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

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“The Under-Appreciated Sparrow!”

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

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“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

“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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“Graceful and Elusive” The Least Bittern

He must have looked like a statue in the backyard, with his beak pointed straight up to the sky, standing so still and if movement was occurring, it was imperceptible to humans. However, the cat knew he was there and pounced before the resident of the Atlantic Beach home could stop the attack. The gentleman quickly intervened and lifted the wisp of a marsh bird from the feline’s clutches. The Good Samaritan did not know how badly the bird was injured, but did know its best chance for survival after a cat attack would be in the hands and care of a wildlife rehabilitator. When admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, positive identification recorded him as a Least Bittern, which is a very elusive marsh bird and one of the smallest herons in the world, averaging 11 to 14 inches in length with a 16 to 18-inch wingspan. A full examination revealed one small puncture wound, and he was on the thin side, but he was still a lucky bird! Medications to prevent infection, getting him to eat in captivity and quiet for rest & recuperation became the treatment plan. Within three days, he was on his feet and eating mud minnows on his own from a bowl. Good Boy! This small heron is adapted for life in dense marshes, but rather than wading in the shallows like most herons, the graceful Least Bittern climbs about in cattails and reeds, clinging to the stems with its long toes. Its narrow body allows it to slip through dense, tangled vegetation with ease. Thanks to its habit of perching among the reeds, the Least Bittern can feed from the surface of water that would be too deep for the wading strategy of other herons. Because of its habitat choice, it is often unseen until it flies. Although it is a rare sight to see, its cooing and clucking calls are frequently heard at dawn and dusk and sometimes at night. This primarily black and tan bird has a blackish-green crown and back, brown neck and brown and white underparts and a white throat. The Least Bittern is most readily identified in flight by conspicuous, chestnut-colored wing patches. Males are more colorful and have a darker back than females. The yellow bill for both is thin and the toes at the end of their short green and yellow legs sport long, curved toenails that work perfectly for grasping dense vegetation. The plumage of juveniles is similar to an adult female but paler. This skinny bittern eats mostly small fish such as minnows, sunfish and perch and large insects to include dragonflies. If available, the Least Bittern will not pass on crayfish, leeches, frogs, tadpoles, salamanders, slugs, shrews or mice. To search for these tasty treats, the LB awkwardly moves about in vegetation above water and jabs downward with its long bill to capture prey at the water’s surface. It will also flick it’s wings open and shut to startle prey into motion. If the feeding site is good, the bittern has been known to build a hunting stand by bending down many reeds to form a platform. These birds nest in saltwater, brackish or freshwater marshes with dense vegetation from southern Canada to northern Argentina. The nest is a well-concealed platform built from cattails and other plants. Their nest usually presents as an elevated platform with an overhead canopy and is built of emergent aquatic vegetation and sticks. Least Bitterns are colonial nesters, and nests are usually widely scattered in the marsh and occasionally in close association with Boat-tailed Grackles. You may discover 15 LB nests in one breeding area! The female lays four or five eggs and in extreme cases, from two to seven. The eggs are pale blue or green and incubation is by both sexes for 17-20 days. After hatching, both parents feed the young by regurgitating food. Legs and feet of young LB’s develop quickly, and the youngsters may leave the nest as early as 6 days after hatching if the nest is disturbed, if not, they ordinarily remain in the nest for about 2 weeks, and near the nest for another week or more. Least Bitterns are known to produce one to two broods per year. When threatened, the Least Bittern will freeze in place with its bill pointing up, turn its front and both eyes toward the source of alarm, and sometimes sway to resemble wind-blown marsh vegetation. This is believed to be a predator-avoidance behavior, since its diminutive size makes the bittern vulnerable to potential predators such as coyotes, foxes and the great horned owl. When alarmed, they may also puff out their feathers to make themselves look larger or burrow through dense undergrowth that is impossible for larger animals to pass through, and if those tactics don’t work, the shy and elusive bittern often slips away by inconspicuously walking or running through the reeds for they would rather escape on foot than fly anyway. Although considered weak fliers, Least Bitterns do migrate from the northern parts of their range in winter for the southernmost coasts of the United States and areas further south, travelling only at night. The population of these birds have declined in some areas due to loss of wetland habitat and the encroachment of exotic species of marsh vegetation. The Least Bittern is listed as a threatened species at the state level due to the adverse effects of draining and the filling in of wetlands. Therefore, the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan rates it a Species of High Concern, and all migratory birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Now that our bittern patient has passed live fishing school, he is ready to be wild again! We’re hoping he will rejoin his Atlantic Beach “dash or freeze or siege,” which are all names for a group of bitterns. Without the support of the people in our community, our Least Bittern release may never have been rescued, given the opportunity to recover and rejoin his flock. Dash On, LB!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All