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)

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”

Triple Threat!


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

Linda Bergman-Althouse
Author of “Save Them All”
Wildlife Rehabilitator
North Carolina, USA
http://www.bergman-althouse.com

Apple A Day – NOT!


The old adage “An apple a day, keeps the doctor away,” still holds true according to TV’s Dr. Oz. Although he agrees, he adds “helps – keep the doctor away.” I’m up for that! I like apples, what’s NOT to like about a crisp, refreshing apple. They are low in calories and fat, contain complex sugars and chock full of good stuff like vitamins, minerals and flavonoids believed to help prevent growth of cancer cells, promote hair growth, improve lung function, boost heart health, increase bone density, aid digestion and slow the aging process. HEY! I’ll take a bushel of apples right now! The apple is considered one of the most valuable fruits throughout the world. So, I do NOT have a problem with the apple, it’s just where the apple or remains of the apple ends up, as well as our popcorn, cheetos, bread, chips, pretzels, fries and even, ice cream! Many animals are scavengers and have learned to take advantage of human littering, wastefulness and recreational handouts. The Ring-Billed Gull pictured should be scavenging for fish, insects and small rodents close to a large body of water, but he and his kind now like to hang out where we humans shop and play because people have a bad habit of tossing food on the ground. These feathery guys and girls know this. Generations of gulls have been conditioned over the years to expect movie popcorn strewn in the parking lot, a hefty helping of fries at Hardees, small children, encouraged by adults, throwing bread into the air at a park, fast food bags that are fun to open along the highway and an outstretched hand filled with snacks connected to a human’s body wishfully attempting to bond with this wild bird. Gulls get so used to relating humans to food presence they will swoop down and aggressively annoy just about anyone for a morsel of anything! Pretty soon, we will see them smoking! People have created this abnormal gull behavior through a very simple rewards system, so we really shouldn’t complain about maneuvering around them at our shopping malls, the seabird poop on our cars or the relentless squawking they seem to enjoy. We have made the gull’s task of filling their belly too darn easy which has caused many gulls to abandon their normal feeding instincts. Gulls can spend all day eating low-nutrition, snack food, get a one-sided diet and may get sick, die or become malnourished which atrophies their feather shafts, grounding them (unable to fly). Their feathers are extremely important. Of course, we know they need feathers to fly, but those feathers also serve as a temperature regulator, protect them from wind, moisture and sun, trap air to help them float, become nesting material and fish eaters, like gulls, eat some of their feathers to line their digestive area to protect sensitive membranes from sharp fish bones. Most animals, including gulls, have evolved with very specific natural diets and have very specific kinds of digestive bacteria. Human food ingestion causes the wrong type of bacteria to become dominate in their stomachs, rendering the seabird no longer capable of digesting their natural foods. They can end up starving to death even with stomachs full of what they should have been eating all along. It is absolutely essential to the health and well-being of gulls (as well as other wild animals) that they not be fed by humans intentionally or indirectly through littering. Some people think they are just supplementing the gull’s diet with their generous but uneducated offerings, when in fact they are altering, and very possibly ending, their lives. Not feeding them will allow the gulls to find natural food sources, which provide better nutrition than food intended for human consumption. Half of our product offerings aren’t good for us either! That parking lot apple may be the most nutritional choice the gull made in weeks, although he probably dodged traffic to get it, but it’s not enough to keep him healthy and alive. Please think twice about throwing down that French Fry or cheese puff for a gull to gobble. If we all made the decision to withhold the junk food, we might just cause the gulls to leave our asphalt jungle and return to big water, and in essence, save their lives (and the finish on our cars!). Maybe we should get really serious about it, like the Brits!

Linda Bergman-Althouse
Wildlife Rehabilitator &
author of
“Save Them All”
http://www.bergman-althouse.com
http://www.owlsonline.squarespace.com

Tiny Dancer

Litters of orphaned opossums come and go at the shelter without much fanfare, just lots of feeding to get them up to weight and ensuring they eventually eat on their own before heading out into the wild with their siblings. The needs infant opossums have when attached to a teet in Mom’s pouch are very similar to a human baby growing in their Mother’s womb. They are not ready for the outside world until the critical time period elapses, allowing sufficient physical development to enable them to exist on the outside. When we get opossums (usually due to Mom being hit by a car, unfortunately) at thirty grams or more, although still premature births, their chances for survival with assistance from an attending wildlife rehabilitator are pretty darn good, barring any injuries sustained during the family trauma. SO, when opossums are brought in or picked up that weigh twenty grams or less and have injuries to boot, their odds of survival go way down. That’s what happened on Wednesday, April 7th. I got the call that a Momma Opossum was “down” in someone’s yard close to the Library and although, she had passed, there were survivors, four out of eight infants to be exact. The man handed them to me in a tiny box, which fit them perfectly, because they were tiny, too. The scale in my triage digitally flashed 20 grams for the first weigh in – then another at 20, and yet another at 20 and the last one, 22 grams. After warming them and cleaning all the debris and dried fluids from their fragile skin, they, all girls, evidenced serious bruising and a couple were missing digits on their back feet. It would take a miracle (or 2 grams) if any survived. You guessed it, the only one to make it in those first few days outside Mom’s pouch was the little girl weighing in at 22 grams with all digits intact, but her skin was so fragile and peeled constantly. What little hair she did have was falling out. Great pains were taken to provide enough humidity for her skin condition and mineral oil, as well as, lanolin was applied to her skin until finally, the flaking stopped and hair started growing in again. When the hair started growing, so did the rest of her. I couldn’t help but name her Tiny Dancer, although we wildlife rehabilitators try our best not to name any animal we will be releasing to the wild. Tiny Dancer was always moving, she’s never quit moving. It was like she was saying to me, “I can make it,” and the flailing of tiny legs while eating from a syringe was her unspoken message, “See, I’m strong, just give me your time, please.” Today, she is 218 grams (7.7 ounces) of fluff and attitude, and I couldn’t be more proud of her. She is the sole survivor of her litter and I’m not ashamed to say, “I love this possum,” but fortunately, she doesn’t love me back. She nips my fingers with her many tiny teeth, hisses occasionally and is always trying to get away from me, which is exactly the way this little marsupial should be. She still has quite a bit of growing to meet the two pound requirement for release, but she’s on her way! I’ve been waiting for another opossum to check into the wildlife shelter that is about her size, so she won’t be alone, but so far, they have been too small or too large. Until then, it’s Tiny Dancer and me!

(Tiny Dancer spends most of her time sleeping in the bandana hammock at the top of her cage.)

Linda Bergman-Althouse
author of
“Save Them All”
http://www.bergman-althouse.com
http://www.owlsonline.squarespace.com

Elegant Danger


She stood almost four feet high, a thin, willow of a bird who slowly strides with grace but also, always with purpose. That is the way of a marsh bird like a Great Blue Heron, the consummate stalker. She finally made it to an outside transition enclosure, patiently awaiting the day of her release. She towered on a platform close to staged limbs used for cover and peered beyond the caging to where she’d like to be. This GB Heron was found in a ditch in Swansboro during January 2010, emaciated, unable to walk, and too weak to eat on her own. She’s enjoyed (at least we rehabbers would like to think so) a lengthy stay at the shelter where she was provided constant care for her wounded right leg, which required antibiotics to fight infection. When it comes to feeding tubes, to ensure she was getting enough nutrition until she began eating on her own, we had to use the “big momma” of all feeding tubes because the neck of a great Blue Heron is about half the body length. Although she probably missed some of the delicacies of her usual diet in the wild of snakes, insects, and frogs, a steady replenishment of fish in her pool helped her put the weight back on she needed.

One enclosure away was another Great Blue Heron, found at the Coast Guard Station on Emerald Isle after he tangled with a barbed wire fence in February. His right wing suffered several lacerations, even exposing bone. He could not fly and was also starving, weak and unable to eat on his own. After daily, extensive wound care, antibiotics and assistance eating, he awaited release, as well. All animals have their own unique disposition, especially in the presence of people. This Heron definitely didn’t enjoy being in captivity and was quite anxious about it.
Great Blue Herons provide unique challenges to wildlife rehabilitators unlike the challenges frisky mammals and taloned raptors pose. Getting food down a GB Heron’s long neck is one, but at the top of that neck is a head wielding a sharp dagger of a beak six to eight inches long and capable of dangerous power and speed. Respect for the abilities of the Great Blue Heron is a must for a wildlife rehabilitator and precaution has to be taken such as appropriate holds and wearing personal protective equipment when working with these great birds.

Great Blue Herons are quite common in our area and many Great Blues have been admitted to our shelter for treatment over the years. And they are an awkward handful!
Rehabilitation Supervisors conferred last week and finally decided both Great Blue Heron patients were moving well, eating well and ready for release. Friday, April 16, 2010, became the last day they each had to ride in a fancy box with funny holes and a handle. After a short drive, the Herons were released in an area adjacent their natural habitat of marshlands. Watching them saunter away in that most majestic and dignified way they do was very fulfilling, but also caused an “in unison” sigh of relief among the rehabbers present. Although the Herons’ ages are not known, I’m sure they still have a lot of life ahead of them because Great Blue Herons live long lives, some as long as seventeen years and the record for a banded Great Blue Heron is twenty-four years!

It’s a new day! Enjoy it!
Linda Bergman-Althouse
Author of “Save Them All”