Whistling Ducks!

   “What have we here?” That was the first question asked by our intake personnel when the most unfamiliar ducklings were admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport recently. We’re knowledgeable of all the colorations and patterns for ducklings known to “these parts” of coastal Carolina, but these little quackers presented an identity crisis. The tiny orphaned ducks of splotchy yellow and black with short black bills were a mystery and didn’t seem to be from around here. It took a while to research the ID book, but we found them! Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks are “normally” found in the southernmost United States, such as Florida, Texas and Louisiana, as well as, on the continent of South America. We know that animals are on the move, but this is a first for us with Black Bellied Whistlers. The gentleman who brought them in initially thought they were Wood Ducks and said he found them while walking his tobacco field in Beaufort before harvest. A large colorful duck flew up from the ground as he passed the nesting area and noticed the little fluff balls under the leaves. He decided to wait and check later to see if their Mom would return, but after a few hours and no sight of Momma Duck, he changed course and figured the best thing to do was transport them to the wildlife shelter, especially since they would be in extreme danger when harvesting commenced. Nesting in a field is unusual for Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks, who are also called Black-Bellied Tree Ducks, because they like to perch or rest on low limbs above water. They may also perch high in dead trees if they are nesting in tree cavities or hollows. So, this nesting in a tobacco field is quite rare. The Black-Bellied Whistler babies look totally different than the adult plumage of their parents. With one look at Whistling Duck parents and their brood, you see a totally mix and match family where you’d swear adoption took place, but that’s not the case. The adult black-bellied whistling duck is a colorful mid-sized waterfowl species. It ranges in length from 19 to 22 inches with a brown wingspan of 30 to 37 inches and weighs 1.5 to 2.2 pounds. It is adorned with a brilliant pink-orange bill, long pale gray neck and legs and accented with a solid black belly and tail. The extensive white under their wings is exposed in flight and matches its distinct eye-ring. Adult male and female BB Whistlers, who remain monogamous like the behavior of geese and swans rather than ducks, look similar, but the hatchlings look nothing like Mom and Dad, at least for quite a while! They are called “whistlers” because these social ducks are boisterous and noisy waterfowl with a very clear whistling waa-chooo call. They have also been referred to as “Squealers” due to their high-pitched vocalizations. The Black Bellied Whistling Duck eats mainly during the night and enjoys huge amounts of plant material and seeds, which sheds some light on the decision of our BB ducklings’ parents to nest in the tobacco field. And because they are seed eaters, noisy flocks of these gaudy ducks are known to drop into fields to forage on seeds and waste grain left behind after harvest. They will also consume arthropods and invertebrates such as insects and snails when available, but those choices only make up 10% of their diet. During breeding season, the bonded parents search for tree cavities or the confines of a hollow tree, but as a last resort will nest on the ground. They occasionally find chimneys, abandoned buildings or nest boxes appealing as nest sites too, but always choose a site close to a water source. Cavity nests usually remain bare, but ground nests are woven of grasses and weeds. Females may lay 12 to 16 whitish eggs in their nest or lay their eggs in a large community nest with eggs from other females. The community nests are called “dump nests” and may contain 50 to 60 eggs. Incubation is provided by both sexes in a single nest for 25-30 days, but numerous contributions for incubation by the flock occurs in a “dump nest.” The young are tended to by both parents or all the parents. The splotchy, black and yellow ducklings in cavity nests can climb the walls of a hollow and leap from those high nest cavities to the ground within two days after hatching, be able to feed themselves immediately and will stay with the parents for up to eight weeks until they fledge. The longevity of a BB Whistling Duck is around eight years, but the oldest on record is a male, Louisiana BB Whistler who clocked out at 10 years and 7 months. The word is that these ducks are expanding northward, and we have first-hand evidence of that! So, if you live in a wetlands area and want to welcome their arrival, and since Black-Bellied Whistling-Ducks take readily to nest boxes, you might want to construct a nest box out of half-inch marine plywood. It should be about 24 inches high at the front and 20 inches at the back, with a hole about 5 to 6 inches in diameter. Situate the nest box on a pole or in the trees adjacent to marshlands, and they will feel right at home. Also, when you’re out for a walk on trails in Coastal Carolina’s marsh or wetlands in a month or two and you hear someone whistling at you, please don’t get offended. It may very well be one of our recently released Black Bellied Whistling Ducks just making their presence known or communicating with BB Whistler friends and family. No offense . . . really!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All

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Birds Go Buggy!

WE are in the middle of Summer on the coast which means it’s time to go to the beach, have cookouts in the backyard, enjoy outdoor festivals, dabble in gardening and make all kinds of outside fun we’ve been chomping at the bit to do, but it also means dealing with lots of pesky bugs! Summer becomes very buggy for most of us, so we need all the help we can get to stave off menacing insects that annoy, frustrate or bite us! The nursery volunteers at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport are currently helping raise and staff the Army of birds we call insectivores who will eagerly and proactively keep those nasty bugs away from us! A great many birds eat a great many bugs; bugs that do harm to our plant life, as well as, annoy the crap out of us, but we should consider ourselves lucky that numerous birds come to our rescue as they feast on the great flood of insects and other cold-blooded vertebrates that become active during the summer months. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers, Warblers, and other “canopy” birds feed on caterpillars that eat the leaves of trees. As soon as tiny insects hatch, the bugs begin feeding on the tiny soft leaves as they begin opening, and migrating birds and eventually, our annual hatchlings that fledge or songbird “raise & releases” from the shelter, will arrive just in time to recognize those bugs as dinner! Birds feed on big caterpillars, beetles, grubs, and other medium and large insects and spiders they find near the ground. Blackbirds, bluebirds, sparrows, crows, wrens, and other birds get a lot of protein by hunting and catching these same bugs. Red-winged Blackbirds eat both seeds and insects. Some birds, such as swallows, swifts, nighthawks, flycatchers, some warblers, and Cedar Waxwings scoop up insects flying in the air. Swallows, swifts and nighthawks will fly for hours at a time to catch insects on the wing. Flycatchers, warblers, and waxwings flutter out from branches when they spot a succulent insect and gobble it up! (There, that’s a few mosquitoes or flies that will not be landing on you!) Chickadees, nuthatches, creepers, woodpeckers and the Black-and-white Warbler find insect eggs, larvae or pupae in the crevices of tree bark. Woodpeckers can hear bugs chewing within the wood and dig them out! Those insects can do major damage to our trees. We usually think of hummingbirds as miniature, buzzing birds we provide sugar water or nectar for in our window feeder, but the truth is Hummingbirds get most of their nutrition and proteins by picking tiny aphids and other chewing insects from the surfaces of flowers and leaves and by snatching very tiny flying insects such as gnats in midair. Some people feed hummingbirds and small fly-catching birds by setting out chunks of banana and melon in a small mesh bag because they notice the immediate interest hummingbirds show, but it’s really the tiny fruit flies that swarm the fruit that they really want. Some birds, called generalists, eat a wider variety of insects than others. The Yellow-Rumped Warbler is an example of a generalist. Watch out bug, whatever you are, YRWs will not discriminate, and they will eat you! The top songbird insectivores in our coastal North Carolina airspace who help humans de-bug immensely are the petite Chickadees and Carolina Wrens and medium-size birds; American Robins, Northern Mockingbirds, Purple Martins, Chimney Swifts and Flycatchers. The Chickadee’s favorite snacks are beetles and caterpillars, flies and wasps. Wrens prey on ants, millipedes, beetles and grasshoppers. Our American Robins eat a wide variety of insects but are usually noticed most when tugging earthworms out of the ground. Mockingbirds are quite territorial and aggressive when it comes to hunting and prey mostly on grasshoppers, beetles and tree ants. You may see Purple Martins zooming through the sky during early morning or at dusk. They feed mainly on flying insects and occasionally, fire ants. Also, high in the sky, you may hear the chattering of Chimney Swifts who are putting a huge dent in your mosquito population. A group of Swifts in your area will eat up to 12,000 mosquitoes, termites, flies and other insects every day. Although omnivores, Flycatchers and Brown Thrashers add a huge portion of flies, spiders, moths, beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, crickets, cicadas, sow bugs, bees and wasps to their diet that includes fruits, nuts and berries. If you have any of these birds nearby, you can be sure they are helping lessen the pest populations near you and your home. If you are a gardener, maintaining your garden won’t be as great a chore due to the natural and most perfect pest control you can ever have, insect-eating birds. These birds are of vital importance to our ecosystem and must be protected. Scientific research and resulting data show that the total biomass of wild bird-consumed insects amounts to between 400 and 500 million tons. Wow! On the average, individual birds consume more than 100 times their own body weight in bugs. That figure is amazing because it’s roughly equivalent to the weight of meat and fish consumed each year by humans. Many of our insect-eating bird species are declining or endangered due to habitat loss, widespread pesticide use, hunting, infrastructure mortality and predation by free-roaming cats. If we can not arrest the threats to these birds, the invaluable ecosystem services they provide will be lost forever. We need more near-natural forested areas for many songbird species, rather than tree plantations that only support a few species. It can be overwhelming to look at the global picture of this dilemma, but we each can do something where we are with what we have. Protect and value your backyard birds. The young songbird insectivores being raised at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter now, will be coming to help you soon and rid your yard of damaging and pesky bugs. Please, welcome and cheer on these little bug zappers!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“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

“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