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.

 

Empty Nest Syndrome

For the last handful of years, my family has had the good fortune to have a pair of Eastern Bluebirds grace the nest box in our tiny suburban backyard. When we set up a box this spring in our new backyard (a suburban oasis I wrote about here), I feared we might not see any action this year because several dead trees on our property provide natural cavities. Typically, we see males start to check out the box for a period of days beginning in February, perching on top, fluttering their wings, and flying in and out carrying nesting material. Once a female is sufficiently impressed, she takes over all of the nest construction and egg incubation, and the male delivers food to her while she is on the nest. I only saw a bird fly into the house once or twice after we set it up, and never with nesting material, so when I peeked in the box in mid-April, I was surprised to discover not only a nest, but five gorgeous blue eggs.

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Eastern Bluebirds generally lay four to six eggs which are incubated for about two weeks.

Every few days, I checked on the nest to monitor the progress of the clutch. Aside from my personal interest in the nest’s success, I had registered to monitor the nest with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Neighborhood Nestwatch program, a citizen science program that provides scientists with hard-to-get data about the survival rate of backyard birds. Nestwatch scientists also visited my home recently to band some of my backyard birds so that I can monitor them and record sightings into their database. Participating in such programs is a great way to spark curiosity and excitement for birds in kids and adults alike, as well as a way to contribute valuable data that scientists can use to guide conservation measures. If you have an accessible, active nest in your yard, I encourage you to register with Nestwatch and record your observations, but do make sure to read the important nest monitoring guidelines first so that you don’t hinder the success of the nesting efforts.

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Scientists from the Smithsonian’s Nestwatch program visited our home in April to catch and band birds for us to monitor. The program provides valuable data for scientists about backyard bird populations.

Bluebird babies take about two weeks to hatch and just another two weeks to fledge. As with all babies, they grow up way too fast—in just a blink of their sleep-deprived parents’ eyes. Every three days or so, I’d watch for the parents to fly off, then take a quick peek in the nest and snap a photo.

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Newly hatched–5/3/15

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Five or six days old–5/8/14

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Getting bigger everyday–5/11/15

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“Excuse me, could you move over a bit. It’s getting crowded in here!”–5/14/15

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Last photo before they fledged. So shy!–5/16/15

Watching the adults bring food back to the nest was fascinating. Each afternoon after work, I sat on our front steps to enjoy the show from a distance. Mama bluebird brought back much larger prey items than Dad did, and she was also more reluctant to enter the nest box while I was watching than he was. I watched her bring various large flying insects or earthworms back to the nest on several occasions, but I rarely saw her go in. I’d take my eyes off the box for just a moment only to turn back and see her flying off out of sight. One afternoon she even brought a lizard back to the nest!

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Daddy Bluebird was an attentive father. He brought smaller food items to the nest, but seemed to make more frequent visits.

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The female pounded and pounded this hapless lizard on the top of the nest box! I didn’t notice until I cropped my photo that the lizard appears to have already dropped its tail—so much for that defense mechanism. I’m not sure, but I think she gave up and flew off with it rather than feed it to her young. It would have been quite a mouthful!

As the chicks neared two weeks of age, I frequently saw them poke their heads up to look out of the box.  I knew their time to fledge was approaching and hoped it wouldn’t occur the day I would be out of town for a work event. In spite of careful observation in past years, I’ve never seen the babies leave the nest, and I was hoping this year I might get lucky. When I checked the box first thing in the morning after my work trip, I was crushed to discover that the nest was empty. Not only had I missed their departure, they had chosen the first cool, stormy day in almost three weeks to do so. I looked high and low in all the surrounding areas. In my experience, baby birds typically hang around low to the ground for a day or two, or at least up in the trees in the area near the nest, but these baby bluebirds were nowhere to be found. I listened for their begging calls and could detect nothing, and I saw no sign of the parents. I worried that a snake had taken the whole clutch before they even left the nest (which is exactly the reason why birds leave the nest as soon as they are able, often when they haven’t mastered flying yet).  I worried that a predator had gotten them after they left the nest.  I worried that they had gotten wet or gotten lost and succumbed to chill. Feeling disheartened, I headed to work.

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The babies are almost ready to explore the world. Their heads popped up each time their parents visited. 5/15/15

When I returned home that afternoon, I immediately set myself on the front steps with my binoculars. After several minutes I saw the male fly in and grab an insect from the ground and fly off into some distant trees. Several minutes later I saw the female do the same, but I couldn’t make out where they had gone. Surely the babies weren’t that far away? Were the adults just returning to business as normal? The sinking feeling returned. Determined to know more, I watched several more minutes until the male returned to the yard again. This time as he flew off, I changed my vantage point and watched as carefully as I could with my naked eye as he landed at the top of a tremendously tall tree. I could just make out the fluttering of wings and distant begging calls. The babies were safe—and apparently very well equipped to get off the ground!  Phew!  As much as I had hoped they would hang around a little longer, I was relieved and happy to see them safe and sound—the best cure for empty nest syndrome. If I’m lucky, the parents may return to raise one more clutch before the summer is over!

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Empty Nester–Daddy Bluebird poses for the camera.

Note about bluebird conservation:

I’ve commented in the past that I must have walked through the first four decades of my life with blinders on not to have noticed the beauty and diversity of bird life around me, but I think that even had I been paying more attention growing up, I wouldn’t have been likely to see an Eastern Bluebird in my backyard. Eastern Bluebird populations steeply declined in the early part of the 20th century as habitat loss and competition from introduced species such as European Starlings and House Sparrows made nesting holes increasingly difficult for bluebirds to claim. Fortunately today, in spite of the tremendous pressures facing birds, the Eastern Bluebird seems to be doing just fine. The establishment of bluebird trails and other nest box campaigns beginning in the late 1960s helped Eastern Bluebird populations rebound by almost two percent per year between 1966 and 2010.* The success of these efforts is an important reminder that when we work collectively to make small conservation actions, we can effect significant change. So, leave those dead trees standing (60 species in N. America are cavity nesters!), or put up a nest box or two (make sure it is designed to keep out the larger non-native and more aggressive starlings). I’m doing my part!  *www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Bluebird/lifehistory

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.

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.

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.

Snowjam 2014: Birds, Beeches, and Blue Sky

Atlanta doesn’t see a lot of snowfall, but when it does, it’s a major event. A recent snow here, “Snowjam 2014,” made national news as a panicked city shut down government, businesses, and schools, leading to paralyzing traffic jams that stranded people on roadsides and forced them to camp out in gas stations and grocery stores. Yesterday we had a second snowfall (mixed with sleet and freezing rain) that shut down much of the city. Having grown up in New Jersey and Vermont, I find the frenzy and lack of preparedness for snow here to be somewhat unfathomable, but I have enjoyed the excuse to slow down, admire the change of scenery, spend time with my children, and hunker down in warm pajamas. Although the weather this week was dreadful with driving sleet and howling wind, it made for some magical scenery, which we enjoyed from our warm house while making homemade soup and coffee cake.

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Snowjam Sparkle

One of the nicest things about my snow day is that it afforded me the luxury of watching my bird feeders throughout the day–and were they ever busy! (I’m only mildly embarrassed to admit that I stayed in my pajamas all day long, though I did go outside a few times to refill bird feeders.) Even amid driving sleet and icy wind, the birds stayed active. I am always amazed how such small creatures, warm-blooded like ourselves, survive in such wretched weather. One of the ways they do this is by keeping their bellies full. Many species of birds put on an insulating and energy-giving layer of fat in the winter (much like some of us do!), so they spend the majority of their day seeking out fatty food sources—all the more reason to keep those feeders full during bitter cold weather. You’ve probably witnessed another strategy birds use to survive the cold, which is by puffing up into the shape of a little round ball to trap insulating heat close to their bodies. Birds also fight the cold by staying out of the elements, finding cover in dense foliage or cavities, and some species huddle together to share warmth. Some of the smallest and hardiest birds, like chickadees, drop their body temperature more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit at night to save energy. How lucky we are to be able to warm up with a hot cup of cocoa or by turning up our thermostats! Appropriately, my family ended the day by curling up on the couch with blankets and watching the PBS Nature “DUCKumentary.”.

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Female Northern Cardinal puffed up against the cold

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Female Eastern Towhee taking cover from the storm

This morning, sun shining, I woke to sound of a steady drip of ice melting from trees and a thundering crash of snow sliding from the roof. I dressed and readied myself quickly to get outside to hike in the woods at our local park before the magical blanket of snow was gone. My two children, ages 10 and 12, having had their fill of television and video games during the sleet and snow, willingly pulled on their boots to join me. Watching our step as we crunched through the wet snow and keeping our heads down to avoid pelting snow and ice melting from the trees made bird-watching unfavorable. Birdsong filled the air, however, and we were lucky to spot the resident pair of Barred Owls roosting in their favorite pine tree. In the wetlands by the lake, dozens of sparrows were scratching in the mud looking for good things to eat, and a Belted Kingfisher zipped by, sounding his loud, rattling call. What struck me most on this morning’s walk, however, was not the birds, but the trees – their starkness so beautifully accentuated by white snow and blue sky.

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Pondering the climb of the Ladder Tree

American Beech trees were particularly dazzling with coppery leaves fluttering in the breeze and adding a flash of color to the landscape. Young beech trees and many species of oak hold their leaves through the winter, a trait called marescence that may help them weather the hardships of the season. One possible advantage of marescent leaves–defined as “withering but not falling off”–may be that they help the tree withstand stress from cold temperatures and improve water balance. Holding leaves through winter may also provide frost protection for new buds and twigs or deter animals from feeding on them (since dead, dry leaves are less nutritious and palatable). Another theory suggests that by dropping their leaves in spring, beech trees are delivering an organic mulch at the time when it is most needed by the growing parent tree. I like the suggestion of Michael Snyder, a Vermont forester, who suggests that marescence may be “helpful to trees living in dry, cold, deer-infested environments,” but that because all trees evolved from evergreens, it may also be a “sign that beech and oak are evolutionarily delayed, still on their way to becoming fully deciduous from their more evergreen past” (northernwoods.org). Whatever the reason, the beautiful golden hues the beech leaves added to our walk today was not overlooked.

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Beech trees and blue sky

We returned home with wet hats and cold feet. The kids settled in with a cup of cocoa, while I took a hot shower before putting my pajamas back on, pouring a second cup of coffee and sitting down to work. Though the cold lingers long this winter and snowy weather has kept us from our regular routines, what gifts Mother Nature constantly provides.

Pretty as a ‘Possum?

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Ilean, AWARE’s ambassador opossum

Pretty as a ‘possum? Now, that’s a phrase you’re unlikely to hear. In fact, whenever I see posts on Facebook by friends who have encountered an opossum in their backyard or carport, a stream of comments inevitably follows about what ugly, rabid, nasty overgrown rodents they are. Recently, a friend who spotted one on her carport (attracted by cat food which had been left outside, but that’s a grievance for another day) received advice to “whack the sh*& out of  it with a board.” Really?! I’m always saddened when I see such posts because if more people understood opossums better and knew what a benefit they are to the environment, they would have a very different perception. I tend to love animals that get a bad rap — like opossums, crows, vultures, coyotes — because once you get to know them, you understand that each species has its own unique intelligence and dignity, as well as its special role to play in the environment. Opossums are actually one of the coolest kids on the block.

Contrary to many people’s beliefs, opossums are not rodents. The opossum has the distinction of being North America’s only marsupial. As a marsupial, females bear premature young that migrate to the mother’s pouch (with a swimming motion) to continue their development. Opossum infants are tiny, about the size of a bumblebee — a typical litter of 8 to 9 young fits in a teaspoon. Once inside the pouch, they latch onto a nipple for approximately two months, at which time they begin to venture out. At this stage they will sometimes be seen riding on their mother’s back. By four months of age, they are living on their own, leading mostly solitary lives. With numerous predators and threats from urbanization, the opossum’s average life span is only about 2 years in the wild. 

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An injured opossum and her young, rehabilitated at AWARE Wildlife Center and returned to the wild.

Opossums are exceptionally non-threatening and shy.  In the presence of a threat, they will flee if possible. Having worked with hundreds of opossums during my four years rehabilitating animals at AWARE Wildlife Center, I can tell people firsthand that they are one of the least aggressive animals I know. They may have a nasty hiss, but they rarely bite unless tightly cornered. Moreover, opossums are one of the least likely mammals in North America to carry rabies. The reason for this may be that opossums have a lower body temperature than many other mammals, making it difficult for the rabies virus to survive in their bodies. In fact, the occurrence of rabies in opossums is so rare that a cow is more likely to carry rabies than an opossum!

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Just admit it — I’m cute!

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Opossums are incredibly beneficial to the environment. Their diet consists of all types of insects (roaches and beetles are delicacies), snails, and slugs, keeping our gardens free of pests. Because they catch and eat mice and rats, they also help keep rodent populations in check. By eating rotting fruit and carrion, too, they help to sanitize the environment.  Opossums are also immune to the venom of poisonous snakes and will feed on snakes such as rattlesnakes and copperheads. Not only do they eat many things considered pests by humans, they typically go about their business late at night,  unseen and out of the way.  Because they do not dig, burrow, or destroy property, most people never even realize an opossum has been in their yard. 

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Sebastian, another AWARE ambassador

The opossum has several interesting defense mechanisms. First, it will hiss and bare its 50 teeth (more than any other North American mammal). If this doesn’t work, the opossum may then wobble and begin to drool excessively, tactics intended to make potential predators believe that the animal is sick, and therefore, unappetizing. When these defenses fail, it will “play ‘possum,” slipping into an involuntary comatose state resulting from fear, which often causes predators to lose interest in it. While in this state, the opossum may also release a foul-smelling anal fluid that further deters would-be predators.

Opossums have opposable thumbs, and along with primates, are the only mammal with opposable first toes. This trait give opossums the ability to grasp their food and makes them adept climbers. Opossums also have prehensile tails, which help them to balance in trees and grasp bundles of leaves and grass for bedding materials. (They do not hang from their tails, though – this is a misconception).  In addition, opossums are smart at finding food and navigating mazes, outperforming dogs, cats, and rats in laboratory tests.

Surviving in the wild is tough business, but clearly the opossum is doing something right. In fact, opossums have been around since the time of dinosaurs; their fossils have been found dating back 70 million years!

While the opossum’s often grizzled appearance may not win people over,  hopefully knowing more about this smart, unique animal will help you to see its beauty. The non-releasable opossums I have worked with at AWARE, (like little Ilean, pictured below and at top of page) have been the most docile, sweet animals you could imagine. And they sure are good about eating leftovers! So, the next time you hear people talking smack about an opossum, set ‘em straight, would you?

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Ilean, AWARE’s non-releasable educational opossum, teaches the public about the benefits of her species.

 

 

Hot Winter Nights

Winter is a great time for viewing wildlife. Even in the cold, gray, wet weather that makes many of us cringe and stay indoors, much of the animal world stays active, and the absence of leaves on the trees makes wildlife easier to spot, especially birds. Some animals aren’t hindered by winter’s chill at all, instead finding it the perfect climate to “turn up the heat.” Believe it or not, winter is the best time of the year to observe several species of raptors that begin courtship and breeding even during the coldest and darkest months.

The Great Horned Owl is one of the earliest breeders in North America, beginning courtship calls as early as October and choosing a mate by December. The male attracts the female’s attention by puffing up his white throat and hooting while bowing to her. If the female is sufficiently impressed, she joins in the bowing and hooting, and the birds may remain mates for their entire lives. Breeding typically occurs in January or February with females laying one to four eggs that hatch in about seven weeks. Now is the best time of year to get out and look for these birds, particularly while the bare tree branches make it easier to spot their nests, which are often taken over from hawks, crows, or squirrels. In fact, here in Georgia these owls have already been spotted on their nests, used only when the females are brooding eggs and tending to their young. Be sure to look for the two ear tufts popping out from the top.

Great horned owl

photo: Jim Wilson

Great Horned Owls are not the only owls getting “busy” this season. Barred Owls also begin reuniting with their mates and refurbishing or scouting for nest sites in the cold months of winter. I’ve been hearing the local pair of Barred Owls hooting it up in my neighborhood for the past month, and I have been fortunate to see them roosting together in our neighborhood park the past two winters. I will be keeping my eyes peeled again this season! At AWARE wildlife center where I volunteer, our pair of nonreleasable Barred Owls, Gazer and Tappy, have become increasingly vocal.  As is typical in the wild, Tappy offers food to Gazer, and they are frequently seen preening each other. Gazer must be impressed with Tappy’s attention–she laid her very first egg in late fall (though did not incubate it)!

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My local Barred Owls roosting together last February.

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AWARE’s educational owls Gazer and Tappy are frequently seen preening each other.

Bald eagles are also early breeders, typically building their nests and laying eggs by mid-February, even earlier in southern states. (During a recent trip to Florida, I saw two bald eagles on their nests on New Year’s Eve!) Eagle’s nests, usually made of sticks and other plant material and found in big trees near large bodies of water, are the largest nests of any bird in North America. These enormous structures can measure over nine feet in diameter and twenty feet in height and can weigh more than two tons! A pair of eagles will typically use the same nest for many successive years. Eagles have a spectacular courtship ritual involving vocalizations and acrobatic flights that sometimes include a spiraling freefall from great heights with interlocked talons. What a thrill it would be to see this amorous display!

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Bald Eagle on a nest in Cedar Key, Florida — 12/31/13

Red-tailed hawks are also getting ready to breed at this time of year by building or refurbishing their nests of twigs, foliage, and other plant matter. Eggs are typically laid in March or April, depending on latitude. Like eagles, Red-tailed Hawks have dramatic aerial courtship displays. The male and female soar in circles calling with their unmistakable shrill, raspy cries. The male dives steeply then rises again, repeating this display several times. The display sometimes culminates with the pair clasping talons and plummeting in a spiral toward the ground before pulling away. Because Red-tailed Hawks are possibly the most common hawks in North America and are well-adapted to living in proximity to humans, careful observers are sure to be rewarded with sightings of these beautiful birds.

Witnessing these powerful birds is a reminder of what an incredibly diverse and magical planet we share. For those inclined to stay indoors in the winter months, several websites with live “nest cams” offer viewers the unique opportunity to watch these birds building nests, brooding eggs, and raising young in real time (see below for links), but how much more fascinating it is to witness it in person! So, before the leaves obscure the treetops, bundle up, grab a pair of binoculars, and keep your ears open and eyes toward the skies!

Recommended Nest Cams:

Watch Georgia’s beloved Berry College Eagles raise their young for the third year in a row. Mom is already incubating two eggs! Or check out the Atlanta Falcons (Peregrine, that is!).

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a trove of all sorts of information about birds and has nestcams for several species of birds. Tune in to this year’s livestream cameras here.