“Mr. Stabby, Jailbird!”

Blog_IMG_9378Most people are familiar with and able to identify big owls such as a Barn, Barred or Great Horned or even a Snowy Owl if they’ve seen a Harry Potter movie, but how about the little owls that do not go “Hoo, Hoo, Hoo” at night. Very small owls, not much larger than adult Robins or European Starlings, live amongst us inconspicuously in parks and shady suburbs where many human residents are unaware that a tiny owl called a Screech is their neighbor. Although they are quite common in our area, there will be occasions when a Screech Owl, found injured or orphaned and being transported to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, is misidentified during the call-in as a baby Great Horned Owl. Most people just don’t expect owls to be that small and do not realize it is close to fully grown. When a Lieutenant from the Carteret County Sheriff’s Department recently saw a gray owlet on a country road close to a forest line, he had a pretty good idea it was a Screech but had no idea why it was sitting there, alone and not even close to a possible nest overhead. Blog_IMG_4090With so much wind on that Saturday night a theory formed that the baby had been blown out of a nest and because he couldn’t get back up the tree, beat feet in confusion and ended up where he ended up. Thankfully for that little owl, the kind deputy happened by to help him. Because it was very late and our shelter was unable to receive the baby owl, he spent the night in jail. Now, how many owls will be able to share that story with their offspring! Early Sunday morning, the tiny Screech was delivered to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter where he is being raised for his eventual return to the wild. The Police Officer shared the story during check-in at the shelter that although he felt sure the little owl didn’t mean to, his talons grabbed the deputy’s hand while being picked up Saturday night and unfortunately, drew blood. For that reason, the officer named him “Mr. Stabby.” Of course, any wildlife being handled by humans is experiencing highly abnormal contact. They will be scared and utilize whatever defenses they have. With owls, large or small, their talons can cut like a knife! At the shelter, we will wear leather gloves when the need arises to handle ‘Mr. Stabby.’ In the wild, a Screech Owl spends the day roosting in holes found in wooded environments or in dense cover and only becomes active at dusk. Despite the name, Screech Owls don’t really screech; their voice features a series of whinnies and soft trills but will intensify when sounding an alarm. The Eastern Screech Owl is a short, compact bird, with a large head and almost no neck. Its wings are rounded; its tail is short and square. Pointed ear tufts are prominent when raised, lending its head a distinctive silhouette. Eastern Screech Owls can be either mostly gray or mostly reddish-brown. Blog_EasternScreechOwlWhatever the overall color, they are patterned with bands and spots that give the bird excellent camouflage against tree bark. Their eyes are most often bright yellow. Eastern Screech Owls have gray-green bills. They are about 7 to 10 inches tall and have a wingspan of 18 to 24 inches. They hunt from perches, swoop down on prey and snatch a meal with well-developed raptorial claws. They usually carry their food to their nest before eating it. Their curved bill and talons are used as tools to tear their meals into pieces small enough for them to swallow. A Screech Owl’s prey includes insects they catch in midair such as beetles, moths, crickets; reptiles such as lizards, frogs, earthworms and small snakes; small mammals to include bats and mice, and other small birds. They are opportunistic hunters and will even grab a small fish occasionally. Screech Owls are known to tackle prey much large than itself, such as adult rabbits or ducks. Their excellent sense of hearing helps to locate prey in any habitat. Their digestive system requires the expulsion of a few pellets a day that contain fur, feathers, bones and teeth, which are prey body parts they cannot process. Eastern Screech Owls are nocturnal, active at night and far more often heard than seen. Most bird watchers know this species only from its trilling or whinnying song. Blog_Eastern_Screech-OwlAlthough this cavity-roosting owl prefers trees, it can be attracted to nest boxes if erected at least 10 to 30 feet above ground and occasionally it will nest behind loose boards on abandoned buildings or barns. During the day and if you’re extremely sharp-eyed, you may spot a Screech Owl at the entrance of its home in a tree cavity or a strategically placed and enticing nest box. However, trees define the Eastern Screech-Owl’s natural habitat. This owl is common in most types of woods (evergreen or deciduous; urban or rural), particularly near water. Treeless expanses of mountains or plains is not suitable habitat for Screech Owls. Breeding season for Eastern Screech Owls is generally mid-April but can range from mid-March to mid-May. They have an elaborate courtship ritual. Males approach females, calling from different branches until they are close. The male then bobs his entire body, swivels his head, and even slowly winks one eye at the female. If she ignores him, bobbing and swiveling motions intensify. If she accepts him, she moves close, they touch bills and preen each other. The female will check out the nesting accommodations he is offering to ensure it’s suitable, and he will also try to impress her with food he has placed in the nesting cavity. Screech Owls mate for life but will accept a new partner if something happens to their previous mate. Grey and amber SO’s will mate together. Nests are almost always found in deciduous trees such as oaks, elms, maples, sycamores, willows, apples and occasionally in pines where three to five white eggs are laid on the natural floor of a cavity. No nesting material is added, and pairs of Screech Owls will often reuse nest sites through the years, to include former woodpecker (especially Pileated and Flicker) cavities. Incubation averages 26 days and these monogamous pairs share the care for their hatchlings. The male takes on the responsibility of providing food for his mate during incubation, and they both will hunt for food to feed their offspring. Although the young owls leave the nest at about four weeks after hatching, they are still fed by their parents and taught to hunt from dusk until dawn for quite some time. ‘Mr. Stabby,’ our little jailbird, is still very much a baby and his human foster parents at the shelter are tending to his needs. Blog_IMG_2768He is a hearty eater and growing in strength and size, but when appropriate and before his release, we must ensure his capability to hunt for food and recognize dangerous predators such as larger owls, weasels, raccoons, snakes, Crows and Blue Jays that might be in his path. The shelter boards a resident Screech Owl who we rely on to help us teach him everything he needs to know in the wild. Although it may be rare, one Screech Owl’s longevity on record states over twenty years, and we are intently focused on giving ‘Mr. Stabby’ the very best chance at living a long and healthy Screech Owl life!!

best always and Happy Baby Season,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All
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It’s a Murder!

Crow,_American_XXEECrows, members of the Corvidae family, live everywhere in the world except Antarctica and are part of myths and legends in many global societies including American culture. The stories range from comedies to horror and curiously, a flock of crows is referred to as a murder. A folktale explains the reference because it is said that crows will gather to decide the capital fate of another crow guilty of wrong doing. If you’ve heard crows are smart, there’s a whole lot of truth in that because they are among the most intelligent animals on the planet. Many studies and observations support their awesome problem solving skills as well as a few other behaviors also very human like such as recall, memory, gossiping and holding grudges. Researchers in Seattle spent many years banding crows, which the crows were not too happy about, and the humans found that crows never forgot a face. And remember they do, for a very, very long time. Even crows that were never banded would scold and dive-bomb human banders because, it is believed, the bandees “told” the other crows about this horribly unwanted and anxiety producing activity humans engage in and were advised to be wary of certain people and those who associate with them. It is reported that crow assaults and “mobbings” went on for years in that area. Wildlife rehabilitators experience first-hand the savviness and intelligence of the crow. When American Crows or Fish Crows (the smaller of the two), which are the only two crows indigenous to North Carolina, are admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport for treatment, we take precaution to ensure fasteners on their enclosures will be difficult and hopefully, impossible for the crow to figure out. That prevents us from having to look all over the building to find him or her. We also provide enrichment tools and toys because they can get bored in captivity which may cause them to become depressed, and that is not good for recovery. Sometimes we put food inside containers so they have to work to get it out. They enjoy a varied omnivorous diet, so we give them lots of food choices; insects, fish, earthworms, fruits, eggs, vegetables and nuts. In the wild, you may see them dining on frogs, snakes, mice, berries, carrion such as road-kill or even garbage. An adult crow needs about 11 ounces of food daily, so they are adaptable and consummate opportunists. As scavengers they often associate with other hunting animals to take advantage of unguarded or abandoned prey carcasses. When you think about it, humans are some of those hunting animals who exploit the environment and tend to leave waste behind, so it’s only natural to find crows wherever you find people. In the way of description, there’s not much to tell that you don’t already know. They are black, all black; feathers, beak, legs, feet, talons, even their tongue is blue-black in color. Some people consider this big, black bird scary while others describe them as elegant. They measure 16-21 inches in length and the tail takes up 40% of that measurement. Their wingspan extends 33 to 39 inches. Males tend to be larger than females. The flight of the American Crow is swift but prolonged and performed at great heights, although they are also very comfortable on the ground. Its gait, while on the ground, is lofty and graceful, with the progression being a calm and composed walk, although it occasionally hops when excited. Crow,_American_ECrows are very social, caring creatures and have tight-knit families. Older crow siblings take on the responsibility of care for younger siblings. They roost in huge numbers, in the thousands in some areas, to protect themselves from enemies like Red-Tailed Hawks, Great Horned Owls and raccoons. Crows also, amazingly, use at least 250 different calls; however, the sound we are most familiar with is the rapid caaw-caaw-caaw. That call is unmistakable. Their distress call brings other crows to their aid, as crows will defend unrelated crows. Crows are monogamous, mate for life and raise their young for up to five years. Their nests are formed externally of dry sticks, interwoven with grasses, and plastered with mud or clay while lined with roots and feathers. They lay four to six eggs of pale green spotted with purplish-grey and brownish-green. In our region they may raise two broods a season but further north, seldom more than one. Both sexes incubate, and their parental care and mutual attachment are not surpassed by any other bird. The average life span of the American Crow in the wild is 7–8 years, but captive birds are known to have lived up to 30 years. There’s a lot to admire about the crow. The crow is extremely courageous when encountering any of its winged enemies and appears to find pleasure in outwitting and teasing them. They also are known to use tools just like humans, chimpanzees and elephants do. When contending with unfamiliar tools, they use common sense to come up with ways to make them work. Studies show crows work together to protect their flock, hunt and have been observed overtly sharing food. A crow family can eat 40,000 grubs, caterpillars, ants, worms and other insects in one nesting season. That’s a lot of insects gardeners and farmers consider troublesome. These great environmental citizens also transport, distribute and store seeds, thus propagating forest renewal. Their habit of eating carrion makes them part of nature’s cleanup crew. So let’s give crows the “props” they deserve for being impressive environmental partners. Crows might have a scary reputation, but the most frightening thing might be how much they know about us and how little we know about them!

Best Always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of, “Save Them All”


Triple Threat!

On Sunday, I experienced the privilege of releasing three Screech Owls we raised from infancy at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport after they lost their home to loggers. They now live in a protected North Carolina forest adjacent a meadow with a pond and river close by, away from traffic and human interference but close to “meals on the go.” All you tiny rodents, big fat bugs and squiggly things better watch out! Nature is harsh but necessary. The Screeches must be careful as well, because a hierarchy exists when it comes to predation. Although they are efficient predators themselves, larger animals on the wing or the ground will take an opportunity if they are not quick and wise. The two amber faced and one gray faced Screech spent months at the shelter, eating, growing and learning how to be the owls they are meant to be. They are stubby, tiny owls, only reaching a length of between eight to nine inches and six to eight ounces in weight. Their large, yellow eyes fill most of their flat round face, crowned with ear tufts and like larger owls, their beak and talons are curved and deadly. They hunt from dusk to dawn, which is something wildlife rehabilitators must ensure the owls are capable of before releasing them to the wild. Their great sense of hearing helps them locate prey in any habitat. Hopefully, in their new environment of old and new trees, they have found cavities in which to roost. One may even be so rude as to boot a woodpecker out of a cavity to take it over. Screech-owls are primarily solitary, so no telling how long they will stay together in the wild. Even though they were raised as siblings at the shelter and acclimated together in an outside enclosure, they may have gone their separate ways already. When we think of owls and the sound they make, most familiar to us is the typical “hoo hoo,” we all use when imitating an owl, but the Screech owl is named for its piercing call which is basically a hair raising, high pitched scream, hence the nickname, demon owl, which I think is a bad rap and not very becoming. They do have a more pleasant trill, more like a song they sing, that is just between them, one Screech to another during courtship or between members of a committed pair. They really aren’t the kind of bird you want to see or hear in your back yard, especially if you supplement the feeding of other wildlife. Here’s hoping they are enjoying their freedom and the wide open spaces of their new world in the forest, and I must say, it was an honor to share their Independence Day!

Linda Bergman-Althouse
Author of “Save Them All”
Wildlife Rehabilitator
North Carolina, USA