Bone Breakers

CS_LT_0031CCX_edited-1Sometimes mistaken for an Eagle, the Osprey is a large fish eating bird commonly found along the coast and near freshwater lakes and is the second most widely distributed raptor species in the world behind the Peregrine Falcon.  The Osprey is found everywhere on earth except Antarctica.  It’s not often that Ospreys are admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport because they usually manage to stay above the fray and out of the way of humans.  However, when it does happen, it’s usually a human interference incident, which was the case when two infants were admitted to the shelter a while back.  Their nest, aboard a Virginia boat, was not discovered until the Captain docked in North Carolina. Although adult Ospreys do not handle captivity well, a youngster’s demands focus on food, development and protection which our shelter is very experienced in providing.  Ospreys are brown on top with a bright white underside, dark specks on the wings, and dark bands on the tail feathers. The head is white with a dark mask across yellow eyes, reaching to the sides of the neck. Their beak is black, with a bluish fleshy upper mandible membrane, and their feet are white with black talons. Its toes are of equal length and the talons rounded, rather than grooved, which is something they have in common with owls, including their outer reversible toes.  It is a large raptor, reaching more than two feet in length and 71 inches across the wings.  Male and female Ospreys are very similar in appearance, but the male has a slimmer body and narrower wings. CS_I7Z8422Their wings and legs have adapted over time to enjoy and exhibit great joint flexibility. An example of this limberness occurs when flying towards a bright light such as the sun. They are able to bend the joint in their wing to shield their eyes from the light to aid safety while flying.  In flight, the Osprey’s arched wings and drooping “hands,” give it a gull-like appearance. Their call is a series of dainty chirps described as cheep, cheep or yewk, yewk, but if disturbed by activity near the nest, the call becomes more of a sharp and frenzied whistle, cheereek!   Ospreys have picked up a number of nicknames over the years.  You may have heard them referred to as Sea Hawks, Fish Eagles or Fish Hawks which all come from inferences of keen eyesight, agility, timing, strong talons and expertise in catching fish.  The names have also been attributed because they choose nesting sites near bodies of water that can provide an adequate food supply.  The bird’s common name, Osprey, is derived from the Latin word ossifragus, meaning “a bone breaker.”  Fish make up 99 percent of their diet, so these feathered, aerial bone breakers certainly handle dietary fish bones better than humans do. Occasionally, the Osprey may prey on rodents, rabbits, amphibians, other birds and small reptiles.  Ospreys have vision well adapted to detecting underwater objects from the air. A meal is first sighted when the Osprey is above the water up to 130 feet. The bird hovers momentarily and then plunges feet first into the water.  On occasion, an Osprey will immerse entirely in the water, which is a rare behavior for raptors. With those reversible outer toes, sharp spicules on the underside of the toes, closable nostrils to keep out water during dives and backwards-facing scales on the talons which act as barbs to help hold its catch, they are well suited to be awesome fisher birds. While in flight, the Osprey will orient its catch headfirst to ease wind resistance. Ospreys reach sexual maturity and begin breeding around the age of three to four, usually mate for life and return to the same nesting site every year. CS_IMG_8676_CS_X The nest is a large pile of sticks, driftwood and seaweed built in forks of trees, rocky outcrops, utility poles, artificial platforms provided by preservationists or found on a small offshore island.  The female lays two to four eggs within a month and relies on the size of the nest to conserve heat, but both parents help to incubate. The eggs are whitish with splotches of reddish-brown and are incubated for about five weeks before hatching. Newly hatched chicks weigh in at 1.8 to 2.1 ounces and will fledge in 8 to 10 weeks.  Once the young are hatched, the male Osprey takes responsibility for providing food. When food is scarce, the first chicks to hatch are most likely to survive.  These large, rangy hawks have adapted well around humans and have rebounded in numbers following the 1970’s ban on the pesticide DDT, although still considered a threatened species.The typical lifespan is 7 to 10 years, though individuals can age 20 to 25 years. The oldest recorded wild Osprey lived in Europe and is estimated as reaching the age of thirty. In North America, Bald Eagles are the only major predators of Osprey eggs and juveniles.   However, the more common predation by an Eagle is stealing the Osprey’s catch rather than a family member. Eagles often force Ospreys to drop fish they have caught and steal them in midair.  Watching Osprey tending to their nest and offspring is a wonderful way to spend a morning or afternoon; another way to safely enjoy our coastal wildlife!  Bring your binoculars!

Happy Summer Everyone! 

Linda Bergman-Althouse,

author of  “Save Them All”      

www.bergman-althouse.com

 

 

Yard Angels


We definitely get our share of opossums admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC, be it injured adults or orphaned babies. Although an adult opossum may be harder and heavier to handle, what’s not to love about a “Mickey-Mouse” baby possum? Recently, quite a number of sweet baby possums have made their way to the shelter in the arms of Good Samaritans. The Virginia Opossum, Didelphis Virginiana, is one of the more familiar and widespread mammals in the United States, found coast to coast, up into Canada and down into Costa Rica, in fields, thick forests, open woods, brushy wastelands, marshes, parks, residential areas and in the alleys of our large cities. They are generally lumped together in the public’s mind with raccoons, squirrels, rabbits and other wildlife, but an opossum is fundamentally a different breed of animal as singular in its evolutionary history as it is solitary in its habits. Opossums, which have been around since the dinosaur days, socialize only during breeding season.
The Virginia Opossum is the only marsupial (pouched mammal) found in the United States. They are commonly found in residential neighborhoods if cover is available. They are very adaptable and will homestead just about anywhere they find a food source. Omnivorous opossums eat a wide variety of foods, including: fruits, berries, insects, crayfish, small mammals, bird eggs, young birds, frogs, earthworms, snakes, lizards, mussels and tadpoles. Occasionally, they will raid poultry yards or gardens to feed on an egg or vegetables and fruits. However, they are more beneficial to humans than not because they feed on many types of yard nuisances, too, such as moles, voles, shrews, insects, snails, slugs and other invertebrates. Having a “Yard Angel” on your property, visiting your garden perhaps, shouldn’t be a problem. This non-aggressive and nondestructive animal will not dig up yards, attack or threaten pets or dig burrows. Opossums are opportunity eaters though, so accessible garbage, the spillover of pet food on your deck, or dead animals in the area will be gone by morning if your Yard Angel is on duty. The description of an opossum differs from person to person. Some perceive them as homely or ugly, but we wildlife rehabilitators at the shelter, think they’re beautiful, every last one of them! Regardless of personal perception, the physical facts cannot be debated or discounted. Virginia Opossums are medium-sized mammals, about the size of a large housecat, ranging from 6 to 13 lbs with a body length of 12-20 inches and a tail length up to 15 inches. They usually have whitish-gray fur, but sometimes can be blackish-gray. They have furless, black ears (hence, the “Mickey-Mouse” reference earlier) and a long naked tail. The opossum’s tail is prehensile, which means it can grab onto branches for balance and stability, but doesn’t usually hang by it. The head and throat of Virginia Opossums are white. They also have short legs, and the females have the pouch. Breeding season for opossums starts in late winter. Females will have two or three litters each year and each litter will be up to 13 young. Baby opossums are born much more quickly than other mammals. When they are born, they are about the size of a Honey Bee. Each embryonic baby will carefully crawl up its mother’s body to enter her pouch. Here, it will attach itself to a teat and feed. Baby opossums stay in their mother’s pouch for two months. Once they leave the pouch, they will stay awhile longer, clinging to her back as she wanders. A couple other descriptive factoids include their 50 very sharp teeth which is more than any land mammal, their unusual resistance to the venom of poisonous snakes, and they are extremely unlikely to acquire rabies.
The Opossum has many behavioral adaptations it uses to survive. They are most noted for feigning death or “playing possum” as a last resort when threatened. This reaction seems to be involuntary, and triggered by extreme fear. Opossums, when under serious threat, initially respond ferociously by hissing, screeching, growling, belching and showing its teeth. When those strategies don’t deter the threat they just fall over like a fainting goat and enter a near coma that can last up to four hours. It lies on its side, mouth and eyes open, tongue hanging out and emits a putrid, green fluid from its anus that effectively repels predators. Nasty, I know, but a possum’s gotta do what a possum’s gotta do! Despite these very effective survival methods, Opossums, like most marsupials, have unusually short life spans for their size and metabolic rate. The Virginia Opossum has a maximum life span in the wild of only about two years. Even in captivity, opossums live only about four years. So it’s very sad at the shelter when we lose one of our program possums due to longevity. They are environmentally beneficial and wonderful wildlife to get to know, and school children love to see our program opossum’s cute face, especially when eating grapes! Too cute!

Happy Fall, Everyone!!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse
Author of Save Them All

Born Ready!


One would not expect to hear the inclusion of brown and black wings when describing a deer, and mentioning they are capable of breaking into rapid overhead flight just like other birds just sounds crazy, but a killdeer isn’t exactly a deer. It’s a bird, a medium sized plover with a cute round head, short bill and large dark eyes ringed bright red. They are especially slender with lanky legs and have a long, pointy tail with exceptionally long wings for their diminutive size. Their white chest is barred with two black bands, and the brown face is marked with black and white patches. They received the name Killdeer because one of their many calls is said to be a high pitched sound resembling kill- deer. The infants are small, bright-eyed, fluffy replicas of their parents, miniatures so to speak. I’m sure all Killdeer parents consider their children “mini-me’s.” Although referred to as shorebirds, they often choose to live far from water such as on a golf course, an athletic field, a residential driveway, a parking lot or you may find them nesting on a gravel-covered roof. So the killdeer is considered one of the least water associated of all shorebirds. They nest in open areas, mainly on the ground and usually in gravel with no traditional nest structure that would stand out, which is extremely precarious when humans are walking and driving about. There is a method to this madness, though. Their 3 to 4 eggs are speckled, allowing them to blend nicely in a slight depression among the stones. Becoming incognito avoids attention by predatory animals who rely mainly on sight for hunting. We get quite a few calls at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport this time of year from people who see infant killdeer on the ground and insist the birds are too small to be on their own and something must have happened to their mother. After confirming they are killdeer, we advise the caller to let them be, as killdeer are precocial, which means they are able to move about, as well as, forage for food such as insects right after hatching. When hunting, these tawny birds (even the babies) run across the ground in spurts, stopping with a jolt every so often to see if they’ve startled up any insect prey. Due to an extra two-week stay in the egg over altricial birds, they are born ready, eyes open, eager to follow their parents immediately, much like ducklings or quail and closer to independence than most baby birds. If you come upon baby killdeer, know that Mom is watching and if you get too close to her babies she will enter the scene feigning injury by using her famous “broken wing act” to distract you (the predator) from her nesting territory. Recently, we received a call from someone aboard the Marine Base in Jacksonville who said two baby birds were stuck in a storm drain, beneath the grate. Fortunately, the drain area was dry. I thought it unusual for two baby birds to fall into a drain together and asked her to describe the birds to me. While talking on the phone, another Good Samaritan happened upon the site and reached into the grate and took each of them out and placed them in the grass. The caller was hesitant to touch them for fear the parents would not reclaim them if human scent was present. I assured her that would not be a problem because most birds’ sense of smell is not as highly developed as other senses, and they will be happy just to get their offspring back. After discerning they were killdeer from the lady’s description, I advised them to step away from the infants to encourage Mom to recover her kids and as expected, Momma rushed from hiding and started flapping around on the ground while shrieking her distress call. The baby waders scurried to a bush, and their Mom soon followed. Keeping tabs on these frantic, squealing little babies who scatter in all directions to forage or when scared is a tough job for Killdeer parents, but both Mom and Dad stay after them constantly. Occasionally, there is a need for our shelter to take in a Killdeer infant or two when evidence indicates there are no parents to provide the training and protection they need, but we’re on top of what’s required to raise them for their second chance in the wild; simulated habitat shielded from human contact, proper diet and time to grow. Watch out for those little guys and girls for they may be running around in a driveway or parking lot near you!!

Linda Bergman-ALthouse
Author of “Save Them All

Fragile and Misunderstood Fawns

Fawns have arrived at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter on Wildlife Way in Newport in larger numbers than past years. One mistake people make is assuming that an alone fawn was abandoned by its mother and they end up, basically, kidnapping the poor little thing. Mother deer will leave their fawn for hours while they go off to feed nearby. The fawn’s mother will do this so predators won’t see a vulnerable fawn when they see her. The mother returns hours later, and the fawn is fed and cared for. So… if you see a fawn alone in the woods or treeline near a meadow do not assume it is abandoned. A fawn’s best chance at survival lies in being raised by its mom. Fawns nurse three to four times daily, usually for less than 30 minutes at a time, but otherwise the doe keeps her distance. This helps reduce the chance she will attract a predator to her fawn. The fawn’s protective coloration, lack of scent, and ability to remain motionless all help to avoid detection by predators and people.
If a fawn is seen lying upright, eyes wide open, but flattened to the ground, do not touch it. This is a fawn’s camouflage position to blend in with its surroundings. When the fawn is picked up it will hold its legs tight against its body with its head forward. Sometimes, although its legs aren’t broken, the fawn will allow its body to become limp and dangle in your hands. Put the baby down, walk away and leave it alone. This fawn is too small to follow the doe for the long distance she must travel to find enough food to make milk for her baby. The milk is very rich and will sustain the fawn for the many hours it spends alone. The doe will return only when there are no humans nearby. You may be curious, but refrain from sitting and waiting for her to return. If you have removed the fawn from its resting spot take it back at once and walk away. The doe will be searching for her fawn, and when she finds it she will accept it and provide better care than any human can. Humans cannot teach the fawn the skills it needs to survive in the wild. Also, humans, other than wildlife rehabilitators, do not have the correct diet to properly nourish a wild animal. Please leave it alone and allow it to retain its wildness and natural fear of humans. This is the greatest gift we can give it. If an uninjured fawn is seen on the road or beside the road, do not put it in your car. Place it off the road about 20 feet and leave the area. The fawn would not be there if the doe was not nearby. You will not see her, but she’s there, somewhere, watching. She will return for the fawn and accept her baby, even if it has been touched by human hands, as soon as the human disturbance is gone. So, don’t linger in the area.
If a fawn is obviously ill, lying on its side, kicking or crying – pick it up and place it in a quiet place. A light cloth placed over the fawn’s head will sometimes calm it. Keep it away from pets and all human activity. Petting the fawn, talking to it or holding it provides no comfort. This cute little creature is a wild animal; therefore human voices, odor and touch will only add to the stress of the situation and cause additional harm, compounding the pre-existing illness or injury. When a fawn seems calm it may very well be in shock. If the weather is cold, a blanket may be placed over its body to keep it from becoming chilled. In hot weather keep the fawn in a cool location but out of drafts. Please don’t feed the fawn anything other than water. Baby formula, cow’s milk, feed store mixes, pet store domestic animal formulas and soy products will cause diarrhea, dehydration and death. Call a wildlife shelter in your area at once for help.
Lately, we have admitted fawns with conditions such as diarrhea or mange, wounds that are not healing properly, injuries caused by dog or fox attacks and those legitimately orphaned as a result of vehicle collisions. We love dogs, too, but please leash your dog for walks during deer breeding season if those walks occur in wooded and meadow areas. Now, the fox, well . . . not much we can do about that encounter. If no evidence exists that Mom has died by being hit by a vehicle or any other means, we or the “fawn-napper” will return it to the spot where it was found. Mom is frantically looking for her baby, so the sooner the better. We assign our youngest fawns, injured or orphaned, to one fawn licensed rehabilitator to ensure they experience very limited contact with humans. Once they gain strength and can nurse on their own, the blind feeding method will be utilized. The BFM will consist of formula in bottles resting in a frame mounted to the wall of the fawn enclosure as depicted in the image accompanying this article. Fawns are fragile and their situations misunderstood at times, but with appropriate care and treatment required, we watch them grown into the majestic and beautiful adults they are meant to become, but they are – A WHOLE LOT OF WORK!! Fawn rehabilitators are specially trained to rehabilitate injured or orphaned white-tailed deer fawns and licensed by the state with a Primary North Carolina Fawn Rehabilitation Permit. They are also authorized to temporarily hold fawn deer for release back into the wild. Anyone found holding and raising deer without credentials are subject to heavy fines and tragically, the innocent deer in their possession euthanized and no one wants that to happen. Please don’t hesitate to call on us or a wildlife rehabilitator in your area if you come across a fawn in distress. They are such little dears.

Have a happy and safe summer!

Linda Bergman-Althouse
author of “Save Them All

Wingin’ it in the Nursery!

All the counter space, incubators and playpens are full of baby birds of all sizes and species in the infant nursery at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport. It’s Spring and everyone is doing what they do when the weather turns warm. Momma and Papa birds discovered safe and out of the way places to nest and raise their offspring, and humans are getting outside in the nice weather to plug holes in their siding, clean their soffit areas, mow the grass and remove dead or nuisance trees they feel are threatening their homes. And that’s when the conflict begins. Displaced nestlings are admitted to the shelter routinely because their parents chose a homestead not agreeable with the resident homeowners. Quite often we can convince the homeowners to wait only four weeks to make home repairs or take that tree down because the newborns will be fledging by then and on their way into big sky, but quite often, we can’t and agree to take in the newly orphaned. There are other instances when an onlooker sees what’s going on and rushes in to rescue the baby birds so they will not be harmed and delivers them to us to finish the job their dedicated bird parents started.
A few weeks ago, Black-capped Chickadee newborns were evicted by maintenance workers at an apartment complex much to the dismay of the residents, and the list of ousted baby birds begins. Nesting Starlings were removed from spaces created when a house lost siding during a storm and Carolina Wrens from a cozy squeeze of space on top a lawn mower after a snake tried to take out the whole wren family, but that was a necessary removal for the greater good. House Sparrows were extracted from a roof’s eaves, Robins and Mockingbirds from nests in bushes too close to the ground (homeowners worried about free-roaming cats) and Mourning Doves from a hanging plant above a deck. Occasionally flighty youngsters, such as our quivery Cardinal babies get too full of themselves and tumble out of the nest. In the cases of rambunctious little ones that stretch their stubby wings and lanky stick legs, then go “whoa – oops, where am I,” hopefully an empathic and sympathetic human comes along to help them out. Unfortunately, most humans don’t know that they can put the infant back into the nest if found and still intact, and Mom will be happy her baby was returned. For many years, based on teachings as a child, I thought the mother bird would not accept the baby if it was touched by human hands; the scent would linger, and the baby would be rejected. The theory turned out not to be true. Other than the vulture, some seabirds and parrots, birds have little use for the sense of smell. Odors disperse in the wind quickly. They do possess olfactory glands, but they’re not well developed. Same goes for taste. Humans have nearly 9,000 taste buds, but songbirds have fewer than 50. Most backyard birds rely on sight, touch and hearing, which are senses that are highly developed. Okay, back to nesting; of course, trees are a very traditional choice for nesting, whether the nest is anchored in bobbing limbs or in a cavity, which is very popular for woodpeckers, flycatchers, nuthatches, screech owls and other omnivores. Recently, Tufted Titmice were admitted to the shelter after a tree was cut down. When you nest in a tree cavity, most of the time you won’t be noticed until after the tree is down (fortunately the babies survived the potentially hazardous thump). Nuthatches were also brought to the shelter about the same time for the same reason. Ideally for wildlife rehabilitators and the wildlife infants, no one would remove a tree until after “Baby Season,” but not everyone is aware of the consequences of tree removal until after the crisis presents itself. Then, based on the trauma incurred during the tree felling, it’s a 50-50 shot at a positive outcome. Luck definitely plays a card. Birds recognize no human presence, little activity and stillness as opportunity to nest, and they get busy doing what they do in the Spring before we do. So, we shouldn’t be surprised when we find a nest in our BBQ grill, on the boat, in a car that hasn’t been driven in a while, in signage at the store or in the cradle of a warm stop light. Birds have lost the majority of their habitat in urban and residential areas and are forced to adjust to our environment. They are doing the best they can. We only ask that you be sensitive to these little feathered folks and give them the time needed to raise their young until they fledge, unless they are in a dangerous, life threatening situation. If that is the case, please bring them to a wildlife rehabilitator, and they will take it from there. We appreciate the caring, time and effort you give to bring in the little tweeters found in harm’s way.

Linda Bergman-Althouse
Author of
“Save Them All” (Amazon)

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)

The Bunny Trail

Infant bunnies, whether Eastern Cottontails or Marsh Rabbits, are different than most babies admitted to our shelter. One would think that a baby is a baby and as long as they are healthy, uninjured and fellow mammals they would be similar to a baby squirrel or an opossum to raise, but that’s not the case. They are so, so unique because . . . they just are, for reasons I’ll explain. A baby bunny arrives at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) in Newport for usually one of the following reasons; “I was mowing grass and accidentally rolled over a cottontail nest. Some of the babies are still alive,” or “My cat came home with a baby bunny and presented it to me as a gift,” or “My kids just brought a little rabbit home. What should I do?” More often we hear, “I found a nest of baby bunnies and their mother seems to have abandoned them.” We initially discuss the potential to return the bunnies to Mom, who might very well be in the nest area frantically looking for them, but if we decide that option is not possible, we immediately contact one of OWLS’ specialty cottontail rehabilitators to take on the task of personally raising them. 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. Baby rabbits will always win the “too cute” award, so its natural people want to hold them, but that unnatural closeness can be a death sentence for the bunny. They are easily stressed by handling and noise, even the volume of your voice, can cause them heart failure. Raising bunnies is a major commitment in time and dedication and their environment must remain consistent and routine to minimize stress. A wildlife rehabilitator must gain their trust to get them to eat, manage their stress and deal with their sensitive digestive system. If one, calm, pleasant and nurturing person is caring for them, they will feel comfortable with that specific touch and will, in turn, calm down, relax and thrive. That’s always our hope, and the strategy has proven successful. Bunnies are attuned to the personality of their caregiver, and harmony is important to them. Too many things can go wrong when a number of people are on a rotating schedule to care for rabbit infants. Improper temperature, inconsistent pressure while being handled, poor diets, over feeding, bad sanitation and noisy, stressful environments can all do in a baby cottontail. Their feeding formula must be precisely on point to establish normal rabbit flora (bacteria) in their gut and intestinal tract to enable proper digestion. There are also special dietary supplements wildlife rehabilitators are aware of and that can be provided, such as cecotropes, to ensure cottontails ingest essential protective organisms. Although baby bunnies mature much faster than other wildlife and are ready to head into the wild in about four to five weeks from birth, we still can’t rush the developmental process and all steps of appropriate care must be taken to ensure their survivability. Bottom line, cottontails are fussy, as well as, fuzzy little beings who want what they want or nothing. There’s a lot to know about rehabilitating infant bunnies and they need all the knowing we’ve got! Cottontails are born with no fur and their eyes closed. Their ears are also sealed at birth. There are usually 4 to 6 babies per litter, weighing 30-35 grams at birth. At two weeks, with eyes and ears now open, cottontails in the wild begin leaving the nest for short adventures. It is also the time they start chewing greens. They will weigh between 80 and 100 grams at this age. At three weeks, they will be weaned and leave the nest to find food, but will remain in the area and return to their nest at night. Between four and five weeks, weighing in at 150+ grams and about the size of a tennis ball, they will look like a small version of Mom with ears standing straight up from their head and alert, wide eyes. Marsh Rabbits are typically smaller than Easterns, darker in color and are found in brackish and freshwater marshes rather than open grassy areas with shrubs for cover that the cottontails generally choose. Both are prey animals, so they must be fast and furious to live the longest life possible. Wildlife Rehabilitators ensure baby bunnies are raised to hone appropriate avoidance behaviors and their jumping, zig-zagging, escape skills. 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 will greatly reduce their chances of survival. So, if you do pick up a baby before thinking it through, please put it back. Rabbits will still care for their babies even if they have been touched by human hands. In a rare situation where you know the bunnies are orphaned, such as evidence momma rabbit has been killed by another animal or found in the road, you need to get the babies to a skilled wildlife rehabilitator, trained to provide appropriate care to ensure their best chance of survival. We’ve been traveling the bunny trail for a long time.

Linda Bergman-Althouse
Wildlife Rehabilitator
Author of “Save Them All”