Bumblebees, “Ghosts in the Making”

It’s unusual for the staff and volunteers of the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC to be as highly concerned about a wild creature we don’t rehabilitate as we are, but this living being . . . this insect . . . rules the world! That is not an exaggeration. The Bumblebee, especially the Rusty Patched Bumblebee which was once a common sight throughout the entire continental United States, is in serious trouble. Now it can only be found in small, scattered groups in 13 states. The bee’s population has plummeted by 87 percent since the 1990’s, and as of 9 November 2018 and for the first time in history, the RP Bumble Bee is officially listed as an endangered species on the brink of extinction. It is a ghost in the making. Yes, it is only one listed bee species, but it is a significant start to stronger action that needs to be taken to recover our bees! We are finally acknowledging in a formal and proactive way that if we lose our bumble bees, there will be no plants or parks, no forests or shrublands, no meadows and no vibrant life the bees support such as wildlife, domestic animals and the human animal. All these life forms simply cannot survive without bees. Bees have now joined the Grizzly Bear and the Northern Spotted Owl as heading for extinction if we don’t do something quick! 347 species of bees have drastically diminished over decades due to habitat loss, use of pesticides, mechanization of agriculture, disease, parasites and climate change, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. This tiny creature, the bumblebee, known for growing our world is now protected, and we all need to do our part to help save them. Bees certainly don’t get the respect they deserve for all they do. Most people don’t like bugs of any kind and see the bee as a menace to their immediate environment, so they end up swatting it and possibly killing it, not realizing the devastating effects the loss of that bee will create. And how about the large number exterminated at one time when bees have taken up residence in an area or pocket deemed an inconvenience to a human, such as between the walls of a shed or under a porch, and they are all sprayed dead? Bumblebees do not damage wood or other structural components. If a bumblebee nest is discovered on your property, its best and safer to just leave it alone unless there is a good chance your activities will take place near the nest. If that’s the case, calling bee experts to orchestrate a safe conservational move might be the way to go. Foraging bumblebees will almost never divert from their tasks to intentionally sting someone or their pets. A few other reasons to accommodate a bumblebee nest is of course, their huge value as pollinators, the small size of their nest and their short life span when compared to other stinging insects such as yellow jackets and hornets. Although bumblebees are capable of stinging, they are quite gentle, docile and not as aggressive or likely to sting as wasps such as those hornets and yellowjackets. The male bumblebee cannot sting, and females only do so when they feel threatened. Also, in their defense, bumblebees make up for that unique and unappreciated behavior of stinging by being among the most important pollinators of crops such as blueberries, cranberries and clover and almost the only insect pollinators of tomatoes. They basically pollinate everything, which emphasizes what a food security issue the loss of bees presents! According to the U.S. FWS, “the economic value of pollination services provided by native insects (mostly bees) is estimated at $3 billion per year in the United States.” Bees are tiny and usually go unnoticed unless they buzz by you or in your face, but keep in mind when you deem them an annoyance that these pollinators are a huge part of the natural mechanism that sustains us and our world. Without them, food will not grow. Bumblebees are large, fuzzy insects with short stubby wings that beat 130 times or more per second in a sweeping motion rather than up and down. They seem to defy aerodynamics when you consider their tiny wings versus their rotund body. How they manage to stay in the air is a mystery to many bumblebee fans. Their extremely fast metabolism requires them to eat nectar or pollen constantly when they are on the move. It is said that “a bumblebee with a full stomach is only 40 minutes away from starvation.” Bumblebees are some of the most social creatures in the animal kingdom. A group of bumblebees is called a colony, and colonies can contain between 50 and 500 individual bees. Bumblebees are larger than honeybees but don’t produce much honey, because their role and mission is that of a remarkable pollinator. Other animals are pollinators as well to include birds, bats and butterflies, but there’s no question that bees are the most important, significant and vital pollinators in our ecosystems around the world. Bees are dying, but there are ways for everyone to help stop the bees’ decline. Recommendations are to plant native and bee-friendly flowers, limit or avoid pesticides, foster natural landscapes, leave grass and garden plants uncut after summer to provide habitat for overwintering bees, strategically place old logs on not frequented areas of your property, plant new habitats for the bees to thrive in, provide supplemental nectar (30% sugar & 70% water in bottle caps in and around flower beds) and even build nesting boxes for bees. As we enjoy the aesthetic beauty all around us; the greenery, the flowers, the trees, wildlife, please give credit where credit is due, to the bumblebee, which is also beautiful in its fuzzy, buzzy way! Our community goal should be to bring the bumble bees’ numbers back to a healthy level. If you haven’t yet, let’s get ready and start this process now. There are things we can do to prevent the decline of our precious bees, and so we should. Please join us in the efforts to save these fat, fuzzy fliers. It just might be the best Christmas present we will ever give ourselves and those we love! Bee Merry!

best always & HAPPY 2019!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All”

“Coming Together”

FB_BlogMG_8133_Dec2013Plenty of rescue stories come through the door at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport that volunteers and staff repeat over and over again because they bring us joy and an opportunity to recall the 2nd chances we help make happen. But sometimes a wildlife memory is produced at the shelter that has nothing to do with an injured or distressed animal admitted to our clinic. In this season of giving and reflecting, it’s a great time to share this once in a lifetime story, so let me tell you one of our favorite memories. If there exists such a thing as a normal, or let’s say routine day at our wildlife shelter, especially in the winter, it would be one of manning the phones and admit desk, examining incoming patients, preparing specie specific diets for delivery at meal time, administering medications, cleaning and disinfecting kennel cabs, sweeping, mopping, taking out the trash, locking every patient in for the night and setting the alarm. If there’s a moment of down time in all of that, the small crew of two or three rehabilitators come together to discuss patient care or the latest happening in each of our lives over a spot of afternoon tea in the humans’ kitchen. One winter day started ‘average’ enough, but turned out to be anything but routine. We witnessed an “in the wild” incident so rare it begged for a camcorder bolted to the top of a helmet, similar to those worn during extreme sports or the super bowl, which I should surely be required to wear while tending to tasks at the wildlife shelter. Of course, no one at the shelter wears one, but without videotape, who will fully appreciate or believe our story without seeing it play out for themselves. Still shots can only do so much but here goes.  Passing through the kitchen, I stopped to watch the over wintering hummingbird hover near the nectar feeder outside the window. My hummingbirds at home in Jacksonville packed up and left for Brazil or Costa Rica months ago, but this little chubby guy was still hanging tough in our 40-degree weather. At the same time, a Great Blue Heron passed over the building, straight as an arrow, his long thin legs dangling after him like the tail of a kite. I ran to the gift shop window to see if he was coming down to our pond. Although Herons find swampland more suitable at mealtime, they visit our pond occasionally, and he did. I didn’t know if he would stay long, though. Being solitary hunters, the presence of so many ducks and geese may prove annoying for the lanky fisherman. I yelled for Maria to come watch and through binoculars we saw him gracefully move into position behind the bare limbs of a bush whose roots drink from the pond. With head lowered, he stalked all movement under the water and despite twenty geese paddling over to nose into his business, within minutes his head shot into the pond, catching a six-inch Bluegill with his spear-like bill. He immediately took flight over the building with the fish tightly clamped in his mouth, so we hurried to the back window to see him go. By the time we reached clear pane, he was turning around and heading back toward the pond with no fish. The fish was way too wide to swallow whole in flight, so we figured the large, gray seabird dropped the fish, but wondered why he didn’t just come down and get it? Maria and I decided to go outside and look for this fish out of water. If it were still alive, we’d throw him back in the pond. Come on, it’s what we do. Donned in puffy vests we spread out and walked toward the aerial path taken by the Heron. “Stop. Don’t move,” Maria whispered loudly. Within 25 feet, we stood face to face with a stout and sturdy Redtailed Hawk on the ground, her talons securely embedded in the fish the Heron accidentally dropped, or quite possibly, the aggressive, territorial bird of prey caused the Heron to drop it. We will never know for sure, but something told us it was probably the latter. With her mouth open, the Redtail, North America’s largest hawk, looked at us, then down at the fish and back at us. Since her eyesight is eight times more powerful than a human’s, we knew she was seeing us and our intent much more clearly than we were seeing her. We backed away slowly and like a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter, the heavily built Redtailed Hawk lifted to a sturdy pine branch, Bluegill in tow and proceeded to dine on fish.  RB_BlogRedtailDec2013We weren’t sure if she’d ever eaten fish before, as they usually feed on small rodents and an occasional snake or frog. After watching her tear into her alleged stolen food for a few minutes, we went back to the gift shop window and found the Heron, planted and waiting patiently in the same fish blind he’d used before. The geese had lost interest in his presence. It only took a few more minutes until the Great Blue surfaced an even bigger Bluegill, at least 8 inches, which he toyed with a bit before seriously making short work of his lunch. Even in nature, good karma is present (at least for the Heron . . . not so much for the fish). This extraordinary experience was compelling, absolutely powerful and took all of ten minutes or less. Those precious moments were a once in a lifetime “coming together” of Heron, Hawk and Humans. Though brief, a strong message was sent and well received . . . . We should all be walking life’s journey fully awake.


Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

A Squirrel’s World

CSIMG_0483FBThey just keep coming in and surprisingly, without being tossed and blown by a hurricane or tropical storm this year. Infant squirrel admits are status quo after heavy rain and big wind activity, but the number of displaced and orphaned squirrels has been unusually high for the past few months and can only be chalked up to our wet summer, possibly weakening nest structures or causing trees to fall. At the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, infant squirrels in every developmental stage, from pinky to fully furred, can be found in containers or chew proof enclosures in every room and also in the personal care and homes of staffers or volunteers. Squirrels are familiar to almost everyone and are the second-most fed and watched wild animals, after birds. Most of us enjoy their antics and find them entertaining and if I may go so far, lovable. There are more than 200 squirrel species living all over the world, except Australia. In Eastern North Carolina, we are blessed with Eastern Grays, Fox and Flying Squirrels. Most wildlife rehabilitators have great fondness for raising young squirrels to release, because, although messy and capable of fast and furious squirrely behaviors in adolescence, they are the easiest and usually, the hardiest of all babies to rear. You don’t have to coax a baby squirrel to drink its formula from a syringe. The problem is getting the syringe full and the nipple in front of their face fast enough! Sep2013Squirrel1EWhen we keep their tummies full and give them comfy, warm places to sleep, they are content and we’d like to think, happy, although their facial expressions never change much. Most of the squirrels coming in during this second breeding season of the year are Eastern Grays. They can start breeding at five and a half months, but usually breed for the first time at age one. The first litter of naked, toothless and blind babies is born in February to March, the second in June to July. Normally, two to six young are born in each litter. Aug2013EEThe gestation period is about 44 days; the young are weaned at seven weeks and leave the nest after 10 weeks. However, second breeding season youngsters will spend the winter with their mother. Eastern gray squirrels build a nest known as a “drey” in the forks of trees, consisting mainly of dry leaves and twigs. Males and females may share the same nest for short times during the breeding season and during cold winter spells squirrels may share a drey to keep warm. Unfortunately, they have been known to also nest in attics or exterior walls of a house, where they are deemed pests by home owners. In addition, squirrels may inhabit a permanent tree den hollowed out in the trunk or a large branch of a tree, which, of course, is more preferred by humans. Eastern Gray Squirrels are members of the Rodent family and spend most of their lives in trees. They grow 17 to 20 inches long and have grayish-brown fur, except for their bellies which appear white or very pale. The bushy tail, used for thermal regulation and to sign an alarm by vigorously tail flicking, often has silvery-tipped hairs at the end. The squirrel’s greatest tool may be its tail, which it also uses for balance, shade from the sun as an umbrella, a blanket and as a rudder when swimming. They have incredible balance and rarely fall from trees. FB_MG_7201XThey also run headfirst down a tree trunk, which happens rarely, if ever, with other animals. Communication among Eastern Gray Squirrels involves both posturing and vocalizations which include a squeak similar to that of a mouse, a low-pitched rumbling noise, a chatter and a raspy “mehr mehr” sound. The Eastern Gray sports four fingers on the front feet and five on the hind feet. Their bounding stride can measure two to three feet when at full speed. Their diet includes: acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts, beechnuts, maple (buds, bark, and samaras), Yellow Poplar blossoms, American Hornbeam seeds, apples, fungi, Black Cherry, Flowering Dogwood, grapes, sedges, grasses, American Holly, mushrooms, insects (adults and larvae), bird eggs, amphibians and if hungry enough, might snatch a baby bird or frog. Squirrels have four front teeth that never stop growing but stay short due to constant wear and daily grinding they receive by constant gnawing.They gnaw on bones, antlers and turtle shells, likely as a source of minerals sparse in their normal diet as well as the need to grind. Don’t forget all the bird feeders they raid that are not squirrel proof (and even the squirrel proof ones, usually aren’t). Squirrels are problem solvers and can figure those challenges out! The Eastern Gray Squirrel is a scatter-hoarder that hides or buries food in numerous small caches for later recovery. Each squirrel is estimated to make several thousand caches each season. The squirrels have accurate spatial memory for the locations of these caches, and use distant and nearby landmarks to retrieve them. Smell is used only when the squirrel is within a few inches of the cache. Eastern gray squirrels are more active during the early and late hours of the day and tend to avoid the heat in the middle of a summer day and do not hibernate as some folks think. Predators include humans, hawks, weasels, raccoons, domestic and feral cats, snakes, owls and dogs, so they have reason to employ defensive tactics such as freezing in place and zigzag running at warp speed! Eastern grays can live to be 20 years old in captivity, but in the wild may live up to 5 -12 years if they stay healthy, rely on their good senses of vision, smell and hearing and can outmaneuver the many predators trying to take them out! Although some people have a love-hate relationship with the squirrel, we can’t ignore their great value to our ecosystem. Squirrels help control plant populations by eating many seeds, fruits and insect populations. They are a good means of seed and nut dispersal, and therefore help reforest trees and other plants. They are highly intelligent and fascinating to watch. Of course, they can get into a little mischief, but because they are so cute and lively, most of us just deal with it and have fun trying to outsmart them, which is not easy!

Happy Holiday Season Everyone!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

Wild Babies Amongst Us

_LT_0664FB“ALL ABOARD for the Baby Train!” We have officially shifted into the busiest time of the year at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) in Newport. Wildlife babies of all shapes, sizes and species are making their way to the care of wildlife rehabilitators everywhere, and our shelter is no exception. It all started a month ago when a couple of baby squirrels were admitted after being found on the ground after a storm went through the area. Then, a litter of baby opossums, weighing only 20 something grams each was brought to us after their Mom was hit by a car. Once the baby train started chugging, it just gained speed and the number of admits grew large. An infant Barred Owl is on board after being found on the ground in the same place we have picked up baby Barred Owls for the past three years. We always see the Mother in a tree close by and although it’s sad to remove the little one, especially with her looking on, we know the ball of fluff will not make it if she remains on the ground. We find solace in thinking Mom may boot them out of the nest because she’s stressed or tired and knows someone will show up to take over with their care. I mean . . . three years in a row, really? By the way, the little girl is doing great and started eating on her own the first day. We’re having quite the influx of Eastern Cottontail admits for a variety of reasons such as a dog or cat discovering the nest site, but mainly as a result of those engaged in yard work. BlogIMG_0407May2013It is Spring, and that’s what humans do! If you come across a nest of bunnies in the wild and mother is nowhere to be seen, please DO NOT disturb them if they are not in eminent danger … this is normal. You will not see the mom as mom will only come back in the middle of the night to feed her babies. Mother rabbits only nurse their babies for approximately five minutes twice a day. By removing them from the nest you greatly reduce their chances of survival. So, if you do pick up a baby before thinking it through, please put it back. Infant cottontails are the most difficult of all furry wildlife orphans to rehab because they are ever alert to danger and subject to fatally overstressing. Holding baby bunnies can easily cause them to succumb to heart failure. Cottontails will still care for their babies even if they have been touched by human hands. We recommend putting a string around their nest area and checking back a few times to see if the string is mussed. If the babies still look plump and healthy, Mom is taking care of them, as it should be. In four weeks or less they’ll be out on their own. In rare situations where you know the bunnies are orphaned, such as evidence momma rabbit has been killed by another animal or found in the road, that is definitely the time to get the babies to a skilled wildlife rehabilitator, trained to provide appropriate care to ensure their best chance of survival. Speaking of more babies, our brooders are full of Mallard, Muscovy and Wood ducklings who found themselves alone, confused and separated from their Mother and siblings as a result of whatever the crisis was at the moment. FBBrooderDucklings_May2013We can only speculate. Baby birds are now heading into the shelter as well. First in was a House Finch, all by her lonesome and found on the ground. Breeding season for birds gets started a little later than mammals, but when it happens, it is full on! The environment can be very hard on baby birds just trying to make their way into the world. The reasons are many; from numerous wild or domestic predators wanting to dine on them or the ‘incredible edible egg’ to humans who find their presence annoying (that one is hard to figure out from a wildlife rehabilitator’s perspective). Baby birds are brought to the shelter daily throughout spring and summer and care for baby birds is quite time consuming. There is no down time between feedings because baby birds, especially songbirds, eat every thirty minutes or less, depending upon their size when admitted to the shelter. By the time a wildlife rehabilitator at OWLS has made the bird nursery feeding rounds, it’s time to start the process all over again. And because birds eat from sun up to sun down, the shelter adds a third shift of volunteer personnel to cover evening hours until the sun dips beneath the horizon. So the bottom line for OWLS this time of year . . . We are very, very busy, but as wildlife rehabilitators, we don’t mind working earnestly to ensure all baby critters in peril get their second chance! Please watch out for the Wild Babies Amongst Us.

Happy Sunny Days Everyone!

Linda Bergman-Althouse
Author of “Save them All

“The Woods Ghost”

CSMagBobcatE_FBVery few and far between do we admit Bobcats to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport because they are extremely elusive, secretive and avoid all human contact. Although it is a rarity to see a bobcat in Eastern North Carolina, they are here in the coastal plains, as well as throughout the state. They are the only wild cat found in North Carolina. Every time a Bobcat has been admitted to the shelter over the years (the instances can be counted on one hand), a run in with a vehicle during the dead of night has been the cause of injury. The last Bobcat admitted suffered a broken leg when struck by a pickup truck on a back road in a low land area of our coast. Fortunately, the compassionate driver, who had heavy work gloves in his cab, managed amid hissing, growling, biting, scratching and squirming, to put him in his truck bed under a secured tarp and transport the injured cat to our shelter. A Bobcat isn’t a relatively large animal, but it is a fierce fighter. His stay in intensive care was quite the challenge. Isolation in a huge metal enclosure was the only way to go for this beautiful, solitary animal to keep him and everybody else safe. Despite looking like your cat, Fluffy, who curls up on your lap while you watch television, this fur ball, who is twice as big as your chubbiest domestic house cat, is not okay with being handled by humans, so safety issues are paramount when treating a Bobcat.
The Bobcat gets its name from the short tail it sports which is usually less than 5 inches. Its light brown to reddish brown fur is extremely gorgeous, dense and soft. Their round face is topped with pointed, tufted ears, and the Bobcat’s hind legs are longer than its front legs, which gives them that “Cheetah” like bobbing run when chasing down prey. Their paws have four toes each with retractable, razor sharp claws. They have four large and very sharp canine teeth and behind the canines, more sharp cutting teeth. They have forward facing yellow eyes with black elongated pupils. Like all cats, they use their whiskers like fingertips and can feel prey in complete darkness. Bobcats are gifted runners, climbers and swimmers. They are excellent hunters with superior vision, hearing and a good sense of smell. Their night vision is exceptional. You might be thinking, with all that going on, how do they get hit by cars? It’s a timing thing.CSMagBobcatE2_FB
Nicknames abound for the Bobcat to include “ol’ spitfire,” “lightning,” “woods ghost” and “tiger cat” which all speak to their stealth abilities as focused and ferocious hunters. Bobcats are carnivores that favor rabbits, rodents, raccoons, opossums, birds and snakes for their dining pleasure, although they have been known, although rare, to take down an adult deer and occasionally farm animals, too. They can be active during the day but prefer to hunt at night. They will also roll in, chew on and ingest fresh vegetation. Although Bobcats are solitary, males will seek out a mate when they sexually mature, which is between one and two years of age. Mating takes place usually in late winter and two to four kittens will be born in the May timeframe. Kittens are furred but blind at birth. Their eyes open in 3 – 10 days. By 4 weeks they start exploring beyond the den and by 7-8 weeks of age, they are weaned. Life expectancy for males is 3-4 years and 4-5 years for females. Ten year longevity is the highest to be recorded for a Bobcat in the wild. In captivity, they may live more than 30 years.
Although the Bobcat prefers woodlands, it has adapted well to our coastal region. Due to habitat restoration occurring throughout our state, Bobcat populations have grown over the past 50 years. Bobcats are fascinating wildlife, and if you have the opportunity to see a Bobcat in the wild, consider it an honor and feel privileged to be among the few that ever has or ever will!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of,   “Save Them All

Muskrat Love!

Native Americans call them “little brothers of the beaver.” They swim, gnaw, build houses, eat the same foods and even resemble beavers. They received the name Muskrat, because like the beaver, they have a pair of musk glands to use when they need to scent message other animals in the area to include those of their own kind. So that’s where the “musk” part came from, and the “rat” part came from that long, skinny and seemingly hairless when wet, tail, which is a dead give-away that you’re not looking at a beaver. We don’t get many muskrats, orphans or adults, admitted for care at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, but when we do, despite the muskrat’s persecution for centuries, OWLS is a safe haven for them because we treat all wildlife equally and with respect. They get the same royal treatment just like any other indigenous species admitted to our clinic. Besides, these chunky little mammals are way too cute, wear strikingly beautiful fur and have squeaky and intriguing conversations with each other! A while back, we raised two orphans who treated us to quite the aquatic mammal experience. Aware of the timid ways of the elusive and shy beaver cousins, we ensured their makeshift habitat was loaded with leaved limbs, hiding places, and water sources to enjoy. They didn’t do anything to get themselves in trouble, but we still had to place them behind steel bars or as all efficient rodents would do, they’d chew out whenever they wanted. With all our infant wildlife, we take extreme measures to ensure they don’t become friendly towards people. If we allow them to bond with us, their chances of survival in the wild would be zero. Muskrats are easier to keep wild than most because they tend to be skittish, frightful of people and non-aggressive, although will bite if they perceive danger. In defense of the “in the wild” muskrat though, they seldom invade our residential spaces because they are always close to water, and usually marshy, human uninhabitable wetlands at that. So, muskrats are virtually harmless to humans, fascinating little creatures and can entertain anyone who stops to take time to appreciate them. In North Carolina, muskrats are common in most river systems but rare in our southeastern coastal regions, which is the main reason OWLS’s rehabilitators don’t get much hands-on with muskrats. Where ever a musky chooses to call home, it will dig into a bank or build a free standing house by piling aquatic vegetation into a mound, then excavate a nest cavity in the center with several chambers and tunnels leading into the water; quite impressive and masterful engineering. These lodges, also called push-ups or mounds, are not as grand as beaver lodges. The muskrat does not haul in logs and slap on mud. The fashioned mounds of grasses, reeds, and small sticks are only a few feet high. Sometimes they build the mounds around trunks of dead bushes or trees. In contrast to a beaver’s lodge, there is often no structure below the water. Muskrats and beavers are the only mammals that build homes in the water. Unlike the beaver though, the muskrat does not store food for the winter. They need to eat fresh plants every day and maintain a home range of less than one mile from their push-up. Muskrats can breed any time of the year and more than once with pregnancy lasting 25-30 days. The average litter size is four to six and kits are hairless, blind at birth and weigh less than one ounce each. Over time the youngsters are weaned from mother’s milk and often stay with their parents for a year, but when overcrowding develops, the parents, usually Mom, dramatically encourages her eldest members to move out and build a home of their own. An adult ranges in size from 10-14 inches in length and weighs two to three pounds. Muskrats are excellent swimmers and can stay under water for up to 15 minutes at a time. Their webbed hind feet, great for swimming, are much larger than the front five-toed feet used for digging and manipulating food. They are nocturnal, although often seen during daylight hours working on the house and spend most of their life in water. They are primarily plant eaters feeding on roots, shoots and leaves but will enjoy frogs, small fish, crayfish, mussels or clams if the opportunity presents itself.
I once read a story about a young muskrat found scratching at the back door of a nursing home in Ontario, Canada during a horrific snow and ice storm. One of the workers let her in and fashioned a warm kennel with food and a number of deep, functional water pans. The question of why she came to the door was never answered but a couple theories were; the weight of the snow collapsed the lodge or a predator, such as a wolf or mink, tried to dig in, but she was smart, lightning fast and escaped. Although the plan at the home was to release her back to the wild in the spring, last I heard, she is very content and lives with the residents still. Muskrats benefit many wetland species by creating open water areas for waterfowl and are an excellent indicator of environmental quality. Gotta love ‘em! I know I do!

Linda Bergman-Althouse
Author of “Save Them All” (which is now available as an ebook on Amazon)

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”

Henderson Hawk!

Calls started coming into the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport weeks before the young Red-tailed Hawk was finally captured and admitted for care. The reports were all very similar. “I see this hawk sitting on the ground, for hours at a time, in the grassy area by a small stream right next to our building on Henderson Drive in Jacksonville. I can almost walk right up to it.” With each call, someone was dispatched to check out the situation. I went a few times and managed to get very close to the bird, who then flew away quite capably up and over the tree tops. The thought at the time was, she’s just hunting for snakes or toads along the stream. The business owners in the area and their employees enjoyed seeing the bird everyday and affectionately referred to their big bird as ‘Henderson Hawk.’ A day came when an employee called stating she was standing right next to the hawk, took a picture with her smart phone and sent it to me. It was, in fact a young Red-tailed Hawk, and standing next to one in the wild is highly unusual and potentially dangerous. I high-tailed it over to Henderson Drive and was able to walk up to the hawk, pick her up and place her in a kennel cab for transport to our shelter with no resistance, from the hawk anyway. People from the surrounding buildings emerged and walked rather hurriedly toward my car. “What are you doing with our bird or where are you taking our bird?” I explained to them that “it is not normal for me or anyone to be able to walk up to a hawk, let alone, pick it up. There has to be something wrong that needs to be diagnosed and treated,” I explained. They all understood and wanted what was best for “their bird.”
After a thorough examination at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter, the first year Red-tailed Hawk was found to be severely dehydrated and suffering from malnutrition. She was essentially starving. She should have weighed between 1100 – 1500 grams and was only 600. As you can tell from her ‘in the wild’ perched on a rock picture, her head was not well rounded, her eyes dull and sunken, and her emaciated chest could barely support her heavy, drooping wings. The theory is, she had not developed appropriate hunting skills. Mortality among first year hawks is around seventy percent and lacking hunting skills is one of the main reasons for that high percentage. In an outside, rehabilitation enclosure at our shelter, she is getting healthy and looking quite stunning with her fuller figure and intense, bright eyes.

Red-tailed Hawks are classified as Buteos, which are the largest of hawks. With a wing span of up to 56 inches, they are broad-winged and broad-tailed soaring hawks. They get their name from the rounded, rich, russet red tail they sport. A young hawk’s tail will be brown with dark color bands until they molt in their second year. They are carnivores and belong to the category of birds known as raptors. Their eyesight is eight times as powerful as a human’s, making it easy to spot their lunch of small rodents, rabbits, snakes or lizards, which comprises the bulk of their diet, from the air. RTH’s are opportunistic hunters and will snag just about any little critter moving on the ground with those sharp and deadly talons they use as weapons if hungry enough. In some areas of the country they are referred to as “Chicken Hawks.” When you hear a hoarse and raspy two to three second scream way overhead, it could very well be a Red-tailed Hawk letting you know she’s defending her territory or nest that may be close by.
Henderson Hawk is doing quite well at our shelter, has achieved her normal weight and is demonstrating behaviors indicative of the aggressive Red-tailed Hawk she is meant to be. She will be attending flight and hunting school in our large flight cage soon. When she graduates, she will be released to the wild, but she won’t be returning to the people and traffic concentrated area of Henderson Drive. Since Red-tailed Hawks are birds of open country, she will enjoy the wide open spaces of fields and woods one of her caretakers, whose last name is, coincidentally, Henderson, has planned for her.
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”

All Fly, but All Different!

Feeding tiny birds is a full time job when springtime, baby season rolls around at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) in Newport, NC where I volunteer. There is no down time between feedings because baby birds, especially songbirds, eat every thirty minutes or less, depending upon their size when admitted to the shelter. By the time a wildlife rehabilitator at OWLS has made the baby bird feeding rounds in the infant nursery, it’s time to start the process all over again. And because birds eat from sun up to sun down, the shelter adds a third shift of volunteer personnel to cover evening hours until the sun dips beneath the horizon.
Baby birds are admitted for a number of reasons; some understandable to rehabbers and some not; a tree holding a nest might be cut down, a nest may have been built in an inconvenient place such as on a lawn mower or in a mail box where Carolina Wrens are known to homestead, a baby Robin might have fallen out of a nest and a cat brought him home, high winds could have blown a Cardinal’s nest apart which spilled newborns on the ground for power walkers to find or House Sparrows built a nest in a hanging plant on the porch causing bird parents to dive bomb the residents whenever they were too close to their babies. Now, that last reason is puzzling to wildlife rehabbers because our first thought as an animal caretaker, which we sometimes verbalize, is ‘can’t you use the side or back door until they fledge?’ Songbirds grow and fledge very quickly, in a matter of weeks. Remember, the smaller the bird, the faster they mature and become the capable flyers and self-feeders they need to be in the wild. If an alternate door is not an option, our next inclination is to see if there is a way to relocate the babies to a safe place in the vicinity of their parents. If that is not doable, they or the loner is admitted to the shelter’s nursery, formal identification takes place and care begins.
The keys to taking care of baby birds is possessing knowledge of dietary needs for a certain species, being aware of their unique behaviors and knowing what physical set-up is required for specific birds. Yes, they are all birds and all fly, but they are all so very different. Some birds are Passeriformes or mainly seed eaters, such as the House Finch while a Mockingbird enjoys fruit more, insectivores, like a Chimney Swift, eat bugs on the wing and some birds metabolize protein better than others. Hand held tweezers, that keenly resemble Mom or Dad’s beak, deliver mealworms that are quite popular with most baby birds, and our shelter provides 10,000 a week to nursery mates during peak baby season. At OWLS, we also have species specific infant formulas that are somewhat pasty but filling, nutritional meals we administer with a syringe. We have the gapers, such as Blue Jays, Brown Thrashers, Starlings and Sparrows, who cooperatively hold their mouths wide for feeding time and those who don’t gape at all, such as Mourning Doves or Pigeons, who have crops to fill. Some birds, like Killdeer, are precocial, which means they start eating on their own shortly after hatching. Most birds are built to perch on limbs, but Woodpeckers, Flickers and Chimney Swifts need to cling vertically to a rough surface and still, others, such as Woodcocks or Quail, sit or hide from predators in tall grasses or shrubby areas.
Wildlife rehabilitators need to know what makeshift habitat is best for each bird youngster admitted and provide that environment when they have grown beyond their incubator stay and need to stretch their legs and wings a bit. The knowledge required to appropriately and successfully care for an array of baby birds is quite extensive. That’s why when someone calls the shelter to tell us they found a baby bird and asks what they need to do to keep it alive, we advise the caller to try to get it back into the nest or place the baby bird in a small basket high in a tree so the parents can find the infant and feed him or her until ready to fledge. If that isn’t possible, we ask them to bring the youngin’s to us. Not many people outside the shelter have the time (every thirty minutes from sunrise to sunset, 24-7), particular diets available, specialized equipment and bird know-how to devote to these fragile little beings most of us love to watch in the wild. Birds need to learn to be birds and experience a series of developmental stages very quickly during that process. We don’t want them habituating with human caretakers. So, the faster we get them fully feathered, physically strong, eager to fly and out to our pre-release flight cages the better. Sometimes, in the nursery, a few juveniles are more eager than they are ready and may escape during feedings for short bursts of freedom until we encourage them to return to their enclosure mates. We deal with their acting out!
It’s a busy time at the shelter, but I eagerly invite you to tour the facility at 100 Wildlife Way (252-240-1200) in Newport, NC on Tuesdays, Thursdays or Saturdays at 2 pm. Take the opportunity to check out baby bird care in action! It’s amazing to see birds in their unique developmental stages; from homely bobble headed, skin blobs clad only in fluffy down, if not naked, to the beautiful, fully flighted and self-reliant wildlife they become.

Linda Bergman-Althouse
Author of “Save Them All”