“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

Advertisements

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
Continue reading

“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

“Beaver’s Little Brother”

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

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

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

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“Squirrels, Blurred Breeding Seasons!”

We all know Squirrels! They live among us, are easily recognizable, and what’s not to love about watching the joyful, fast and furious antics of squirrels!? We also have certain expectations of squirrels, especially of the more common variety here in the east, the Eastern Gray Squirrel. We expect EG Squirrels to birth a litter twice a year, once in the Spring and again in the Fall. Wildlife Rehabilitators at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport prepare for incoming baby squirrels, but for the past few years EG Squirrels have blurred the breeding season lines. As soon as our last Fall squirrel youngsters are released into the wild, brand new, pinkie babies are being admitted during the dead of winter, way before Spring! We have begun to see infant squirrel admits year ‘round. At the beginning of February this year, we admitted our first newborn EG Squirrels, which of course means there is no break in the action of rehabbing baby squirrels at the shelter and the continuation of squirrel formula, seeds, nuts, fruits and vegetables is an absolute requirement. Squirrels are tree-dwelling members of the rodent family of mammals. Eastern gray squirrels build nests or dreys for sleeping, but those nests are being used for more than sleeping these days. Child rearing has become a year ‘round responsibility for Momma Squirrels. The adults may rotate between as many as three nests, depending on the population density where they live. These nests are usually occupied either by a single adult squirrel or by a mother and her kittens which is what baby squirrels are called. Winter baby admits at the shelter present specific challenges such as hypothermia and malnutrition because, one, its cold and two, food sources for Mom are not as prevalent in the winter. Although squirrels are very hearty and adaptable wildlife, if they are lacking nutrition themselves it can adversely affect milk production which in turn will deprive the babies. So, if you are a backyard wildlife feeder who supplements your critters’ diets, adding a little extra to the menu during winter would be helpful. Most people don’t see baby squirrels because the infants are very mindful of their Mom and stay unassumingly quiet in their nest until venturing out fully furred and looking very adult like at 10 – 12 weeks. The shelter usually receives baby squirrels only after a nest has been compromised by weather or predators. Either they have fallen through a weakened nest structure, their tree has fallen, or they have been tossed out during an attack on the nest. So, when you find a baby squirrel on the ground, it’s best to look around the area, while stepping very carefully, to ensure there are no more displaced infants who might need your help. Even if your dog or cat brings a baby squirrel home uninjured, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are orphaned. It’s always best to try to reunite healthy babies with their Mother. If possible (and if it’s not freezing cold out), place the baby close to a tree and monitor the situation from a distance to see if Mom will “rescue” her baby and carry the infant back to one of her nests. There are occasions when Mom doesn’t make it back to the nest due to an unfortunate meeting with a predator, automobile collision or some freak accident, but when possible, always give Mom the chance to get her baby back. Please dismiss the old wives’ tale that wildlife Moms will not accept the baby if she smells human scent because there is NO TRUTH to that. She will just be content, and although we haven’t truly assessed a squirrel’s emotions, might even be ‘happy’ to have her baby back. So, always assess the situation at hand to surmise the probability of reuniting them. If the baby you’ve found is injured; covered with fly eggs (they look like grains of rice) or has ant bites, is extremely cold and crying nonstop (their alarm sound is like a shrill whistle) or puncture wounds are apparent, the infant squirrel is more than likely orphaned. A squirrel infant is totally dependent upon Mom and has the best chance of survival when cared for by its mother. However, when Mom is removed from the equation, foster Moms, such as wildlife rehabilitators, are the next best option. Male squirrels do not raise baby squirrels, even if they fathered them. If you find a truly orphaned or injured baby squirrel, you will have to take over for Mom to save the baby’s life. Get a small box or container without a lid. If the baby is moving around quite a bit, use a covering that allows air flow. Place some soft fabric on the bottom so they will have something to hang on to and not slide around in the box. Put on some leather gloves (they probably don’t have teeth yet but just to be safe). If they are pinkies (no fur and eyes closed), there’s no need for gloves. Gently pick up the baby and place it in the container. Put the container on a heating pad on the lowest setting in a dark, quiet area in your home (a closed-door bathroom or closet is good). If you do not have a heating pad, place a plastic bottle filled with warm water and wrapped in a dish towel in the box. Make sure the lid to the bottle is on tight and the water is not too hot. Do not attempt to feed an infant squirrel, and keep the baby or babies away from any other living beings such as dogs, cats, parrots or other humans of any size. Then, contact your nearest independent wildlife rehabilitator or wildlife shelter for transport instructions. It’s tempting to want to raise a cute baby squirrel on your own, but it’s unlawful and you can be heavily fined in the state of North Carolina for keeping it in your home. So, it’s always best to take the baby or babies to a wildlife rehabilitator who possesses the knowledge and state permits required to take on the responsibility of providing appropriate care which includes assessing nutritional needs, treating injuries, ensuring they are raised properly with other squirrels and creating habitat conducive to learning skills and behaviors essential for ultimate release in the wild. Yes, we know and love squirrels, but we also want to give these entertaining and intelligent little acrobats the best second chance we can.  Thank you in advance for caring, and here’s an interesting squirrel factoid: Did you know Squirrels are named after the old Greek word Skiouros? Their bushy tail is one of their most distinguishing and beautiful features, and Skiouros means “shadow tail.” Good to know!

best always and Happy Spring (Baby) Season!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All

“Timberdoodles!”

A Timberdoodle may sound more like one of Santa’s Christmas Elves, but it’s actually one of many nicknames for a unique looking bird called an American Woodcock.  Although not a common admission to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, we recently had a Timberdoodle delivered to our care because the chunky little bird suffered head trauma, but we’re not sure how it happened.  The American Woodcock, a member of the Sandpiper family, is a stout shorebird with a plump body, short legs, a large round head and a long, straight prehensile bill.  Adults are 10 to 12 inches in length and weigh 5 to 8 ounces, with females considerably larger than males. They have very short tails which gives them a bulbous look on the ground and in flight.  Their wings are broad and rounded compared to other shorebirds.  The American Woodcock, although it is indeed a shorebird, lives in and around young forests rather than along bodies of water.   They camouflage well in  wooded environments because their color pattern is a mix of brown, black, buff and gray, so they spend most of their time hidden in fields and on the forest floor. Their underparts are buff to a tinge of dark orange.  Their brownish gray to reddish brown feet and toes are small and not considered strong body parts.  What is strong is their long bill that is used to probe the soil to find their favorite food, earthworms.  This prehensile, 2 ½ to almost 3 inches, bill not only pokes into the earth, but an amazing bone and muscle collaboration allows the bird to open and close the tip of its bill while the bill is underground. The underside of the bill and the American Woodcock’s tongue are both rough-surfaced enough to grasp slick and slimy prey such as a juicy worm or other invertebrates. Delectable items in the Timberdoodle’s diet also include insect larvae, snails, centipedes, millipedes, spiders, snipe flies, beetles and ants. To initiate the hunt for worms or insects, they stomp their bony feet on the ground to startle the prey into movement the bird can detect before penetrating the ground with their bill in efforts to capture whatever is on the run.  They also eat a small amount of plants, mainly seeds and are most food active at dawn and dusk. The Woodcock’s eyes are large and located high in their head.  Although they don’t rely on their eyes to hunt, their immediate visual field is said to be the largest of any bird; 360 degrees horizontally and 180 degrees vertically.  American Woodcocks are usually found much further north, to include Canada, rather than the southern Outer Banks of North Carolina, but they do migrate as far south as the Gulf Coast States before the harshness of a northern winter. The highest concentrations of Night Partridges (another of the many nicknames for the American Woodcock), after winter migration, according to the annual ‘Christmas Bird Count,’ are found in northern Alabama.  Although, they are occasionally sighted, even during Spring breeding season, in the western mountainous areas of North Carolina. The American Woodcock is the only species of woodcock that inhabits North America.  Woodcocks migrate at night and fly at low altitudes in small, loose flocks.  Their flight speed has been clocked at 16 to 28 mph, however, Timberdoodles are also known to fly at the slowest speed ever recorded for a bird, 5 mph!  Both October and late February migrations, where they visually follow coastlines and river valleys, are viewed as leisurely for American Woodcocks compared to the rapid and more direct migrations of most other birds. During breeding season, the male Woodcock sings a series of ground calls and performs high spiraling, zigzagging and banking flights at dawn, dusk and on moonlit nights while attempting to woo a mate (or many mates). They will also bob and bow while walking very stiff-legged with wings outstretched toward a female on the ground.  After a Woodcock hen is impressed by all that showy display and chooses her fella, she uses leaves and twigs to encircle a shallow depression on the ground to make a comfy home for her one to four eggs.  Incubation takes 20 to 22 days. Hatchlings are precocial, which means they are ready to leave the nest within a few hours of birth much like chickens, but Mom will feed them and teach them to hunt. The young will be probing for worms within a few days of hatching. It’s fortunate that, although fluffy, the young are born with their well-camouflaged coloring enabling them to blend into their surroundings, which becomes essential when predators, such as raccoons, raptors or humans, make the scene. Some observers state they have witnessed frightened youngsters clinging to their Mother’s body as she flies them away from danger.  Young Bogsuckers (yet another nickname for American Woodcocks) will make short flights within two weeks of birth, can demonstrate excellent aerial maneuvers at three weeks and are ready to move on independently after five weeks of Momma’s care. The male is not monogamous and will mate with numerous females.  Male American Woodcocks do not help to select a nest site, incubate eggs or feed and rear the young.  However, the male will continue to entertain the female with his dazzling courtship rituals for as long as four months beyond hatch day.  This chunky and most interesting shorebird suffers loss of habitat due to forest maturation and urban development, but the American Woodcock does adapt better in deforestation situations than other ground dwelling birds do.  Strides in conservation efforts since the 1960’s, especially the “American Woodcock Conservation Plan” which protects, renews and creates habitat, have helped maintain Hokumpoke or Brush Snipe (still other nicknames!) populations in North America so they haven’t moved onto the wildlife endangered list, but are considered within “species of greatest conservation need.” Groups care so much about the Timberdoodle that as recently as October 2017, the 11th American Woodcock Symposium was held in Michigan and focused on steadfastly maintaining this bird. It’s nice to know that probably due to their efforts, the estimated population of the American Woodcock is 5 million, so it does rank as the most common Sandpiper on the continent of North America, and it’s also nice to know that people are so impressed when they see an American Woodcock that they immediately come up with a nickname for this little, fat body bird with the very long, skinny bill that looks so unusual and out of place.  The maximum lifespan of a Timberdoodle in the wild has been recorded at eight years, so they are out there! If you are scouting for one, look for them in young forests, forest edges, old farming fields and wet meadows, AND look low!  The are definitely worth seeing!

Merry Christmas,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All