy flocks to winter in South America at the Amazon Basin or the Barba Azul Reserve. They show up in Eastern North Carolina to breed in the Spring during March and April, depending upon weather warm enough to produce insects. Males arrive at the nesting area, which is usually the same site year after year, before the females. They stay until breeding season is over, then head back during July through October, also, depending upon the weather, to South America. Purple Martins have shown a steep population decline over the past two decades and as a result have been placed on ‘The Watch List of Special Concern.’ Factors that contribute to the loss of PM’s include pesticide use, colliding with buildings and bridges, unseasonably cold or wet weather (wipes out insects which causes food source loss), aerial predators such as hawks and owls, ground predators such as raccoons and snakes and, those invaders mentioned earlier; Starlings and Sparrows. With every subsequent Purple Martin admitted to our shelter for care from here on out, we will think of our regal PM girl who knew herself all to well and wanted absolutely nothing to do with us! We hope our sassy girl is still flying high and appreciating the precious freedom she proved to hold dear.

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“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

“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”

“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

“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

“Snakes get NO RESPECT!!”

blog_redbelliedwatersnake3eSnakes are amazing creatures, but unfortunately, snakes are also among the least popular of all animals. Many people have a natural aversion or fear of snakes while others simply choose to hate them for reasons they may or may not know. The negative stigma surrounding snakes is quite undeserved, and it is believed by wildlife biologists and those who work with snakes that this cold-blooded vertebrate is most assuredly a misunderstood animal, especially when you consider it is known by conservation professionals that snakes are extremely beneficial to our eco-system and our environment. Recently a Red-Bellied Water Snake, attacked by a shovel attached to a human, was admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport. The 4-foot snake received her second chance after a neighbor quickly realized what was happening, intervened and transported the reptile to our shelter, but not before the snake had suffered quite a few lacerations. The water snake was not in the best shape when she arrived, but receiving her immediately following the attack helped to minimize further damage and a treatment plan of medication and generous applications of antibiotic ointment was urgently administered. A full examination assessed the cuts were not as deep as they could have been and her vital organs had been spared. The slithery one was quite lethargic at first due to the trauma and shock of her ordeal, but she is doing very well now. The pretty girl is perky, fast, loves her soaks and is putting away quite the number of small fish during a feeding. Around the world there are more than 2600 species of snakes and most are nonvenomous. Fossil records show snakes have been around for over 130 million years. blog_molesnakeeSnakes are valuable components to the communities in which they reside as they play the roles of predator and prey. Most snakes, other than water snakes who like fish and other aquatics, prey heavily on insects and rodents. When snake populations decrease, the numbers of rats and mice increase which causes serious problems for people. Stories have been told where someone thought it a good idea at the time to eradicate an area of all snakes, only to eventually become overrun when the rat population exploded! It proved to take years, hundreds of people hours and tens of thousands of dollars in equipment and harmful chemicals to remove rats without natural predators such as snakes. Rats and mice reproduce often and destroy gardens, crops, homes, start fires by chewing electrical wires and can also spread harmful diseases. Snakes are very effective at hunting small rodents because they are designed to crawl into small burrows and other areas used as rodent shelters. These places are too small for other predators to maneuver. All snakes are described similarly; long, linear shaped reptiles covered with a skin of supple, living scales. They are legless with staring eyes that never blink, and they sport a great marvel of nature; the flickering forked tongue used to perceive scents, which is their main sensory organ. Snakes present in every color you can think of depending upon the type. blog_corn-snake1eThey have fangs that will or will not deliver toxic venom, depending, also, upon the snake species. As defense mechanisms, even the shyest of snakes can hiss, coil, puff up or bite when threatened by a human. These behaviors alone may very well scare people, but the best thing to do if you encounter a snake is LEAVE IT ALONE. blog_black-racer2eSnakes usually prefer to retreat when confronted but can become defensive if provoked. Although most snakes are not poisonous, they can still bite and snake bites usually occur when people try to capture or kill them. Snakes are known to swallow food much larger than their heads. This is possible because the lower jaw of a snake is loosely attached to the skull, allowing snakes to open their mouths very wide. As an extra adaptation, the lower jaw bones of snakes are not joined together at the front. This allows each side of the lower jaw to move independently and helps the snake stretch its mouth over large prey. blog_rbwsnake3Then the snake alternately moves each side of its jaws over the prey until swallowed. Most snakes belong to the Colubridae family and are found on every continent except Antarctica. Colubrids are much smaller than Boas and Pythons, move very fast and will eat once a week to once a month. Quite often eating depends upon opportunity and the faster the snake’s metabolism the more often they will need to eat. Snakes use their highly-developed senses of sight, taste, hearing and touch to track and locate prey. They are highly mobile creatures, able to move over sand and rocks, burrow in the soil, squeeze through cracks and crevasses in rocks, climb vertical rock walls and the thinnest tree branches and even swim with great speed. You may have heard a gruesome saying that the “only good snake is a dead snake,” Well, we need to debunk that old myth! Snakes deserve respect because they help maintain a high level of biodiversity that is extremely important to all life on Earth. blog_rosyratsnakeeThey are middle-order predators that help keep our natural eco-systems working. In addition, they become prey for other wildlife such as hawks, eagles and other raptors that could simply vanish if snakes were not a viable food source. Venomous snakes, albeit a bit more touchy subject, deserve props too for the great work they do in the medical field. Snake venom is used to treat excessive bleeding, cancers, heart disease and stroke victims, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, which saves millions of peoples’ lives every year. When our Red-Bellied Water Snake is released, please watch out for her, for she is only going to do good things! She will probably bulk up a little before the end of autumn and you might see her grabbing a warm sun spot in the driveway or on the patio before dormancy, which is another term for hibernation, during the winter. When left alone, snakes present little or no danger to people, so adapting to live safely with snakes is doable, as long as you control your fear factor. LET THEM BE! When you get the chance, stop by our shelter to meet Blanca, our resident leucistic Rat Snake. blog_blancaowlsjul09xeDeprived of her natural camouflage coloring at birth, she has become a hefty, white beauty who is a fascinating Wildlife Ambassador! Total respect!

Best Always and HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All