“Water Weasels!”

Cute as a furry button, but feisty and aggressive as a hungry or perturbed bobcat, diminutive Minks, although seldom seen are quite prevalent in North Carolina. Every county has a mink presence, but they are so secretive, solitary and territorial that hardly anyone knows they’re there. They run everybody off, even other minks. So, there’s never a huge population in any one place. Minks need to be near waterways and wetlands, so Eastern North Carolina is perfect habitat for these commonly called “Water Weasels,” but they can be found in the mountains and Piedmont regions of our state, too. Our coastal minks run smaller than those in the western part of the state. It’s a very rare occasion, but an infant Mink was brought to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport after being found alone and in a Pamlico County resident’s driveway. After a full examination, a puncture wound was found that looked ‘talon-esque.’ One theory suggests he was grabbed by a nocturnal raptor, possibly a Great-Horned Owl, and miraculously, he wriggled free and fell to the ground. Initially, the tiny furry find in the gravel was thought to be an otter, probably because we expect to see otters in our area and often do. Our tiny Mink, who is known to be semi-aquatic, feeds on minnow-sized fish, turtles, snakes, small birds, crayfish, reptiles, crustaceans, insects, rabbits, mice and other small mammals. So, you may have guessed by now; the mink is a carnivore. Minks are often thought of as dainty looking but extremely vicious because of their capability to kill prey much larger than itself, and even though that may be way too much to eat all at one time, they are not wasteful. They take the leftovers to their den for munching later. The mink is a small mammal with a long, thin body and short, sturdy legs, a flattened head, small eyes and ears, and a pointed nose. Each foot has five toes with claws and slight webbing between each toe. The mink’s lustrous waterproof fur is generally chocolate brown to black, extremely attractive and often sports a white patch on the chin or chest. Long, furred tails are brown at the base tapering to black at the tip. The American male weighs about 2.2 pounds, and the American female weighs about 1.32 lb. Minks have excellent senses of vision, smell and hearing. They are mostly nocturnal but can be occasionally seen during the day. They are as fast if not faster than any Olympic swimmer and can also climb trees. Minks are very vocal, especially when threatened, and will growl, hiss, screech or sometimes purr when perceived as happy or content. Another method of communication is to discharge a strong, musky, foul scent from their anal glands. If they are taking a skunk’s lead, something tells this author that they are not happy when they do that! Prime locations in wetlands for mink include areas with irregular shorelines, dense emergent vegetation, availability of den sites and a variety of suitable food. Although mink will den just about anywhere, they prefer burrows made by other animals, usually muskrats or beavers. They may also choose dens in brush piles, log jams or cavities in the roots of trees. Mink move frequently and adopt temporary dens except when they are rearing young. Most minks are loners and typically come together only to breed. The breeding season occurs from late January through February. Females raise their first litter at one year of age. Minks fall into the category of over 100 mammal species in which the fertilized egg is not implanted in the womb for some time. In mink, this period of delayed implantation lasts 10-40 days and is followed by an active pregnancy of 28-30 days. One litter of 4-5 blind and hairless kits is produced each year. Kits are weaned at 6 to 10 weeks, though how long they stay with their mother depends on the species; American or European. American mink youngsters stay with their Moms longer, 6–10 months, while European kits, only 4 months. The offspring are sexually mature when one year old, and females produce litters after their first breeding season. Though they are not endangered and are common throughout their widespread range across the United States (except for Arizona and Hawaii where they are nonexistent), a mink’s lifestyle is so inaccessible, they have not been intensely studied. But we do know that minks live three to four years, with a maximum record of 10 years. Aside from humans, mink have few natural enemies, although they experience danger and some mortality from domestic dogs, bobcats, foxes, coyotes and owls. Minks need wetlands to survive, so wetlands availability is the primary influence on mink populations. Some biologists believe that mink numbers have declined though, largely because of the steady destruction of prime mink habitat in wetlands. As a predator, minks are near the top of the aquatic food chain, making them susceptible to contamination in the food chain. Elevated mercury concentrations have been found in mink kidneys. It has been suggested that mercury can cause sublethal effects on many physiological functions, such as reproduction, growth and behavior. These studies are stated as inconclusive however, so further studies are recommended to investigate if there is a strong link between presence of environmental contaminants in mink and mink populations. Biologists acknowledge that other factors affect mink populations more gravely, such as habitat loss due to increasing development along eastern shorelines which alters both mink activity and prey abundance. Most important to the future of the mink in North Carolina is the conservation of wetlands, for their future is only as promising as that of the wetlands. Swim on, Little Water Weasel! We were happy to be of service to you!

Best Always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

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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

“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”

“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

“COLD TOES” for Pelicans!!

A cold snap is a comin’! Temperatures are scheduled to drop over the next few weeks, even to the teens, and bad things happen to wildlife when Eastern North Carolina gets that cold. Food will become scarce and frostbite can occur, mainly with our Brown Pelican population. We have seen pelican frostbite cases admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC over the years and sometimes in such great numbers that there’s hardly enough room to house them all! The Brown Pelican is a North American bird of the pelican family, Pelecanidae. It’s a very big seabird found on the Atlantic coast from Nova Scotia to the Amazon in South America. Most people who reside in North Carolina and tourists who visit are very familiar with pelicans. These large fisher-birds have habituated with humans, so we see them everywhere along our beach fronts, docks, fishing areas and find them ever present in our views at waterfront restaurants.The Brown Pelican is known for its oversized bill, sinuous neck, and big, dark body. Juvenile Brown Pelicans are in fact brown with a lighter beige underbelly, but a mature Brown Pelican’s coloring is vastly different. The adult will have a white neck and head with a yellow crest and its body is almost black with dark gray feathers. Flying units of pelicans, young and old, glide with seemingly little effort above the surf along coasts, rising and falling with the graceful movement of the waves. They feed by plunge-diving from high up, using the force of impact to stun small fish before scooping them up in their pouch. We bird watchers enjoy the purposeful antics of this comically elegant bird. With coldness looming, wildlife rehabilitators know that unfortunately, pelicans will do what they generally do in freezing temperatures and that is, nothing. They will stay out of the water and sit very still as they try to deal with the frigid and frosty weather nature has dealt them, which we know is not good to ward off the condition of frostbite. Frostbite is simply tissue damage caused by freezing, so keeping circulation going is one of the keys to prevention. The first body parts affected by decreased blood flow when exposed to extreme cold are those furthest away from your core, pelican or human. With pelicans, the cold will attack its toes and gular pouch first. Frostbite can happen very quickly in severely frigid weather; possibly within five minutes! Pelicans do not have the preventative luxury of layering its clothing or feathering for that matter, to protect the most vulnerable areas of their body from frostbite and no one is offering them a hot cup of tea or cocoa. Frostbite generally affects the top layers of the skin, but when it becomes more advanced, the damage will extend through the muscles and to the bones. When Pelicans are admitted to the shelter with frostbite, it’s because they are found disoriented, unable to walk due to pain in their feet, unable to fish and weak from starvation. Rehabilitating pelicans is a costly situation anytime but when frostbite is present they will require medications, surgical procedures to remove necrotic tissue or bone caused by frostbite and loads of fish for the starving and recovering birds whose rehabilitation stay at the shelter will correlate with the extensiveness of their frostbite. Pelicans can still be released and survive in the wild if their loss is only some webbing between toes or partial toe amputation, but loss of a foot, leg or pouch meets with a grim outcome. At the wildlife shelter we offer our frostbite patients treatment and care to include continuous, never ending clean up, plenty of food and medications they need and the necessary time to heal while we monitor their behaviors, returning skills and potential for a successful release. Most pelicans in our care are easy to get along with for they are friendly, social birds. They seem to be appreciative of the warm, safe haven we provide and the easy food. However, occasionally, we’ll get a pelican with a really bad attitude and a case of “snap-itis,” so we stay clear of that wild bill flailing in the air, because it can pinch pretty darn hard if it catches a human leg or arm, but those are few and far between. Pelicans aren’t the only wildlife who suffer from frostbite when a freeze hits our area. Virginia Opossums are also occasionally affected because they have bare feet and a bare tail. Frostbite is always bad no matter the victim, but most opossums seem to be resourceful enough to find a warmer place to hunker down and ride out the cold than our totally exposed Pelicans. Pelicans can live to be in their forties, which is quite the longevity for an animal in the wild, and we want to help those damaged by frostbite to recover and get back out there to live that potentially long life. So, if you see pelicans staying in one spot too long after an icy, cold snap, there could be some “Cold Toes” going on that require treatment. Our doors are wide open to receive them!!

Stay warm out there and 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

“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