“Oh! What a Night, Heron!”

Shorter than his Great-Blue cousin, the Black-Crowned Night Heron is a beauty to behold. Elusive, wading wetlands birds, BC Night Herons are very stocky and thickly built compared to their long-limbed relatives. In fact, they are so short their yellow legs barely reach the end of their tail while in flight. The adults are strikingly beautiful and adorned with sleek gray and black plumage, two or three wispy white head plumes on their flat, wide head, rich scarlet eyes and ebony bills. However, they present a hunched over look rather than the tall, willowy posture of the Great-Blue. Their neck is almost imperceptible, and their wingspan of 41 to 48 inches appears broad and rounded. The youngsters are distinctly different in appearance with mottled brown feathering, yellow-brown bills and orange eyes until maturing into the more vibrant adult. Adults are 25 inches in length and weigh around 28 ounces on the average with males being the larger gender. When the call came in for assistance with a pretty bird that had been standing in the corner of someone’s yard near their fence in Beaufort for over a day, our transport didn’t know for sure what he’d be picking up. On site, he knew it was a heron, but certainly not the more common admit, a Great Blue Heron . . . way too short for that. Upon arriving at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, formal identification was made: Black-Crowned Night Heron. He was easy to handle in his weakened state, and a full examination revealed no broken bones, no respiratory ailments, no predatory injuries such as puncture wounds, no head injury, no toxicity and no frostbite, but he was under-weight and frail. Our theory is, due to the recent cold snap, hunting was difficult, so food was scarce. He was literally starving and became so weak that at the point of landing in the Good Samaritan’s yard, he could no longer muster the strength to fly out. So, there he stood, dying. Many thanks to the residents of the home who cared enough to give us a call, so we could intervene on his behalf. In shelter care he started feeding slowly with assisted nutrition and then he began eating on his own like a champ; all the shrimp and mud minnows he could gobble, and he became a little “piggy” heron! He packed on weight, regained his strength, let us know when he was ready to go, and he is back out there living his Black-Crowned Night Heron life! A success story like this would not be possible without the partnership our shelter enjoys with the compassionate and committed community residents who care so much about our indigenous North Carolina wildlife. Black-Crowned Night Herons are very noisy and social birds that roost and nest in groups over water. Often, these groups include other species of marsh birds such as egrets, ibises and different herons. They are quick to sound the protective, squawking alarm and scatter when danger is perceived. Areas where you might find them will be fresh, salt and brackish wetlands everywhere; estuaries, marshes, streams, lakes and reservoirs. During the day, look up in the trees and you may catch them dozing or trying to conceal themselves with leaves and branches to avoid predators. They will be perched on tree limbs, waiting for their most active time of day; dusk and during the night. BC Night Herons typically forage for food on their own rather than in a group during the evening and late night in the water and occasionally on land. These birds stand extremely still at the water’s edge and wait to catch a meal. They primarily eat small fish, crustaceans, frogs, reptiles, aquatic insects, bats, eggs, small mammals and small birds. A Black-Crowned Night Heron is a smart bird who engages in bait fishing, much like our very intelligent American Crow. They will lure or distract fish by tossing edible or inedible objects that float into the water. Their fast and furious reflexes serve them well when hunting, but their patience is even more admirable. They may also use an aerial technique called “hovering” where they fly over the water and pause in mid-air to capture prey or they can perform “swimming-feeding” and just skim through and under the water snatching food. This migratory bird will breed and spend its summers along the coast in North Carolina and occasionally stay through the winter if it’s a mild one, but if the temperatures drop too low, it’s off to Florida or South America for the BC Night Heron. During breeding season, the male will search for a protected location and start building a 12-18 inch across and 8 to 12-inch-high nest of sticks, twigs and woody vegetation and then begin an elaborate courtship display to entice a female to move in. It is believed the BC Night Heron is monogamous and extends his allegiance to only one woman once paired. The observations of male courtship include crouching with head lowered, raising the white plumes on his head and bill clapping, flapping his wings while singing and dancing or hissing while rocking back and forth from one foot to the other. When the female can’t resist his advances and accepts the overtures, they preen and bill each other, and often the male offers her a twig which cements the deal, as in the spirit of ABC’s “The Bachelor,” ‘will you except this twig?’ Once bonded, the male’s legs turn pinkish-red, and he also becomes aggressively protective of his mate. The female usually lays 3 to 5 eggs and incubation lasts around 22 days. Both male and female tend to the nest and feed the hatchlings. The young, who are fluff-brown down will leave the nest at one month but will not be able to fly. They will be ground bound and move through the undergrowth on foot, as they are taught to hunt and fly by their parents. They will learn to fly at 6 weeks, fully fledge in 6-7 weeks and reach their sexual maturity at 2 to 3 years of age. Black-Crowned Night Herons will often produce two broods per breeding season. The lifespan of a BC Night Heron is between 10 and 15 years, however the oldest on record is a female who reached 15 ½ years. The wildlife rehabilitators at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter are thrilled to have, hopefully, added a few years or more to the longevity of our recent BC Night Heron patient, and the experience of providing him care was educational, as well as, fabulous. Sometimes we get that rare admit that has so much to teach us. “Oh, What A Night, Heron!”

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

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“COLD TOES” for Pelicans!!

A cold snap is a comin’! Temperatures are scheduled to drop over the next few weeks, even to the teens, and bad things happen to wildlife when Eastern North Carolina gets that cold. Food will become scarce and frostbite can occur, mainly with our Brown Pelican population. We have seen pelican frostbite cases admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC over the years and sometimes in such great numbers that there’s hardly enough room to house them all! The Brown Pelican is a North American bird of the pelican family, Pelecanidae. It’s a very big seabird found on the Atlantic coast from Nova Scotia to the Amazon in South America. Most people who reside in North Carolina and tourists who visit are very familiar with pelicans. These large fisher-birds have habituated with humans, so we see them everywhere along our beach fronts, docks, fishing areas and find them ever present in our views at waterfront restaurants.The Brown Pelican is known for its oversized bill, sinuous neck, and big, dark body. Juvenile Brown Pelicans are in fact brown with a lighter beige underbelly, but a mature Brown Pelican’s coloring is vastly different. The adult will have a white neck and head with a yellow crest and its body is almost black with dark gray feathers. Flying units of pelicans, young and old, glide with seemingly little effort above the surf along coasts, rising and falling with the graceful movement of the waves. They feed by plunge-diving from high up, using the force of impact to stun small fish before scooping them up in their pouch. We bird watchers enjoy the purposeful antics of this comically elegant bird. With coldness looming, wildlife rehabilitators know that unfortunately, pelicans will do what they generally do in freezing temperatures and that is, nothing. They will stay out of the water and sit very still as they try to deal with the frigid and frosty weather nature has dealt them, which we know is not good to ward off the condition of frostbite. Frostbite is simply tissue damage caused by freezing, so keeping circulation going is one of the keys to prevention. The first body parts affected by decreased blood flow when exposed to extreme cold are those furthest away from your core, pelican or human. With pelicans, the cold will attack its toes and gular pouch first. Frostbite can happen very quickly in severely frigid weather; possibly within five minutes! Pelicans do not have the preventative luxury of layering its clothing or feathering for that matter, to protect the most vulnerable areas of their body from frostbite and no one is offering them a hot cup of tea or cocoa. Frostbite generally affects the top layers of the skin, but when it becomes more advanced, the damage will extend through the muscles and to the bones. When Pelicans are admitted to the shelter with frostbite, it’s because they are found disoriented, unable to walk due to pain in their feet, unable to fish and weak from starvation. Rehabilitating pelicans is a costly situation anytime but when frostbite is present they will require medications, surgical procedures to remove necrotic tissue or bone caused by frostbite and loads of fish for the starving and recovering birds whose rehabilitation stay at the shelter will correlate with the extensiveness of their frostbite. Pelicans can still be released and survive in the wild if their loss is only some webbing between toes or partial toe amputation, but loss of a foot, leg or pouch meets with a grim outcome. At the wildlife shelter we offer our frostbite patients treatment and care to include continuous, never ending clean up, plenty of food and medications they need and the necessary time to heal while we monitor their behaviors, returning skills and potential for a successful release. Most pelicans in our care are easy to get along with for they are friendly, social birds. They seem to be appreciative of the warm, safe haven we provide and the easy food. However, occasionally, we’ll get a pelican with a really bad attitude and a case of “snap-itis,” so we stay clear of that wild bill flailing in the air, because it can pinch pretty darn hard if it catches a human leg or arm, but those are few and far between. Pelicans aren’t the only wildlife who suffer from frostbite when a freeze hits our area. Virginia Opossums are also occasionally affected because they have bare feet and a bare tail. Frostbite is always bad no matter the victim, but most opossums seem to be resourceful enough to find a warmer place to hunker down and ride out the cold than our totally exposed Pelicans. Pelicans can live to be in their forties, which is quite the longevity for an animal in the wild, and we want to help those damaged by frostbite to recover and get back out there to live that potentially long life. So, if you see pelicans staying in one spot too long after an icy, cold snap, there could be some “Cold Toes” going on that require treatment. Our doors are wide open to receive them!!

Stay warm out there and best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“Whistle Pigs & Chucklings!”

By now, we all know that Punxsutawney Phil emerged from hibernation on February 2nd and saw his shadow, which means six more weeks of winter, but those of us on the coast of North Carolina who are enjoying warmer weather as of late are not putting a lot of stock in his prediction. We all know that Phil is a Groundhog turned weatherman, right? Groundhogs, also called “Woodchucks,” a name originating from the Cree Indian word “wuchak” and nicknamed “Whistlepigs,” because they are known to give a shrill whistle alarm that carries for quite a distance to warn other Groundhogs of impending danger, are native to North America including North Carolina and although found more often in the Western part of our state, they have expanded to our Piedmont and Coastal regions more recently. Although these little diggers aren’t prevalent yet on the coast, the few who are here can still run into trouble such as injury or illness that may require rehabilitation intervention at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport. So, wildlife rehabilitators at our facility must be familiar with every species that could possibly come through the clinic door, even as rare in our area as they may be. Groundhogs are large pudgy-bodied mammals of the rodent family that weigh in at 5 to 12 pounds and can reach two feet in length. They are covered with coarse fur that ranges in color from brown to reddish or yellowish brown with a silver shine on the tips of their hair. Their head is short and wide. Groundhogs are well adapted for digging with their short, powerful limbs and five curved, thick claws on each foot. They will run on all fours and frequently stand on their hind feet to survey the area or sound the alarm. Their tail is densely haired, slightly flattened and one-fifth to one-third of the animal’s total length. A groundhog’s ears are short, broad, rounded and well haired, and their eyes are circular and small. Besides the high-pitched whistle they are known for, they also squeal when fighting, produce low barks and produce an unusual teeth grinding sound. They are diurnal animals which means they are most active during the early morning and late afternoon hours and not at night. Groundhogs have been observed climbing trees near residential areas or standing in open country at the edge of woodlands, but never too far from their burrow entrance. So they are comfortable in a variety of habitats such as pastures, brushy woodlots, open woods and areas along stream banks. Although they prefer forest habitats, the choices of under deck patios, sheds, in gardens and anything surrounded by wood or brush in residential areas are not ruled out. Woodchucks have adapted well to human activities such as agriculture and urban development. Therefore, taking up residence close to humans can become a problem for home owners when you consider the type of property damage Groundhogs are capable of as they dig networks of burrows under houses, sheds or any manmade structure. Please keep in mind that it has been stated by Humane Society professionals that it would take a lot of woodchucks working over many years to create tunnel systems that would pose any significant risk to a structure. However, Groundhogs leave their mark everywhere they go by chewing, gnawing, digging and causing the disappearance of tasty flowers, fruits and vegetables. Gardeners are usually not too happy with their presence. Woodchucks enjoy a strict herbivore diet and prefer the more tender parts of new growth from a variety of wild and cultivated, succulent plants such as clover, alfalfa and grasses. They hibernate during the winter from November until February. Mating occurs in March or April, and four to six young are produced after a 32-day gestation period, and of course, like all furry mammal babies, they are adorable! The young, called “Chucklings,” are born blind, helpless, toothless, almost naked and weigh one to two ounces, and because they are mammals, they will nurse for about 3 months. Between 3 to 5 months the youngsters will leave the birth area and head out on their own to burrow their own den. Groundhogs become sexually mature at one year and can have two litters annually. Although groundhogs are the most solitary of all marmots, which are burrowing rodents, several individuals may occupy adjacent burrows or dens. Burrows with den chambers 20 inches to three feet below ground will have five to eight entrance/exists to enable rapid escape from predators, such as coyote, fox, bobcat, eagle, cougar, dog, wolf and man. Snakes pose the most threat to infant Groundhogs. Despite this little plant lover’s tendency to wreck a garden and dig tunnels that could compromise some structural integrity, they also do some good in the world! Although an indirect benefit, Groundhogs’ burrows become homes for animals such as fox and skunks who feed upon mice, grasshoppers, bugs and other menacing creatures that would destroy a farmer’s crops. A groundhog’s expert digging skills also brings healthy and nutritious subsoil to the surface.

The presence of Woodchucks has been responsible for unearthing artifacts such as pottery and stones that archeologists then claim as a new dig site. This unique animal with a variety of names, is very interesting to watch, but if you encounter a Groundhog, it is best NOT to make or attempt physical contact, because they can bite and may carry certain zoonotic conditions that can be passed from them to you. Observation while keeping your distance is always the best policy. In zoo environments or wildlife sanctuaries where non-releaseable Groundhogs serve as Education Ambassadors, their recorded life spans have reached 9 to 14 years, but the average life expectancy for a Woodchuck in the wild is only 2 to 3 years. If by chance a “WhistlePig” reaches 5 or 6 years in the wild, that is considered an extremely long and lucky life!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“Baby BOOM!!

Blog_SquirrelLitterTis’ the season, but not for Christmas carols, twinkling lights or sugar cookies! This season is what wildlife rehabilitators affectionately refer to as “Baby Season,” while we display frozen smiles and ready ourselves for months of nonstop feeding, cleaning and loss of sleep. We wish all wildlife babies could be raised by their Mommas, but circumstances such as severe weather, felled trees, precarious nest locations and predators prevent that from happening. So, the next best chance at survival for these little orphans or displaced babies is tapping a wildlife rehabilitator’s expert knowledge of care for a variety of wild species, as well as their compassion and stamina to ensure all little furries and feathers will eventually live their life wild as intended. That is exactly the focus when wild infants are brought to our care at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport! We know when the Bradford Pear, Cherry, Dogwood trees and Azaleas begin to floral in explosions of color, wild babies are a blooming too. Our first baby arrivals this year were infant squirrels, who lost their home after a tree was cut down. Squirrels are fairly cooperative babies to raise, although they quickly grow into frantic little teenagers whose next developmental stage will be acclimating to the outside in an enclosure designed for that purpose. That’s like graduation from middle school for these crazy little furry folks! Neonate opossums came onboard shortly after our fast and furious tree climbers. BlogMay2015_Opossum_BabiesToo bad Mom couldn’t raise them, but luckily, a timely Good Samaritan happened upon the scene to rescue five tiny possums who survived a car accident that killed their mother and siblings. Opossums show up in much larger litters than squirrels; 5 – 12 rather than 3 or 4, and baby possies won’t suckle formula from a syringe. They have to be tubed to get the nourishment they need, which means a skilled wildlife rehabilitator must thread a tiny, flexible tube down the baby’s esophagus and into its tummy to deliver the formula. When you have 30 or more infant possums that are too young to lap from a dish, that task tends to be quite time consuming, and they don’t eat just once a day, actually, every 3 to 4 hours! When the temperatures warmed up enough for folks to start working in their yards and dogs and cats began discovering nesting areas, infant Eastern cottontails arrived. Bunnies, although cute as furry buttons, are not the easiest or most cooperative babies to care for because they become highly stressed during captivity. Blog_Baby CottontailsXFortunately, cottontails develop and mature faster than squirrels and opossums, and although still small, are ready for independence four to five weeks from birth. Last week, our first baby bird nestlings, which happened to be three Carolina Wrens, were carried through the admit door for safety because the rescuer’s cat had located their nest. BlogMay2015_They are hardy and putting away a massive number of mealworms that are hand fed to each wren every 30 minutes. (The babies in this image are Mockingbirds, who were more cooperative about getting their picture taken!) We receive many calls from nature loving folks who discover wild babies in precarious situations to include believing the babies are abandoned and want to know what to do. So, if you are the next person who makes a wild baby discovery, this is our guidance: If Mom is truly not around to care for and protect the infant(s) and chances are the infant(s) will die if left in the elements, without food and protection, as well as, exposed to predators, wild or otherwise, an intervention is necessary. After noting exactly where you found the animal(s) place the babies in a breathable cardboard box with a lid or in a paper bag and move them to a dark, warm and quiet area of your home. The area where you found them is important because some babies might not be truly orphaned, so the opportunity to return them to their mother may still exist, as is the case with many cottontails. Don’t keep the little wild ones in your home any longer than necessary due to state and federal laws regarding wildlife. Do not re-handle or allow children or pets to come in contact with the young wildlife you have rescued. Next step is to get them to a wildlife rehabilitator by checking online to find one in or close to your area. All babies need to stay warm, and wildlife babies are no different. If you are unable to get them to the rehabilitator right away and they are not fully feathered or furred, a heating pad on the lowest setting, placed under the box will prevent hypothermia. If you don’t have a heating pad, a plastic bottle or zip-lock plastic bag filled with warm water can be placed in a corner of the box. The babies will naturally move toward the warmth as needed. Ensure the bottle cap is tight and the zip-lock bag is sealed. Do not feed the babies. Feeding anything to a dehydrated or cold animal will probably kill it. Also the wrong formula can cause death. Every animal species has their own unique diet and an unlicensed member of the public is not expected to have that knowledge, so no one should feel badly about not knowing how to care for the possum or bunny they found. Also keep in mind that it is illegal to keep a wild animal at your home if you do not possess the appropriate Federal or State permit to do so. Wild animals are not toys or pets and should be treated with the befitting respect they deserve. When transporting the babies to the wildlife center or an individual wildlife rehabilitator do not check on them as you drive or hold them on your lap. Wildlife is unpredictable, even babies, so your attempts to check them or hold them could become a dangerous situation while driving. A trained and licensed wildlife rehabilitator will have the means and know-how to provide the best chance of survival and ultimately, a wild life for the animals you were so caring and compassionate enough to save. You can feel very good about getting them where they need to be to ensure they receive their much appreciated and precious second chance.

Happy Spring Baby Season!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse, author of

Save Them All

 

Winter Bird Feeding

FebCS_Cardinal648EAlthough Eastern North Carolina historically does not experience much snow, if at all, during winter, the colder temperatures still cause outdoor food sources to become scarce, especially for some of our favorite back or front yard bird visitors. Lately, calls have piggy-backed at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport inquiring about the absence of birds. “I don’t understand why I have no birds in my backyard” or “in the winter at least the little gray birds with the white tummies show up, but they aren’t here either.” The sparrow size gray bird with the white tummy the caller was describing is a Junco, and they do winter in Eastern North Carolina. Winter can be a difficult time for birds, whether they experience freezing temperatures or snow cover along the coast or not. Birds are warm blooded and have to maintain their body temperature by eating rich energy foods such as seeds, nuts, insects and suet. Most insects are dead or dormant by the time we humans need to don jackets and scarves, so birds will start eating food sources they don’t generally choose during warmer weather. Winter is the best time to set up bird feeders because birds are trying to fatten up during this harsh season. You will also see them puffing up their feathers, creating air pockets, to keep warm. The more air pockets, the better the insulation. You might also see them alternating an exposed leg, keeping one held up in their breast feathers for warmth. The days are short and the nights are often cold and long. To survive the cold, birds will visit whatever food sources are available. Some birds you will likely see at your feeder are Black-capped Chickadees, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Cardinals, and the Dark-eyed Juncos.  The best foods to offer birds in colder weather have a high fat or oil content that will provide more than enough energy for winter survival. Nutritious winter foods for birds include: Black oil sunflower seed, Hulled peanuts, Niger or thistle seed, Safflower, suet mixes with seeds or fruit, Peanut butter, cracked corn and White millet seed. FebCS_MG_8565CEWhen choosing birdseed and other foods for winter feeding, take into consideration which bird species are present in the winter and what foods they prefer to avoid wasted seed. Fruits, such as raisins soaked in warm water to soften are also well received. Something a little more expensive and definitely a luxury for your birds would be mealworms that can be purchased from most pet or bait stores. I don’t know too many birds that wouldn’t love a fat, juicy meal worm!  Feeders should be located out of the wind. The east or southeast side of a house or near a row of trees is ideal. It is best to have a perching spot such as a bush or tree for the birds to use to survey the feeding area and provide sufficient cover for safety from predators, as well as, shelter from the wind and weather. The feeders should be positioned near cover but in the open to allow birds to continually watch for danger. To minimize window collisions, place feeders more than five feet away from a wall or window and use window clings or other techniques to prevent collisions. For ground feeding, an area near cover with a clear view of the surroundings is best.  Placing seed in a ground feeder entices birds such as sparrows, Juncos, Mourning Doves, Quail, Pheasants, Towhees and Brown Thrashers. Even the Red-bellied Woodpecker, which is thought of as a tree dweller, does some foraging on the ground. Ground feeders are also seen eating the seeds that fall from hanging bird feeders. Platform and hopper feeders are especially good for attracting Cardinals, Wrens, Chickadees, Titmice, Jays, and Grosbeaks. Hanging feeders, because they blow in the wind, are generally used by those species able to hang on while feeding such as Chickadees, Titmice, Nuthatches and Finches.  Birdfeeders are most attractive to birds in winter, when natural food supplies are least available. Seed eaters such as finches, sparrows, titmice and chickadees may flock to feeders in higher numbers than natural food sources alone in the immediate area could support. Seeds that are merely a welcome supplement under normal winter conditions may suddenly become vital during a fierce ice or snow storm. Wild birds are resourceful, gleaning most of their food from the natural habitat; except in extreme or unusual circumstances, they manage to find enough to eat to survive. But birds that have become used to supplemental feeding may suffer when that food supply is suddenly missing, especially in winter. So, keep your feeders full when winter is toughest.  It’s also important to properly clean and sterilize your feeders routinely in efforts to minimize mold, mildew and other unhealthy conditions that could foster disease among backyard bird populations. When cleaning, discard soggy seed or seed encased in ice, and let the feeder dry before refilling.  FebCS_CardinalENesting boxes and year round bird houses help shield birds from inclement and freezing temperatures. And for the very serious birder, a heated bird bath or adding a heating element to your current bird bath would be quite ducky!   Keep your feathery little visitors healthy, comfy and safe during the harshness of winter!!

Best Always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of

“Save Them All”

Please, Don’t Feed Me!


Laughing, Ring-billed, Herring and Black-backed Gulls get a bad rap. Many people refer to them as nasty because they have a tendency to congregate and hang out with people, which can get a little messy. People also call them Seagulls, which is a misnomer, because there really is no such bird. They’re all gulls of a different variety. Gulls are admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) routinely because these smart seabirds, who seem to understand human behavior, and heavily people populated areas don’t bode well, especially for the gull. Possibly a fishing gear injury or a car clip brings them in, but more than likely their bad human diet takes away their ability to fly. The wildlife rehabilitators at OWLS understand who they are and also, what humans have encouraged them to do, and we respect them the same as any other wildlife admitted for our care. They are usually easy to work with, save the occasional biter and don’t get stressed by our presence. Generations of gulls have been conditioned over the years to expect movie popcorn strewn in a parking lot, a hefty helping of fries at fast food joints, small children, encouraged by adults, throwing bread into the air at parks, fast food bags that are fun to open along the highway and an outstretched hand filled with snacks connected to a human’s body wishfully attempting to bond with this wild bird. Gulls get so used to relating humans to food presence they will swoop down and aggressively annoy just about anyone for a morsel of anything! When they get in trouble or more specifically injured or downed because they spend all day eating low-nutrition, snack food which produces a one-sided diet, they may get sick or become malnourished which atrophies their feather shafts, rendering them unable to fly. That’s when someone can walk right up to one and put it in a box for delivery to our shelter. No one should be able to pick up a high flyer like a gull. Their feathers are extremely important. Of course, we know they need feathers to fly, but those feathers also serve as a temperature regulator, protect them from wind, moisture and sun, trap air to help them float, become nesting material and fish eaters, like gulls, eat some of their feathers to line their digestive area to protect sensitive membranes from sharp fish bones. Most animals, including gulls, have evolved with very specific natural diets and have unique kinds of digestive bacteria. Human food ingestion causes the wrong type of bacteria to become dominate in their stomachs, which can cause them to be no longer capable of digesting their natural foods. They can end up starving to death even with stomachs full of what they should have been eating all along. It is absolutely essential to the health and well-being of gulls that they not be fed by humans intentionally or indirectly through littering. Some people think they are just supplementing the gull’s diet with their generous but uneducated offerings, when in fact they are altering and very possibly ending their lives. Not feeding them will allow the gulls to find natural food sources, which provide better nutrition than food intended for human consumption. A parking lot apple core may be the best nutritional choice a gull makes in weeks, although he probably dodged traffic to get it, but it’s not enough to keep him healthy and alive. Please think twice about throwing down that French fry or cheese puff for a gull to gobble. If we all made the decision to withhold the junk food, we might just cause the gulls to leave our asphalt jungle and return to big water, and in essence, save their lives (and the finish on our cars!). Gulls are great problem solvers like crows and opportunistic scavengers who eat alive or dead fish, garbage, field mice, earthworms, insects, eggs, well . . just about anything. They are not that picky. Gulls are predators by nature and nature enables them to live within their resources without human snack foods. All Gulls are essential in maintaining ecological balance and are found everywhere in the world. Some folks get intimated by them because they are immensely sociable within their breed and tend to travel and forage for food anywhere in large numbers, especially in areas where humans are known to feed them. People have created this abnormal gull behavior through a very simple rewards system, so we really shouldn’t complain about maneuvering around them at our shopping malls, the seabird poop on our cars or the relentless squawking they seem to enjoy. Their communication system causes gulls to be very noisy birds, but they get along well with each other and very rarely fight. The Laughing Gull is a very common summer resident (less so in winter) along the coast, but is rarely seen far inland. It is a small but handsome gull, with a styling ebony head, dark red bill, and white crescents above and below the eyes. In summer, it’s the only gull you’re likely to see with a black head. In winter, the color fades to a whitish gray. The Ring-billed Gulls are larger than Laughing Gulls and as the name implies, has a dark ring on the tip of their yellow bills. They’re common year-round residents of North Carolina, but especially in the winter. Ring-bills are the gulls likely to scavenge for scraps at McDonald’s or in a garbage dump. They’re also the tag alongs behind tractors as they plow the coastal plain fields. Herring Gulls are larger than Ring-billed gulls and are the most common of all our gulls. They have a white head and chest, gray back, and black wing tips. Their legs are pinkish and their yellowish bills have a red spot on the lower mandible. Herring Gulls are more common in winter, but you can also easily find them during summer. Like Ring-billed Gulls, unfortunately, Herring Gulls are fond of hanging out at landfills. The last of the commonly observed gulls (and my favorite) is the great Black-backed Gull which, as the name suggests, has a black back. We have one at the shelter now that I call “Big Baby Boy.” Not only is the Black-backed the largest gull in our state, it’s the largest gull anywhere. It lives year-round along the coast, but is especially common in the winter. Gulls have a lifespan of about 8 to 10 years (if we quit feeding them junk food). So, unless you visit the waterfront and just happen to be carrying a plastic bag filled with small fish, please do not feed them. It takes way too many months of care, nutritious food and clean-up at the shelter to allow their feathers the time needed to recover to flight capability after a steady diet of bread, crackers or cheese puffs.

Linda Bergman-Althouse
Author of “Save Them All”

The Loon Still Sings

On their migratory journey south during late fall and winter, beautiful Common Loons, one of the oldest, most primitive of birds known, fly singly or in groups from Canada and the Northeastern United States in search of warmer waters along the Atlantic or the Gulf Coast. When one shows up at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter at 100 Wildlife Way in Newport, because someone found it beached or on the ground, the staff and volunteers at the shelter know it’s more than likely a very bad and probably lethal situation. We pray for a fishing gear injury because we consider that a blessing in a Loon’s case. Untangling line, removing hooks and treating wounds, we can definitely do something about. It’s also not too bad if a migrating Common Loon accidentally lands, softly, on a wet highway or parking lot, mistaking it for a river or lake. A loon may also get stranded on a small pond. In either of those situations, the Loon doesn’t have enough open water for a long take-off because they need a running start, sometimes as much as 400 yards, paddling furiously through the water to take flight. Their legs are placed far back on their bodies which are very good for swimming but does not enable them to walk on land, only awkward scooting by thrusting its chest forward a few inches and dragging both legs back underneath their body. So, most people think they’ve come upon an injured bird when they see the Loon can’t stand up or move about on land. The worst diagnosis, and unfortunately the most common with Loon admits, is mercury or lead poisoning. Loons born in the Northeast are exposed to large quantities of methylmercury, the form of mercury toxic to living things. These birds are particularly vulnerable to environmental poisoning for many reasons. They are long-lived, up to 30 years, and they spend their lives in the water, feeding mostly on fish, but also crustaceans, frogs, and aquatic insects. Loons are divers and can dive up to 250 feet, and a typical foraging dive lasts about 40 seconds. They are large, aquatic birds, with wing spans approaching four feet, which are relatively small in comparison to their thick bodies. A Loon is heavy and dense because their bones are not hollow like most other birds. The portly waterfowl’s white belly stays submerged when swimming and then propels itself with its feet underwater to spot and catch fish. It swallows most of its prey before surfacing. The loon has sharp, rearward-pointing projections on the roof of its mouth and tongue that helps keep a firm hold on slippery fish. Loons spend most of their life on and in the water, only wriggling ashore to mate, incubate eggs, potty and occasionally escape a storm.
As with most birds, the males are much more colorful with a dark head and red eyes, a greenish-black throat band and distinctive white spots on their back and sides. The females are more muted gray with pale mottling but share the white belly. Loons mate for life and typically produce two eggs each year. Incubation takes about 28 days, and the parents share nest duty. During the first week, chicks may crawl onto the back of a parent which is paddling along on the water’s surface. Chicks stay very close to the parents for the first three weeks, and respond immediately to calls warning of raptorial birds (or airplanes) flying overhead by scrambling under an adult’s wing. The chicks grow very rapidly and are nearly the size of the adults within four to six weeks. They also begin to demonstrate their independence by seeking their own food, diving, and exercising their wing muscles. The youngsters retain their dull grey back plumage during that time, although the belly turns white. Some people describe the Loon’s call as eerie or an unearthly tremolo cry, but to me, they sing a beautiful song that awakens a sense of wilderness. Rather than a cry or wail, it’s more like a melancholy yodel. You always know when a loon is present at our shelter, they sing even in captivity, unlike other animals that tend to go silent in the unnatural environment of close human presence, a building or kennel cab. Although difficult to describe, it’s impossible to forget their sound. Depending upon the reason they are being treated, their song can sound happy or sad, but that’s totally a human’s assessment based on knowing the odds, otherwise, it would always be a soothing melody to me. In cases of toxic poisoning, the best we can do is make them comfortable with frequent tub baths and extra padding to lessen chest compression when kenneled, give the Loons time to build up their strength with healthy fish feedings and monitor their weight. We also flush them with fluids to try to rid the gut of mercury buildup, which may not help much if the mercury has already metastasized to organs and body tissues. If they manage to maintain weight or even better, put on weight, we will joyfully and eagerly release them to continue their journey. If, despite ravenously feeding on their own, they rapidly lose weight, it is apparent they are starving from malabsorption caused by chemical poisoning and sadly, will not make it. It’s a tough reality faced by all who work at the shelter, but we manage to approach each treatment plan in an optimistic and positive manner. By providing the best care we can and with a few fingers crossed, we hopefully think this one will make it and in rare, very rare instances, one will.

Keep singing,
Linda Bergman-Althouse
Author of
“Save Them All”
now available as ebook
at Amazon.com