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.

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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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. 

Springing Forward

Although Old Man Winter is still flexing his muscles here and there (Atlanta expects temperatures to drop below freezing again this week, and my northern friends are bracing for another snowstorm), we are definitely on the threshold of spring. With the arrival of warmer weather and lengthening days, the signs of spring are everywhere – blooming spring ephemerals, budding trees, birdsong, and baby squirrels!  Here are just a few of the tell-tale signs I’ve seen in recent days that remind me that warmer, greener days are ahead.

Trout Lilies are an early herald of spring.

Trout Lilies are an early herald of spring.

One of the earliest heralds of spring, Trout Lilies grow in sizeable colonies and are named for the mottled leaves which bear some similarity to the markings of brook trout. Like other spring ephemeral wildflowers, trout lilies are perennial woodland plants that sprout early in the spring to take advantage of the full sunlight. They bloom and quickly turn to seed before they are shaded out by the canopy trees. Once the forest floor is in deep shade, the leaves wither, leaving behind only the underground roots and bulb. Some other ephemerals to look for while walking in Eastern woods are Hepatica, Bloodroot, Trillium, and Jack-in-the-Pulpit.

Magnolia blossom

Magnolia blossom

Magnolia tree with maples and the moon in the background

Magnolia tree with maples and the moon in the background

Although we usually think of trees being their most colorful in the fall, they put on a variety of colorful displays in the spring, too. Aside from the showy blooms of flowering trees like the Dogwood or Magnolia, many other common deciduous trees bear colorful flowers in spring. Maple flowers, for example, can be green, yellow, orange, or red, and while the flowers are small, the effect of a whole tree in bloom is beautiful. Later, the flowers of the maple tree yield seeds called samaras – better known as “helicopters” or “whirlybirds” for the way they are shaped to spin as they fall, which helps to carry them great distances on the wind for dispersal. These seeds are an important food source for a variety of wildlife.

Maple tree in bloom

Maple tree in bloom

The birds are singing! (Carolina Wren)

The birds are singing! (Carolina Wren)

You’ve probably noticed that the birds are a lot more vocal as the days grow longer. The increased sunlight triggers hormones in birds that induce them to sing, especially the males, but the females of many species sing also. Vocalizations fall into two general categories, songs and calls. Songs are used to attract mates, declare territory, and bond with family members. The shorter calls are used to convey information about food sources, warn of danger, and help family members stay in touch as they forage. The Northern Mockingbird, named for its ability to mimic the songs of other birds, has one of the most expansive repertoires, copying songs from other species and incorporating them into thousands of variations. Most people are surprised to learn that Georgia’s state bird, the Brown Thrasher, has even more songs than the mockingbird! In fact, it has the largest repertoire of all North American birds. Early spring is one of the best times to watch birds – before the canopy hides them from view and before they have young mouths to feed and protect.

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Northern Mockingbirds are expert mimics with hundreds, if not thousands, of variations in their songs (even when standing on one foot as this bird is, ha ha).

Finally, I know that spring is truly here when the wildlife center where I volunteer starts receiving a steady inflow of displaced and orphaned baby squirrels and other young wild animals. Already we are caring for close to twenty tiny squirrels, and that number will double, or triple as the season progresses. For me, making and warming formula, feeding bottles, and washing an endless stream of dishes and dirty laundry have become as closely associated with spring as any other of the tell-tale signs. So please, hold off on your tree pruning, keep your cats indoors, and when possible, place any young mammals or birds you find on the ground back in the nest. Our hands are full already!

Baby squirrels require numerous feedings each day.

Baby squirrels require numerous feedings each day. This one is about two weeks old.

To learn more about rehabilitating baby squirrels and see some adorable photos, see my earlier post Nutty for Squirrels, mefurr.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/nutty-for-squirrels/For information about what to do if you find an injured or orphaned animal, check out AWARE’s website at www.awarewildife.org.

To learn about the birds in your neighborhood, including audio files of their songs and calls, one of my favorite resources is www.allaboutbirds.org, a website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

A great resource for information on wildflowers and trees, as well as many different types of animals is www.enature.com/fieldguides/. This site allows you to type in your zip code to find out more about the plants and animals in your neighborhood.

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.

 

 

My Friend, Edgar Allan Crow

I have a thing for crows. Whenever I hear their calls, I can’t help but smile to myself and wonder what they are saying. Most people take them for granted, perhaps because they’re so common, yet few people truly understand how remarkable they really are. Highly intelligent and adaptable, crows aren’t appreciated enough. Until I met one very special crow, I, too, never gave them much thought. When she passed away this summer, I was genuinely heartbroken, and I miss her still. She was a good friend.

You may find it odd that her name was Edgar Allan (Crow). When she came in to the wildlife center where I volunteer (AWARE) for rehabilitation in 2010, we had no way of knowing her gender without performing costly blood work, so we made the best guess based on her weight. (Males tend to outweigh females, but they otherwise look the same.) Later, dedicated volunteers donated the funds for the lab work for each of our educational birds, but Edgar’s name had already stuck. Truly, for a singular bird, she deserved a singular name. I was privileged to develop a relationship with her over the course of three years.

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Edgar was missing a lot of feathers when she came to AWARE.

Malnourished and missing many of her feathers, Edgar was a pitiful sight when she arrived at AWARE. The feathers she still had were brittle and broken, some of them raw where they had broken off. Although the cause of Edgar’s condition was uncertain, we suspected it was a result of a “fast-food diet.” More than likely, Edgar was raised in an urban area, brought up on discarded human foods like French fries and hamburgers rather than a natural crow diet. Unfortunately, as a result of her poor nutrition as a youngster, her feathers hadn’t grown properly, and she wasn’t able to fly. With care and good nutrition, many of Edgar’s feathers grew in long and sleek over time, but unfortunately, never fully enough to set her aloft.

What she lacked in grace and appearance, Edgar made up for with her spunky personality. She was a very vocal bird, having several different calls with different meanings. (Crows can produce at least 25 different sounds and even mimic the sounds of humans and other animals.) Whenever I arrived at the center or she wanted my attention, she would call to me with exuberant caw-caw-cawing. When she was upset or frightened (brooms totally freaked her out), she would elicit a gruffer, earsplitting CAW-CAW-CAW, but she cooed softly when you stroked her sweet spots. When she was being playful, she giggled. No joke – giggled! Once or twice, volunteers even swear they heard her say a word or two.

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Edgar was a spunky crow!

Edgar could be mischievous and silly, and she often made people laugh. She loved to play “catch-me-if-you-can,” peck at people’s shoes, and walk around in her food getting her feet dirty. (Fortunately, she also liked to take baths frequently). She loved to play with paper – crumpling it, pecking at it, wetting it, and stuffing it in cracks and crevices. She liked to play with my scarves in the winter, too, so I made her a few of her own to play with. I would tease her by trying to put one on her. A few times, she let me! In the few months before she died, Edgar and I had perfected a really cute trick. I’d tell her to “kiss my beak,” and she would rub her beak against my nose. Someone once commented that I was brave to put my face so close to a crow’s strong, pointy beak, but Edgar and I had established mutual trust.

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Edgar loved her baths!

Because of Edgar, crows fascinate me. In my curiosity to know more, I’ve done a lot of reading about them. I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that crows are among the smartest of all animals, but I’ve learned some amazing facts that you may find surprising:

  • Crows form lasting, close-knit family ties. In fact, it is not uncommon for three generations of crows to spend time together. Crows care for young, sick, and injured family members and protect them from predators. They even form “mobs” to drive predators away. Crows form monogamous breeding pairs and are known to pay extended visits to siblings or extended family living elsewhere. Young crows may spend several years with their parents, helping to raise subsequent broods, and juveniles often set up their own breeding territories adjacent to their parents’.
  • Crows are one of the few species of animals that makes and uses tools, and they are excellent problem solvers. They have been seen dropping acorns onto roads to be cracked by passing cars and dropping shellfish onto rocks to break them open. They have also been observed breaking off twigs of a certain shape to use as a hook for snagging insects in tree cavities. They even store these “tools” in safe places to use again and again. In addition, crows have also been known to drop pine cones on people getting too close to their nest. Sometimes, crows pull up unattended fishing lines and eat the bait or fish they find, which requires both problem solving ability and dexterity. They have also been known to tweak the tail of another animal to distract it while a fellow bird steals the animal’s food.
  • Crows are playful and curious. They drop and catch sticks in flight and play games like tug-of-war. They swing on tree branches and slide on snowdrifts. Sometimes, they’ll give a playful nip to the tail of a dog or other animal, then fly out of reach.
  • Crows benefit the environment. They eat insects and small animals that harm crops and gardens, as well as food littered by humans. They also eat carrion, helping sanitize the environment. Crow droppings spread seeds and fertilize soil.

If you still aren’t convinced that crows are amazing, or if you want to learn more about these incredible birds, check out the extraordinary story of Moses, a crow who “adopted” a kitten. You’ve got to see it to believe it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1JiJzqXxgxo! In addition, the following fascinating study shows that crows can learn not only to recognize individual human faces and identify them as friend or foe, but will transmit this information to their crow mates: http://news.sciencemag.org/2010/02/caveman-or-dick-cheney-crows-know-difference! Ironically, as Cornell Lab of Ornithology ecologist and crow expert Kevin McGowan notes, whereas “crows can recognize people as individuals, we still see crows as just crows.”

Edgar Allan Crow gave me a gift by showing me how remarkable crows really are. Once you know more about them, it’s hard to think of them as “just crows” and not appreciate their intelligence, loyalty, and moxie. Pay attention to your crow neighbors who raise their families next to our own — you never know how they’ll surprise you!

Back to the Wild

Much of the work involved in wildlife rehabilitation isn’t interesting or glamorous. Actually, a lot of it is downright gross. I learned that fact my first week as a volunteer at AWARE wildlife center when my trainer Tammi asked me to cut up a dead rat for an injured vulture, testing my mettle for dirty work from day one. Cleaning soiled enclosures, washing dirty dishes, processing filthy laundry, and other unseemly tasks make up most of the work — essential, but hardly pleasant. Feeding baby animals is gratifying, but it, too, can feel like work when trying to keep up with the demands of numerous animals requiring multiple feedings a day. But rehabilitation has numerous rewards, too. One of the greatest rewards is watching an animal return to the wild, especially when you have been closely involved in its care. I’ve had the privilege of releasing several animals back to the wild, including opossums, raccoons, turtles, geese, songbirds, and hawks, as well as squirrels I have raised (see my post Nutty for Squirrels). Each of these releases was memorable, but perhaps none more so than the long-awaited release of three young coyotes last week at dusk.

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Coyote brothers on the day of their release.
photo credit: Linda Potter

The three orphaned male coyote pups from two different litters were brought to AWARE last spring after their parents had been trapped and killed, a far too frequent occurrence. Understandably, some trappers have a harder time killing defenseless pups, so they occasionally end up in our care (such scruples from people who have been paid to kill the adults, but leave the orphans to be raised at AWARE’s expense!). Because I have been vaccinated against rabies as a precautionary measure, I was one of a few volunteers who regularly fed and cleaned up after the three pups. Every Tuesday for seven months, I delivered their food and cleaned their enclosure (which became increasingly foul as they grew older!), so I witnessed their growth up-close.

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So tiny when they were brought to AWARE as orphans!
photo credit: ajiiiphotography.com

Watching the pups grow from tiny, clumsy, defenseless balls of fur into sleek, wary, and powerful predators was an incredible experience. When the pups were small, I had to fight the impulse to shower them with affection, so I hated having to clap and stomp to scare them back when they occasionally became bold or inquisitive as I delivered their food. (Coyotes that approach humans too closely usually don’t come to a good end, so good rehabilitators are committed to reinforcing their natural fear of humans.) Within a few weeks, the pups’ instinctive wariness of people overrode their curiosity. Even though I’d never done anything more than clap, they were terrified each time I approached to feed and clean, hiding or pacing frantically at the far end of their enclosure. My heart broke to see them, but I knew this fear was necessary. As the coyotes grew, seeing them living a caged life became increasingly difficult. Although AWARE’s enclosures give the animals plenty of room to climb and move around, coyotes need to run free. Until they were full-grown and able to find food, catch prey, and defend themselves, however, releasing them would have been a death sentence. Still, even though they are now full-grown, these youngsters have been forced to strike out on their own at a much younger age than their parents would have required in the wild.

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Instinctively wary of humans, the pups tried to hide whenever I approached their enclosure, even after they’d outgrown their favorite hiding place.

??????????????????????????????? DSCN7753 ???????????????????????????????       When release day arrived, Tammi and I corralled the coyotes into a kennel, wrestling one frightened kid out from a corner, and then loaded them into the back of my minivan. (Never thought I’d count coyote wrangling among my skills!) My good friend and fellow volunteer Kelly joined me on a two hour ride to north Georgia where we had permission to release the small family on private land safe from hunters, cities, and busy roads. When we arrived, we parked near a wooded area and waited a short time for dusk to fall in order to give the coyotes the best chance to explore their surroundings without danger from humans. When the moment seemed right, we lowered the kennel to the ground and opened the door. The coyotes crowded to the back of the cage. Everything must have seemed so strange to them! After a few minutes, I stepped up to the cage and gave it a gentle shake. One coyote dashed out like a shot and was out of sight in the blink of an eye. Twice more I had to shake the cage before the remaining two coyotes were compelled to leave, but once they stepped out, their legs carried them full speed ahead until the fading light obscured them from our view. How fascinating to imagine all the new experiences and adventures they had on that first night of freedom! Did they seek each other out with yips and howls as night fell, or did they venture off in their own directions? What animal did they catch for their first meal? We’ll never know their fate, but we equipped them for the wild the best we could by helping them learn to recognize food sources, catch prey, and avoid humans. We wish them long, healthy lives.

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Ready for release — good luck, boys!

Note: Like a lot of wildlife, coyotes (and foxes) generally aren’t welcome near human development, where they are frequently trapped and destroyed. Relocating these animals (without rehabilitation permits) is against the law in Georgia, and in most states, I suspect. In addition, in many states they can be hunted without restriction at any time of year, and the federal government contributes to the slaughter of tens of thousands of coyotes each year. Efforts to control their numbers have actually only served to increase their population and expand their range, which was once limited to the western United States. Sadly, these animals are grossly misunderstood. Intelligent, adaptable, and family-oriented, coyotes provide important environmental benefits. Though urban sightings are becoming more common as wild habitats are destroyed, coyotes are naturally afraid of humans and rarely approach within thirty feet. With a few precautions, they pose little danger to people and their pets. For more information on these amazing creatures, please check out http://www.coyoteyipps.com

http://www.coyotecoexistence.com

To learn more about AWARE or to make a tax-deductible donation to help wildlife, visit http://www.awarewildlife.org.