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

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”