“Birds Love Messy Winter Yards!”

Most people don’t like to entertain the word “Messy” or even be associated with “Messy,” but if we are wildlife activists and dedicated conservationists, we might need to rethink that term. It turns out that the survival and reproductive success in the spring for birds and mammals that we enjoy and love, are largely dependent upon the conditions of their winter habitat. It is crucial that all wildlife be able to forage during the winter on seed-heads, shriveled fruits, dried plants, insects (that feed on dead and decaying plant life), fungi and bacteria, and what better place to do that than in a messy, unkept yard! Maybe it’s time to put down the garden tools and go easy on yard work this winter. If you’ve had a garden in your yard, that is a bonus to wildlife. Gardens are alive, no matter what time of year. Whether resident or migrating, finches, sparrows, chickadees, buntings, blue-jays, nuthatches, blackbirds and grosbeaks will be stopping by an unkept garden, and the messier the better. Bird feeders that are kept full and clean are nice and a little extra, but a messy yard or garden provides the opportunity for more natural foraging. Insect eating birds or mammals will discover a smorgasbord in the “galls” of plants, which are bulbous swellings created by insects, such as beetles, flies or wasps, who move in to lay eggs and allow the eggs to incubate until spring. That is unless a hungry woodpecker or mammal finds the plump larvae first and makes a hearty meal out of them! This is a glorious and nutritious find during a bleak winter, which is a great reason to leave our yards messy. Bees also use messy yards to provide habitat and protection during the winter. Piles of dried leaves, decomposing logs or cavities in hollowed out sticks or fallen limbs attract a variety of bees for overwintering. Bees might be accompanied by butterflies who will be encouraged to overwinter as well, if they are offered thick mounds of leaf litter or other cavities to crawl in to weather the cold and harsh elements presented during winter. If butterfly presence is not convincing enough, hundreds of other critters can overwinter in gardens; assassin bugs, praying mantises, lace wings, wolf spiders, minute pirate bugs, damsel bugs, ground beetles and ladybugs. All these insects and arachnids are beneficial to birds as a food source which means that, as a gardener, you benefit from having them around. Most birds are predators because many eat insects, as well as, seeds. American Robins, Brown Thrashers, Eastern Towhees, Crows and White-throated Sparrows routinely flip leaves over in search of food. Leaf cover improves their odds of finding protein-rich invertebrates such as beetles, earthworms and millipedes, which seek shelter under the security of leaves. So, birds are taking out insect pests that, if left unchecked, could become problematic in flower and vegetable gardens in the spring. Also, leaving layers of leaf litter for animals, such as opossums to burrow under in the winter, allows them to get a jump-start on minimizing pesky insect infestations in the spring and summer. Let’s see, how do we encourage messiness in our yards? Here are a few tips; put down the rake and leave your leaves in your yard (in mounds or as a blanket because leaves will rot, enrich the soil and provide places for bugs and birds to forage), create patches of habitat for critters such as salamanders, snails, worms and toads with leaf litter, allow dried flower heads to remain standing (save the seeds and refrain from snipping the stems of perennial flowers. Coneflowers , Black-Eyed Susans , and other native wildflowers provide an excellent source of winter calories for birds), don’t mow your grass as often (allow it to be a little taller), build brush piles with fallen branches rather than remove them which will serve to shelter birds, as well as other beneficial wildlife, from bad weather and predators, do not use chemicals in your yard for they will render the space uninhabitable for birds and other critters (besides, native grasses, shrubs, trees and flowering plants don’t need chemical fertilizers. Grass clippings and mulched leaf litter provide plenty of plant nutrition), leave snags on your property and just delay the whole garden clean-up until spring. Now, if mammals are more your focus, be assured that squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, opossums, deer and others will also enjoy the end of season bounty in the form of dried seeds, unharvested vegetables, or the hardy leaves left widespread for them. So, a messy yard can be a very good thing when you consider the food and shelter it offers birds and other visiting critters during cold winter months. Don’t forget the bonus of a spent garden that will provide nourishment at all levels of the food chain. Besides helping our wildlife survive in our messy yards, we need to focus on continuing the growing awareness of the value of supporting native biodiversity. What is truly beautiful? You decide; is it a clean, tidy yard or the amazing birds and other wildlife that pass through your property or take up residency within your view? That’s what I thought, too! Let’s be okay with feeling a little lazy and celebrate the abundance of activity and beauty that can emerge from a messy yard!

 

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “SAVE THEM ALL

“Heat Waves Affect Wildlife”

  With the onset of scorching heat waves, summertime can become a deadly season for all living things. We are very aware of the negative impact extreme heat has on vulnerable human beings in our communities, but we might be in the dark when it comes to knowing what harm may be going on with wildlife that is experiencing near-lethal temperatures that lead to drought and loss of food. June and July topped out with record high temperatures, and we never know when they will hit again! The Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport has admitted a few distressed wildlife due to dehydration which symptomized with staggering, loss of balance and confusion. Good Samaritans were able to recognize that something was wrong and that those cottontails, squirrels and birds needed help. Heat Waves have become the new normal and will impact not only our human communities, but all animals and our entire ecosystem. The same things that can happen to humans in sweltering heat happens to wildlife as well; dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Hot weather may cause natural water sources to dry up, meaning birds and other wildlife will be left without anything to drink, but we can help them by providing safe, alternative water sources. Turning your outside spaces into temporary homes for nature is doable with actions like freshening and topping off your birdbath daily or creating a make-shift pond from a washtub or putting down a saucer filled with water. These three simple acts could offer a vital lifeline to some of our favorite backyard critters that will be fighting against decline. Some people hang a “drip jug” over their bird bath, which is a basic plastic milk jug filled with water with a tiny hole in the bottom. The birds hear the dripping, and the sound attracts them for a cool bath and a drink. Leave shallow dishes, which are safer for smaller animals who could drown in deeper containers, in areas where animals are protected from predators. That means keeping your pets away from this area so the animals can drink undisturbed. A few more tips on providing life-saving water are: always clean the receptacles daily to prevent the spread of disease, don’t place the water to close to bushes or trees to minimize predation but do utilize a shaded area to keep the temperature of the water down and keep the water source away from any feeding areas to prevent the water from getting mucky. Along with the clean drinking water you are providing, birds will also be able to bathe which is vital to keeping their feathers in good condition for flight. Regularly watering your plants and gardens will be a lifeline for butterflies and bees. If your plants die, so will the butterflies and their buzzin’ buddies. If your ground area is drying and rules in your community limit grass watering, birds like Robins, Blackbirds and your turtles and frogs will not be able to access earthworms that will tunnel deeper into the ground for safety. A great substitute for earthworms is canned dog or cat food provided on a flat plate in your yard. Or if you agree with the birds that worms are best, meal worms from the pet store or bait shop can carry them through the hot times. We usually see birds and squirrels coming to our feeders and water sources during the day, but in the evening and during the night other wildlife such as opossums, raccoons or fox will visit our makeshift habitat for water and whatever they can find to stay alive during a searing heat wave. Keep in mind that summer is Baby Season, so wildlife Moms and Dads will be doing what they need to do and wherever they need to do it to stay alive so they can continue to care for their offspring. They might even bring their youngsters into your safe haven for food and drink. For those of you with pools in your backyard, you might consider covering the pool or providing an island or incline for animals to crawl out if need be. Hot animals trying to beat the heat or quench their thirst can drown in pools so taking away that access or providing an exit can save lives. Please keep an eye out for heat stressed wildlife. If you spot any critters who look like they’re struggling, call the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport or your own local wildlife organization for help. Be particularly mindful at dusk and at night as many nocturnal animals will be more active during this time. Prepare an emergency kit to keep in your car including water, a blanket/towel and a box. Put a few local wildlife rescue contacts in your phone so you can call for advice if you need it. If you do come across a wild animal who is visibly distressed, wrap them loosely and place them in a cardboard box and place the box in a dark, quiet and cool place. If your distressed wildlife is categorized as a rabies vector species (raccoon, fox or bat), do not touch or pick it up and call a wildlife rehabilitation shelter immediately. This is for the animal’s safety, as well as your own. Also, DO NOT wrap heat stressed animals in wet towels or submerge in water — this can kill them. Just like us, many wild creatures can live for extended periods of time without food but… just like us, they need water. Remember, when you sit back and relax with a tall, ice-cold drink, often to enjoy the sunny weather, our backyard birds and other wildlife might not be having such a good time. Heat waves produce a very negative impact on animals, even mortality. Most humans have a variety of ways to cope with a heat wave, but animals don’t have those luxuries of running water, air-conditioning or places to escape the sweltering environment. So, let’s help our feathered, furred, scaled or shelled friends in any way we can, including offering them a cold one! Water, of course! Cheers!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

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

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

“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