Charlie’s Angels

When I texted David Bean on the way home from a recent family trip to Florida to let him know that we planned to drive by to look for “Charlie,” the Burrowing Owl who has spent the past three winters on his farm in Miller County, GA, he promptly texted me back, “stop by the house and we’ll fix you a cup of coffee.” I first met David and his wife Judy, the definition of southern charm and hospitality, when a good friend and I decided to chase a few rarities in southwest Georgia last winter. We’d been virtually introduced by a mutual friend and had been invited to stop in for breakfast when we arrived at their 1500-acre farm in the rural town of Donalsonville. Having never seen a Burrowing Owl before, I was eager to find it, but David assured us we’d get a glimpse. Over coffee we learned that David and Judy both grew up on farms in Donalsonville but spent many years in the northwest part of the state, where David had a career in law enforcement and Judy was a school superintendent. When they retired several years ago, they returned to Judy’s family farm in Donalsonville, moving into her childhood home that her parents purchased in the late 1940s. Their breeding stock of Angus cattle is also retired, grazing in wide open pastures, and the Beans are now focused on improving the land for wildlife, including Charlie.

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Charlie glares at the camera from outside her burrow.

When David emailed the Director of the Global Owl Project, David Johnson, to let him know about Charlie, he received a prompt reply that began, “A very exciting observation there. . .You have something very special!!!!” As Georgia’s only confirmed Burrowing Owl since the mid-1990s, Charlie is pretty extraordinary. According to Johnson, the rich brown coloration on the chest and flanks and the lack of a prominent white eyebrow and chin indicate that Charlie is most likely female. Based on her arrival in early October and departure in early May, he thinks she is probably a migratory western subspecies overwintering at the Bean farm, possibly journeying from as far north as the Dakotas or Manitoba, or maybe the Midwest. With a breeding range extending from central Mexico through most of the western United States into Canada (though absent in mountainous areas), the western subspecies of Burrowing Owl consists of migratory, partially migratory, and resident populations. (The Florida subspecies, found in southern Florida with disjunct populations in the panhandle and a few Caribbean islands, is non-migratory.) Limited data from geolocators suggests that owls from the northernmost breeding areas spread out across a remarkably wide area in winter, many leapfrogging resident populations in southwestern states to winter in Mexico. Johnson also noted that winter site fidelity is high, with owls returning to the “same burrow year after year, even if they do not use the same nest site.”

The only owls in the world that nest exclusively underground, Burrowing Owls are birds of dry, open places including deserts, prairies, pastures, and coastlines, but they have readily adapted to living in proximity to humans and can be found at golf courses, airports, and vacant lots. Both subspecies have faced significant population declines in recent decades, and the western subspecies is listed as endangered in several states in which it occurs. Habitat loss is a major threat, and in the west, the persecution of mammals like prairie dogs, badgers, and ground squirrels that provide the burrows the owls need compounds the problem. (The Florida subspecies will dig their own burrows.)

This year, when Charlie returned for the third consecutive winter, she found not one, but two luxurious new burrows awaiting her. (In previous years, she has roosted in a sewer pipe and an armadillo burrow.) Last spring, Wayne Schaffner helped David install the artificial burrows in a pasture near her previous roosts. Using plans suggested by the Global Owl Project, they dug five-foot deep holes and filled them with sand before installing the burrows, which David constructed with a 55-gallon drum cut in half for the main chambers and flexible corrugated drain pipe for the 10-foot long tunnels. On most days, Charlie can be seen sitting just outside one of her two burrows, which David has cordoned off with rails that keep her safe from the cows (and mark the spot for birders, who are asked to stay in their cars so they don’t disturb her). David says Charlie perches on a nearby fence post at dusk, probably getting ready for her nighttime hunt.

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The bottom section of pipe leading to the burrow is cut out so that Charlie can walk on a natural surface.

Charlie is not the only notable snowbird on the Bean’s farm. A Vermillion Flycatcher and a Say’s Phoebe have also wintered there in recent years. David regularly sees Loggerhead Shrikes, American Kestrels, Great Horned Owls, and Cooper’s Hawks (which he calls “blue darters”), and he gave up his small flock of chickens a few years ago when a pair of Bald Eagles took up residence nearby. When I called recently to ask a few questions about Charlie, he’d just installed a nest box for a pair of Barn Owls he discovered roosting in his silo. (Charlie must be extremely savvy to make a living with so many aerial predators nearby!) In keeping with a practice started by his father, David has built and installed more than 40 bluebird boxes on his land, as well as giving them away to neighbors and friends. Birds aren’t the only beneficiaries of his handiwork though. During my recent visit, he showed me the nest box he made for a colony of wild bees after Hurricane Michael slammed the area last fall and destroyed their tree hollow. “Well, they’re so beneficial,” he replied, when asked what motivated him to help them.

I hope Charlie will return to Georgia for many years to come. She was lucky to land at David and Judy Bean’s farm, and the birding community has been lucky for the welcome we have received as well. If only everyone would be so gracious to strangers and the wildlife with whom we share the planet! I was excited to get a life bird when I first saw Charlie last winter, but I consider myself even more fortunate to have met the remarkable people looking out for her.

David Bean points out the nest box he made for a colony of bees, by Melanie Furr

David points out the nest box he made for a colony of bees after their tree cavity was destroyed.

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A Wild Grebe Chase

A few weeks ago on my way home from work, I stopped off at one of my favorite local parks to pass a little time before afternoon carpool duties. It was a cold, gray, and gusty day, but I had started a personal challenge on New Year’s Day to see and record a different bird species for as many days in a row as possible (more about that later), so I was hoping to spot something new, perhaps an early migrant stopping over during the inclement weather.  As I crouched down at the lake’s edge scanning with my binoculars, I spotted a Pied-billed Grebe jerking its head strangely. A closer look through my zoom lens revealed it was trying to free itself from a ring stuck around its neck. I clumsily dropped my camera in the lake as I was standing up to go, but I told myself it would be worth it if I could rescue the grebe. As soon as I got home, I sent out an email to the Georgia birders’ list-serve asking for help. A gentleman I met during our rescue (mis)adventures wrote a fun blog post about our rescue efforts (something I’d hoped to find the time to do), and I not only discovered a beautiful, informative new blog (check out Bill’s amazing bird photos!), but I made a new friend as well. Enjoy the post!

A Rescue Adventure by Bill Everitt at https://intownhawk.com/

Late Thursday afternoon, February 24, Melanie Furr with Atlanta Audubon put out a call for help on GABO’s  (Georgia Birders Online) list serve:

Pied-billed Grebe

There is a grebe on the lake at Murphy Candler Park (DeKalb Co) with a ring around its neck (appears to be a dog toy?). The bird does not appear to be able to dive or fly. A canoe will probably be needed to get to the bird. If there’s anything that anyone can do to help, please get in touch with me.

“A canoe will probably be needed…”.  That was a key phrase.  Jack Wissner (aka KyakJak), our friend here in Peachtree Park, responded immediately with an offer to help with his canoe.  Perfect team for the job – Melanie with her long experience rescuing animals and Jack with his formidable skills in a canoe.  I went along as observer and unskilled labor.

Murphey Candler Park, Atlanta, GA - February 25, 2016

The next morning Melanie went early to the lake and called Jack to say the bird was still there and still in trouble.  So we loaded the canoe on Jack’s car and went to Murphey Candler.

Murphey Candler Park, Atlanta, GA - February 25, 2016

Jack and Melanie paddled the lake from one end to the other several times but were unable to locate the bird.  After a couple of hours, two additional resources from Atlanta Audubon came to help with the search.  No luck.

Then finally the Grebe was spotted on the far side of the lake and to everybody’s relief it had managed to free itself from the constraining plastic.

Pied-billed Grebe - Podilymbus podiceps Murphey Candler Park, Atlanta, GA - February 25, 2016

Great adventure, and in the process we learned a lot about animal rescue and met some talented, dedicated individuals.

Melanie is the author of an outstanding blog “My Eco-centric Life” which we really liked.  Check out her post titled “You Might Be A Wildlife Rehabilitator If…

All of this prompted us to do some homework on wildlife rescue, the results of which are included on our page “Learn About Wildlife Rescue“.

Thanks to Melanie, Jack and the folks at Atlanta Audubon for this most excellent urban wildlife adventure!

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.