Little Sal

This past May, I took in a tiny nestling woodpecker that fell from his nest at the top of a dead tree at the nature preserve where my office is located. 

I tried several tree services to see if they could renest the baby. One sympathetic, brave tree climber even tried to help, but the snag was too unstable for him to safely reach the nest cavity.


While I’ve assisted with the care of hundreds of baby birds during my years volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation center (AWARE), and have raised numerous baby squirrels from infancy to release, this was my first time raising a baby bird on my own. 

For exactly six weeks, I had the privilege to care for this tiny miracle, witnessing his transformation from a helpless, constantly-chirping clump of pin-feathers to a fully-feathered, fast-flying wild bird. Being a bird-mom wasn’t so different from mothering my own infants. The baby needed to be kept warm, fed, clean, and dry. In this case, nighttime feedings weren’t required, but for the first few weeks, I offered a specially prepared formula, warmed, by syringe every 15-30 minutes for 14 hours a day. And, of course, what goes in…

Needless to say, juggling full-time work and a baby woodpecker didn’t leave me with spare time for writing (I regret neglecting my blog and you faithful friends who read it), but I did post regular updates on Facebook and Instagram. What follows is a photo and video essay, comprised of my social media posts during this amazing journey.


May 17 — This little nestling fell from a tree cavity and was found on the ground this afternoon by @adambetuel at the nature preserve where we work. We weren’t able to get her back in the nest, so I’m doing my best as foster mom for now. Hoping a tree service will help me get her back in the nest since the parents are still tending other babies. Can you guess what species it is? Lots of good clues… #wildliferehab #babybird #justanotherdayattheoffice #feedme #crazyanimallady


All day long this one chitters! Looks like she’ll be staying with me a bit longer. A tree climber attempted to renest today, but the snag was just too unstable for him to get as high as he needed to be. We’ve made it 48 hours! She’s working hard growing, and I’m working hard keeping her fed! #feedingtimeagain #babyseason #nestling


Here is something pretty cool to see! (Yes, the baby is quiet which is remarkable in itself.) Woodpeckers have long tongues used for spearing and raking insects from crevices. Their tongues are so long that they they wrap around the skull. If you watch closely when the baby flicks her tongue, you can see it moving over the top of her head. Another day of feeding every 30 minutes begins! #babybird #wildliferehab 


Learning how to be a woodpecker…pecking and probing. So many new feathers, and this afternoon I heard my first “peek!” #proudmamamoment #wildliferehab  #birdspam #sorrycanthelpit


He sleeps… #heartmelts #abirdinthehand 


Growing feathers… #littlemiracles #artinnature 


When the baby comes back after being with a friend for a few days and isn’t a baby anymore…! We’re calling him Sal.   #imabigkidnow


Nest? Who needs a nest?! #proudmomma


Spending time on the porch to get used to the sounds and sensations. I wish he had a sibling to bond with, but for now, I’m all he’s got. #snowwhitesgotnothingonme​


When you’ve been playing hard and can’t keep your eyes open anymore… #tuckeredout #sosleepy #isnthethecutest


Lots of exploring and new experiences today. This guy’s been ready to leave the nest from the start, apparently. I think those black bars on his tail feathers mean he’s actually a Downy Woodpecker, though I would’ve sworn he came from a Hairy’s nest. (Both are nesting in the area where he was found). Whatever this little bird is, he’s sure got a lot of spunk!  #whatsthisbird #ohthecuteness

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​And just like that…solid food!  #imabigkidnow #birdwatching #fledgling


He knows his mama! Just flew right to me from the top of his cage! #lapbird #theskysthelimit


Working for the birds… #birdsmatter​​​

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​​​This guy is fully flighted now! He thinks he’s quite done with his mesh cage (and people!), but he’s stuck with me a bit longer while we work on self-feeding. Made progress today! #theygrowupsofast


Twelve days… #theygrowupsofast​​​

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Two weeks ago this little miracle fell into my life (and hijacked my FB and Instagram). He’s weaning now (as you can see in these pics and the video I just posted), so our days together are numbered. He’s given me a such a precious gift. #gonnamissthatkid  


Learning to eat from a mealworm feeder… ’cause you know, someone might put one out for him when he’s released.  #woodpeckerlife


This little troublemaker is gaining independence and knows good and well where to find his grub, but mom’s shoulder is a sure bet, too. Gonna miss him this week while traveling for work, but he’s with a great bird-sitter who has promised to send updates. #gotmealworms #birdmom   


I saw lots of gorgeous birds in the mountains this week, but this is the one that has my heart. Thanks to my friends Joy and Ken for taking such good care of Sal while I was traveling. #littlesal  #theygrowupsofast #birdwatching

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​​Today we tried blueberries! #ithinkhelikesit    

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Bath time!! #rubadubdub #birdwatching #littlesal #wildliferehab #woodpecker

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What’s that thing you’re always holding up in my face, mom? #woodpeckerselfies #trouble #curiousbird


I have an aviary, at least a temporary one! A fellow rehabber donated it to me, my amazing husband drove 50 miles with me to pick it up and promptly put it together on our lower deck, and I installed the screen. Sal moved in two days ago and is happy being outside and unconfined all the time. When he’s ready (not flying at me for food when I visit), i’ll open the door for him to explore the big wide world. He can return to his safe retreat until he’s ready to be on his own. I decided that even if I could find a release cage for him with another rehabber, Sal and I are in this together till the end. #wildliferehab #gamechanger 


Someone missed me while I was out of town for my teacher workshop this week. (Or is it the other way around?) #birdmom

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Learning to eat peanuts and showing off his neat trick of holding his food on his belly while he pecks at it. Thanks, @juliezickefoose, for the suggestion! #wildliferehab  #goodeats


A little piece of my heart right here… Friends ask about Sal’s name. When he was found, near a Hairy Woodpecker nest, I mistook him for a Hairy nestling, and not yet knowing his gender, embraced the suggestion by @katy_manley to name him (when “Hairy” met) “Sally.” Later, discovering “she” was a “he”–and a Downy Woodpecker–I changed his name to Salvador, meaning “savior”–“Sal” for short. So, may I present Salvador Downy! #littlesal  #whatsinaname​


Soaking it all in… Little Sal’s release day is impending! #birdmom #bathtime  #woodpeckerlife


Sal is pretty charming after his bath as well, even if he looks rather silly. Feather care is important! #washandgo 


Little Sal is free! I released him this morning with a small group of friends. After he left the cage, he checked around the outside of it for 2 minutes, made several jubilant flights around the yard, then disappeared for two hours until returning for a mealworm snack. He has explored all corners of the yard, and we’ve been calling to each other throughout the afternoon. Friends ask if I’m sad, but I couldn’t be more excited to see him enjoying his freedom.  #freeatlast #salvadordowny #thisaintmyfirstrodeo


June 29 — First night in the books! Sal flew off to sleep among some pines last night after I topped him off with some mealworms. I was glad he stopped by again for breakfast! #thefreelife  #birdwatching


Sal continues to grace our lives with his presence. If you’re curious, you can see more of his adventures on my Facebook and Instagram feeds.

Oh, and then there were these bluebirds…

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.

Backyard Buffet: Native Plants for Wildlife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

What Birding Has Taught Me

As I write this, I am flying back to Atlanta, having spent the weekend in Summit, New Jersey for my 25th high school reunion. Excited as I was to spend time with old friends and to visit old stomping grounds, perhaps the highlight of the weekend was escaping the dinners and the small talk and going birding with one of my oldest and dearest friends in our old neighborhood. Although I spent the first 18 years of my life in New Jersey, I don’t recall having any curiosity about the birds in my backyard. It must have attracted them, with its towering old trees and expansive lawn surrounded on all sides by thick tracts of rhododendron. Just beyond our fence lay hundreds of acres of woods, part of the Watchung Reservation. I suppose I could identify the pigeons and crows seen in town, as well as a few of the regular backyard visitors like cardinals, blue jays, robins, and mourning doves, but I certainly didn’t know about warblers or vireos. Visiting my hometown with a greater awareness of the birds around me was immensely rewarding. Strolling along the streets in my old neighborhood, I was treated to spectacular looks at Baltimore Orioles and Black-and-white Warblers. The Blue-winged Warbler at the nearby Audubon Sanctuary was a life bird for me. How fun to see Black-capped Chickadees and note their different song. By looking carefully for the birds, I also noted many other beautiful things about my hometown that I took for granted growing up.

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Baltimore Oriole–what brilliant color! How did I overlook this bird growing up?

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Blue-winged Warbler. Like many warblers, these insectivores are elusive and in constant motion. You have to look carefully and be patient to see them.

I only discovered the joy and excitement of birding a couple of years ago. Feeding injured and orphaned birds at AWARE Wildlife Center spurred me to want to learn more about them. I attended Bird Fest at Unicoi State Park in the spring of 2012, and I was hooked after the first bird walk. I was astounded that the small group of knowledgeable and convivial birders on that walk spotted 45 species in just one morning (and now realize that was a respectable, but not exceptional number). How could I have been so oblivious for so long?! Now I never leave the house without my binoculars, and my birding adventures have taken me from such birding hot spots as Dauphin Island in Alabama to Denali National Park in Alaska. I study my field guides and keep eBird lists. My yard list for my tiny suburban backyard in Tucker is currently at 50 species.

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Getting ready to release a Northern Parula (a warbler species) at a banding station on Dauphin Island. What a spectacular bird and memorable experience!

Birding makes life so much richer. It teaches us not only about birds, but also teaches us many other life lessons and skills. Birding teaches us to be in the moment and enjoy what is right in front of us. It demands us to slow down and pay attention to our surroundings–to notice the dappled sunlight in the trees, to hear the birdsong in the air, to feel the rustling wind on our face. It helps us to recognize the interconnectedness of all living things and the importance of protecting natural habitats. Birding also helps us to sharpen our observation and recall skills. In order to identify a bird, we must quickly process a lot of information–color patterns, call notes, the shape of the wings and bill, and so on. Such sensory workouts help develop mental acuity and keep our brains active. In addition, birding entices us to explore new destinations, from the park down the street to remote corners of the earth, enabling us to take in ample fresh air and beautiful scenery. From New Jersey to New Zealand and beyond, birds allow us to admire and enjoy all of the beauty and diversity of our remarkable planet.

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Looking for birds forces us to slow down and notice details about our surroundings–like the sunlight in the trees at my local park.

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This Pondhawk (seen during my recent trip to Dauphin Island) would have been easy to miss!

Having some reflective time during this trip to my childhood home reminds me how significantly my life has been enhanced since I really discovered the birds around me. I invite you to pay closer attention to the birds around you. I’d be surprised if you didn’t find that your life is enriched when you do.

Note: Earlier this year, I started working as the Director of Education for Atlanta Audubon Society, a dream job that allows me to share my passion for birds and nature with others. This piece was originally written to share in the AAS newsletter. I encourage you to find an Audubon chapter in your area and get involved. Audubon chapters often provide free bird walks and other opportunities to learn and to gather with fellow nature lovers, and they do important conservation and advocacy work.

A couple of great articles about the benefits of birds for further reading:

http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/blogs/can-bird-songs-boost-your-brain

http://us.cnn.com/2014/05/30/opinion/doherty-save-birds/index.html?sr=sharebar_twitter

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.