The Coolest Birds on Earth

As Atlanta wakes to its first winter storm and I watch my backyard birds gathering at the feeder, I find myself reflecting on the ways that wildlife survives winter’s cold, harsh weather. Although I grew up in New Jersey and spent four years in college in Vermont (where winter temperatures often stayed in the single digits for several days straight), I’m now more acclimated to Georgia’s climate and inclined to put on a sweater when the temperature drops below 70 degrees. Some birds, however, feel right at home in the cold. In fact, roughly 200 species flock to arctic regions to breed and raise their young in the land of the midnight sun. Last July, a family trip to Iceland gave me a chance to witness some of these birds nesting and raising young in one of the coldest, harshest biomes on the planet, where even a summer day can feel wintery to a girl accustomed to Georgia’s climate. Average daily temperatures during our visit were in the 40s fahrenheit (colder with windchill), and we saw more clouds and drizzle than sunshine. Regardless of the weather, Iceland was one of the most amazing places I have ever visited. Our week-long adventure circling the country on the 830-mile Ring Road took us by vast lava fields, active volcanoes, massive glaciers, roaring waterfalls, and snow-capped mountains towering above slaty seas.

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Welcome to Iceland! 

The second largest North Atlantic Island (39,769 square miles), just south of the Arctic Circle, Iceland is one of the most volcanically active places on the planet, and glaciers cover 11 percent of the country. Frozen rocky subsoil combined with gusting winds prevent trees from taking root, and most of the interior of the country is tundra, a treeless polar dessert that supports only scattered low plant life like lichens, mosses, and sedges. In fact, the landscape is so barren and uninhabitable that the first American lunar astronauts were sent there for pre-mission training. Somehow, however, the birds carve out a living here, even in the most remote places on the island.

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The first bird we saw when leaving the airport was the Redwing , which we dubbed the Icelandic Robin. We saw them all over the island. 

One of the most common birds we encountered was the White Wagtail, easily recognized by its distinctive black and white plumage and characteristic habit of constantly bobbing its tail. Often seen running about in parking lots, parks, and other open areas in pursuit of insects, this is one of the most common birds of open terrain in Europe and Asia. The first wagtail we saw, true to form, was running in the gravel parking lot of our hostel catching moths. Like most birds in Iceland, for whom nesting in trees simply isn’t an option, wagtails nest in low crevices among rocks or cliffs and will readily nest in the niche of a building. Foraging on the ground and sometimes in shallow water, they eat mostly insects, as well as other small invertebrates. Watching an adult trying to satisfy the appetites of three hungry fledglings was a memorable birding moment of the trip. Iceland’s White Wagtails find the winters a bit too cold, however, and migrate to Western Africa in winter.

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This White Wagtail seemed to be finding food just fine in a gravel parking lot. 

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No rest for a parent with hungry babies!

The Artic Tern is, perhaps, the ultimate snowbird, spending summers in the arctic raising their young then migrating to Antarctica during the arctic winter. No other animal has a longer migration than the Arctic Tern, which makes a 22,000+ mile round trip journey between poles each year, spending the majority of its lifetime in the air. In Iceland, these birds are sometimes considered a nuisance, as they can be aggressive to humans coming near their nests. We saw them all over the country, inside national parks and alongside highway rest stops, and I can attest that they will dive-bomb you if you wander too close to a nesting area. (I crouched near a utility pole at a gas station to get my shot of a fluffy baby tern, which may be the cutest bird I’ve ever seen.) You can’t blame the terns for this defensive behavior when Glaucous Gulls and Parasitic Jaegers, both readily seen in coastal areas, pose a constant threat to their eggs and young. It’s remarkable to me that, in spite of their incredible pole to pole journeys, most Arctic Terns return to the area where they were hatched, often to the same colony.

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Dive-bombing adult terns keep predators (and photographers) from getting too close.

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Oh the cuteness!

Although they are common along the coastline in Iceland, especially in the summer, Common Eiders were the bird sighting that most surprised me when we first spotted them. We had just stopped for some hiking and birding at Jokulsarlon, a glacial lagoon that is one of the most spectacular, but barren landscapes I’ve ever seen. As luck would have it, the winds began to kick up and a cold drizzle started to fall as we set out. Undeterred, we were rewarded with two life birds almost immediately along the banks of the lagoon, Snow Buntings and Barnacle Geese, but after just 10 or 15 minutes of walking in the cold wind on exposed rock, we were ready to head back to the car. Every other sign of life had disappeared, hunkering down under what little cover could be found. Then we spotted some movement on the water. A couple of families of Common Eiders were diving and swimming among the icebergs, feeding on mussels and other hard-shelled crustaceans along the shoreline as if it were a lovely summer day, which I suppose to them, it was. Eiders, as you probably know, are the source of eider down, which is gathered by trained harvesters without harming or disturbing the birds. Those feathers have got to be warm to allow this bird to spend so much time in such icy waters! These hardy ducks winter largely in their breeding range, with only the most northerly populations wandering south.

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Eiders on ice

No summer trip to Iceland would be complete without seeing Atlantic Puffins. I planned a full day of our itinerary to enjoy these charismatic little birds. You can imagine my disappointment, then, when we arrived at the ferry terminal for our puffin excursion to learn that rough seas had cancelled the trip for the day. Although most of the world’s puffins are found in Iceland, where 60 percent of the population breeds, there are limited places to view them, and the only other colony in striking distance would take us 100 miles out of our way, much of it on a dirt road, on a day that we already had to drive 180 miles on winding mountainous roads to get to our next stop. Do you think we skipped the puffins? Of course not. When we arrived at the puffin colony in the Eastfjords, the wind was gusting and a cold mist was falling (surprise, surprise!), making the temperature seem much colder than the actual temperature of 45 degrees, but as soon as we climbed a few dozen stairs, we were looking out across a large colony of puffins standing guard at their burrows like soldiers and flying back and forth from their burrows out to sea to catch fish for their young. We were amused to watch a pair just 25 or 30 feet from us scuffling on the side of a cliff until one was knocked over the side and out of view. These amazing birds can dive for up to a minute and to depths of up to 200 feet, and the average catch is about 10 fish per trip. You have to give them credit for nesting in such harsh, remote places then spending the winter out at sea in the North Atlantic. I could have stayed and watched them for hours, but we had a long drive ahead and had to limit our time. In spite of the cold and wind, my husband and two teenaged children also counted the visit as one of the highlights of the trip, which made it that much sweeter for me.

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Silly and elegant at the same time!

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Puffin with feathers to line its nest

As we were leaving the puffin colony, my husband spotted a low bird flush from a rock along the side of the road—a Gyrfalcon. The largest falcon in the world, this year-round Icelandic resident nests on rocky cliffs in the open tundra where they frequently begin breeding and laying eggs while the temperature is still below zero degrees Fahrenheit. They also use these rocky ledges to scan for their primary prey, the Rock Ptarmigan (another year-round resident that eluded us). Fast and well-camouflaged against the cliffs, we had only a fleeting glimpse before it disappeared among the rocks.

During the course of the week, I added 36 life birds to my list, each one made memorable by the dramatic, beautiful, and harsh landscape around us. At one remote pull-off on our route, surrounded by black, basaltic rocks as far as the eye could see with only the sparsest covering of vegetation, I was astounded to hear a bird calling—a Common Ringed Plover. The birds that raise their young on the tundra have some incredible adaptations that allow them to live on a precarious edge in an often punishing environment. If you’ve never considered Iceland as a birding destination, add it to your bucket list. Just don’t forget your down coat!

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Common Ringed Plover among the lava fields

Christmas Bird Count Coyote

While looking for birds during the Audubon Christmas Bird Count on a cold, early-January day, my team of birders had the unexpected and delightful surprise to witness a beautiful coyote taking in some sunshine. Although I regularly come in close contact with coyotes at AWARE (and wrote about helping to raise and release coyotes in Back to the Wild), seeing a healthy one in the wild, even at a distance, was thrilling. I’m reassured to know enough wildness still exists where I live for these amazing animals to survive, yet I worry for their safety, too. Unfortunately, coyote sightings still make most people uneasy, and they continue to be persecuted on a national level.  How has the dog achieved the status of “Man’s Best Friend,” while its wild cousins, especially the coyote, continue to be feared and persecuted?

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Without our binoculars, I don’t think we would have ever spotted this coyote.

In order to understand why coyotes are so misunderstood, a few historical facts are worth mentioning. In the early history of wildlife management, as our nation expanded westward, Americans generally agreed that predators such as wolves, coyotes, and panthers should be killed indiscriminately. In 1909, under pressure from livestock owners, Congress began funding a large-scale predator control program aimed at large carnivores from eagles to bears. Both the Red Wolf and the Gray Wolf were completely wiped out in the United States in the ensuing decades and have only recently been reintroduced to the American landscape. Sadly, this predator control program persists even today with the government killing approximately 100,000 carnivores each year–using methods that include trapping, aerial gunning, poisoning, and killing young in their dens–and spending an estimated $100 million of our annual federal budget, with very little regulation, to do it. Coyotes are targeted in particular. Statistics provided by the United States Department of Agriculture indicate that more than 75,000 coyotes were killed in 2013 (The Toll Taken by Wildlife Services). Although most livestock losses come from weather, disease, illness, and birthing problems, coyotes continue to be persecuted, in spite of the vital role they play in maintaining healthy ecosystems. These federally-funded predator control activities, driven by narrow agricultural interests, kill untold numbers of non-target animals and ignore the public need for a healthy environment, fiscal responsibility, and safe public lands.

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Coyotes play an integral role in healthy ecosytems and pose little threat to humans, livestock, or pets when a few precautions are taken.

Little suggests these control measures are working anyway. In spite of persecution from humans, coyotes not only have failed to decline in numbers, but have expanded their range in all directions, flourishing in a wide range of habitats from the Canadian tundra to metropolitan cities. In fact, scientists and wildlife officials estimate coyote numbers to be at an all-time high, and studies show that efforts to reduce the population usually end up increasing it instead. In short, the resilient and resourceful coyote is an amazing evolutionary success. Many factors have contributed to this success. Until recent decades, coyotes lived only in western North America, often in harsh, dry climates with scorching days and freezing nights that enabled them to adapt to a wide variety of conditions. The eradication of wolves boosted coyote populations, both by eliminating their biggest predator and by making more prey available to them. Humans further contributed to the coyote’s expanding range by clearing forests and creating fragmented habitats ideal for small mammals, the coyote’s favorite prey. And, interestingly enough, many wildlife biologists argue that the overkill of the species has served only to transform the coyote into a more adaptable, intelligent, and indestructible animal since the individuals that escape the guns, traps, and poisons are those that possess the keenest survival instincts. Studies also show that efforts to control coyote populations actually cause a population increase within a short time. In a stable family group (a breeding pair and one or two offspring, known as a “pack”), only the alpha male and female reproduce, keeping the population in check. When individuals are killed and more resources become available, females tend to have larger litters with higher survival rates. If an alpha female is killed, other females in the area will seize the opportunity to have litters of their own. In any case, the population ultimately increases quickly. The coyote’s generalized diet gives it an additional evolutionary edge. Though excellent hunters, coyotes are also opportunistic, dining on carrion, insects, nuts, fruits, grasses, and other vegetation, in addition to small prey. In spite of our best efforts to defeat it, the coyote has adapted and persevered. Like the well-known Wile E. Coyote of cartoons, the coyote just keeps bouncing back.

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Intelligent, adaptable, and family-oriented, coyotes have outwitted attempts to eradicate them. And how can you resist this face?!

As a top predator, coyotes play an integral role in the environment, helping to maintain healthy ecosystems and species diversity. Recent studies show coyotes may even be a benefit to declining bird populations by controlling mesopredators like raccoons that prey on bird eggs and young.  (For a cool video about the importance of top predators, check out this amazing video: How Wolves Change Rivers.) Although they are moving into our neighborhoods, their presence needn’t alarm us when we take a few precautions. Instinctively fearful of people, these animals go out of their way to avoid humans. (I tell people all the time I’d rather wrangle a coyote than handle a chipmunk). When people feed them, intentionally or unintentionally (by leaving pet food or garbage outside overnight, for example), coyotes may become less wary of our presence, which can lead to occasional sightings, but rarely more than that. Most of the time, coyotes go about their coyote business–living in small, close-knit family groups that hunt and play together, care for each other, and protect their territory from intruding coyotes and other predators. Having a healthy family group in your area is an asset, as coyotes help to control pest populations and maintain the balance of wildlife, including their own species. With minor adjustments we can learn to appreciate and coexist with these intelligent, adaptable canines. For me, seeing one during that chilly Christmas Bird Count was the best sighting of the day.

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Coyotes typically avoid humans. This one looked at me for a minute, then trotted off.

DID YOU KNOW…?   In Georgia and many other states, coyotes receive very few protections. They may be hunted or trapped at any time of year and their pelts commercially sold. By law, coyotes trapped as “nuisances” may not be relocated. Trapped animals are either euthanized or sold to licensed hunting facilities where they are put in penned enclosures and hunted with dogs. Trapping is not a humane solution. Please find ways to coexist. 

EDUCATED COEXISTENCE from Project Coyote
Urban landscapes offer an abundance of food, water, and shelter for coyotes. Take the following steps to prevent coyotes from being attracted to your home:
*Wildlife-proof garbage in sturdy containers with tight fitting lids.
*Don’t leave pet food outside.
*Take out trash the morning pick up is scheduled.
*Keep compost in secure containers.
*Keep fallen fruit off the ground. Coyotes eat fruit.
*Keep birdseed off the ground; seeds attract rodents which then attract coyotes. Remove
feeders if coyotes are seen in your yard.
*Keep barbecue grills clean.
*Eliminate accessible water sources.
*Clear away brush and dense weeds near buildings.
*Close off crawl spaces under decks and around buildings where coyotes may den.
*If you frequently see a coyote in your yard, make loud noises with pots, pans, or air horns, and haze the coyote with a water hose.
*Share this list with your neighbors; coexistence is a neighborhood effort.

 

Suburban Safari*

I can’t believe it has been more than six months since I wrote my last blog post.  It hasn’t been for lack of inspiration. Aside from the demands of careers and raising two middle-schoolers, my husband and I have been busy settling into our new home on 1.6 acres after the long process of zoning, designing, and building (and keeping our old house in pristine condition until it sold). Our “subdivision” (four lots, two currently undeveloped) also has shared access to a one acre lake and adjoins a large wooded park of more than 100 acres. I am in wildlife heaven. Although minutes away from conveniences, when I pull into our driveway at the very end of our street, I feel like I’ve entered a small patch of wilderness.

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The view from the lake looking toward our house

The backyard is a small “meadow” of untamed grasses and wildflowers that run down to a brushy area along a small stream, and towering trees surround the property. I have enjoyed watching all of the different plants and trees come into bloom and trying to learn what they are. We have lots of beautiful and beneficial native plants, which I’ve written about previously, although we also have invasive English ivy and Japanese honeysuckle, unfortunately. (I’m considering renting goats to tackle this problem). We’ve added our own mark to the landscape by planting blueberry bushes and fruit trees, including a native persimmon tree, which I’ve heard is a favorite with wildlife. The edges between the yard and wooded areas are lined with wild blackberry bushes, their blooms the promise of summer cobblers if the birds are gracious enough to share. The first shrubs I bought and planted were three native red buckeyes, which I’d learned are an important early food source for migrating hummingbirds. I had to laugh at myself when they bloomed a few weeks later—along with the dozens of other red buckeyes in the woods around the house. (If you want some, I can hook you up!)

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Wild blackberries are abundant in the yard. Hopefully the birds will share.

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One of the native red buckeyes I planted (then discovered we have them everywhere!) This is an important early food source for hummingbirds on their northern migration.

Wildlife viewing is a daily pursuit in our new home. A pair of Red-tailed Hawks live nearby, and two Barred Owls call almost nightly. Four white-tailed does regularly pass through the yard, occasionally accompanied by a buck. Recently, we saw two gray foxes gamboling about in the backyard early one morning, though our occasional sightings are typically of a single individual, usually after dark. We’ve heard them rustling in the brushy area on the side of the house during the day a few times lately; the alarm calls of the chipmunks and squirrels give them away. Are they hunting during daylight hours because they have young mouths to feed? In addition to the foxes who share our home, we frequently find coyote tracks near the stream, as well as the tracks of opossums and raccoons.

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Coyote track

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Raccoon tracks

The yard is bustling with bird activity, offering boundless opportunities for new discoveries—-my yard list is already up to 66 species! The thickets attract towhees, thrashers, wrens, and cardinals, while the tall, grassy areas attract sparrows, finches, and doves. Dead trees provide a bed-and-breakfast for woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees, as well as snags for flycatchers to sally out to snatch insects in midair. Having the lake nearby means we never know when we might see our local Great Blue Heron fly through the backyard or hear the rattling call of kingfishers. Spring migration brought some delightful and unexpected surprises like Indigo Buntings, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers, and a few species of neo-tropical warblers.

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Female Rose-breasted Grosbeak. In sexually dimorphic species, the female is more camouflaged in order to blend in with her nest.

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Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak–the brighter the better as far as the ladies are concerned.

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Male Indigo Bunting passing through on migration. This species will nest in the mountains of North Georgia and all the way up to southern Canada.

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Northern Flicker, a local resident. This bird has gorgeous yellow feathers underneath its wings. Unlike other woodpeckers, it often feeds on the ground.

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I wonder if this is the Song Sparrow that serenades me every morning. His morning song is different from the one he sings later in the day.

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Hairy Woodpecker on a tree snag. Dead trees are actually “trees of life”–they provide food, shelter, and nesting places for birds.

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House Finch, another local resident. House Finches are not native to the Eastern United States. Captive birds were released on Long Island in the 1940’s by pet shop owners selling them as “Hollywood Finches” who wanted to avoid being persecuted under the Migratory Bird Species Act, which prevents citizens from keeping any native bird in captivity without a USFWS permit. The birds flourished and spread and are now naturalized in most of the United States.

Clearly I have plenty of inspiration for writing, yet what little free time I can carve out of my day is often spent just sitting outside on the porch quietly watching and listening to my surroundings.  Who wouldn’t rather be outside enjoying nature than sitting at a computer writing about it anyway?!  I feel gratitude daily for the opportunity to live in a place where I feel rooted in nature while staying connected to family and friends in our suburban community. I am thankful, too, that I can share this small patch of wildlife-friendly habitat with my wild neighbors. Creating such patches, even on a small scale, is one of the most important and empowering conservation actions that individuals can make, and collectively our actions can provide tremendous benefits for wildlife and the environment. You can even have your yard certified as a Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary, a designation I plan to pursue (once the goats take care of that invasive honeysuckle!).

I look forward to having lots more “wild” stories to tell. We’ve had some real excitement here this month watching the pair of Eastern Bluebirds that nested in our birdhouse, so stay tuned for an upcoming post documenting their story. You won’t believe what mama bluebird brought to the nest for her babies one afternoon! Thank you for sticking around, and look out for my next post soon.

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I’ve been watching this male Eastern Bluebird and his mate closely as they tend to their young. Stay tuned for a post about them soon!

*Note: Suburban Safari was actually the first idea I had for the title of my blog, but when I did a search for the name, I discovered that it was already the title of a book, which I proceeded to check out of the library and enjoyed reading very much. A review on Amazon says this about the book: “The suburban lawn sprouts a crop of contradictory myths. To some, it’s a green oasis; to others, it’s eco-purgatory. Science writer Hannah Holmes spent a year appraising the lawn through the eyes of the squirrels, crows, worms, and spiders who think of her backyard as their own. Suburban Safari is a fascinating and often hilarious record of her discoveries: that many animals adore the suburban environment, including bears and cougars venturing in from the woods; how plants, in their struggle for dominance, communicate with their own kind and battle other species; and that ways already exist for us to grow healthier, livelier lawns.”

Fox in the Hole

Recently I went on one of the most unusual animal rescues that I have ever undertaken. I received a call from AWARE (the wildlife center where I have volunteered for almost five years) asking if I could help a fox that was trapped in an abandoned General Motors factory slated for demolition. I was given the phone number of the police officer who reported the fox so that I could contact him to get the location details. When I called the officer, he told me I’d better wear some sturdy, waterproof boots.

When I arrived on the scene (by way of a Walmart to buy appropriate footwear), I was met by the two demolition workers who had discovered the fox and the policeman who had contacted AWARE. The officer led the way in his patrol car as I followed in my car into the massive, dark old factory. Surrounded by concrete, with virtually no light other than the beams from our headlights, the scene was definitely bleak. Although the scene had been described to me on the phone, I was stunned to see the predicament of this poor fox. The hapless creature had fallen into a large, deep pit that was filled with watery hydraulic fluid 5-6 inches deep. Finding no way to get out, he had sought refuge on the only high ground he could find, a dumpster full of scrap metal. I could just barely make out his silhouette in the dim light. Although the pit was accessible by a narrow metal staircase, the fox apparently had not been able to find it; probably he was too frightened and disoriented by the dark, watery gloom. Sadly, he had been trapped there for at least a couple of days–the efforts of the three men to entice him with cat food to a live trap on the staircase being unsuccessful. Moments later, the two demolition workers arrived with spotlights to illuminate the area where the fox was trapped, and the fox burrowed into the heap of scrap, leaving just the tip of his tail showing.

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The fox was stranded in the dumpster below, surrounded by watery hydraulic fluid 5-6 inches deep.

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My photos (taken with my phone) are admittedly poor, but I didn’t want to waste time on taking good photos. I was more concerned with rescuing this poor fox. His tail can just barely be seen at the back of the dumpster.

I must confess, even being escorted by a police officer, as I descended the dark stairs into the pit, I had a fleeting thought of being trapped, abandoned, or hurt in that gloomy place. When I stepped out onto the floor of the pit, I turned back to the officer saying, “Don’t leave me here.” But my fears soon disappeared, replaced with a sense of urgency and determination to help the stranded animal.  As I began wading toward the dumpster, I was unsure of how I was going to pull a fox buried under heavy scrap metal out of it. (Thank goodness the fox couldn’t bury himself completely under the heap, or I don’t know how I would have ever been able to help him.) Although I could look just barely look over the top of the dumpster, there was no way I was going to have the leverage to get the fox out. At this point, the officer noticed a folding chair against the opposite wall and waded in (in his non-waterproof boots) to bring it to me. I propped the chair against the side of the dumpster and peered over. Afraid I wouldn’t be able to get a good grip on the fox with the glove I had brought, I set it aside and reached in and grabbed the base of the tail and pulled. (I do have my rabies shots, as well as a lot of experience handling wildlife.) As soon as I could see the nape, I scruffed the animal and pulled him free of the dumpster—a poor grey fox. I think the three men were pretty shocked that I was handling this fox with my bare hands, but truth be told, he was so weak and scared–maybe on some level relieved–that he didn’t put up any fight. I carried him up the stairs and loaded him into the kennel I had brought with me, placing food and water inside.  Soon we were on our way to AWARE so the fox could be examined and receive care.

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Safe at last!

Once at AWARE, Tammi, one of AWARE’s Wildlife Care Supervisors, examined the fox for injuries, and another volunteer gave him fluids while I held him on the exam table. He perked up and squirmed a bit once the fluids were in him, but never once did he growl or attempt to bite. I can only imagine what he must have been thinking of his ordeal. We set him up on soft towels with food and water in his kennel and, being almost 9:00 PM by this time, left him to rest for the night. He reeked of hydraulic fluid, but a bath would have to wait.

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AWARE’s Wildlife Care Supervisor Marjan and volunteer Pru give the fox a bath to remove the hydraulic fluid. According to Marjan, he was the best fox patient ever!

The next day, I called to check on “my” fox and was told that he would be ready for release that very evening.  He had been bathed—and had been a model patient—and seemed to have his strength back. Because he was not eating, however, the staff thought that returning him to his territory as soon as possible would be best. I wanted to be the one to release him, so I made arrangements to pick him up. As much as I wanted to take him to a large wooded property away from the factory, I agreed with the staff that he should return to the same area where he was found. Relocated animals have a very slim chance of survival–less than 5% by some estimates. In a new and unfamiliar area, they don’t know the local food and water sources or places to find shelter, and they have to compete with other animals who have already claimed the territory. So, at dark, I drove back to the factory. Finding a wooded area at the back along some train tracks, which I figured the fox would recognize as a landmark, I set the kennel down and opened the door. Often, animals that we release take several minutes to leave, but not this fox. Within a minute, he shot out of the kennel and ran full speed toward the tracks. When he got about 100 feet away, he stopped and looked back straight at me for a few seconds before trotting off into the night. I’m probably anthropomorphizing, but I would swear this fox was taking a moment to acknowledge me and say thanks for the help. I left his dinner nearby; then feeling both elated and sad at the same time, I drove home. I hated to say goodbye to this beautiful, gentle creature. I hope he stays out of harm’s way and lives to raise many young.

Backyard Buffet: Native Plants for Wildlife

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Native plants provide the best nectar sources for butterflies like this beautiful Monarch. In addition, many native insects can only reproduce on specific native plants.

I started this blog to celebrate our beautiful planet and the amazing diversity of life with which we share it, and hopefully, to inspire others to do the same. When we celebrate and appreciate the world around us, we want to take care of it. The effort we make, if only in our own backyard, makes a difference. Pretty soon, I will have a new backyard and with it, an incredible opportunity to create a haven for wildlife.

At the end of this year, my family will be moving to a 1.6 acre lot–a small patch of woods and open meadow along a creek. To make things even better, our property is adjacent to a large park with wooded trails and a lake. Although it is located in the same suburban neighborhood where we currently live, it feels a world away. I can’t wait to be settled in the home we are building, but more than that, I can’t wait to be settled in my own little nature sanctuary. So far, we’ve seen foxes and deer, numerous species of birds (including a resident Red-tailed Hawk), and scads of pollinating insects. One reason we have such an abundance and diversity of wildlife is the variety of native plants on the property.

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The leaves of Hearts-a-bursting are readily eaten by deer and rabbits, and the berries are consumed by birds.

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Goldenrod is a favorite of the American Goldfinch, and a number of other bird and mammal species dine on its seeds as well.

The lot we’ll soon call home has become overgrown with years of disuse, but in that disuse, it has become useful for the wildlife that shares the land with us. The meadow is covered with native grasses and wildflowers like heath aster, goldenrod, blue mistflower, and boneset, attracting many species of butterflies and birds. Splashes of jewelweed along the creek beckon the hummingbirds, and hearts-a-bursting bushes offer a bounty for woodland mammals and birds. The calls of nuthatches and chickadees resound from the tops of pines and oaks, and the dead tree that stands at the back of the property bears the marks of many woodpecker feasts. Aside from removing a few invasive exotic plants, I plan to leave the lot relatively untouched.

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Heath Aster is a favorite of butterflies like this Fiery Skipper.

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Jewelweed, which blooms in late summer and fall, helps migrating hummingbirds fatten up for their journey to Central America.

What we grow in our own backyards can profoundly affect the diversity of life around us. Non-native butterfly bushes, for example, are touted as excellent nectar plants, but cannot support the reproduction of a single species of butterfly in North America. Native plants are much better at sustaining biodiversity, which is crucial to the health of our planet and our very existence.  In contrast, the typical American yard, comprised of tidy, mowed grass and non-native flowering plants and shrubs, provides very little benefit to wildlife and actually does harm to the environment. Here are a few facts about lawns that may surprise you:

  • Lawn grasses are not native to the North American continent and make poor habitat for wildlife.
  • Lawn grasses and exotic (non-native) plants reduce or eliminate insects available for insectivorous birds, as well as for other birds when they are feeding nestlings.
  • Acre for acre, the American lawn receives four times as much chemical pesticide as any U.S. farmland, killing an estimated seven million birds each year.
  • Phosphorus runoff from lawn fertilizer causes algae blooms that suck oxygen out of our waterways, killing aquatic life.
  • During summer months, as much as 60% of municipal water usage goes to lawns. (In a time when much of our nation is facing catastrophic drought, water is a resource we should be using wisely.)
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Blue Mistflower produces dense flower clusters and covers the ground with a matt of leaves. I’ll take this over a traditional lawn any day!

Plants and animals share a profound connection. Plants provide food and clean air to breath, as well as sustain wildlife. Wildlife, in turn, offers a number of tangible and invaluable services to people–such as pollination, seed dispersal, pest control, and sanitation. We can’t afford to be careless about protecting our earth and the life we share it with.  We are currently living during the “sixth mass extinction,” the greatest extinction period since dinosaurs were wiped off the planet, so we can’t act too soon.

So, start with your own backyard–it needn’t be large to make a difference! Add some beautiful native plants to your landscape that will attract more butterflies, birds, and other wildlife. Learn more about backyard wildlife sanctuary certification programs in your area, and have your yard certified as an example for others. You’ll be doing yourself and the earth a favor. In the wise words of anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  _____________________________________________________________________

An incredible and beautiful book about the connections between native plants and healthy ecosystems is Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home.

Many states have native plant societies which can help you learn more about the best plants to grow in your area. To learn about native plants in Georgia, including the best places to buy them, check out the Georgia Native Plant Society.

A wonderful blog about gardening with native plants is The Humane Gardener.

 

 

Praise for the Pigeon

Recently, I had the pleasure of “bird-sitting” a charming pigeon named Martha. Found on the ground with an untreatable injury and unable to fly, she was deemed non-releasable at the wildlife rehabilitation center where I volunteer (AWARE). Sadly, for most birds, this prognosis requires humane euthanasia, as wild birds are generally easily stressed and not suited for a life in captivity.* Well-adapted to living in proximity to humans, however, rescued pigeons often fair quite well, and because they are non-native to North America and not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, they are one of the few wild birds that can legally be kept as a pet. Many people would ask, “who would want a pigeon for a pet?!” Indeed, the pigeon is a much maligned bird, often referred to as a “winged rat.” Luckily for this particular pigeon, my friend Susie, a high school science teacher, wanted to give her a home and to introduce Martha to her students to foster an appreciation for birds and the environment. I enjoyed briefly having this calm, curious bird as a guest in my home and at my office at Atlanta Audubon Society (where she was, not surprisingly, a big hit) until Susie could pick her up. Having also worked closely with pigeons in rehab, I can tell you that they are smart, personable, and beautiful birds, and they have a rich and fascinating history.

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Martha the pigeon visits the office.

Determining the exact historical range of pigeons, also known as Rock Doves, is nearly impossible, but fossil evidence in Israel confirms they have been around for more than 300,000 years. They have been associated with humans for at least 5,000 years, having been raised for food, used as racing or homing pigeons, or kept as fancy pets (bred in a wide variety of color patterns, ranging from pure white, to rust, to slaty-blue). Pigeons in the United States are feral descendants of escaped or released domesticated pigeons; truly wild pigeons exist only in Europe, North Africa, and western Asia, where they typically dwell on rocky coastal cliffs. The birds we see in our cities have adopted the artificial “cliff” faces created by tall buildings and bridges for nesting and roosting, the best available substitute for their natural habitat.

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The adaptable pigeon has fared well living in urban areas.

Pigeons are smart and adaptable. Studies have shown that they can recognize human faces, learn the alphabet, and pass the self-recognition test when looking in a mirror, and their navigational abilities have been prized for thousands of years. In fact, selectively bred homing pigeons have the amazing ability to return to their homes when displaced 2,000 miles or more. They’ve served as long-distance messengers and as prized athletes in international races. Such notable figures as Genghis Khan and Julius Caesar used homing pigeons to carry important messages, and the Greeks used pigeons to send news of Olympic victories. One of the most famous pigeons in U.S. history, Cher Ami, saved 194 American troops trapped behind enemy lines during World War I by delivering a message indicating their location. In spite of being shot in the chest and losing a leg, Cher Ami delivered the life-saving message before she expired. She was awarded the French War Cross for her service and is enshrined in the Smithsonian Museum. The incredible navigational abilities of pigeons are not fully understood, but scientists believe they rely on a number of extraordinary capabilities, including the ability to hear infrasound (like the sound of the ocean hundreds of miles away), the ability to use olfactory cues (they follow their nose), and a sensitivity to the earth’s magnetic field (think built-in compass system).

If you take the time to look closely, pigeons are beautiful, too, and have a number of endearing qualities. Even your “run-of-the-mill” pigeon dons a spectrum of vibrant, iridescent color including purples, bronzes, and greens, and each bird has its own unique markings. Adult pigeons have striking orangey-red eyes, and who can resist those pink feet! Pigeons are strong and graceful in flight, too. They have been clocked at close to 100 miles an hour and are surprisingly acrobatic. Watch closely the next time you are stopped at a traffic light with a flock of pigeons taking wing. On the “personal” side, pigeons are faithful mates and devoted parents. They form life-long monogamous pairs and display affection to each other. Both parents play an active role incubating their eggs and feeding their young. Newly hatched pigeons (squabs) are fed by both parents for the first few days through regurgitation of “crop milk” (not to be confused with milk made by mammals; never feed milk to birds as they cannot digest it!) and are gradually introduced to seeds. Parental care continues until the young are nearly grown, which explains why baby pigeons are rarely seen.

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Pigeons don’t all look the same. Each has unique plumage.

This month marked the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, a related species that once darkened the skies for hours as they passed overhead in flocks of millions of birds. In just a few decades, humans drove this bird to extinction, the largest human-caused extinction in history. (Here is a fascinating and stark account of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon: Why the Passenger Pigeon Went Extinct.) Let’s hope we have learned a lesson. The last surviving bird was a captive named Martha (in whose honor I suggested the name for Susie’s bird). Let’s hope we’ve learned a lesson. Common as they may be, today’s feral pigeons deserve our compassion and respect, or they too may face an unthinkable fate. If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I have a special fondness for animals that are maligned and misunderstood—like opossums, coyotes, vultures, and crows. I hope that by reading you will begin to rethink these unique and wonderful creatures.

The beautiful Passenger Pigeon, which once darkened the skies with flocks of millions of birds, went extinct 100 years ago this month as a result of human over-exploitation. Let’s hope we have learned a lesson. Image courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

*Some exceptions are large birds of prey and members of the crow family, which can sometimes adapt to living with humans and can make excellent wildlife ambassadors with proper enrichment and training (see My Friend, Edgar Allen Crow). These birds, however, are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which “makes it illegal for anyone to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, or offer for sale, purchase, or barter, any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird except under the terms of a valid permit issued pursuant to Federal regulations” and includes all species native to the United States or its territories. Anyone wishing to keep a wild bird must obtain a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Carrion, My Wayward Bird

Happy International Vulture Awareness Day! Today marked the 6th annual observance of this day that celebrates these vital and fascinating birds and brings attention to the serious threats they face worldwide. I guess there really is a holiday for everything, haha!  Seriously, though, as one of nature’s most successful scavengers, vultures provide an array of ecological, economic, and cultural services that are immeasurably valuable to humans and our environment. They deserve this celebration, along with our gratitude and respect.

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These Turkey Vultures, like other members of the vulture family, provide essential environmental sanitation services. And, believe it or not, I think they are also beautiful.

North America is home to three species in the vulture family—Turkey Vultures, Black Vultures, and California Condors. The only known obligate scavengers among vertebrates, they play a vital role in sanitizing the environment. The word vulture likely comes from the Latin vellere, which means to pluck or tear, a reference to the way it feeds on carcasses; however, I prefer the scientific name, Cathartes aura, which originates from the Greek words for “purifying breeze” and alludes to the tremendous ecological service that vultures provide. They patrol the air, finding and ridding the land of carrion, which would otherwise be a breeding ground for disease. These birds are uniquely adapted to their scavenger lifestyle, having keen eyesight and wings built for soaring flight. With a wingspan as large as an eagle’s, they can soar for hours and rise to heights of 5,000 feet in search of food. Their featherless heads (easier to keep clean) and highly acidic digestive system also equip them for their dining preferences. Studies have shown that diseases as potent as anthrax, botulism, and rabies do not survive passage through a vulture’s digestive system. These free sanitation services benefit humans ecologically and economically.

Turkey Vultures, one of the few birds to have an excellent sense of smell, provide another invaluable service to humans by helping identify natural gas leaks. Natural gas is by itself odorless, so gas companies add the unpleasant smelling chemical ethyl mercaptan to it so that people can smell gas leaks. As it happens, ethyl mercaptan is also one of the chemicals emitted by putrefying animal carcasses, so leaks in natural gas pipelines often attract great numbers of Turkey Vultures. Because natural gas pipelines often cross out-of-the-way places, a congregation of Turkey Vultures circling overhead is often the first to sound the alarm, alerting humans of the problem.

Fortunately, both the Turkey Vulture and the Black Vulture have healthy populations, and the California Condor, once driven to brink of extinction, is making a slow, but hopeful comeback, though it is still a critically endangered species. The greatest threats to these birds arise from the consumption of carcasses that have been poisoned or killed with lead shot. In other parts of the world, however, many species of vultures are critically endangered with disastrous effects for humans. In India, for example, vulture population declines of more than 95% have occurred in the last decade, largely as a result of the use of anti-inflammatory drugs in cattle, on whose contaminated carcasses the vultures feed. This decline, which has caused an increase in other scavenger species such as rats and feral dogs, has been linked to an increase in the transmission of deadly diseases such as rabies and bubonic plague. Clearly, human and environmental health is intimately connected to these unique birds, making their conservation critically important.

Personally, I find vultures beautiful and fascinating. They are spectacular in flight, and up close, their silly, bald heads are endearing. Having worked with them in rehabilitation and education programs, I can attest that they are smart birds and can be quite charming. A non-releasable black vulture at the wildlife rehabilitation center where I volunteer (AWARE) quickly learned the routine at the center when it was time for his cage cleaning and physical therapy. He figured out our hand signals indicating where he was to perch and also how to sneak dead prey items intended for other birds when his caregivers’ backs were turned. He became rather cantankerous when someone would try to make him move or retrieve stolen food, but his grunting was rather comical. So far, I’ve never met a vulture I didn’t like.

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Fabio, a Black Vulture at Amicalola State Park, teaches the public about the important benefits of vultures. Isn’t he adorable?!

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Orphaned Black Vulture in rehabilitation at AWARE Wildlife Center. He’ll grow into his good looks.

In some parts of the world, vultures are sacred for their cleanup role. Tibetan Buddhists practice “sky burials,” where animals, usually vultures, consume their dead. Similarly, Zoroastrians offer their dead to be consumed by vultures on a raised platform. They regard vultures as precious animals that release the soul from the body.  (To me, this sounds more appealing than being preserved and buried in a fancy, oversized coffin in the ground.) Hopefully, the celebration of these birds on this unique holiday will help more people to appreciate the vital services they provide.  Happy International Vulture Appreciation Day!

Other interesting facts about vultures:

Unlike true birds of prey, their feet are flat and poorly adapted for grasping, and their beak is less hooked and relatively weak, being designed for tearing partially rotting flesh rather than fresh meat.  Because the talons are almost useless for defense, vultures will either play dead or projectile vomit on their attacker if threatened while nesting or roosting.

Vultures lack a syrinx (vocal organ) and can only communicate with hisses and grunts.

Vultures cool off by defecating on their own legs. The water evaporates to provide a cooling effect, similar to sweating. This habit is the reason their legs often appear white.

Although the Black Vulture and California Condor are non-migratory, some populations of Turkey Vultures annually migrate in huge flocks to Central and South America.

A group of vultures has many collective nouns, including a committee, a vortex, and a wake of vultures.

Here’s another great post about vultures from an author and blogger I admire: Why So Many Vultures?

A great source of information about vultures and other North American birds is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/

You Might Be a Wildlife Rehabilitator If…

  • you do a quick u-turn when you notice flashing car lights and police officers in the middle of a busy road wondering what to do with a large snapping turtle stranded in the middle of four lanes.
  • you know how to handle a snapping turtle, and you happen to have a carrier for it in your car.  (See https://mefurr.wordpress.com/2014/05/13/a-snap-decision/.)
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Have carrier, will rescue!

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Orphaned squirrel takes a nap at the office between feedings.

  • you’ve been on a wild goose chase…literally.
  • you go to the doctor for a couple of stitches on your cheekbone because you’ve been clocked by the goose you were trying to catch. (The doctor thought my story was pretty crazy but figured it had to be true. Who could make up something like that?! I don’t think you want to see the photo–had a nasty bruise too!)
  • you’re more afraid of being bitten by a chipmunk than a coyote. (Those chipmunks bite hard!)
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Believe it or not, I’m more wary handling these little critters than large predators like coyotes and hawks.

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Edgar Allen Crow was very dear to me. I still miss her.

  • you love opossums, squirrels, coyotes, snakes, vultures, crows, pigeons, and many other animals that people disdain because you know they play an important role in their ecosystem. (See Carrion, My Wayward Bird and Pretty as a ‘Possum.)
  • You’ve worn a ghillie suit.
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Ghillie suits help prevent orphaned animals from imprinting on humans. They’re worn especially around predators like coyotes and foxes that need to keep their distance from human habitation to remain safe in the wild.

  • you can’t say no when you get a call to go rescue an injured opossum (goose, squirrel, fox, etc.), even when you’re exhausted and have just found a moment’s peace.
  • you’ve been bitten, scratched, or taloned by most of the native wildlife in your area.
  • you’ve said to a friend, “I’d give you a hug, but I have feces on my shirt.”
  • you deal with a lot of sh*t!

But aren’t these faces worth it!!

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The Right Place for a Robin

Today I had another one of those moments where the universe put me in the right place at the right time. I had spent the better part of the week conducting a professional development workshop for teachers, training them how to use birding and ornithology to teach science concepts and integrate them with other courses. These workshops, which take place over the course of four days and three nights at a North Georgia state park, are lots of fun, but intense, starting with a bird walk at 7:00 AM and ending with a documentary about birds at 8:00 PM. One of the highlights of the workshop was taking a bird walk with a few of the teachers during our afternoon break and seeing a fledgling Blue-headed Vireo hidden among some low branches, an unexpected gift we would have completely missed had we not heard its faint begging calls and paused to take a closer look. You’d think after four days of doing little but looking at and talking about birds, I would have had my fill of birds for a little while, but luckily for another little fledgling, this wasn’t so.

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Fledgling Blue-headed Vireo

At the conclusion of the workshop, I drove over to my parents’ mountain house about an hour away to spend the night with my parents and my two children, who were spending the week with their grandparents and attending day camp. The next afternoon, while running an errand with my parents at the grocery store, I noticed the sound of birds chittering above the parking lot. When I looked up swallows were circling. Nearby, more than 25 Barn Swallows were perched on the roof of the building, and several nests were tucked up under the eaves. Since we needed to hurry back to pick up the kids from camp, I couldn’t spend a lot of time observing, but I did snap a quick photo of some nestlings before leaving.

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Barn Swallow nestlings

In the evening, as I passed by the grocery store on my drive back to Atlanta, I decided to pull in for one last look at the swallows before making the drive home to go to work the next day. As I was pulling out of the parking lot, I noticed a small fluttering movement in the shrubbery along the side of the road. Unable to resist the temptation to have a peek at what I assumed to be a fledgling, I decided to pull over to have a look. A baby American Robin was flapping its wings while the parents circled and called anxiously, but the bird didn’t seem to be able to move. When I stepped closer to have a look, I saw that the poor bird had his foot tangled in some thread that was snagged on a bush.

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Fledgling American Robin caught on a bush

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Removing the thread

Fortunately, a nice clerk inside the grocery store loaned me a pair of scissors, and once I relocated the baby (who at this point must have been following his parents’ orders to stay stone still), I quickly cut the thread that was caught on the bush. Removing the tangled thread from the bird’s foot was more complicated as it was tightly wound around the bird’s ankle and toes, and I worried that the constriction may have caused injury. The bird’s parents flew about making a fuss, but the baby was quiet and didn’t struggle. I think he knew I was helping. Fortunately, once the baby was freed, he was able to perch in the nearby tree where I gently placed him. The parents immediately flew over, as did a Gray Catbird, who must have wondered what all the racket was about.

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Back where he belongs!

As I mentioned in my previous post, birding forces us to slow down and be attentive to our surroundings, be they nests hidden under the eaves of a grocery store or a small flutter or call from a nearby bush. Even when the birds aren’t cooperating, being outdoors with a birder’s frame of mind will bring unexpected and incredible discoveries and gifts. I guess you could say that baby robin was lucky that I drove by with my eyes open for birds, but I’m the one that was richly rewarded.

**This experience serves as a good reminder of the importance of not littering, even when we think that an item is small, harmless, and/or biodegradable. Sadly, far too many animals suffer needlessly or die slowly and painfully by becoming ensnared or stuck in our castaway items like six-pack rings, fishing line, aluminum cans, glass bottles, etc. Marine life suffers when they ingest trash like balloons, plastic bags, and other disposable plastic items. Please dispose of trash responsibly.

A “Snap” Decision

As a wildlife rehabilitator, I’ve had a lot of interesting experiences with wildlife. Recently, I had one of the more unusual encounters I’ve had rescuing a wild animal. Driving back to my office at Atlanta Audubon Society after having taught a beginning birding class, I noticed two police cars with lights flashing parked in the turning lane in the middle of a busy four-lane road. Glancing over quickly, I noticed two officers standing near a large snapping turtle and looking perplexed about what to do. In an instant, I carefully made a U-turn, pulled up behind the patrol cars, and hopped out to offer my help. As luck would have it, I not only have experience handling snapping turtles, but I also happened to have a large pet carrier in my car, having been called earlier in the day about a mallard that might need rescuing. As I walked up to the police officers, I told them that I volunteer as a wildlife rehabilitator, knew what to do with the turtle, and had a carrier in my car. “What are the chances?!” one of them said, looking both surprised and relieved. Indeed the fates seemed to have been aligned for me to rescue that turtle that day.

Apparently the turtle had fallen (or climbed out?) into the middle of the road from the back of a truck, unnoticed by the driver. As large as the turtle was (the shell was about 18 inches long), the officers were, understandably, reluctant to handle it. Indeed, a turtle that large, with its long neck and strong, lightning-fast beak, can inflict a serious bite. Fortunately, my training at AWARE Wildlife Center has taught me the proper way to safely handle snapping turtles, and in no time, the turtle was loaded into my carrier and on its way to a nearby lake.

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Why the turtle would have been in someone’s truck is a mystery to me, but I can only assume it would have come to no good end. Some friends suggested that it was probably intended for someone’s supper. (I can’t image a giant, old turtle like this one would make good eating). Or, perhaps the intentions had been innocent–a desire to relocate the turtle to another location. But relocating wildlife is hard on animals and decreases their chances of survival. Many animals, and turtles in particular, are very tied to their home territory, often not venturing beyond a few miles their entire lives. In unfamiliar territory, relocated animals have a harder time finding food, shelter, and places to hide, and are often met with hostility by the local population. I wished I knew where the turtle had come from, but I did the best thing I could and drove to a nearby lake in a quiet neighborhood to release it. Getting the turtle back out of the carrier was a trickier task than getting him in! After a few minutes on the bank, he plunged in and disappeared into the muddy depths.

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As I walked back to my car, I noticed two Broad-winged Hawks, a migratory species that nests in Georgia in the summer, circling and calling. The first Broad-wings of the year for me, they seemed to be a nod from the universe saying “good job, Mel.” I hope that snapper finds its way home and lives a long life. I’m glad I was in the right place at the right time to help.

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Strangely enough, the very next day my neighbors called to ask for my help with a large snapping turtle that had mysteriously ended up on their back porch. Spring is the time of year when many turtles are on the move to lay their eggs, and they sometimes end up in unexpected places. If you see a turtle crossing the road and can safely move it, always help it across in the direction that it was heading.