“Big Owl Babies!”

Blog_GHOWL_B_Jun2016Some of the biggest babies wildlife rehabilitators at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport are raising this season are Great Horned Owls. We have admitted four to date and unfortunately, we were unable this year to return any to their Momma as a successful re-nest. Like many bird babies, Great Horned Owls, make a move to do some things before they are truly ready and find themselves on the ground instead of remaining in the safety of their nest, high in the air and away from danger and predators. Great Horned Owls are one of the earliest spring nesting birds. Eggs may be laid in January or February through April. They use abandoned stick nests of a hawk or heron or crow, but also nest in rock alcoves, hollows of trees, abandoned buildings, or sometimes on the ground. Mated pairs are monogamous and defend their territories with vigorous hooting, barking, chuckling, growling, hissing, screeching, screaming or by clacking its beak. Generally 2-3 white eggs are laid. Both the male and female incubate the eggs for 30-35 days. The young are fed by both parents who fiercely defend their nest against intruders. If a young owl falls out of the nest prematurely, the adults will feed the bird on the ground, however, if a human finds an owl youngster in a precarious situation, they usually choose to transport the young one to the shelter for safety reasons. Such was the case when an infant Great Horned Owl was found on the ground at the port city harbor in Morehead City. Although the fluffy one had pressed himself against one of the huge, bulk shipping containers, it was apparent that his parents and he would be dodging quite a few pieces of heavy equipment and vehicular traffic, if in fact he and they could! The good Samaritans monitoring his plight could not take that risk and brought him to the shelter. It’s the general consensus that he may have fallen from a nesting area untypically constructed on the top of a crane. Another baby Great Horned was found nesting aboard a boat taken out of storage that was well under way. Blog_GHOWL_Jun2016_DSC00037Infant GHO’s arrive as huge balls of fluffy feathers with big round, yellow eyes and exceptionally large, feet with sharp taloned toes that they eventually grow into. Great Horned Owls are fierce and powerful predators who usually hunt at night by listening for sounds that betray their prey’s presence, and they have such strong talons that when clenched, it takes the force of about 30 pounds to open them. That is a deadly grip. They hunt using their incredible hearing and a “perch and pounce” method. Great horned owls eat a wide variety of prey, both small and large. Cottontails seem to be a prominent food, but they will take squirrels, shrews, jackrabbits, muskrats, mice, weasels, skunks, gophers, snakes, domestic cats, bats, beetles, scorpions, frogs, grasshoppers and a wide variety of birds, from small juncos and sparrows to crows, wild ducks, geese, pheasants and even other owls. If you ever hear an agitated group of cawing American Crows, they may be mobbing a Great Horned Owl. Crows will gather to harass a Great Horned Owl for hours. The crows have good reason because the Great Horned Owl is their most dangerous predator. It seems that the world is one big buffet to a Great Horned Owl. After an owl has eaten, its stomach forms a pellet of fur, feathers, exoskeletons, and bones that they cannot digest. The owl then “upchucks” this pellet. Our shelter keeps these pellets on hand for the teachers in our area who request them for their science classes. Students can dissect them and identify what the owl has been eating. At the shelter, the little-big babies’ diet will consist of rats and mice until release. Fortunately, Artemis, our non-releasable, adult Great Horned Owl resident doesn’t mind fostering the owlets and teaching them what they need to know to be the best owls they can be! Blog_GHOWL_A_Jun2016As adults, Great Horned Owls are large birds weighing 3 to 4 pounds, standing 18-25″ tall with a wingspan of 36-60 inches. Males and females are similar in appearance, except the female is the larger of the two. The plumage of the Great Horned Owl varies regionally, from pale to dark. In general, they have brown body plumage covered with darker brown spots and white throat feathers that contrast with the dark cross-barred under parts. The white feathers stand out like a collar against the darker underside feathers. Some great horned owls may be very pale underneath, but still the white collar stands out. The Great Horned Owls facial disk may have orange or grayish feathers, and whiter feathers that form a V between the yellow eyes with black pupils. Contrary to popular belief, owls cannot turn their heads completely around, but they can rotate their heads 270 degrees, thanks to extra vertebra in their necks. Their eyes are fixed in their sockets, so they can’t move their eyes up or down or side to side. Owls have to move their whole head to compensate for the fixed eyes. Their ear tufts are large and set far apart on the head. Just like a dog, Great Horned Owls use these ear tufts or “horns” to convey body language, indicating their mood. When they are irritated the tufts lie flat and when they are inquisitive the tufts stand upright. So, those “horns” or “ears” are not really ears at all! These feather tufts are also part of the owl’s camouflage. They can make the owl look like part of a tree. The owl’s real ears are slits on either side of its head, just behind the facial disks. Blog_GHOWL_C_Jun2016For identification, four good field marks for the great horned owl are: size, eye color, ear tufts and the white collar. Their call is a series of deep hoots, from 3 to 8 notes long, and sounds like – “Whose Awake, Me Too,” with the “Me Too” part descending in tone. Like a coyote howl, the call of the great horned owl is a classic sound of the wild and can be heard from far away. When nesting pairs of Great Horned Owls call, the female has the higher pitched voice. Great Horned Owls can be found all over the United States and most of Canada, and southward to Central and South America to the Straits of Magellan. They are one of the most widespread species of owls. They mostly reside year round in their territories, but owls from far north move southward in fall or winter. The Great Horned Owls’ main enemy is man. Many owls die in collisions with automobiles or power lines. Mice and other rodents that have been exposed to pesticides may also be fatal to Great Horned Owls. If they can stay clear of perilous situations humans create, they usually live to be 12 – 15 years of age. The oldest Great Horned Owl on record is said to have been nearly 30 years old and from Ohio. There is so much to know and learn about Great Horned Owls, and it’s all amazing! They are gorgeous, incredible and magnificent raptors, but as magical and Harry Potter like as they are, remember the Great Horned Owl’s prowess as a predator and if they are present in your area, please keep your puppies and kitties inside!

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


Barred Owls Down!

Not every wild animal in distress is brought to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC and that, in some instances, is a very good thing. Field work occasionally happens for the volunteers and staff who work there. Let’s take at look at the example that occurred last month. A gentleman called stating a baby owl was on the ground in his yard, close to the base of a tree, and he could see the Mother Owl on a branch in a neighboring tree. This was late in the evening and action had to be taken before dogs, cats or wild night time predators were out and about. We headed to the residence around seven with enough equipment to create a makeshift nest (a basket) and hoist the baby back up the tree so Mom could continue to care for him until ready to fledge. The white ball of fluff was easy to spot on the dark tree trunk and definitely not capable of flying his way out of this mess.
Although, his Mom, a very large Barred Owl, was still monitoring the situation and would surely try to fend off possible attackers, how long she could keep that up and how successful she would be averting a disastrous outcome were in question. The solution was hardly simple, but none the less, we had to get the baby as high up the tree as possible. The tree was extremely tall and there were no limbs for the first thirty to forty feet from the ground. We agreed that roping a basket and throwing the weighted, loose end of the rope over a limb close to the trunk was the best way to hoist the new nest carrying the baby owl up the tree and out of harm’s way. Getting the basket ready to hoist was a little tricky but proved to be the easiest part of the mission. Momma Owl did not object as we placed the infant Barred Owl in the basket lined with twigs and grasses, however, something soon started stirring at the end of a limb overhead. At first, I thought it might be the adult owl coming in for a closer look at what we were doing, which made me a little nervous because I forgot my hardhat. It was dark now so I used my flashlight to scan the rustling area of the tree and found another baby Barred Owl hanging upside down by one foot.
His talons had grabbed a wad of leaves during his fall that he clutched for dear life, because he could not pull himself back up. We held a sheet under the baby and waited for the fall. A half hour later, we began thinking he might just be able to hang there all night. Every time he moved, struggled or spun, his talons, thankfully, tore the leaves just a little. In another fifteen minutes, the leaves finally tore through, and he tumbled through the air and into the sheet positioned for a soft landing. That baby owl was placed securely in the basket with his sibling and hoisted up the tree about fifty feet.
Mom watched the whole rescue operation play out and never displayed any aggression. We tied off the rope at the base of the tree and headed for home, a little tired, but proud we had been able to keep the family together. Early the next morning I went to the “Barred Owls down” residence to ensure our rescue efforts had been effective, and the babies were still safe. They weren’t. Both infant owls were out of the basket, and at that moment, one was on the ground, puffed up and facing off two neighbor dogs. I scooped them up and placed them in a kennel cab. Although at this age they are considered “branchers” and can crawl around in a tree by using their beak and talons, they were not sticking with the program by staying in the tree. They now had to go to the wildlife shelter. It happens that way sometimes. We set up the best case scenario for the family to stay together, but they just don’t cooperate. Owl parents usually care for their young for at least four months, but unfortunately risk factors made this particular case impossible. The babies are doing fine at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter, enjoying a safe haven and growing fast. Our permanent resident Barred Owl, Dinah, is fostering the two rambunctious youngsters.

Linda Bergman-Althouse
Wildlife Rehabilitator
Author of “Save Them All”
President, Wildlife Rehabilitators
of North Carolina, Inc. (WRNC)