Wild and Merry!

Every wild release is a time to celebrate at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS). When months of care, monitoring and mentoring of wild animals pay off and animals are eventually ready to go their merry way into natural habitats where they can enjoy the lives they were meant to live, it is a time for jubilant high-fives all around. It’s truly a team effort by OWLS wildlife rehabilitators, volunteers and donors that helps get the hawks, eagles, owls, pelicans, marsh birds, cottontails, squirrels, opossums, songbirds, muskrats, ducks, geese, turtles and all the other birds and critters that pass through our clinic door at 100 Wildlife Way in Newport, back to tip-top condition and capable of living in the wild again.
Each wild animal admitted to our care goes through a process of diagnosis and identification of illness or injury that entails a thorough physical examination, x-rays if necessary and laboratory work. We gather as much information as possible on the nature of injury to include the situation and location where the animal was found. After diagnosis, we begin appropriate treatment according to the individual needs of each species of wildlife. The initial treatment is extremely significant and instrumental to a successful rehab outcome. We also consider the stress the animal is trying to manage and remember that this may be the first encounter with humans for this animal coming from the wild.
At the end of medical treatment, to prepare for release, each animal patient is transferred to a pre-release enclosure that mimics life in its native habitat and our monitoring continues. Here, the animal is able to prepare for challenges it will face upon release. Practicing skills such as flight, hunting and life around other animals is crucial for survival following any animal’s release into the wild. During this time, we also research and determine an optimal release site, which is chosen according to the natural environment typical for a specific animal and, if possible, the site where it was found if deemed not to be a perilous location. The timing of release will be determined according to the lifestyle of the animal, daily active hours and months of migration.
In the past few months, releases for our shelter have been sweet, joyful and numerous. A mature Bald Eagle downed by pneumonia is flying free again in Pender County. A young Red-tailed Hawk lacking hunting skills and suffering from starvation recovered to a full figured gal who now knows how to feed herself in the wild. Two sibling Barred Owl babies from Jacksonville that refused to stay in their nest as rambunctious youngins and who were no match for predators on the ground were raised by our resident Barred Owl, Dinah, and released in a wooded area of Onslow County. Pelicans, admitted with fishing gear injuries recovered from lacerations and infections with the help of administered antibiotics, have rejoined their flight crews to skim ocean waves again. Parking lot Ring-billed and Laughing Gulls, clipped by cars or suffering from malnutrition as a result of eating a steady diet of popcorn, bread or Cheetos, are now feeling the wind flow through their wings as they stand guard on dock poles after supervised R&R and a healthy diet of fish. Hundreds of helpless baby squirrels orphaned after the most recent hurricane became fast and furious releases that will continue to amuse us and dwell in trees everywhere. Young, misguided flying squirrels, who had moved into someone’s attic, were added to a robust colony after spending a short time at OWLS. Even a Sora, a small, very secretive marsh bird, hardly anyone ever sees, was returned to the marsh after a brief stay with us for a concussion. Although, a tiny Least Sandpiper could not be released due to a shoulder injury that never healed to 100% function, we did find a home for her with the Boston Aquarium. And there were many more! We’re never sure what’s going through their minds when they take flight, skedaddle into the brush or waddle toward a waterway on release day, but we’d like to think they’re celebrating too and appreciative of their second chance even if they found wildlife rehabilitators somewhat annoying or irritating during their stay in ICU for treatment or while encouraging them to practice their skills, even when they didn’t want to, in their pre-release enclosure, readying themselves for the big “I’m free” day.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone! In this wonderful season, I wish you all the warm and special memories your heart can hold!

Linda Bergman-Althouse
Author of “Save Them All”

Squirrels of The Night

It’s quite common for most of us to see hefty balls of gray fluff with excited bushy tails zip across yards in search of a spot to bury a morsel of food in a location they may or may not remember later. Eastern gray squirrels might also be seen scampering up trees throughout the day to eat dogwood berries, Bradford Pear fruit or munch on a pine cone, but it’s rare to possibly never, that we have the opportunity to see a Southern Flying Squirrel, also called Flyers, in the wild. They are the oldest and smallest living line of modern squirrels, and in contrast to Eastern Grays, they are nocturnal. So, when we head for bed, their day (or night) is just getting started. When an adult Flyer or babies are admitted to The Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) in Newport, NC, it is a very big deal! Our fourth SFS, which is an unusual influx this year, was recently admitted by a gentleman who’s cat did a “bad thing,” but luckily the infant was unharmed. The female pup checked in fully furred but with eyes still closed and only 24 grams. She won’t be releasable until she reaches 70-80 grams and is capable of eating on her own. They are tiny, only grow to one fourth the size of an adult Eastern Gray and are too cute for words, as you can see! Fortunately, this infant will thrive on formula we also use for Eastern Grays and will gradually be introduced to nuts, berries, veggies, seeds, mushrooms, flowers and bark. As SFS’s are the only carnivorous member of the squirrel family, we will also add insects and mealworms to her diet. Flying Squirrels have also been known to eat bird eggs and carrion in the wild, but that won’t happen at the shelter. And so is the way of the wild, even if they are cute and tiny! Flyers don’t really fly, they very gracefully, glide. They have a furry membrane called a patagium that extends between the front and rear legs, which they use like Batman’s cape, to glide through the air. The flap of skin on each side of their body enables them to parachute from tree to tree. They use their flat and furry tail like a rudder, controlling their direction, allowing them to make 90 to 180 degree turns in the air. They are so beloved in the western part of the state that artificial trees were erected along the roads’ shoulders to help flying squirrels glide across a highway that exceeded their gliding ability without the aid of alternative trunks and limbs on which to land.
Southern Flying Squirrels prefer mixed forests that provide old trees with cavities for nesting to include abandoned woodpecker holes, but have also been known to nest in bluebird boxes, stacked cordwood piles, build a nest in a tree crotch just as the Eastern Grays and even move into an attic or two. We have two adult SFSs rooming with us at the shelter now because they chose someone’s attic in which to live. They don’t hibernate and are active year round. So, if our southern winter temperatures dip too low for their thin fur coat, many flying squirrels will commune in one nest to keep warm. The average number is ten to twenty, but fifty Flyer aggregations have been recorded. They can also enter a state of torpor (state of physical inactivity) to withstand frigid temperatures. Like Eastern Gray Squirrels, Southern Flying Squirrels produce two litters of two to seven infants a year. Young are born without fur or any capabilities of their own. Fur grows in by seven days and their eyes don’t open until they are twenty five plus days. The parents leave their young sixty-five days after they are born, but they don’t become fully independent until about four months old. As adults, they spend a lot of time on the ground foraging at night, so they must be on the alert for the many predators that can do them in, and the list is long: owls, raccoons, coyotes, bobcats, snakes, weasels and the common house cat, which tops the list as the most devastating predator of flying squirrels. They are very graceful in flight but extremely vulnerable on the ground. Their home range may be up to twenty-five square miles for females and double that for males. Flying Squirrels hear better than other squirrel species because, for their size, they possess a very large ear cavity. That feature helps them detect the movement of predators at night. They make a few different sounds, such as a loud and sharp “tseep,” which is considered an alarm or caution call to other flying squirrels. As for the chittering and “chucke” vocalizations, no one is really sure, but the snorting sound is associated with the act of challenging a lower ranking flying squirrel of the same sex. As most animals do, they too have a hierarchy. Ah oh, gotta go. Another Southern Flying Squirrel just checked in. She’s different in color, amber as opposed to steely gray and only 22 grams!

Hope you are having a wonderful “almost” Summer!
Linda Bergman-Althouse
Author of “Save Them All”

The Christmas Squirrel

When I got the late afternoon call, it didn’t sound good. A squirrel was cat attacked and rescued by a little girl who had been holding the adult squirrel in her lap for over an hour. As a wildlife rehabilitator with years of squirrel experience, my first thoughts were, this squirrel is mortally wounded and on his or her way to squirrel heaven or the squirrel’s in shock. If it was the latter and the squirrel came around while on the youngster’s lap, the scene would not be pretty and could possibly become dangerous to downright bloody. After the gentleman caller told me that he thought “all the squirrel needed right now is to be held and kept warm,” I knew I had to get that squirrel off the nine-year-old’s lap. I met the family at Burger King around 6 pm, and the little girl was still carrying the squirrel in her sweatshirt, even after my advisement to place her in a box for transport. The squirrel was moving but not responding normally, so I gently transferred her from the sweatshirt by towel to a kennel cab. In the triage at my home, I placed the kennel cab on a heating pad and gave her some time. An hour later, she was a totally different squirrel. She growled, chattered and charged the door more than once when I checked on her. Confirmed: it was the latter. Even though the towels evidenced no sign of blood, I figured a ride to the Outerbanks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) in Newport, when I went in for my shift the next day, was in order to give her the once over for possible puncture wounds that would need to be cleaned and treated. The ride to the shelter went well, but the exam room was another story. She was totally IN rather than OUT of her little squirrel mind and wanted no part of an exam, probably reflecting on the cat that pounced on her and carried her around a day earlier. Maria and I are much bigger than the cat! We decided not to sedate her because of the risks involved and since she was acting her normal squirrel “in survival mode self,” avoiding us at all costs and still no signs of blood or injury, the decision was made to take her back to her neighborhood and the trees she knows. It was dark when I arrived home on Christmas Eve, so back into the triage she went. She would be a Christmas Day release, or so I planned. Christmas morning, after feeding all the outside critters, I headed into the triage and the place looked like a robbery had gone on in there; things were overturned, knocked off shelves AND squirrel poo pellets were ON TOP of the kennel cab! She had chewed her way through the side of my toughest kennel cab and was no longer inside. She beat the live trap three times Christmas Day before finally being caught Christmas night. Then it snowed quite heavily the very next day!!!!!!! Snow is welcomed by most North Carolinians, because it happens so rarely, especially on the coast and even more appreciated around Christmas, but not so much when you have an agitated adult squirrel to release. So, I had to wait for a partial melt off before her release, which wasn’t until two days later. While confined to the live trap, she had plenty of food and water, and even felt comfortable enough to do a little remodeling by chewing at least five cover towels to make nesting material and because it was Christmas, I used red, green and white towels, of course. She chose white as her dominate color as you can see.
On Tuesday, I called her rescuers to let them know she was coming home. The little girl wanted to be present, along with her Dad and brother. I’m thinking – there’s not a lot to see with the speed of a squirrel release, but it was cute. They were all standing in the road, flagging me into the drive, when I arrived. I found a big tree and pointed the live trap towards it. No one saw anything! She was so fast, she was out of the trap and up the tree before our eyes could register anything! It even took a while before we could locate her in the tree! After dumping a zip lock bag of squirrel munchies at the base of the tall pine, I wished the family a Happy New Year! and we parted to enjoy the remainder of our holiday season. I’m hoping, with everything the squirrel experienced in the past week, she knows to be a whole lot faster, way more vicious and a little wiser when moving about during her daily scheduled activities.

Happy New Year Everyone!!
Linda Bergman-Althouse
Author of “Save Them All”