“The Under-Appreciated Sparrow!”

Color catches our eyes as we avid bird watchers will probably agree; take for example the bright red Cardinal or the royal Bluebird and the brilliant, rusty breast of the American Robin. How about the rich black, white and orange-rust color blocking of the Towhee or the adorned Blue Jay, the vivid Purple Finch or the glamorous Painted Bunting? We can’t miss those birds because they announce their presence in living color! What we tend to miss are the little guys, who blend in and are only here in the coastal region of North Carolina during the grayness of winter such as fast, unobtrusive and flitting sparrows. There are 43 species of sparrows worldwide that make up an extended family of tiny passerine birds, and the ones we see most on the coast are the House, Chipping, Song Sparrow and the White-Throated Sparrow. Most sparrows breed as far north as Canada and only migrate to or through North Carolina during October before the harsh cold season hits up north. They will stay through late April, early May and then head back to their northern habitat for breeding. Recently, a White-Throated Sparrow smacked the patio glass door of this author’s home, and Frizbee, an “indoor only” feline alerted me to his still and lifeless presence on the deck. The limp sparrow was placed in a comfy, towel lined container and placed in the warm, wildlife triage to monitor just how serious his injuries were and if in fact, he could recover from only being stunned or knocked out. Happy to report that within a half hour, he was on his feet and making his desire to be released known. Thankfully, he pulled through, and there was no reason to transport him to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC. White-Throated Sparrows, from the family of New World Sparrows, are brown and gray, diminutive birds that weigh only one ounce on the average. They one thing that might stand out in their appearance is a striking head pattern that includes a yellow or tan stripe, as well as a patch of white on their throat. Sparrows are small but plump with short tails and stubby but powerful beaks similar to the beaks of other seed eating birds such as the House Finch. To help them hold and break seeds, the sparrow has an extra bone in their tongue called the preglossale, which stiffens the tongue while eating. White-throated Sparrows eat seeds of grasses and weeds, including ragweed and buckwheat, as well as fruits of sumac, grape, cranberry, mountain ash, rose, blueberry, blackberry, and dogwood. In summer they eat large numbers of insects caught on the forest floor or during quick flights out from low vegetation. Their insect diet includes dragonflies, wasps, stinkbugs, beetles, flies, caterpillars, spiders, millipedes, centipedes and snails. Parents feed their nestlings almost exclusively insects. During winter, which is when they hang out with us on the coast, White-throated Sparrows readily visit our bird feeders for millet and black oil sunflower seeds. In spring they eat the tender buds, blossoms and young seeds of oak, apple, maple, beech and elm to ready themselves for their return migration north. Hierarchies, or pecking orders, exist in these winter flocks where males are typically dominant over females. Because of the sparrows abundance, accessibility on both breeding and wintering grounds and the relative ease it can be maintained in captivity, they have been used in many types of bird monitoring, in addition to studies related to breeding biology, physiology in relation to the annual cycle, circadian rhythms, migration, dominance and territoriality, functions of song and the effects of pesticides and forestry practices. Although sparrows have these unique benefits and values; ecological importance, beautiful earth-toned color schemes and that they are quite often mentioned in song lyrics, as well as a frequent topic in folklore, they may very well be the least appreciated of all birds, even though the White-Throated Sparrow is one of the most abundant birds found in the forests of North America. Their winter range covers most of the eastern United States, including all of North Carolina, and it is one of the most numerous birds to winter in our state, along with the Dark-eyed Junco and the Song Sparrow. You’ll find White-throated sparrows on the ground, often in flocks, while they scratch through leaves with both feet in search of seeds, fruits and insects. White-throated Sparrows hop when they’re on the ground rather than walking or running, then pounce forward at anything they’ve uncovered. These winter visitors love leafy urban spaces with brushy edges or hedgerows and active bird feeders. To encourage them to visit your feeder, add a brush pile of plentiful groundcover. Use a ground feeder with millet and sunflower hearts, and scatter millet under the brush from now until April for cold weather energy and to ensure safe refuge. Also, keep your birdbaths thawed and full. White-throated sparrows are a joy to listen to and are adored for their clear whistle of “Sweet Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada” which is the song of their homeland. In their breeding region, the female WT Sparrow will build an open cup nest on the ground, hidden by low shrubs or high grass, made of grasses, twigs, weeds, pine needles, fine roots and animal hair. While the female is building the nest, the male will sing to defend their territory and aggressively chase any intruders away. Momma will lay 4 to 5 pale blue or greenish blue eggs marked with reddish brown and lavender that she incubates for about two weeks. After hatching, both parents will feed the nestlings. In about 10 days, the young leave the nest but will still be cared for by their parents for another two weeks. The parents stay together for the summer, but they often choose new partners the next year. The White-throated Sparrow is still wide spread and tallies taken of them during the annual national bird count suggests only a slight decline in the last few decades. Although White-throated Sparrows are not an endangered bird species, we probably should keep our eye on this sparrow. Historically, the sparrow has legendary status and is mentioned in numerous formal literary works. Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, considered the Sparrow a sacred bird, a symbol of true love (although they do get a bad rap for not being monogamous!) and capable of a spiritual connection. In some European countries, the belief is if a sparrow flies into your home you will have good luck and even better luck if the sparrow builds a nest! Or it could mean that a wedding will happen soon. It is also said that Egyptians believe sparrows catch the souls of the recently deceased and carry them to heaven, and that’s why so many sailors get sparrow tattoos (just in case they die at sea). The call of the Sparrow will bring rain! Wow. All these beliefs seem like very heavy burdens to place on a tiny sparrow! Still, considering all that, it might be wise to keep our eyes on the sparrow.

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

Advertisements

Bumblebees, “Ghosts in the Making”

It’s unusual for the staff and volunteers of the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC to be as highly concerned about a wild creature we don’t rehabilitate as we are, but this living being . . . this insect . . . rules the world! That is not an exaggeration. The Bumblebee, especially the Rusty Patched Bumblebee which was once a common sight throughout the entire continental United States, is in serious trouble. Now it can only be found in small, scattered groups in 13 states. The bee’s population has plummeted by 87 percent since the 1990’s, and as of 9 November 2018 and for the first time in history, the RP Bumble Bee is officially listed as an endangered species on the brink of extinction. It is a ghost in the making. Yes, it is only one listed bee species, but it is a significant start to stronger action that needs to be taken to recover our bees! We are finally acknowledging in a formal and proactive way that if we lose our bumble bees, there will be no plants or parks, no forests or shrublands, no meadows and no vibrant life the bees support such as wildlife, domestic animals and the human animal. All these life forms simply cannot survive without bees. Bees have now joined the Grizzly Bear and the Northern Spotted Owl as heading for extinction if we don’t do something quick! 347 species of bees have drastically diminished over decades due to habitat loss, use of pesticides, mechanization of agriculture, disease, parasites and climate change, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. This tiny creature, the bumblebee, known for growing our world is now protected, and we all need to do our part to help save them. Bees certainly don’t get the respect they deserve for all they do. Most people don’t like bugs of any kind and see the bee as a menace to their immediate environment, so they end up swatting it and possibly killing it, not realizing the devastating effects the loss of that bee will create. And how about the large number exterminated at one time when bees have taken up residence in an area or pocket deemed an inconvenience to a human, such as between the walls of a shed or under a porch, and they are all sprayed dead? Bumblebees do not damage wood or other structural components. If a bumblebee nest is discovered on your property, its best and safer to just leave it alone unless there is a good chance your activities will take place near the nest. If that’s the case, calling bee experts to orchestrate a safe conservational move might be the way to go. Foraging bumblebees will almost never divert from their tasks to intentionally sting someone or their pets. A few other reasons to accommodate a bumblebee nest is of course, their huge value as pollinators, the small size of their nest and their short life span when compared to other stinging insects such as yellow jackets and hornets. Although bumblebees are capable of stinging, they are quite gentle, docile and not as aggressive or likely to sting as wasps such as those hornets and yellowjackets. The male bumblebee cannot sting, and females only do so when they feel threatened. Also, in their defense, bumblebees make up for that unique and unappreciated behavior of stinging by being among the most important pollinators of crops such as blueberries, cranberries and clover and almost the only insect pollinators of tomatoes. They basically pollinate everything, which emphasizes what a food security issue the loss of bees presents! According to the U.S. FWS, “the economic value of pollination services provided by native insects (mostly bees) is estimated at $3 billion per year in the United States.” Bees are tiny and usually go unnoticed unless they buzz by you or in your face, but keep in mind when you deem them an annoyance that these pollinators are a huge part of the natural mechanism that sustains us and our world. Without them, food will not grow. Bumblebees are large, fuzzy insects with short stubby wings that beat 130 times or more per second in a sweeping motion rather than up and down. They seem to defy aerodynamics when you consider their tiny wings versus their rotund body. How they manage to stay in the air is a mystery to many bumblebee fans. Their extremely fast metabolism requires them to eat nectar or pollen constantly when they are on the move. It is said that “a bumblebee with a full stomach is only 40 minutes away from starvation.” Bumblebees are some of the most social creatures in the animal kingdom. A group of bumblebees is called a colony, and colonies can contain between 50 and 500 individual bees. Bumblebees are larger than honeybees but don’t produce much honey, because their role and mission is that of a remarkable pollinator. Other animals are pollinators as well to include birds, bats and butterflies, but there’s no question that bees are the most important, significant and vital pollinators in our ecosystems around the world. Bees are dying, but there are ways for everyone to help stop the bees’ decline. Recommendations are to plant native and bee-friendly flowers, limit or avoid pesticides, foster natural landscapes, leave grass and garden plants uncut after summer to provide habitat for overwintering bees, strategically place old logs on not frequented areas of your property, plant new habitats for the bees to thrive in, provide supplemental nectar (30% sugar & 70% water in bottle caps in and around flower beds) and even build nesting boxes for bees. As we enjoy the aesthetic beauty all around us; the greenery, the flowers, the trees, wildlife, please give credit where credit is due, to the bumblebee, which is also beautiful in its fuzzy, buzzy way! Our community goal should be to bring the bumble bees’ numbers back to a healthy level. If you haven’t yet, let’s get ready and start this process now. There are things we can do to prevent the decline of our precious bees, and so we should. Please join us in the efforts to save these fat, fuzzy fliers. It just might be the best Christmas present we will ever give ourselves and those we love! Bee Merry!

best always & HAPPY 2019!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All”

“Run, Rail, Run!”

It’s hard to even notice one is there or anywhere because they blend so well into the environment and their surroundings. A Virginia Rail becomes one with the landscape. For a good Samaritan to recognize that this thin, wisp of a marsh bird is in trouble is even more remarkable, but that is why a rescuer delivered a Virginia Rail to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport. He found it sitting on the roadway. That definitely means trouble and because it was thinner than the thin it should be, we have two theories; either it was weak from not eating properly, ran low on flight strength and just landed in the road or it was passing over the road and was grazed and stunned by a car. During a thorough examination, no injuries were found so it was rest and full meal deals in the treatment plan to ensure his strength returned. There are five species of rails found in North America, but the species we see most often in Eastern North Carolina is the Virginia Rail. The other types of rails include the Yellow Rail, Clapper Rail, Black Rail (the smallest) and the King Rail, which is the largest. Rails are most often heard and hardly ever seen. Virginia Rails are skinny! Although 8 to 10 inches long with a rounded wingspan of 12 to 15 inches, they weigh only 2.3 to 3.4 ounces. The Virginia Rail is a chickenlike marsh bird with a long, heavy bill and a short, upturned tail with white undertail feathers. Head on, the Virginia Rail looks very thin, but from the side they take on a fuller bodied look. Most biologists call that a laterally compressed body. They are mostly dull grays and reddish-browns in color and barred in irregular patterns. They demonstrate a jerky gait as they walk through their common habitat, the wetlands, and that slender build makes it easy to run through reeds and marsh grasses. These extremely reclusive and secretive birds prefer dense marsh, which makes access to seeing them very difficult. The possibility of seeing young rails is more prevalent because they move about in search of food while being raised and taught to hunt by their parents. Rails become active in the evening and feed into the dark of night, and even when they migrate, they use the cover of darkness. A Virginia Rail is a marsh bird that uses its environment to the fullest. These skulking birds use the tall grasses and cattails as cover in their habitat. They can move about totally unnoticed most of the time. Their long toes give them the ability to walk or run, if necessary, on top of plant life on the surface of the water. Rails do not require deep waters, only enough to swim on the surface and reach into the water in search of its food. Rails belong in the same family as Coots and Gallinules, but they are not as ostentatious. While their extroverted family members swim in open water and hang out conspicuously on shore, Virginia Rails will be hiding among reeds at the water’s edge and only at night will their calls be heard. Virginia Rails are particularly vocal in the spring. The birds sound off with a repeated “tick-it” in the hours of dawn and dusk, and this vocalization is thought to be made only by males. Females and males also sing a “kicker” call that has a stuttering quality to it. Their diet consists mostly of insects, crayfish, snails and some seeds. Virginia Rails feed on a wide variety of aquatic insects and their larvae, especially beetles, flies and dragonflies. They also eat crayfish, earthworms, snails, slugs and a few small fish. They forage by probing in the mud or shallow water, picking items up from the ground or stalking small prey and capturing them with a swift thrust of their bill. During breeding season, the male Virginia Rail will court a female by running back and forth with his wings raised. Both will make bowing motions to each other, the male will bring food and feed the female which usually clinches the deal! Males and females perform duets of pig-like grunts to defend their territories and to communicate with each other throughout the breeding season. They both build a platform nest made of cattails, reeds and grasses in a dry area of the marsh, possibly over shallow water. A top of the line nest will have living plants that form a canopy of protection over it. Momma Rail will lay 5 – 13 pale buff eggs with brown or gray spots that will be incubated by both parents for 18 – 25 days. The hatchlings will leave the nest within days, but the parents will continue to brood and feed the chicks until they are 3 weeks old. The youngsters will be flying at 25 days. The parents will generally leave the breeding territory at that point, but the young will remain. Virginia Rails, although reclusive, are colonial birds, so there may be quite a few residing together in one area, and a group of Virginia Rails collectively is known as a “Reel” of rails. They are often found sharing territory with the Sora Rail who really doesn’t compete much for the VR’s food, because the shorter-billed Sora eats more seeds than the VR’s preference of insects. Although the Virginia Rail’s presence has declined in brackish and marsh areas due to the loss of habitat, they are still widespread and common, so you won’t find them on an endangered list. As common as these “thin as a rail” water birds are, we still don’t know a lot about their behaviors because they spend their time in hiding and are very fast runners (well, at least, we know that!). They would rather try to escape danger by outrunning predators such as snakes, rodents, crows, raptors, coyotes and cats rather than be quick to fly. If flying is the only option, it will happen in bursts of short distance flights, land and then, take off again. Virginia Rails appear to be weak flyers, however, they are capably known to migrate long distances from our northern states to our southern states every year, so, this unique avoidance behavior just seems to be “their thing.” Although odd for a flighted animal to choose running over flying when in danger, it is what it is. Run, Virginia Rail, Run!

best always & Merry Christmas,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All”

“Evening Singers, The Nightjars!”

An odd and fluffy amber, baby bird was admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) in Newport over a month ago that sent us straight to the Audubon identification manual.  Based on the wide mouth that opened vertically as well as horizontally, tiny beak, bulbous but flat head, short legs, small feet and large black eyes, we knew he was from the Nightjar family, but what specifically he would become, we weren’t quite sure. As he grew and matured, it became evident that we had the largest Nightjar, a Chuck-will’s-widow at our center, which is not a routine Spring baby bird admit.  People also call this bird, who nests on the ground, a Nighthawk, and let’s not forget the folklore nickname of “goatsucker.” An ancient folk tale speaks of these birds, with those broad, vast mouths, being known to suck milk from goats. Superstitious goat herders started that rumor because they saw Nightjars flying around their flocks and assumed that was what was going on! Since birds are not mammals, we wildlife rehabilitators are not inclined to believe that! They were more than likely feeding on insects on the ground, which were probably plentiful since livestock was present. Our Nighthawk, who was not injured when he arrived at the shelter – just alone and found in a dangerous location — has been a well-behaved rehabilitation patient who got along famously with other species of birds in the incubator despite being three or more times their size.  Because he is so big, his intake of meal and wax worms per day matched the intake of all his incubator mates combined.  After fully feathering and growing quite large, he was moved to his own playpen complete with leaved branches for ground cover and hiding. The Chuck-will’s-widow is a nocturnal bird of the Nightjar family that feeds on flying insects such as beetles and moths. They have stiff, forward facing hair-like bristles on each side of their mouth to help trap insect meals. However, on occasion, a Nightjar will snatch a small bird like a sparrow or hummingbird and swallow it whole if the opportunity presents itself.   Nightjars are found in the southeastern United States near swamps, rocky uplands, and pine woods, but migrate to the West Indies, Central America, and northwestern South America when temperatures drop in the fall.  They have protective coloring of mottled or streaked gray, brown, or reddish-brown plumage that resembles bark or leaves and provides ideal camouflage in the daytime.  Their wings are pointy with a 25-inch span and tail feathers are very long, much like kestrels or cuckoos. Their flight is silent much like an owl’s. They will usually be sitting or flying since their legs and feet are small and poorly developed. It’s interesting to note that Nightjars generally perch along a branch rather than across it like most other birds.  Since they match the branch, this position helps to conceal them. They will roost during the day on a branch or on the ground and in the same location day after day.  They are mostly active in the late evening, late night and early morning.  At night, most bird voices go quiet, but for a Nightjar that’s the noisy time of day and when communication is key amongst their species.  They will sing to high heaven, especially the male, all night long!  And their voices carry, as they will holler, in a most pleasant way, across a woodland area, field or canyon. A Chuck-will’s-widow sings its own name in a rich, throaty chant.  To find a mate, a male will strut or sidle up to a female with his body plumage puffed up, wings drooping and tail spread. He moves with jerky actions while vocalizing. Nightjars do not build nests, but rather lay two to four patterned eggs on patches of dead leaves or pine needles on the ground. The eggs, which are pink with spots of brown and lavender, are subsequently incubated by the female for only three weeks. The young are tended to by the female alone.  She shelters them during the day and feeds them at night by regurgitating insects she’s captured.  First flight for the youngins’ will occur at 17 days or more.  It has been suggested that nightjars will move their eggs and chicks from the nesting site in the event of danger by carrying them in their mouths, which would be a behavior not shared by other birds. This theory has been repeated often in a variety of ornithology books, but surveys of Nightjar research have little evidence to support that idea.  However, she has been noticed feigning a broken wing in efforts to lead potential predators away from the nest much like the behavior of a Killdeer. These unusual birds with so many different names seem to be a conglomerate of other birds; borrowing a little from all to make them a whole Nightjar, and although rarely seen, they are always heard!  One might say, in the evening they sing for their supper! It’s sad to note that the Chuck-will’s-widow numbers have declined over the years. Besides predators, the Chuck-will’s-widow fate is impacted by habitat loss, automobiles and pesticides since their diet relies mainly on insects, but on a happy up-tick, CWW’s are benefiting from the American Bird Conservancy’s “Bring Back the Birds” conservation efforts! Our young Chuck-will’s-widow at OWLS has such a good disposition and has been a joy to work with. He occasionally vocalizes, especially late afternoon, but his appetite, size and physical behaviors really set him apart from the other birds in the nursery.  If he’s hungry, his tendency is to rock side to side to let us know to bring on the worms! He has such impressive table manners that he oh so gently removes worms from the tweezers.  We will hate to see our little-big guy go!  But, eventually, go he will to live his Nightjar life and sing his evening songs in the wild!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All

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

“The American Oystercatcher”

Baby Oystercatchers, balls of ivory and beige fluff balancing on tall and tan, skinny but steady legs, look very little like their strikingly handsome, black and white parents who sport long, bright red-orange bills and dull pink legs. The youngsters do have a hint of orange coloring close to their mouths, which tells you where that physical feature is heading in about sixty days. Locals describe the American Oystercatcher as the most recognizable of all North Carolina shorebirds and say that they can be seen year-round on our coast. The beach is their home. They live, eat, colonize, socialize, breed, nest and raise their children on the sand. These poor birds face so many obstacles in life, mainly because their open habitat is so commonly disturbed by people, dogs, opportunistic predators, vehicles and weather. Recently, two infant Oystercatchers were brought to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport because a vehicle driving on the beach rolled over an AO nest. Unfortunately, a couple siblings did not make it, but two were in very good condition. There was no talk of the AO parents being involved in the tragedy, so the staff at the shelter believed they were still out there looking for their babies. After examining the tiny Oystercatchers for injuries and determining their wellness, the decision was made to feed them healthy vittles and return them to a safe zone on the beach close to their nesting site, so their parents could find them. That plan was carried out. With an OWLS staff member monitoring the “reunite,” they were placed higher on the beach in the tall grasses and from a distance the wait began. It wasn’t long before the chicks were calling with a series of conspicuous shrill, piping whistles that sound like “kleeep” or “wiip,” and the parents came running to find them. Success! The parents seemed relieved and extremely content to have their children back. We wish it could have been all of them. American Oystercatchers are large, obvious and noisy, plover-like birds, with strong bills they use for smashing or prying open bivalve mollusks, which is their favorite food. Despite being called an oystercatcher, they actually eat mussels more often than oysters. Interesting to note is their original name “Sea Pie,” before someone witnessed them eating oysters, was changed to oystercatcher in the mid 1700’s. In addition to mussels and oysters, they supplement their diet with other crustaceans, fish, crabs, starfish, worms and insects. Oystercatchers nest on beaches, natural islands off shore and dredged-sand islands and are often the most common breeder in those locations. Oystercatchers face many threats, but they have adapted to survive challenges that nature sends their way. It’s coexistence with humans in salt marshes and dunes areas that threatens them more than weather and even predators such as gulls, crows, raptors and the most persistent and devastating predators, raccoons. Their survival ultimately depends upon mitigating factors such as the human’s recreational beach use which includes moving vehicles, dog accompaniment, garbage left behind, fishing gear litter, habitat loss due to erosion or construction in the area that affects any rise in sea level which will cause their nest to be over-washed. Despite the perils of beach nesting, instinctually, they still do. Their most popular choice of breeding grounds is along Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina coasts, and they commonly nest on high, sandy sites such as dunes, but also in low, flat sandy areas with good cover. Adult Oystercatchers resemble folk dance cloggers as they use their little feet to scrape out four or five 8” across and 2 1/2” deep shallow depressions in the sand, then they choose the one that suits their needs and line it with shells and other beach materials. The adult female lays 2 to 4 brown speckled, gray eggs in the nest where incubation takes 24 to 28 days. After hatching, the babies chill in the nest for a day, but by day two they are on their feet and following Mom & Dad all over the beach while their parents feed them on the go. The youngsters watch their parents closely so they will know within weeks how to jab their bill into the shell of a mollusk to snip the strong muscle that clamps the shell closed, however their beak will not be strong enough to successfully complete that task for at least two months. This behavior is also a risky maneuver because a mussel or oyster can clamp down on the oystercatcher’s bill and hold the bird in place until the tide comes in. That is not good and can be fatal for the bird. The young ones are dependent upon their parents for up to six months, and it will be three years before they are sexually mature enough to breed. The American Oystercatcher is a shy bird that is sensitive to human disturbance and habitat degradation whether human or nature induced. Although populations of American Oystercatchers are low, (at last count there were only about 11,000 on the east coast of the United States) you will not find it protected on the official endangered species list. They are only listed as a species of concern in several states, especially along the coast, and Audubon identifies them as a climate threatened bird. The longevity record on the books for an oystercatcher is “40 years, one month and two days.” Now that is specific! The reason they can be so specific wraps around the knowledge that the chick was ringed in 1970 and found in the same area where it was ringed during 2010. That was one smart, tough and very lucky little Oystercatcher!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“Beaver’s Little Brother”

A little ‘brother of the beaver’ came into the shelter recently. He was tiny (only eight ounces), needy and fully self-aware that he required help. That’s exactly why a caring human managed to get his hands on a young Muskrat found wandering along the road in Newport. Fearing the infant musky would run into the road, the gentleman pulled his car over and proceeded to walk towards the little one to shoo him away from oncoming traffic, and how the gentleman saw the diminutive ‘eight-ouncer’ in the first place is remarkable. Rather than run away from the good Samaritan, which is normal avoidance behavior in the wild, the infant muskrat literally ran toward him. So, the caring rescuer picked him up, which is what we do with babies who are in distress, human or otherwise. The young Muskrat was alone, confused, scared and hungry. The youngster then took a ride to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter. A muskrat is more accurately a ‘cousin’ to the beaver, but “little brothers of the beaver” is what Native Americans named them many years ago. There is a definite resemblance between the beaver and the muskrat, but the muskrat’s long, skinny and nearly hairless tail rather than the ‘paddle’ tail, gives it away! Like a beaver, dark brown muskrats have a pair of musk glands they use to send messages to other muskrats and different species of animals as well. Of course, the “rat” part of their name refers to that long, skinny tail. Our little musky is doing well at the shelter; enjoying his mega amounts of formula (he’s still of nursing age), toying with some solids like vegetables and mud minnows and relishing his swim time in the deep sink. We are currently checking the wildlife rehabilitation communities in our state for another lone muskrat that could join him. They rehab much better in pairs, and we don’t want this little one imprinting on humans. If we allow him to bond with us, his chances of survival in the wild will be nil. Aquatic muskrats are a North Carolina indigenous species, however, the shelter does not admit them often. Muskrats are easier to keep wild than most wildlife because they tend to be skittish, frightful of people and non-aggressive, although they will bite if they perceive danger (and if you are close enough, which of course is unreasonably close if their teeth can make it into your skin!). When given appropriate respect regarding space and interference, muskrats are virtually harmless to humans, and fascinating and entertaining little creatures to watch for anyone who stops to take time to appreciate them. A fluffy, adult muskrat ranges in size from 10-14 inches in length and weighs two to three pounds. Muskrats are excellent swimmers and can stay under water for up to 15 minutes at a time. Their webbed hind feet, great for swimming, are much larger than the front five-toed feet used for digging and manipulating food. They are nocturnal, although often seen during daylight hours working on their house, and spend most of their life in water. They are primarily plant eaters feeding on roots, shoots and leaves but will enjoy frogs, small fish, crayfish, mussels or clams if available. Muskrats are rodents and capable of chewing through almost anything, so a metal enclosure at the shelter is the only way to go as our little one physically develops and matures. And because they are timid, his enclosure will be stocked with leaved limbs, many hiding places and water pans to laze about in. In defense of the chewing “in the wild” muskrat, they seldom invade our residential spaces because they are always close to water, and usually marshy, human uninhabitable wetlands at that. Muskrats do not build lodges like the beaver, although they will occasionally move in with beavers. Instead of lodges they construct free standing houses by piling aquatic vegetation into a hill only a few feet high, then excavate a nest cavity in the center with several chambers and tunnels leading into the water which is quite impressive and masterful engineering. The grassy muskrat residence is called a ‘push-up’ or ‘mound.’ Sometimes they build the mounds around trunks of dead bushes or trees. In contrast to a beaver’s lodge, there is often no structure below the water, but muskrats and beavers are the only mammals that build homes on water. Also, unlike the beaver, the muskrat does not store food for the winter. They need to eat fresh plants every day and maintain a home range of less than one mile from their push-up. Muskrats can breed any time of the year and more than once with pregnancy lasting 25-30 days. The litter size averages four to six and kits are hairless, blind at birth and weigh less than one ounce each. Over time the youngsters are weaned from mother’s milk and often stay with their parents for a year, but when overcrowding develops, the parents, usually Mom, dramatically and sometimes, harshly, encourages her eldest children to move out and build a home of their own. Every time a muskrat is admitted to our shelter, we still reminisce the story of a young muskrat found scratching at the back door of a nursing home in Ontario, Canada during a horrific snow and ice storm. One of the workers let her in and fashioned a warm kennel with food and positioned deep, functional water pans for her necessary water moments in efforts to keep her safe during the wretched and dangerous weather. The question of why she came to the door was never truly answered but a few theories were; the weight of the snow collapsed the push-up or a predator, such as a wolf or mink, tried to dig in, but she was smart, lightning fast and managed to escape. Although the plan at the nursing home was to release her back into the wild in the spring, she became very content with her newly-found caretakers and remained with the residents of the home. Now that’s a true story of “Muskrat Love!” We love them too, even if we are way south of Canada! We don’t see muskrats as often in this area, but we are aware of their importance to our ecological system and how they benefit many wetland species by creating open water areas for waterfowl. They are excellent environmental partners for they are true indicators of environmental quality.

Best Always and let’s bless America (and the world) by living

harmoniously with nature, wildlife and each other. . . . . . . . .

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All