“Don’t Kidnap Fawns!”

It’s fawn season and if you look about during your travels, you may see wobbly-legged baby deer right now standing in tree lines or curled up in the tall grasses or possibly in your own back yard close to the shed. Some wildlife rehabilitators call this time of the year, Kidnapping Season, which of course does not have a positive ring to it not matter how you say it. Most people are quick to want to help animals in distress or orphaned wildlife, but sometimes those benevolent intentions are not warranted and could have far-reaching negative impacts on the health of a perfectly fine baby and the distressed Mother who’s youngster has just been snatched from her. Such is the case with spotted fawns who have been strategically placed by Mom for their own protection during the day while she is foraging for food. A doe knows her baby is at predatory risk when they travel together, so she will leave her baby in a secluded, or what she perceives to be a safe place, for as long as 12 hours while she moves about on her own. This behavior distracts predators away from her youngster, who remains quiet while she is gone. The fawn’s camouflage and ability to remain still, generally keeps the little one safe. However, if a fawn is spotted and approached by a human predator or otherwise, the baby’s instinctual response is to lay very low and freeze in place. People often mistake this defensive behavior for injury, weakness or illness and feel they need to rescue the helpless little thing, but keep in mind; a still, quiet fawn is a healthy fawn. Wildlife rehabilitators have created a help list called the “Five C’s” to tell if a fawn indeed needs your help and eventual rescue. So, if a baby deer demonstrates any of these five symptoms, you may very well need to intervene to save a life. Is he or she CRYING? Fawns know to be quiet and still, so vocalizing may be a sign they are in trouble. Is he COMING toward you? This would not be deemed normal behavior if they are okay. Is the fawn COVERED with blood or insects? This is absolutely a fawn who needs assistance before it’s too late! Has he or she been CAUGHT by a cat or a dog? There are times when a human in the vicinity actually sees an attack occurring. The fawn may very well be injured or in shock. If possible, this is a time to intervene and transport the fawn to a wildlife rehabilitator. Is the fawn COLD? By touch or by noticing visible shivering, a drop in body temperature may be an indication that something has happened to the Mother, and the fawn has been left for way too long. This is definitely an emergency situation and the fawn does need to be rescued. In the case of fawns, observing any one of the Five C’s indicates the baby does need help. You should be concerned if you see a fawn acting contrary to the normal defense mechanisms of staying completely still, quiet and nestled into whatever spot his or her Mom placed him. If a fawn is up, walking around by itself, and crying, that’s a red flag, and of course, if a fawn is obviously ill, lying on its side, kicking or crying – pick it up and place it in a quiet location. A light cloth placed over the fawn’s head will sometimes calm it. Keep it away from pets and all human activity. Petting the fawn, talking to it or holding it provides no comfort. This cute little creature is a wild animal; therefore, human voices, odor and touch will only add to the stress of the situation and cause additional harm, compounding the pre-existing illness or injury. When a fawn seems calm it may very well be in shock. If the weather is cold, a blanket may be placed over its body to keep it from becoming chilled. In hot weather keep the fawn in a cool location but out of drafts. Please don’t feed the fawn anything other than water. Baby formula, cow’s milk, feed store mixes, pet store domestic animal formulas and soy products will cause diarrhea, dehydration and death. Call the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport or a wildlife shelter in your area at once for help. If a fawn is seen lying upright, eyes wide open, but flattened to the ground, do not touch it. If you do pick up the fawn just to check and make sure it is ok, the fawn will hold its legs tightly against its body with its head forward. Sometimes, although its legs aren’t broken, the fawn will also allow its body to become limp and dangle in your hands. Put the baby down, walk away and leave it alone. This fawn is too small to follow the doe for the long distance she must travel to find enough food to make milk for her baby. Her milk is very rich and will sustain the fawn for the many hours it spends alone. The doe will return only when there are no humans nearby. You may be curious, but please refrain from sitting and waiting for her to return. If you have removed the fawn from its resting spot take it back at once and walk away. The doe will be searching for her fawn, and when she finds it, she will accept it and provide better care than any human can. Humans cannot teach the fawn the skills it needs to survive in the wild. Also, humans, other than wildlife rehabilitators, do not have the correct diet to properly nourish this wild animal. Please leave it alone and allow it to retain its wildness and natural fear of humans. This is the greatest gift we can give it. If an uninjured fawn is seen on the road or beside the road, do not put it in your car. If no evidence exists that Mom has died by being hit by a vehicle or any other means, place it off the road about 20 feet or more and leave the area. The fawn would not be there if the doe was not nearby. You will not see her, but she’s there, somewhere, watching. She will return for the fawn and accept her baby, even if it has been touched by human hands, as soon as the human disturbance is gone. So, don’t linger in the area. Every Spring fawns are “kidnapped” by well-meaning people who find them alone and assume they need help. In fact, very few fawns brought to the shelter are injured or unhealthy, and healthy babies are promptly returned to their mothers. Fawns are fragile and their situations misunderstood at times, but for the truly injured or distressed fawns, the appropriate care and treatment provided by wildlife rehabilitators will allow them to grow into the majestic and beautiful adults they are meant to become, but they are a WHOLE LOT OF WORK!! Fawn rehabilitators are specially trained to rehabilitate injured or orphaned white-tailed deer fawns and licensed by the state with a Primary North Carolina Fawn Rehabilitation Permit. They are also authorized to temporarily confine deer for release back into the wild. Anyone found holding and raising deer without credentials is subject to heavy fines, and tragically, the innocent deer in their possession is euthanized, and no one wants that to happen. So, please don’t kidnap fawns, but also don’t hesitate to call on a wildlife rehabilitator if you come across a fawn in distress. Happy Spring to everyone, even Fawns and their Mommas!

best always,
Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

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“Hummingbirds Trust Us!

Here they come again, our jewels of the sky! Tiny hummingbirds, the smallest of all birds, who migrate from their winter stay in Central America or the Caribbean are easily attracted to backyard feeders and gardens. Most bird enthusiasts agree they are a joy to watch, and these little buzzers become easy to love! They are called hummingbirds because they generate a humming sound when they beat their wings up to 80 flaps per second. They are also extremely fast flyers that shoot through the sky like a dart. They have been clocked at 34 mph while flying and 49 mph while diving. Ruby-Throated and Rufous hummingbirds, which are the types of HBs that frequent North Carolina, generally return to territories where they were born and raised and where food is not difficult to find. Most hummers are 3 to 5 inches in length and weigh less than .07 of an ounce. Flying in the rain is a big deal and can be dangerous when you consider the weight of rain drops relative to a light weight hummingbird. Collectively, rain drops may weigh 38% of the bird’s total body weight causing them to shift their bodies and tails horizontally, beat their wings even faster than normal and reduce their wings’ angle of motion when flying in heavy rain. Scientists have videoed hummingbirds shaking their heads like a dog to shed rain water while flying. Hummingbirds have the greatest mass-specific metabolic rate of any homeothermic animal. To conserve energy when food is scarce and during the night when they are not foraging, they can go into torpor a physical state similar to hibernation. Torpor slows their metabolic rate to 1/15th of its normal rate. This will prevent them from starving to death. If we humans choose, and many of us do, to take on the responsibility of providing supplemental nutrition and fuel for hummingbirds, we must be diligent about keeping their feeder clean and scrubbed free of bacteria or mold and ensure the nectar or sugar solution is replaced routinely, especially in warm weather because the solution has the tendency to spoil. When hummingbirds are enticed by feeders we provide, they trust us and will return time and time again to the opportunity of supplemental fuel you have provided. BUT dirty feeders and rancid nectar will kill hummingbirds. So, you see, there is a significant commitment of time, energy and attention to detail we must make to ensure “we are not loving them to death.” Hummingbirds will succumb to a fatal fungal infection when exposed to dirty feeders. If you have hummingbirds feeding on your deck, there’s a good chance the females have babies in a tiny cup of a nest somewhere close by. They can easily carry bacteria and fungus to their hatchlings if picked up from your feeder. Always inspect your feeder carefully for black mold or fungus and take them completely apart to check every nook and cranny where mold can hide. Wash the feeder parts thoroughly with bleach or a vinegar and water solution. Then rinse with clear, hot tap water. It is best not to use soap because soap leaves a residue. Lots of folks hang hummingbird feeders in the Spring, so it would be a good idea to pass the word to your neighbors to ensure they are paying attention to the cleanliness of their feeder as well. If you are providing artificial nectar, white granulated sugar and water is best in a solution of one-part sugar to four parts water. There is no need to add food coloring. It’s best to boil the mixture, then let it cool to room temperature before filling your feeder. Boiling the water helps prevent fermentation of the solution. Do not use organic or raw sugars which contain harmful iron. Brown sugar, agave syrup, molasses, artificial sweeteners and honey are also on the Do-Not-Use list as they are breeding grounds for microorganisms that cause rapid spoilage. A hummingbird has a very long, forked tongue equipped with tubes that engage in a pump action when nectar is reached. Nectar is a mixture of glucose, fructose and sucrose and is not the best source of nutrients required to live a healthy hummingbird life, so hummingbirds also eat many insects, including mosquitoes, fruit flies, gnats, aphids and spiders to meet their nutritional needs. Their flexible beak can bend 25 degrees, enabling them to catch insects with ease. On occasion, hummingbirds will hover within insect swarms to facilitate feeding. This method is called “hover-hawking.” Flowers provide a sweet liquid nectar too, but hummingbirds are very particular and will reject flowers that produce nectar that is less than 10 percent sugar and prefer those with a higher sugar content. They love their sweets! However, we do not want to exceed the one to four parts solution we provide them, because two much sugar can cause their internal organs to shut down. It appears that only the female is involved in building a nest and raising baby hummers. A tiny hummingbird nest is constructed in a crook of a tree with materials such as spider silk and lichen. This combination allows the nest to expand as the youngsters grow. Usually, only two white eggs are laid. Incubation occurs for 14 to 23 days and after hatching, momma hummingbird will conscientiously attend to the feeding needs and warmth required of the little ones. Two hatchlings is a low count for a bird, but the theory is because the female is on her own to care for her brood, two is all she can manage to feed and keep warm at one time. Lives are on the line out there, so we must do what we can to ensure Mom and those babies stay well and healthy. Hummingbirds trust that the nectar we provide them is good stuff! These little summer sparklers thank us daily for our gifts of fuel and care with their beauty, charm, remarkable aerial displays and quirky antics. Let’s not let them down! Keep those hummingbird feeders clean!

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”

“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

“Mr. Stabby, Jailbird!”

Blog_IMG_9378Most people are familiar with and able to identify big owls such as a Barn, Barred or Great Horned or even a Snowy Owl if they’ve seen a Harry Potter movie, but how about the little owls that do not go “Hoo, Hoo, Hoo” at night. Very small owls, not much larger than adult Robins or European Starlings, live amongst us inconspicuously in parks and shady suburbs where many human residents are unaware that a tiny owl called a Screech is their neighbor. Although they are quite common in our area, there will be occasions when a Screech Owl, found injured or orphaned and being transported to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, is misidentified during the call-in as a baby Great Horned Owl. Most people just don’t expect owls to be that small and do not realize it is close to fully grown. When a Lieutenant from the Carteret County Sheriff’s Department recently saw a gray owlet on a country road close to a forest line, he had a pretty good idea it was a Screech but had no idea why it was sitting there, alone and not even close to a possible nest overhead. Blog_IMG_4090With so much wind on that Saturday night a theory formed that the baby had been blown out of a nest and because he couldn’t get back up the tree, beat feet in confusion and ended up where he ended up. Thankfully for that little owl, the kind deputy happened by to help him. Because it was very late and our shelter was unable to receive the baby owl, he spent the night in jail. Now, how many owls will be able to share that story with their offspring! Early Sunday morning, the tiny Screech was delivered to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter where he is being raised for his eventual return to the wild. The Police Officer shared the story during check-in at the shelter that although he felt sure the little owl didn’t mean to, his talons grabbed the deputy’s hand while being picked up Saturday night and unfortunately, drew blood. For that reason, the officer named him “Mr. Stabby.” Of course, any wildlife being handled by humans is experiencing highly abnormal contact. They will be scared and utilize whatever defenses they have. With owls, large or small, their talons can cut like a knife! At the shelter, we will wear leather gloves when the need arises to handle ‘Mr. Stabby.’ In the wild, a Screech Owl spends the day roosting in holes found in wooded environments or in dense cover and only becomes active at dusk. Despite the name, Screech Owls don’t really screech; their voice features a series of whinnies and soft trills but will intensify when sounding an alarm. The Eastern Screech Owl is a short, compact bird, with a large head and almost no neck. Its wings are rounded; its tail is short and square. Pointed ear tufts are prominent when raised, lending its head a distinctive silhouette. Eastern Screech Owls can be either mostly gray or mostly reddish-brown. Blog_EasternScreechOwlWhatever the overall color, they are patterned with bands and spots that give the bird excellent camouflage against tree bark. Their eyes are most often bright yellow. Eastern Screech Owls have gray-green bills. They are about 7 to 10 inches tall and have a wingspan of 18 to 24 inches. They hunt from perches, swoop down on prey and snatch a meal with well-developed raptorial claws. They usually carry their food to their nest before eating it. Their curved bill and talons are used as tools to tear their meals into pieces small enough for them to swallow. A Screech Owl’s prey includes insects they catch in midair such as beetles, moths, crickets; reptiles such as lizards, frogs, earthworms and small snakes; small mammals to include bats and mice, and other small birds. They are opportunistic hunters and will even grab a small fish occasionally. Screech Owls are known to tackle prey much large than itself, such as adult rabbits or ducks. Their excellent sense of hearing helps to locate prey in any habitat. Their digestive system requires the expulsion of a few pellets a day that contain fur, feathers, bones and teeth, which are prey body parts they cannot process. Eastern Screech Owls are nocturnal, active at night and far more often heard than seen. Most bird watchers know this species only from its trilling or whinnying song. Blog_Eastern_Screech-OwlAlthough this cavity-roosting owl prefers trees, it can be attracted to nest boxes if erected at least 10 to 30 feet above ground and occasionally it will nest behind loose boards on abandoned buildings or barns. During the day and if you’re extremely sharp-eyed, you may spot a Screech Owl at the entrance of its home in a tree cavity or a strategically placed and enticing nest box. However, trees define the Eastern Screech-Owl’s natural habitat. This owl is common in most types of woods (evergreen or deciduous; urban or rural), particularly near water. Treeless expanses of mountains or plains is not suitable habitat for Screech Owls. Breeding season for Eastern Screech Owls is generally mid-April but can range from mid-March to mid-May. They have an elaborate courtship ritual. Males approach females, calling from different branches until they are close. The male then bobs his entire body, swivels his head, and even slowly winks one eye at the female. If she ignores him, bobbing and swiveling motions intensify. If she accepts him, she moves close, they touch bills and preen each other. The female will check out the nesting accommodations he is offering to ensure it’s suitable, and he will also try to impress her with food he has placed in the nesting cavity. Screech Owls mate for life but will accept a new partner if something happens to their previous mate. Grey and amber SO’s will mate together. Nests are almost always found in deciduous trees such as oaks, elms, maples, sycamores, willows, apples and occasionally in pines where three to five white eggs are laid on the natural floor of a cavity. No nesting material is added, and pairs of Screech Owls will often reuse nest sites through the years, to include former woodpecker (especially Pileated and Flicker) cavities. Incubation averages 26 days and these monogamous pairs share the care for their hatchlings. The male takes on the responsibility of providing food for his mate during incubation, and they both will hunt for food to feed their offspring. Although the young owls leave the nest at about four weeks after hatching, they are still fed by their parents and taught to hunt from dusk until dawn for quite some time. ‘Mr. Stabby,’ our little jailbird, is still very much a baby and his human foster parents at the shelter are tending to his needs. Blog_IMG_2768He is a hearty eater and growing in strength and size, but when appropriate and before his release, we must ensure his capability to hunt for food and recognize dangerous predators such as larger owls, weasels, raccoons, snakes, Crows and Blue Jays that might be in his path. The shelter boards a resident Screech Owl who we rely on to help us teach him everything he needs to know in the wild. Although it may be rare, one Screech Owl’s longevity on record states over twenty years, and we are intently focused on giving ‘Mr. Stabby’ the very best chance at living a long and healthy Screech Owl life!!

best always and Happy Baby Season,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All
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